The independence of Kosovo is a reminder of the West’s worst idea: nationalism.  Western Europe spent about four hundred years developing the notion that a nation should be based on ethnicity (preferably accompanied by a single language and religion), and the last fifty trying to undo its mistake.  The major problems:

  • People don’t neatly sort themselves into easily separated regions.  After Yugoslavia’s breakup, Serbia had a province full of Albanians; after Kosovo broke away it has a bunch of districts populated by Serbs; if they broke away there would undoubtedly be Albanian villages left out. 
  • It produces nearly endless wars.  The vast majority of the wars in Africa since the end of colonialism are conflicts between ethnic groups (e.g. the civil wars in Nigeria, Sudan, and Angola; the genocide in Rwanda and Burundi; the current troubles in Kenya).
  • It produces mini-nations which are a geopolitical burden to the great powers.  Woodrow Wilson’s bright idea of dividing Eastern Europe into national states helped lead to WWII, as these small states tempted their larger neighbors and couldn’t defend themselves.
  • When things go badly, and they do, nationalism descends easily into oppression, ethnic cleansing, and genocide.

What’s the alternative?  Cosmopolitan non-ethnic states, of course.  These come in several flavors:

  • Culturally homogenous, like the US.  (Our political divisions are striking, but on the big picture they’re not really that large– liberals and conservatives agree on more things than they disagree about.)
  • A marriage of convenience, like the EU.  The jury is out on how well this will work.  It’s done pretty well so far for being hobbled by a completely absurd institutional structure.  Being rich covers a lot of problems.
  • Empires.  The Ottoman Empire, for instance, worked admirably well, arguably much better than most of its successor states.  Ethnic tension was minimal, as its subjects didn’t think of it as a Turkish but as a Muslim state.  (Consider that two lasting headaches of the modern world, Israel/Palestine and the Kurds, simply were not problems under Ottoman rule.)  Despite this, it was quite tolerant of non-Muslim minorities, giving them local autonomy and ample chances to serve the state.

Nationalism is often justified by oppression; but that oppression is generally itself nationalistic– e.g. the Kosovars fighting against Serbs trying to secure Greater Serbia. 

 Of course nationalism isn’t the only evil in the world, nor the only cause of war.  But for such a source of misery it retains an astoundingly high reputation.  We now repudiate other historical evils (slavery, racism, sexism, religious wars), but many people still think that “—-ia for the —-ians” is a pretty good idea.

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