Posts Tagged ‘Nationality’

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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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Recovering the Nation, Part 2 : The Persistence of Nationalness

August 29, 2014

In the previous post I pointed to the centrality of the ‘national’ in the French account of influence. Although I’ve focused on France because of the relatively coherent theory you can extract from Foucher’s Atlas, the national cultural view is strongly present in the approach of many other countries large and small. Germany is the obvious example but I’d particularly emphasize that the post socialist reconstruction of Chinese and Russian external outreach has taken on board national models, not least in the emphasis placed on language.

From the perspective of a think tank in Washington or London the French discourse of influence with its discussion of the national and geopolitics may sound quaint next to the post international politics of global governance, climate change and the internet revolution. The response from Paris would be might be something like this:

Firstly, : “countries will always advance an agenda that is important to them. Why do you assume that your agenda is the only one? What about our agenda ? for instance of cultural diversity.”

Secondly, “the new agenda of global politics is an addition not a replacement. New issues will always be refracted through the lens of national differences. Nations are permanent issues and regimes change”   It’s noticeable that while ‘Europe’ is frequently invoked in Foucher’s book it is seen as an atout (an asset or even trump card) for French influence not as something that replaces France or its project of influence.

We don’t have to buy into a Gaullist metaphysics of the nation to recognize that they may have a point. The nation may be socially constructed but some social constructions cannot be dismantled in any politically feasible way.   Nationality does not mean a self conscious effort to assert or promote the nation but the existence of particular ways of seeing the world. As Billig argued in Banal Nationalism everyday life is shot through with assumptions of the national. This isn’t just confined to old nations. The most recent wave of the World Values Survey asked individuals in a variety of countries whether they were proud of their country;  in many former colonies or post communist countries 95% or more answered that they were proud or very proud. As might be expected answers in ‘post national’ developed countries were lower: Germany could only muster 70% and the Netherlands 81% but asking whether people felt part of the nation added another 10-20%.  Even a large part of the minority who refused national pride could not escape the nation as a social fact.

If we move from individuals to institutions the national remains important. Institutional models in government, law, and business are endure.   What the French see is that Anglo Saxon or French institutional models give advantages to some actors and disadvantage others (see for instance this issue of Mondes). For instance structuring contracts for major infrastructure projects on Anglo-saxon models tends to disadvantage firms that operate under a different legal system. In a 2012 book Sarah Stroup shows that British, American and French transnational NGOs remain closely linked to their countries of origins and operate in distinct ways. From my own work on PD institutions it is also clear that national models are highly persistent.

This suggests to me that it’s less the French insistence on the continued relevance of the national that looks odd but the refusal to recognize its significance.

In the final part of this series I’m going to point to some theoretical sources of this failure to recognize the national