Two new studies of empire and nationalism should make us think again about conflating xenophobia, nationalism and aggressionby E K / November 23, 2008 / Leave a comment
For Kin or Country: Xenophobia, Nationalism and War by Stephen Saideman and William Ayres (Columbia University Press, £20.95)
Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance—and Why They Fall by Amy Chua (Doubleday, £16.95)
Intolerance towards minorities and belligerence towards other nations are usually regarded as two sides of the same coin. Yet this Nazi-centric interpretation does serious injury to a historical record in which tolerance has often proved the handmaiden of “missionary” imperialism, while xenophobia has constrained expansionist energies. Now, at a time when politicians and academics like to stress the importance of outward-looking, tolerant, “civic” nationhood, it is a distinction eminently worth chewing over.
In many big modern states, like Britain and America, the downplaying of majority ethnic identity has allowed internal “others” to be included, but has also placed more pressure on political elites to define national identity against external “others.” In other words, rather than basing national identity on the particularity of who we are, the game becomes one of evangelising our identity to the world. Other countries, of course, may not be interested in such evangelism, in which case a coercive approach to spreading this identity—be it liberalism, socialism, Christianity or Islam—becomes necessary, increasing the potential for international conflict. Iran, Britain and the US are archetypal “missionary nationalists” of this type, while Estonia, Poland or Wales fall into the opposite ethnonational category. (Some nations can combine both strands to differing degrees.)
It seems to be no accident that many of the world’s historically tolerant nations, like France, America, Britain, Russia, Holland, Turkey and Iran, were once empires, while less tolerant ethno-nations have emerged from among the vanquished. Ex-empires could draw upon a political tradition of multicultural rule to legitimate themselves. The formerly conquered, however, lacked traditions of statehood and had to rely on ethnic characteristics for political legitimacy.
These notions are nicely encapsulated by two recent books. In For Kin and Country, Stephen Saideman and William Ayres contend that xenophobic nations are less likely than tolerant ones to fight to reclaim lost territory in neighbouring states. By contrast, Amy Chua claims in Day of Empire that the tolerant have always been the most successful empire builders, while xenophobes have been punished by dissent and imperial decline.
Where xenophobia rears its head, Chua notes, imperial expansion grinds to a halt. At any given moment in history, she argues, human capital resides in a diverse…