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The Centrality of the National

March 26, 2019

I think that biggest error in contemporary Anglosphere understandings of world politics is our inability to recognize the implications of the principle of nationality.  I’d emphasize that I’m not talking about nationalism but about the importance of the idea that practically everything on the planet can be assigned a nationality and that the “nation-state” (or more accurately “nationalized state society complex) is the fundamental unit of government.  You may be an internationalist but you still carry a passport and are almost certainly marked by what Gieselinde Kuiper would call, following Norbert Elias, “national habitus”.

The typical Western liberal perspective falls into an opposition between two clusters of ideas

state/ politics / official / government

 vs

society / private / unofficial /people / non-governmental.  Specific social sectors: culture, education, science, sport can also be found here.

What’s missing is that all of the second cluster can also be understood in national terms.  The national provides a set of associations that can bridge the implied gap between the two clusters. It’s a national government and a national sports team. It’s much easier to make sense of discussions about influence, public diplomacy, diasporas, cultural relations, soft power if we recognize the importance of activating or minimizing the national association.

Here’s a couple of nice examples.  The Australian government has a new scheme to make ‘foreign influence’ more transparent and universities who host Confucius Institutes are reluctant to register.  “If Confucius Institutes have not been registered, despite being substantially funded from Beijing, it may be because they are thought to confine their activities to “culture and language”. No politics.” The writer of the article makes the point that Communist China sees culture as political.  This is true but the more fundamental point is that in China (or in any other country with cultural relations programmes) “cultural and language” is certainly part of the national.

There’s also an interesting piece on the Turkish diaspora in the Balkans that has some wonderful quotes.  A lot of it is about the popularity or lack of it Erdogan among the diaspora but I was struck by:

“Take the citizenships of the countries you are living in,” Erdogan said. “Don’t say no. Take it. If they give it, take it.”

He explained: “You are representatives in your countries. You should learn your countries’ language, integrate with your country, enter politics and improve our relations. But never forget Turkish language, culture and your Turkey.”

A the end of the 19th century this was the kind of idea that you found in Italy or Germany or China, each had diasporas that were coming to be seen as part of national influence and an economic resource, even if people had to give up their citizenship if they maintained their culture they were still part of the nation.  This is the reason why all three adopted citizenship laws based on biological descent so that people had the option of returning to the homeland.

The strength of national associations can be rhetorically emphasized or minimized, later in the piece we get this

“Turkish identity is not a national identity,” he said. “It spreads across nations. It weaves itself into other identities. It’s not tied to Turkey. It’s much older, and much vaster.”

Somewhat ironically the speaker has been reported thus

“Ibrahim from the alliance of NGOs that champions the interests of ethnic Turks in North Macedonia credited Erdogan for pioneering an expansive new vision of what it means to be Turkish in the region — underwritten by increased funding in hospitals, schools, agriculture, mosques and banks.”

The core point is that opposition between politics and culture misses the importance of the national as a set of associations.  The national is not necessarily political but it is vector through which the political can travel.  Cultural relations strategies have always turned on this gap between the national as cultural and the national as political.

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