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Warning Shots From Ukraine: The Rise of Nationalism as the Nation-State Disintegrates

An Introduction

This paper is an adaptation from the original talk given at the Conference on Crimea that was held by the European Muslim Union in Berlin on 3 May 2014. As such the language is a mixture of academic enterprise and political rhetoric. Furthermore, the author has had the rare opportunity to integrate the invaluable contributions of his fellow speakers, in particular those from Ukraine, into this paper as a means to produce a piece that is nuanced enough to reflect the complicated situation on the ground.

One hopes that those political actors and institutions who will receive this work, and are able to affect real influence on the situation in Crimea and Ukraine, will appreciate the importance of this puzzling and undoubtedly historic event. Most importantly, the plight of the Tatars of the Crimean Peninsula should not be overlooked as they hold the key to the establishment of a balance in what is a growing quagmire of dangerous nationalist sentiment.

Warning Shots from Ukraine

The mindless war in Syria has proven itself to have been the geo-political lynchpin of the modern era. This an era in which the dominant ethos was the idea that humanity constitutes itself into scientific taxonomies of nations, of peoples, and that these nations express themselves at their optimal effect in the setting of the nation state.

The American President, Woodrow Wilson, took the romantic nationalism of the 19th century and set it in stone for the 20th with his Fourteen Points and, in particular, the conceptualisation of the Right to Self-Determination after the First World War.

As the war drew to a close, President Wilson brought together a group of social scientists, geographers and economists and tasked them with the creation of new nation-states according to a self-devised taxonomy of peoples, tribes and nations.

This monumental feat of bad political science was undertaken in order to ensure what Peter Beinart termed a ‘Scientific Peace’ upon the ruins of the defeated empires of the Osmanli and Austro-Hungarian dynasties. Upon this scientific endeavour was built the modern world.

Where the new states found ethnic homogeneity lacking, or where their history was seen as an impediment towards progress, an ideological myth of the nation was placed after sweeping away lived history.

Where this creation of national myth proved impossible for weak new republics, as was the case in Poland and the Czechoslovakia after the First World War, the newly created European system collapsed into a war more devastating than the last.

After the Second World War, the link between the ideas of sovereignty, citizenship and nationalism was strengthened further as the post-war global system gave birth to more nation-states, the strategic and theoretical conceptualisations of the Cold War and, ultimately, our very conceptualisation of the world as political space.

On the one hand this theoretical evolution of the international system was self-evident as sovereignty was firmly placed in the political structures and institutions of the global nations, be they liberal or autocratic, capitalist or communist. The logic that followed favoured supporting the nation-state as a structural point of equilibrium as opposed to the myriad of realities that underlie it.

Only those peoples who had been forgotten by the old call to self-determination; the Pathans, the people of Kashmir and the Kurds amongst others, found their lot as pawns in the dominant geopolitical machinations of the time. Korea was divided in two and from one people has developed two different states.

This global system that was studied and conceived of in an operational sense as a body of nation-states required the polarity of dominant powers in order to ensure some sense of normative function in an otherwise anarchic sphere. From the two poles of the Soviet Union and the United States, the USSR gave way by default, as it were, to what was to be the American Century. 

From this point, and up to the present day, the United States attempted to hold the system together with ever decreasing success. Its final geo-political formulation, however, led to its downfall as a true superpower. 

The war on terror was the logical limit of a stance that was characterised as that of a constant state of emergency fighting against what were spectres. These spectres have risen to their most haunting and paralysing effect in Syria. When the United States drew its red-line  – it was not the President Obama’s line alone – and did not retaliate when that line was crossed by an illegitimate leader, the critical juncture had been reached.

From that moment it became clear to those who had been waiting, that the international system as American-led, and as had been conceived of in the modern era, had effectively ended. It was time for those players who had the strategic insight and capability to act.

If the United States had had the insight, or lack-thereof, to respond to the crossing of her badly drawn red line, it would be difficult to envisage Russia’s unprecedented annexation of the Crimean Peninsula.

The preceding narrative was in no way a means to tell my esteemed audience what they already know of our shared history. It was necessary in order to emphasise where our shared history has taken us. We all stand on common ground today as old political structures collapse around us to reveal what is a chaotic wasteland.

Resurgent Nationalism as a Danger to International Balance

We have now established the first thesis that the modern international system of states, held in relative equilibrium by institutions and those state powers able to maintain those institutions, has ceased to function due to a lack of polarity.

Parallel to this process is that of the dissolution of the sovereignty of the international system’s constituent states themselves. This has taken place in the Middle East through crude collapse. The supranational institutions of the European Union have affected this process through the friction caused by the concentration of sovereignty towards them. And today we see a new form of this eroding of national state sovereignty by Russia, not dissimilar to the nationalism that tore apart the former Communist Nations of the Balkans, through what is an ethno-territorial conceptualisation of her political space.

The result of this microcosmic crisis of legitimacy that mirrors the macrocosmic crisis of structure, in all three of the regions mentioned, is the rise of nationalism on the one hand and a move towards further regionalism on the other.

We see with the rise of the ultra-conservative right in France, the Netherlands and other European States, a nationalist reaction to Europeanisation that is gaining in its support base at a domestic level and access to the European Parliament at the supranational level. At the same time the crisis of legitimacy that placed an incredible amount of strain on the EU’s Member States has allowed for questions of regional autonomy to be considered in ways that could not prior to this situation. So that Catalan and Scottish secession from their central governments has moved closer to reality than could have ever been imagined fifty years ago.

The process of European Integration and the economic crisis in particular, which is a deep structural result of this process, has resulted in two realities with regards to the notion of what joining the European Union as a citizen means. On the one hand it is touted as the paragon of civic citizenship, the inclusion into which is the key to shared economic prosperity and political freedom. This is a reality for most EU citizens who are European enough and an encouraging sign for the future.

For those second-generation immigrants of Member States the reality is of a more nuanced nature. Here the rise of a crude nationalism has made their ability to be part of the national polity a matter of deep crises of identity. Marine Le Pen recently equated being part of the French people to forcing Muslim children to eat pork in school or go hungry. This is in many ways the hefty choice felt by those youths faced with the outdated idea of assimilation.

For the Ukrainians who took part in the Maidan protests in favour of EU accession, the former ideal of European citizenship was what they fought for. This particularly in a country where around 20 percent of the youth are unemployed and presidential palaces continue to be built regardless of their plight. At the same time it is important to note that there are strong indications that Ukrainian nationalist groups, who see Russia and Russians as their historical nemesis have been involved in the pro-EU camp.

In the east of Ukraine, the ethnic citizenship proposed by Russia has resulted in similar processes. Here is the geopolitical vision of Alexander Dugin at play. The Cold War left Russia defeated without a final battle, as it were, and the rise of Russian nationalism as a transnational force dominates Putin’s calculations in the Eurasian region. Georgia was the incubator for what is spreading across the East of Ukraine today. The Eastern Russian strongholds are calling for the federalisation of their provinces and these calls are in many ways for the Crimean solution.

As such, the competition between the EU and Russia that caused the crisis in Ukraine posited two fundamentally different offers of citizenship and sovereignty. At the most basic theoretical levels one is civic and the other ethnic. But in reality both are based on the traditional formulation of state nationalism that echo from the past. What is fundamentally new with the Ukrainian situation is the manner in which the country is being divided and broken up.

We therefore find ourselves at a point where the breakup of former nation-states is seen as a possibility where in the past, in a realist perspective, it would be seen as a situation of acute crisis to be avoided. The map has begun to disintegrate into its constituent parts just as US-led international normative balance has given way to the triumph of particular interests over a moral imperative.

It is important now, at an analytical level, to shift our focus from state sovereignty to the sovereignty of nations. By this I use Barkin and Cronin’s distinction of the former as tied to a solid, atomic, nation-state and the latter to the more dynamic constituent idea of nations of people. A critique of this nationalism is important for two reasons. First, it is the nationalism of the exclusive nature that bred the tumult of the last century. Second, one must be concerned with those peoples who are excluded from the nation for reasons of religion and ethnicity. What are these people to do in the face of the rise of Nationalism today?

As the map begins to undergo a process of change once again, we cannot allow the same state nationalism to dominate the future as it has dominated the modern world. By developing a pragmatic outlook of this process that focusses on practice above paradigm we can protect those who are most vulnerable to the mindlessness of statist myths of nations.

At the same time, as has been acknowledged from the earliest of times, ethnic and geographical affinity is natural to man. The challenge is to avoid the creation of structure over what is natural. We saw the horrors this produced in the wars of the modern world and the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.

A balance between the natural dynamics of peoples, not as a concept but as a constituent force that plays an important role in the greater political realm is imperative. At the same time the manner in which these forces manifest themselves in political institutions must be checked in some way.

For the Tatars of Crimea, the need for us to protect their interests as a natural nation of people who are victims of the unnatural statist nationalism that is rife on both sides of the current political spectrum in Ukraine is imperative. The Tatars of the Crimean Peninsula represent that natural manifestation of nationhood that is the very DNA of political life.

As we continue to experience this new change in the political map we must always remember that every Empire has been the result of thousands of years of ethnic and cultural exchange, through conquering, yes, but also through trade and the natural mixing of nations that is the key to civilisation. The concepts of nationalism that are raising their heads today, static and exclusivist, far from civilisation, can only lead to horror.

Orphans of Uganda
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