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Nationalism: Catalyst To Conflict?

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The arrangement and design of the world had undergone a dramatic shift beginning with the French Revolution in the late 18th century. A world comprised of empires, in which multiple ethnic groups of disparate culture, language, and traditions coexisted under one domain, began to transform into a world of nation-states.

The treaties of Osnabrück and Münster, products of the Peace of Westphalia diplomatic conference of 1648, prompted a new political order in Europe. Previously comprised of empires in which multiple ethnic groups of disparate culture, language, and traditions coexisted under one domain, Western Europe began to transform into a system of sovereign nation-states. The multiethnic populace of empires possessed only local loyalties and lacked a deeper collective consciousness; conversely, a nation-state, distinguished by unity and common values, forges a shared identity on people within a given territory. As territorially-defined units, states adopted the principles embodied in domestic and Westphalian sovereignty, which also represented the first manifestation of self-determination: control over their domestic affairs and non-interference by external actors.  Domestic sovereignty declares the right of states to exercise jurisdiction over the affairs within its borders, while Westphalian sovereignty affirms the ability of states to operate without the interference or domination by external actors.  Moreover, the conclusion of the French Revolution in the late eighteenth century coincided with the rise of nationalism as a potent force, further advancing the concepts of the sovereign nation-state and self-determination. At this juncture, self-determination—the basis of nationalist ideology—became a political principle, promoting the right of peoples to decide their own political destiny and exert control over their own affairs.

In 1918, a year that marked both the end of World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, US President Woodrow Wilson promoted the concept of self-determination in his Fourteen Point speech revitalizing the concept of the nation-state. The conclusion of WWI precipitated the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires after which borders were drawn creating several states in its place, further transforming a world of empires into a world of states. Ideally, borders would be drawn along ethnic lines. An international system comprised of sovereign states, however, has caused disparate ethnic groups to become subsumed within the same state or a single ethnic group to be divided among several states. Inherent in such a design is the potential for discord. As creating a separate state to accommodate each individual ethnic group was deemed impracticable, minorities were granted special protections embodied in the minorities treaty system in the covenant of the League of Nations. Minority rights and self-determination only applied, however, to the recently created states emerging from the defeated empires; the colonial possessions of the allies remained safely outside the purview of self-determination. Ergo, powerful states like Germany, Italy, and England failed to relinquish authority over certain territories. In lieu of independence for example, Palestine, along with present-day Syria, Iraq, and Yemen, became protectorates of the Allied victors of World War I.  The Middle East only began to develop into nation-states after WWI with the help of the Allies; for, previously loyalties were to tribes or clans, not to the state.  Great Britain assumed control of Palestine, where both Jewish and Arab nationalist aspirations had come to the fore. Self-determination of the Jews was embodied in Zionism; the indigenous Arab population also professed the right to their own state. As evinced by several examples throughout history, self-determination of two or more nations in the same territory/state has precipitated varying degrees of conflict.

Though after the Second War World, self-determination morphed from a political principle into a legal right, conceived as a part of a larger body of human rights protections. Self-determination now served as a legal conduit for facilitating the process of decolonization, compelling colonial powers to relinquish control over their colonies, in effect transforming these colonies into self-governing, independent states. This new variant of self-determination was codified and expressed in the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (General Assembly Resolution 1514), further propelling the world toward its current design as a system of sovereign nation-states.

The prevalence of ethnicity as a salient factor of identity is attributed to the potent sense of nationalism, ubiquitous in the world today.  Nationalism is a recent, yet powerful phenomenon. Since its appearance on the world’s stage, nationalism has proved a momentous social and political force. Nationalism contributes to the social foundation of the modern world and has been conveyed in ethnic, civic, religious, and ideological terms. The origins and motives of nationalism are nebulous; however, many scholars and academics have presented various theories explaining the genesis and trajectory of nationalist movements. Some theorists, such as Ernest Gellner, claim that nations are corollaries of industrialization and modernization, as their advent coincided with the onset of the transition from agrarian to industrial societies. Likewise, Benedict Anderson asserts that the printing press precipitated the development of nationalist tendencies, allowing individuals to imagine themselves as part of a wider community. Other scholars of nationalism attribute leaders’ rhetoric to inciting and manipulating feelings of nationalism to further their own political goals. Disproportionate distribution of economic resources and opportunities has also been cited as a cause for nationalist awakenings. Any one theory fails to explain every case of nationalism as no two movements are identical in nature. Derived from different stimuli, some movements have achieved statehood, autonomy, co-optation, or annexation, while other movements have been quashed, displaced, or repressed. Depending upon levels of inclusion or discrimination, minority groups may make demands on the state, expressing varying degrees of nationalist tendencies. Detectably, nationalism is responsible for countless past and continuing conflicts ranging from discrimination to genocide. Ergo, understanding nationalism may aid in the triumph of resolution and peace in regions of the world afflicted with strife and dissension.

As the forces of modernization and globalization continue to transform the world, liberal theorists predict the concomitant evaporation of ethnicity as a political force, as civic nationalism begins to supplant ethnic nationalism. Ethnic solidarity, however, has instead revealed its indelible nature as a catalyst for both intra and inter-state conflict—discounting the possibility of its departure from the world’s stage. As evinced by countless instances past and current, ethnic conflict has exhibited its adeptness to engender severe chaos and disorder, igniting both protracted and intractable struggles.

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Wippman, David, editor. International Law and Ethnic Conflict. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1998.