The world is in extraordinary turmoil — a violent Islamic Caliphate overturning the borders of Syria and Iraq; a war in Europe pitting Russia and pro-Russian rebels against the new regime in Ukraine; Israel invading Gaza and trading rocket exchanges with Hamas; Egypt, Libya and Yemen disrupted by the Arab uprisings; confrontations among Japan, China, Vietnam and the Philippines in the South and East China Seas; and gang wars in Central America driving thousands of young families and children across borders. Worse yet, Europe is caught up in its own internal squabbles, leaving the U.S. without the full support of its most powerful and reliable allies in dealing with these crises.
This is not what was expected when the collapse of communism ushered in a “new world order” based on universal support for liberal democracies! How did we stray so far from expectations? The answer is really quite simple. America ignored the twin lessons of World War I and II, and the more recent experiences in the Balkans, and forgot the vital importance of nationalism, the “dark side” of democracy.
The lessons of World War I and II are that ending a war and creating a durable peace are two wholly different things. At the end of World War I, the victorious allies thought that their victory had earned them the right to dictate the shape of the world to come. Imposing harsh reparations and penalties on Germany, and carving up the Ottoman Empire into French and British protectorates, the allies ignored the nationalist aspirations of Germany and various Arab and Kurdish peoples. Yet those nationalist aspirations could not be wished away or suppressed. The result was a boomerang of German nationalism that triggered World War II, and an eruption of Arab Nationalism under Nasser and other Arab leaders in the 1950s and 1960s that kept the Middle East in turmoil for decades.
By contrast, at the end of World War II, the allies set out to craft a durable peace that would respect the aspirations of various nations. Although Germany was kept divided, West Germany was welcomed into NATO and became, along with its former enemies Britain and France, a key part of the European Union. Japan was pacified and disarmed but became part of a strong security pact with the United States. More importantly, multi-lateral institutions were established — the United Nations, the World Bank, the IMF, and world trade agreements – to safeguard international trade, enforce global peace and human rights agreements, and aid the development of the emerging nations. In short, enormous efforts were made to create a durable peace that constructively engaged both friends and former foes.
At the end of the Cold War, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, American faced another moment like that at the end of World War I and II. What should have happened was for America to lead an effort to create new multi-lateral institutions to ensure a post-Cold War peace. This would have included a stronger EU leadership that was capable of giving Europe an effective foreign policy and a unified banking and currency system; an expansion of NATO to end the focus on anti-Soviet operations and instead embrace a global role promoting democracy and human rights, with NATO partners such as Japan, Australia, and New Zealand fully integrated into a new global security alliance; and rules to add membership and voting rights for newly emerging nations as they inevitably gained economic and demographic weight in a post-superpower world.
Instead, the US acted much like the victors in WWI. Under neo-conservative leaders, America assumed its victory in the Cold War gave it the right to shape the world’s future. Seeing ourselves as the “sole superpower,” we unilaterally expanded NATO up to Russia’s front porch, and believed we could reshape Afghanistan and Iraq simply by taking out their dictators and calling for democracy.
Yet in doing so, America wholly forgot the recent lesson of the Balkans: democracy has a dark side, namely nationalism, that can promote turmoil and bloodshed. When the Yugoslav dictator Josef Tito died, nationalist politicians began competing for power. After turmoil in the 1980s, the various nationalities that composed Yugoslavia began to break apart into ethno-nationalist states. However, the struggle for people and territory among those states led to war, ethnic cleansing, and revolutions. It took several years, a NATO bombing campaign, supervised negotiations, and two revolutions (in Kosovo and Serbia) to resolve the various crises in the region. Thus the lesson: overturning dictators in pursuit of democracy unleashes nationalist passions; it does not necessarily resolve them.
At the dawn of this century, the promises of Arab nationalism remained unfulfilled, and have transformed into Shia and Sunni nationalisms that are fueling current conflicts. The EU, having assumed nationalism would fade, is instead facing resurgent right-wing nationalist and anti-EU parties. In Russia and Ukraine, nationalist aspirations to overcome the humiliations of the Cold War and Russian domination, respectively, are playing out in deadly conflict. And in East Asia, the nationalisms of a booming China, declining Japan, and aspiring Vietnam and Philippines are set for further collisions.
Nationalism is a force that cannot be ignored. It can be tamed by a framework of international agreements that accord dignity and respect to the interests of diverse nations. But to ignore the power of nationalism and treat other nations with disdain is to repeat the errors of World War I. One must hope that it is not too late for Europe, America, Japan, Australia, and other countries (Canada, Brazil, Mexico, Turkey?) to work together to restructure and strengthen existing multi-lateral institutions to reflect current global realities. Failure to do so will leave us facing the real risk of a World War III – not the nuclear superpower war that some had feared, but a bonfire of extremist nationalism among developing nations that has already begun to sweep many parts of the globe.