Nationalist Excess as Spark for Warfare

Uditha Devapriya, in The Island, 9 December 2022, where the title runs thus:  “Some reflections on nationalism, extremism, and warfare”

“Ethnonationalism was not a chance detour in European history: it corresponds to some enduring propensities of the human spirit that are heightened by the process of modern state creation. It is a crucial source of both solidarity and enmity, and in one form or another, it will remain for many generations to come. One can only profit from facing it directly.” …. Jerry Muller, “Us and Them: The Enduring Power of Ethnic Nationalism”, Foreign Affairs (Council on Foreign Relations), March 2008 The first Human Security Report, published by the Human Security Centre, released in 2005, and subtitled “War and Peace in the 21st century”, strikes a dissonant chord in a world still reeling from the horrors of the September 11 attacks. Noting a decline in armed warfare since the end of the Cold War, its authors dismiss worries of increasing conflict in a section tellingly titled “Myths and misunderstandings.”


There is no reason for such worries, the authors inform us, because the potential for war has reduced: the number of armed conflicts has declined by around 40%, the number of genocides by 80%, and that of international crises by more than 70%. Better still, the democratic space supposedly opened by the end of the Cold War has cut down by more than half the number of attempted coups: from 25 in 1963 to 10 in 2004.

These assumptions open for us a window into a time when not even an attack on a major economic establishment in the world’s most powerful country could dampen faith in permanent peace. The 9/11 attacks were seen as an aberration rather than a sign of things to come. To a large extent, such Panglossian faith was sustained by the belief that with the end of the Cold War and the resurgence of US power, a prospect welcomed by neoliberals and neocons alike, there would be no room for conflict, internal or global.

In two key texts, The End of History and The Clash of Civilisations, two political theorists charted their vision of the trajectory of the world. Francis Fukuyama’s view that the triumph of liberal democracy would usher in the fall of alternative political systems, particularly those undergirded by militant nationalisms, and Samuel Huntington’s more pessimistic rejoinder that for all the hopes engendered by the fall of the Soviet Union, its dissolution might well usher in the revival of such nationalisms, dominated debates over which way the world would go in the new millennium. It goes without saying that both sides accepted the superiority of US style liberal democracy over all other political systems.







Laudable as they might have been, such hopes would not survive the realities of the new era. To cite one example from the Human Security Report, its authors assumed that most conflicts would be restricted to sub-Saharan Africa. In North Africa and the Middle East, by contrast, they would start to reduce. The reality today is, of course, the exact opposite of this: most of the world’s conflicts are centred on the Middle East, though echoes of those conflicts are felt in parts of Africa, such as Nigeria and Somalia, as well. All other hotspots of fundamentalism – like Yemen and Syria – are located rather in West Asia.

Thus, all these optimistic predictions, proven wrong even at the time of their making, illustrate, as the RAND Corporation’s The Future of Warfare in 2030 notes, that “[t]he US track record for predicting warfare is notoriously poor.” Yet what is interesting is not so much the Panglossian optimism surrounding these predictions as the belief that religious fundamentalism is an aberration in a rules-based international order.

This belief is what guides US policy towards these issues at present: if think-tanks discern a link between fundamentalism and warfare, they consider the former an abnormal ideology that must be completely eradicated, much like the stereotypical bad Arabs in countless Hollywood action thrillers. As Paul Dixon notes in his essay on group conflict in the Middle-East, this reading of war and peace is shared by the most avowedly liberal of Western leaders, including former US President Barack Obama.

Such fears and perceptions adorn nearly every security and foreign policy paper. The RAND Corporation’s roadmap for 2030 is no exception. After lamenting the US’s military’s inability to predict the future, it identifies six geopolitical trends: not just the rise of China, as might be expected from such a document, but belligerence from Russia, upheavals in Europe, and radical Islam. The authors conclude on a bleak note: confronting a world where terrorism and extremism have reached unprecedented heights, the US has two options: either it can retreat from its internationalist stance and be more selective about its commitments, or it can “double down” on those commitments, focusing on “theatres of concern” such as the Middle-East and Africa, and endeavouring to prevent conflict.

The implications of these findings should not be ignored. If more than two decades ago the presumption of the US foreign policy establishment was that peace would prevail despite fundamentalism, the assumption today appears to be that peace can prevail only with the obliteration, through military means, of such fundamentalism.

We can reach two important conclusions here. Firstly, religious extremism, as a driver of internal conflict, cannot and should not be isolated from its historical backdrop. Yet reading through the literature on the subject – including State Department documents and writings of Middle-Eastern experts in the West – one discerns an inability to historicise Third World nationalism. Fouad Ajami’s views of Arabs as a community unable to govern themselves and his promotion of American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq stand out here. As Edward Said put it in Orientalism, such experts reduce the East to caricatures (like Afghans being a nation of bandits, as Ajami openly declared in an interview) and depict them as dependent on Western intervention and models of democracy and progress.

Henry Kissinger’s argument that the lack of proper development in the Third World has prevented its people from making sense of the realities of the world shows that the West sees nationalism in the non-West as a negative, pathological abstraction. In other words, since Third World nationalism, particularly in Islamic countries, do not adhere to systems of logic followed by Western modernity, they are backward.

However, as Jerry Muller in an essay to Foreign Affairs in 2008 has observed, nationalism, backward or modern, has hardly been the preserve of the non-West. Religious extremism, of even the most insular and confrontational type, formed the crux and epicentre of Europe and the US. The conclusions we can reach from this point hardly requires elaboration: that the nationalisms of the Global North are as tied to the evolution of nationhood in that part of the world as the nationalisms of the Global South are to ours. One need only recall here Benedict Anderson’s rejoinder to critics of nationalism: that nationalism is as much a force for unity and cooperation as it is for division and confrontation. Yet political scientists and scholars, egged on by notions of “our” superiority to “them”, continue to reduce the wars of the world to the pathological extremisms of certain countries.

Added to this is another worrying concern. To paraphrase a popular aphorism of the gun rights lobby in the US, people kill people, not guns. To invert the aphorism, people without guns can’t kill people. This same logic holds true for terrorists without guns: no matter what the hatreds they spew are, if they don’t have weapons, they can’t start or wage wars. Yet as the Conflict Armament Research Ltd.’s 2017 document on ISIS rebels in Iraq and Syria show, terrorists have not faced much of a hurdle in acquiring weapons. Though most weapons are outdated by a decade or so, they have nevertheless enabled ISIS jihadists to not only hold ground, but also expand their spheres of influence. Ironically, as CAR notes, some of these weapons have come from unauthorised transfers through the US.

I suggest that we are approaching these issues from the wrong angle. First and foremost, we need to historicise these conflicts. How? By considering and acknowledging the factors that gave rise to such nationalisms in the Third World. These factors have been noted amply by writers such as Anderson and Said: among them, one can cite colonialism Secondly, the Global North and Global South need to enforce mechanisms to regulate the arms trade. To deny access to instigators of internal conflicts is to reduce the likelihood of those conflicts. All other factors, such as the imagined inferiority of certain nationalisms and certain groups, are peripheral to the larger implications of the issue at hand.

The writer is an international relations analyst, researcher, and columnist who can be reached at




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