7. The Death of Nations
History is filled with games – underlying strategies, hidden and manipulative agendas, whether intended or not. All sorts of games which reflect varying inner beliefs, values and prejudices. These games, acted out within or between nations and peoples, reflect underlying national self-esteem, identity-needs and unresolved issues. They have customarily overridden more fundamental needs such as peace and order, good harvests, cultural enrichment, mutually-assured security or other necessary social conditions.
Nations and peoples have repeatedly hurt themselves, been hurt and have hurt others, adding layer upon layer of unconscious pain to the world's collective psyche. As in the case of individuals, non-forgiveness of such hurts and non-resolution of their causes mean that they linger and smoulder, sooner or later to erupt again – often in situations where such eruptions create an inappropriate response to the situation at hand.
The hurts which exist within and between nations now obstruct the peoples of the world from acting globally, from cooperating. Nations, peoples and social groupings need to achieve autonomous self-determination and self-regulation – a sense of self-defined national security – before they can do justice to working in the context of the global community. Psychological disarmament is a complex affair, and a lot has to happen before it can come about.
Feelings of security are emotionally-based. In national terms, it involves generating a sense of identity and integrity as a people. It involves recognition by other nations too. Lacking recognised autonomy, nations and peoples can act reactively, seeking at all costs to avoid foreign coercion, deception or domination.
Without acknowledged and at least de facto autonomy, or a feeling of it, a nation or people has deficient clarity of identity. It has insufficient trust toward its neighbours. It lacks a capacity for proper internal referendum to find out, decide on and legislate for its best interests. The formerly-Soviet Asian and Caucasian states of the 1990s, each tetchy about foreign associations which reminded them of Russian domination, exemplified this insecurity.
An exception to this observation exists when membership of the international community is seen by a nation's inhabitants to be its salvation – examples have been Ireland, Greece and Italy, three of the most enthusiastic members of the European Union, who in the late 20th century tended unconsciously to believe they were their own worst enemies in need of help from others.
Occasionally, oppressed minorities or under-recognised nations can strive to impress themselves strongly on the world community. They need to establish or assert their identity or to attract attention and support – Israel, Hong Kong, Cuba, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Tibet, Bermuda and Malta have all variously demonstrated an understandable need to be noticed. Being surrounded by big states and superpowers, they legitimately feel vulnerable to being drowned out, subsumed, forgotten or ignored in the international equation.
Such minorities and small nations can also assert an unwittingly large presence through proxies such as heroes: Napoleon was a Corsican, Lenin a Jew, Stalin a Georgian and Hitler a provincial Austrian. Even Britain, a country accustomed to dominance, has anxiously fought to preserve its diminished individuality by straddling three affiliations – the European Union, the Commonwealth and the Anglo-American 'special relationship'.
Most human groupings of whatever size thus need to develop their identity and integrity, without a feeling of outside pressure or coercion. Yet strengthening national identity can imply (to many) nationalism, which militates against global cooperation. Nationalism, as frequently practised, has a collective-neurotic element to it. It is a reaction to previous unhealed hurt. It exists when a people feels threatened, humiliated or dominated by another culture or force, present, past or future. This subjective feeling doesn't necessarily need to relate to actual circumstances - it's a feeling.
The time it takes for nationalism, or any other partisan belief such as religious fundamentalism or racism, to calm and subside depends on the historical depth of the issues at stake. The process is quickened if national leaders or opinion-formers successfully encourage enlightened and progressive views. The speed by which Nelson Mandela and the ANC infused South Africa with a spirit of reconciliation in the early 1990s was admirable – it would have been politically simpler in some respects to be partisan and vengeful. It remains to be seen whether longterm inter-racial or inter-tribal resentments flare up again in South Africa if moral leadership or mutual public security dwindle – this depends greatly on the maturity of the public. But what has happened instead has been the eruption of side-effects from apartheid and hard experiences - mainly AIDS, criminality, corruption and civil violence.
The most extremist logic of nationalism contends that, until each oppressed grouping has exacted compensation for its woes, it cannot make peace or cooperate with its neighbours. Yet this too is a game, called 'masters-and-victims'. It is an understandable game yet one which is unfruitful, even self-destructive. It must be moderated in the light of wider understanding if productive outcomes are to be found. This game cannot proceed too far, since the infectious cancer of national isolationism and rivalry, unless restrained, escalates into international disdain, fractiousness and, at worst, military, economic or psychological war.
Iraq has had a big dose of this, fighting Iran in Gulf War One (1980-88), then fighting against an enormous alliance of US-led powers in Gulf War Two (1991), then stoically facing international economic sanctions – all for the sake of one man, Saddam Hussein. Then came Gulf War Three in 2003. Saddam Hussein, however, was himself a hurt product of his nation, cruelly brought up in a tough environment (beaten regularly), unconsciously striving to get his own back on the world by any means possible.
In all cases of force, trickery or coercion, someone, somewhere, is developing future resentment or unease. Both adults and children pass such pain to their own children unless healed – even if it is passed on through suppressed emotions. Future generations unconsciously act out such resentments in entirely different circumstances and times, without clearly knowing why. Such is the case in Serbia, where the oppression of centuries caused Serbs to seek impose their ways on Bosnians, Kosovan Albanians and Croats, at a time when other, more cooperative options were clearly visible.
There is a collective dynamic to this too. It's not only the fault of single nations. At times a nation can take on transnational unconscious issues, becoming a rebel or detractor partially because other nations seem united - and often because such unity involves a cover-up of unprocessed international issues between those apparently friendly, cooperating nations. It is easy for them to blame and scapegoat one nation as a way of avoiding their own issues, and such a nation can fall into such a role without meaning to - to some extent for the convenience of other nations.
Another way of sorting out unsatisfactory past exchanges becomes necessary. One which not only avoids mutual aggression or ill-humour but also creates something positive and encouraging, safe and secure for all. Today, we have an urgent and factual need to act collectively and globally to eliminate many imminent dangers. Without collective, freely-chosen commitment involving all nations without exception, the international order cannot move forward into concerted action.
Humanity is today psychologically straddled between nervous nationalism (or sectarianism or sectoral division) and ambitious globalism. Globalisation in the 19th and 20th centuries has been fast and indiscriminate, driving over the most sensitive of cultures, landscapes and societies. It has brought its wonders and pay-offs yet humanity is in shock. It doesn't know whether to run for the future or hide in the past – while it nevertheless is going through annually-visible changes. Together we stand, divided we fall: this ancient wisdom is blatantly clear today. Yet people are hesitant to embrace it – it might affect their personal interests.
In recorded history, sharing and cooperation have been rare – except where mutual self-interest between two parties has temporarily interlocked. The independent United States was founded in 1789 on a federal basis on the understanding that all territories it absorbed should be part of one unitive continental entity rather than comprising many separate nations. However, it was the predatorial spectre of European nations which locked the American states into federation. Had the individual states not been historically young, such a union would possibly not have occurred. It took the ruinous American civil war of the 1860s to confirm and reinforce the principle of continental unity. Though the ghost of division between the northern and southern states survives today, demonstrating that the civil war did not fully resolve the issues at stake.
Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg (Benelux) have a comfortable relationship of shared solidarity, while India, a British political invention, strains as ethnic minorities in Kashmir, Punjab, Tamil-Nadu or Nagaland seek self-determination. When political unions are voluntary they generally succeed, unless they are too abstract to be workable (as Canada sometimes appears to be), but if they involve coercion in any form, their longevity is questionable.
We do have historical instances of times when dominant powers have shifted the agenda, changing the international game, quietening the squabbles between nations. One example is the invasion of the perpetually-quarrelling Greek city-states by Philip II of Macedon in 348 to 336 BCE, followed by his son Alexander's dramatic invasion of Anatolia, Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia and Transoxiana between 335 and 323 BCE. The local relations and cultural traditions of the Greek city-states, and then of many Middle Eastern regions, were overridden by a modern secular order which re-contextualised life for millions of people. Though Alexander died young and his empire split up, the cultural and organisational influences it brought went on for centuries. People bought into the new Greek order because it freed them from earlier oppressive situations, reflecting contemporary needs for change.
Alexander and his successors brought mercantilism and relative prosperity to the Middle East after a long period of shifting powers and fiefdoms, banditry and instability. Although the situation later retrogressed, the unitary principle held and successive empires inherited its traditions. Similar circumstances existed with the spread of the voracious armies of the Islamic Umayyads across Asia and north Africa from 634 to 715 CE: Muslims were in many cases seen by locals as liberators, bringers of change, modernity and justice. They wiped out many feuds and rivalries. Hence their lightning success in building a vast empire in just 60 years, stretching from Samarkand in central Asia to Cordoba in Spain.
Alexander, earlier a pupil of Aristotle, died in his adopted capital, Babylon, at age 33, after some 12 years of avid conquest. He had had some noble though megalomanic ideals. His ideas and sense of greatness – a historical virus affecting many powerful leaders – passed from him to a budding dynasty-founder in India, Chandragupta, king of Maghada, who, as a child, had met Alexander during the Greek foray into NW India of 327 BCE. Alexander had impressed him. Chandragupta invaded and united much of north India around 319 BCE, founding the Mauryan dynasty. This dynasty later had a number of philanthropic and relatively wise rulers, including Ashoka the Great (Maurya rajah 273 to 232 BCE over much of India). He was Chandragupta's grandson.
Though neither of these gentlemen was stainless, each of them, after ruthless invasions, established wise and benefic rule. They eventually became religiously pious people. Ashoka became Buddhist, sponsoring the faith and many centres of learning and encouraging its diffusion – he sent missionaries as far as Greece, Egypt (the Gnostic Therapeutae), Persia and China. Chandragupta abdicated, became a Jain, and eventually fasted himself to death, in the Jain tradition. Perhaps these two rajahs unconsciously completed what Alexander had failed to do by missing his time of maturity – he died prematurely of malaria, syphilis, too many injuries or over-indulgence (depending on which school of thought you follow). The two Mauryans, having created war in India, then brought peace and cultural florescence in their later years.
Empires are nations which have outgrown their origins. In some nations or tribes a cultural calling, helped by the vibrancy of ambitious men and women, grows into military or commercial expansionism, which then overflows over other nations. The consequences of this can be various.
There are some in today's India who rue the passing of the British Raj, since a foreign ruling minority brought a measure of impartiality and stability to the complex and stratified Indian society. The Raj brought immense technological, economic and social change. When the British left the Indian subcontinent was riven by Hindu and Muslim division – which the British had earlier kept simmering as a divide-and-rule measure, and had exacerbated by the manner of their belated and ill-wrought withdrawal from India in the late 1940s. However, the roots of the Hindu-Muslim conflict lay much further back in the time when Muslims oppressed Hindus in the time of the Delhi Sultanates and the Mughal empire 300-500 years earlier. The 1948 partition and ethnic separation of the Indian sub-continent was conceivably avoidable, had India gone through a more planned transition into independence, led by greater forward thinking by the British in the 1920s-40s. Yet India and Pakistan are now rival nuclear powers, such is their historical anxiety.
In the Roman and Chinese empires, overtaken minorities lost much of their cultural integrity, yet they gained relative material prosperity and fruitful coexistence. Though the Romans fought hard to dominate the Jews and the British in the 70s to 120s CE, both minority cultures were already fractious and in a sorry state when the Romans had arrived. Beaten by the Romans, both minorities subsequently opted for material growth: the exiled Jews later adopted professions throughout the Jewish diaspora which would make them invaluable and financially secure, and Britain became one of the richest parts of the empire in its latter centuries.
Han Chinese domination, emanating from the valleys of the Yangtse and Huang-Ho, forcibly integrated large minorities of peripheral non-Han peoples to forge a nation which became a world-leader in many of the arts of civilisation. Resentments remain today against Han domination, yet the fractious Period of Warring States (Chan-kuo period, 403 to 221 BCE) which preceded the welding of imperial China proved to be an historical atrocity of such enormous proportions that the costs of division became very clear. A unified imperial China thus became the norm throughout most of history, though it does have a habit of breaking down periodically into regional warlordism – a risk which continues even today. It was during this Chan-kuo period that the orderly political philosophy of Confucius was established, to leave its mark for over 2,000 years.
This problem of subdivision and breakdown occurred also in the Ottoman empire, the downfall of which, around 1917, led to much subsequent grief in the Middle East. Different ethnic groups had always been closely interwoven without territorial separation, populating neighbouring villages or quarters of towns or fulfilling different interlocking economic roles. Under the Ottoman and previous empires, the Middle East had seen unification for much of its history, and when the Ottoman empire disintegrated its Arabic peoples should have been able to found a united Arab nation - but they were scuppered in this by the British and French. In fact, the only likely future solution for today's Middle Eastern conflicts, in this light, is the reintegration of the area into some sort of confederation or union. This would allow ethnodiversity to redevelop without the need to section off territories – something which has caused great strife in the 20th century. Such confederalism was the case under several earlier Middle Eastern systems – the Persian, Roman, Umayyad, Abbasid and Ottoman empires.
After 1918 the British and French, with international sanction, sectioned off the region into small nation-states so that none could become dominant or a threat to European hegemony – Arabs were sitting on top of lakes of oil, living in a strategic area bordering Europe and coming between it and Europe's Asian possessions. The French and British protectorates ended just after WW2, and trouble was brewing. From the late-1940s to today there has been regular conflict, focused mainly around Israel, in the 1970s-80s Lebanese civil war, the three Gulf Wars, the Kurdish rebellions and the later Arab revolutions. The Kurds lost badly from the post-Ottoman land-division. All this trouble derived from the outcomes of the Eurocentric subdivision of what once was a largely-integrated Islamic system.
At the turn of the Millennium, nation-states now take on a different complexion. The overriding need is a geopolitical reassessment of governance. However the global framework evolves during the 21st century, there is also increased, not decreased, validity for true nations. True nations embody the genuine needs of their participants, by their own negotiation. Cultural and national diversity are very necessary elements in the future world. Today this diversity differs from anything we have known before, since it would exist within the context of a truly global order.
This puts pressure on nation-states to reformulate themselves from bottom up and top down. Boundaries established in past conquests, treaties and strategic marriages are nowadays frequently obsolete or invalid. Regional character and affinity is in many cases more appropriate than national – whether regionality is defined in terms of ethnicity, economy, topography or other factors. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Europe, where the possibility of a federally-unified 'Hundred Region Europe' raised its head in the 1980s-90s. This process of redefinition will not be easy.
However, the alternatives – no change, or a standardised absorption of nations into large-scale uniformitarian continental or global structures – are probably worse. Also, some ethnic groups might wish to form nations yet find themselves unable to do so from a practical viewpoint – this might apply to Abkhazians, Cornish, Shan, some Polynesians, many African peoples, Sami and minorities who are so interwoven with other groups that separation would not be advisable (as was the case in Bosnia before its civil war). Small nations are overlooked and outsized by larger nations, even if intentions are good. This points to the rise of cross-national confederal entities.
The days of the nation-states we have known are now dying. Yet nations have difficulty adjusting to this. There is widespread refusal to even contemplate the question – especially by ruling elites. These difficulties are mostly emotional, but they also concern the power arrangements with each society. Economically, global integration was already shallowly achieved at year 2000. Yet the crunch-point is emotional. It concerns subjective identifications and cultural security. The risk of threat-feelings rising again is high, just at a time when the opposite is needed.
This is one of the big questions of the coming time: to whom and to what do we each belong? Within the context of one world family, we need nevertheless to subdivide into smaller families, nations of a new kind, defined differently. One of the big, deep changes afoot today is that blood-relations are mattering less with each decade, while ideas, beliefs and attitudes are growing in strength as primary definers of the next genre of the human tribe.