At the end of the Cold War, political scientist Samuel Huntington who taught at Harvard University created a hypothesis. As the break up of the Soviet Union resulted in ethnic conflicts – across Central Asia and Eastern Europe most government officials and foreign policy analysts used his Clash of Civilizations as a prescient bible – as if to say, look- we knew this would happen.
Huntington’s idea of a clash premised itself on a fundamental fault-line between Islam and Christianity- orthodox or otherwise, that had been contained thus far by the Western and Eastern Blocs. If the Balkan conflict in the late 20th century provided ‘evidence’ that the hypothesis was becoming fact, the 21st century’s war on terror- that began, make no mistake, only when America was attacked on 9/11- proved his theory absolutely. Islamic extremism was identified as the single most volatile threat to global peace and all those who questioned or critiqued his theory were sufficiently silenced, as the world fought the monster of jihadi terror- whether in the form of Al Qaeda then, or the ISIS today.
The question here, to be honest- is not about the prophetic nature of Huntington’s theory but something more fundamental. Why do we need an enemy? Is it because in identifying one- the enemy or the other- we are consolidating our own idea of who and what we are? Does that ‘we’ then become a ‘nation’ in the philosophical sense of the word? Ernst Gellner defined nationalism as a political principle where the political (state) and national (cultural) units ideally have congruity. But he also said that states and nations can and have emerged without the help or blessings of each other –not always peacefully. His normative idea of the ‘nation’ is what Benedict Andersen termed the ‘imagined community’ where people who were culturally, linguistically and religiously alike often identified as a national unit.
As ethnic or religious wars exploded in Africa, the Balkans, Chechnya and the Middle East, Canadian scholar Michael Ignatieff elaborated on the state vs nation as ideals of nationalism- expanding those into Civic (Western) and Ethnic (Eastern) concepts in the 1990s. In his definition, Ethnic nationalism had potential for violence and division and cited the examples of Iraq-Iran, Somalia, the Balkans, Ireland- to name a few. In order to define ourselves we need to identify the ‘other’ and Ethnic nationalism converts that ‘other’ into the enemy who must be vanquished in order for our ‘national identity’ to rise and thrive.
Civic nationalism is just the opposite. Inclusive and secular, where the state and rule of law are applicable to all, irrespective of ethnicity, faith or race. Some argue though, that in its inclusivity, it is exclusive- its guiding principle is conformity. The tensions between those who are unwilling or unable to conform 100 percent and those who demand it – visible all across Europe and the United States. People can aspire to an identity, but need to be welcomed first by those who already have it.
And that, fundamental Western concept is at the heart of American Nationalism. Or is it? Over a decade after he wrote the Clash of Civilizations, Samuel Huntington asked Americans a fundamental question- “Who are We?” Huntington argued that the end of the Cold War and the subsequent break up of the Soviet Union had ‘reduced the salience of an over-arching American identity’ and posed “cultural threats.” He was referring to the growing Hispanic American identity, but 9/11 sharpened those questions. Are Americans one people or several? Is America a Western nation with common values, heritage and institutions created by its European ancestors and early immigrants? The quintessential melting pot where everyone became American- a political community whose identity is forged by a social contract with the constitution? Or are they an ever changing, ever adapting society of several sub-nations based on ethnic, religious and racial identities?
As America identified new enemies and defended its civilization after the Cold War, it became an active participant in the constant conflict in the Middle East- pockmarked by the first Gulf War of 1991 that American President George Bush began- ostensibly to protect Kuwait from Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the second Iraq war (this time to wipe out non existent WMD aimed at attacking the “Western enemy”) begun by his son George W. Bush Jr. These sub nations took on varied proportions on the Homeland, leading to a greater imposition on communities from the Middle East or Asia to conform to the rules of the American melting pot.
Sigmund Freud did say that people are like animals and can only, fundamentally resolve disputes through violence. The victor and the vanquished must be clearly defined. And, as President Trump sets in motion policies that aim to make America safe and great again, seeking answers to these questions has become not just a national imperative for the United States, but one for every “Nation” in the world. In finding those answers States will identify not just their own Nations, but also their ideas of justice and humanity- so deficient in our times, and our leaders.