National Stupidity

In international politics, pride goeth before a fall.

What's the most powerful force in world affairs? There are plenty of candidates, but nationalism has to be a strong contender. The twin ideas that the human race is divided up into various "nations" (i.e., peoples with various shared traits who regard themselves as part of the same "imagined community"), and that these various nations are entitled to their own "state," have shaped the formation of the European system, inspired the anti-colonial revolutions that dismantled the British, French, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and Soviet empires, and help explain why the number of states has risen steadily for decades and shows no signs of stopping.

That's not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. A powerful sense of national feeling has many virtues. It can help societies overcome collective action dilemmas, as contending groups within a country agree to make sacrifices for the common good and to tolerate other forms of difference (such as religion). By encouraging citizens to work hard for shared purposes, it can also help spur national ambition and economic growth. And as the world discovered following the French Revolution, nationalism is a potent source of military power: troops infused by a love of la patrie will fight harder than hired mercenaries or soldiers whose loyalties are divided.

But nationalism also has a dark side. National narratives invariably highlight a particular people's positive achievements and tend to downplay any episodes where they behaved badly. In short, all nations tell themselves a sugar-coated version of their own history. Or as the late political scientist Karl W. Deutsch mordantly observed, a nation is a "group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbours." This feature tends to blind every nation to the views of others and makes it difficult for them to understand why the same event can been seen so differently, sometimes with good reason.

It's no surprise, for example, that what Americans label the "Iranian Hostage Crisis" is known to Iranians as the "Conquest of the American Spy Den" -- which tells you all you need to know about how the two countries view that particular episode. By whitewashing their own past, nations forget why others might have reasons to be suspicious of them, and this collective amnesia makes them more likely to see an adversary's present behavior in the worst possible light. Most Americans have long forgotten about our various predations in Latin America, for example, but Mexicans, Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, and others have not.

Nationalism can also make it harder to resolve existing conflicts, especially when competing national narratives create contending claims to the same territory. When this happens, both sides will regard their own claims as beyond dispute and see the other sides' claims as unwarranted aggression that has no legitimate basis, and must therefore be resisted. (See under: Israel-Palestine.) Moreover, such attitudes rob diplomats of the flexibility that is often needed to reach a compromise, because achieving anything less than complete victory will be seen as a betrayal of some sacred national value.

Finally, extreme nationalism also fuels overconfidence. National ideologies tend to portray the nation as both different from others and in some way superior; indeed, national pride depends on convincing citizens that it is better to be Turkish, French, Japanese, Thai, Irish, Egyptian, Russian, etc., than to be anything else. Americans are no strangers to this sort of thinking: just look at all the ink that's been spilled proclaiming American "exceptionalism." From there it is but a short step to the conclusion that others are in some sense inferior, and that they will be easy to defeat on the battlefield.

In short, despite nationalism's many virtues, it can also be a profound source of national stupidity. At worst, unchecked nationalism has a way of leading countries to do things that leave them worse off than they would otherwise be. In extreme cases -- such as Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan -- virulent hyper-nationalist beliefs helped pave the road to national disaster, along with the suffering and deaths of millions along the way.

Some have argued that globalization and the emergence of post-national structures such as the European Union mean that these dangers are a thing of the past. Or that now that 1 billion people are on Facebook, that tribalism is dead. Hardly. Just consider the following examples of national stupidity, exacerbated by unthinking nationalism.

From Sea to Chinese Sea

Chinese national pride is deeply felt, and the desire to rise above what they regard as two centuries of weakness and humiliation has been a powerful engine of progress over the past quarter-century. Nationalism also provides an important source of unity now that economic inequality is rising and Marxism-Leninism has been effectively discarded as China's official ruling ideology. It is therefore no surprise that the ruling Communist Party has gone to some lengths to foster a deeper sense of national identity.

But that same force is also leading China to engage in a number of foolish and self-defeating behaviors. In particular, its aggressive territorial claims in the South China Sea, its recent unilateral declaration of an offshore "air defense identification zone," and its hard-line stance in the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute have discredited Beijing's earlier assurances about a "peaceful rise" and alarmed many of its Asian neighbors. Whatever one may think of China's claims, this behavior is dumb, because it encourages China's neighbors to balance more vigorously and makes them eager for more U.S. protection. It would be smarter for Beijing to play the long game and refrain from such demands until China is much stronger than it is today. But given national feeling in China itself, it is not clear that China's leaders can maintain such a wise and patient approach.

Not-so-honest Abe

Ironically, Japan offers an even more vivid example of counterproductive contemporary nationalism. Tokyo has been equally uncompromising about its claims to the Diaoyu/Senkakus; even worse, Japan continues to quarrel with South Korea over the Liancourt Rocks, an even less important set of tiny islands. Some Japanese leaders -- including current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe -- have also said disturbing things about Japan's actions on the Korean Peninsula during World War II, including denying its use of Koreans as "comfort women" for Japanese troops. News flash for Tokyo: China is a rising power, and it is a lot bigger than you are. Japan is going to need as many friends in Asia as it can get if it wants to maximize its freedom of action against its larger Chinese neighbor. Obvious conclusion: pointless quarrels with South Korea are counterproductive -- even foolish -- and so are those visits to the Yasukuni Shrine that your politicians keep taking in order to appease right-wing nationalist sentiment.

Spoiled Milk and Honey

At its root, Zionism is the Jewish version of 19th-century European nationalism. By encouraging national unity, patriotic sacrifice, and the support from the Jewish diaspora, it has been an important source of many of Israel's past accomplishments.

Today, however, the evolution of Zionism -- in more extreme directions -- may be imperiling Israel's long-term future. Instead of merely seeking a secure homeland, the Israeli state is increasingly fixated on establishing a "Greater Israel" in perpetuity, while confining its Palestinian subjects to a few isolated enclaves under strict Israeli control. Not surprisingly, these policies are accompanied by increasingly racist attitudes toward Arabs both inside and outside the state itself, as Max Blumenthal has recently documented. These trends explain why Israel faces growing international criticism and may even be losing support and sympathy in the United States, including among American Jewry. As with other states, the downside of Jewish nationalism is encouraging policies that are not in the country's long-term interest.

A City on a Mountain

American nationalism differs in certain ways from many other countries: it is a "civic" nationalism that rests primarily on shared political principles and liberal cultural values, rather than on ethnicity or ancestry. This feature has made it easier for the United States to incorporate successive waves of immigration (albeit not without certain tensions), a phenomenon that was critical to its rise to great power status.

Yet over time, and especially since the United States became a great power, American nationalism has also incorporated a dangerously inflated view of its own "exceptional" qualities. In particular, Americans (and especially foreign policy elites), often believe it is America's right and responsibility to exercise "world leadership," not simply because the United States is a very powerful country, but because it has the best form of government, the most virtuous citizens, and is always acting for the greater good -- even when it is blowing things up in some distant land or toppling some supposedly unfriendly government.

The negative consequences of this strand of American nationalism should be apparent by now. Because they believe the United States always acts for good, American leaders routinely underestimate the degree to which U.S. power worries other countries and leads them to try to take various steps to rein in Washington. Because they are convinced the American system of government is the best one ever devised, they overestimate their ability to export that system to other countries. Because the United States is a uniquely successful multicultural experiment, they do not recognize that local identities and sectarian differences are much harder to overcome in other places. And because they think Americans are smarter, more unified, more heroic, and just plain better than others, they have trouble imagining that a bunch of Vietnamese, Iraqis, or Afghans could possibly defeat us -- even when we're fighting on their home turf and in conditions where they are highly motivated and can almost certainly outlast us.

My point here is not to rail against nationalism per se, which isn't going to disappear anytime soon. It is rather to warn against the unthinking, uncritical, "my-country-right-or-wrong" version of nationalism that sometimes infects an entire society. When that happens, legitimate pride in one's own national group can easily morph into something darker, cruder, and far more dangerous. And when it does, it tends to make a country do stupid things. In international politics, as in the lives of individuals, (national) pride goeth before a fall.



Déjà Vu and Paranoia in the Deep State

How long can Turkey's democratically elected leader rule by tyranny-of-the-majority?

At a moment when the revolutionary convulsions of the Middle East are dissolving into chaos and renewed authoritarianism, the one stable democracy in the region -- Turkey -- is twisting its bed sheets in a nightmare of corruption, conspiracy, and state repression. Only a few years ago, Turkey preened as the model for a new age of Middle Eastern enlightenment; now democratic rule seems endangered there, as it is throughout the region.

The events that have consumed Turkish political life began Dec. 17, when police in Istanbul arrested 18 people on corruption charges in a dawn raid. Among those detained were construction magnates who supported the Justice and Development Party (AKP) of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the sons of three of Erdogan's ministers. Rumor had it that Recep's son, Bilal, would be next. Erdogan responded by firing some of his ministers and shuffling others -- and by getting rid of hundreds of police officers and prosecutors who were responsible for the probe. Additional fraud investigations led to new arrests; those prosecutors were, in turn, dismissed. Erdogan is now seeking to gain control over the judiciary in a brazen violation of Turkey's separation of powers.

The drama has unfolded as a kind of shadow play. Turks are extraordinarily attuned to the supposed machinations of a "deep state." In years past, this expression referred to military and intelligence figures who were said to pull secret strings, and who had overthrown civilian governments on three separate occasions. Over the years, Erdogan has sapped, confronted, and ultimately smashed the power of the military. Now a new cabal is said to be pulling the levers of power: followers of Fethullah Gulen, a moderate Islamist leader based in the United States who has had a falling-out with Erdogan and whose followers in the police and the judiciary are said to be wreaking their revenge. A column by a scholar at a pro-regime think tank bore the headline, "Turkey's Parallel State Strikes Back," and called for the "Gulen Movement" to be dismantled.   

When I was reporting in Ankara and Istanbul a few years ago, I heard as much about the Gulenists, who were said to be here, there, and everywhere, as I did about the deep state. And as with the military, the shadows reflect very real substance. Gulen's followers, many of them successful professionals, control major media properties and occupy prominent slots in public service. They can be roughly compared to Freemasons, whose habits of secrecy, and whose self-evident success, make them fertile sources of paranoia (or once did). Turkey is now having its anti-Gulenist moment, as the United States once had its fervent, if short-lived, anti-masonry movement.

As journalistic shorthand, the story of Islamist versus Islamist is both entertaining and plausible. Erdogan really had split with Gulen, whose growing power he may have feared. In November, the prime minister had signed legislation which would have forced the closing of almost all of the 3,100 prep schools Gulen operates in Turkey. The raids came the following month. Many Turks, encouraged by the regime, connected the dots. The problem with this neo-deep-state explanation is that the investigations had begun months earlier, and in any case the allegations of political corruption seem all too well-founded. Turkish politics runs on black money, especially from the construction industry. What's more, Yavuz Baydar, a columnist for the English-language Today's Zaman, says that while Gulenists dominate the upper ranks of the police, they do not control the judiciary. (The Zaman Group, which owns the newspaper, is itself Gulenist, though the English-language paper is generally considered independent.)

Even if the Gulenists are getting their revenge, they are only turning on Erdogan a tool he has been quite effective in wielding in the past. The final nail in the coffin of Turkish military power came in the form of spectacular investigations and trials of the most senior military officers, starting in 2007, for allegedly conspiring to overthrow the state. The so-called Ergenekon trials depended on the "heavy use of fabricated evidence," as Sinan Ulgen, a former diplomat and scholar now at the Carnegie Endowment in Brussels, puts it. At the time, said Ulgen, the AKP not only remained silent, but "attacked people who were criticizing the legal process and categorized them as putschists." Now, the party has retrospectively turned on the prosecutors: Erdogan's chief of staff wrote in a recent column that the military had been the victim of the same "plot" which was now engulfing the AKP. Gulenist justice, in short, was just fine so long as the victims were the regime's rivals.  

Among the prosecutors that Erdogan has summarily fired is Zekeriya Oz, the deputy prosecutor of Istanbul -- famed as the chief man behind Ergenekon. Stories of Oz's own alleged corruption have begun to circulate in the media. Yet graver than the mass firings and reassignments, whose number is said to have reached 2,000, is Erdogan's attempt to subordinate the judiciary by re-writing the laws governing the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors, a body which the government had reformed only three years ago in order to comply with European Union standards. Erdogan wants the body to report to the justice minister, and thus to the government. The E.U. has admonished the Turkish government not to compromise the independence of the investigations.  

In this fast-moving, opaque, and tangled tale, the ultimate narrative is not Erdogan versus Gulen or even cops versus robbers; it's the government against democracy. After 11 years in office, Erdogan has become utterly intolerant of independent voices or of autonomous institutions. "If you don't like him," as Hakan Altinay, a Brookings scholar in Istanbul, puts it, "you must be a traitor, an Alawite, or a 'White Turk'" (a secularist). Turks have lived with this constricting reality for several years now; the rest of the world learned of it last summer when Erdogan sought to crush peaceful protests in Istanbul's Gezi Park, and accused his critics of harboring various bizarre foreign agendas.

Turkey is no police state, but criticizing the government, Erdogan, or the AKP is becoming more dangerous all the time. Last year, the state jailed 40 journalists, making it the world's leading jailer of the press for the second year in a row. Turkish journalists feel that the vise is steadily closing. After we spoke, Yavuz Baydar sent me the following email: "As we communicate, access to the video portal Vimeo is banned in Turkey. More censor assaults to Internet is to be expected, since it is the only free domain left under the circumstances. This horrible déjà vu never ends."

This is the kind of message one used to get from the Middle East before the Arab Spring. It's a vivid reminder that Turkey's democratic transition is both incomplete and subject to serious reversal. Erdogan rules through the kind of tyranny-of-the-majority which populist leaders use to dominate democratic states with weak checks and balances. That rule, in turn, depends on winning electoral majorities, as he has done. The prime minister was able to depict the vast crowds in Gezi Park as urban elitists. He will continue using this rhetoric unless and until the public deals him an electoral blow.

And that may happen. Erdogan's constitutional tenure as prime minister is ending, and he hopes to be elected president later this year. Before then, on March 30, Turkey is holding nationwide municipal elections, which are widely seen as a referendum on Erdogan's leadership. The AKP controls the government of both Ankara and Istanbul. Until Dec. 17, says Sinan Ulgen, "both races were going to be won easily by the AKP." Now both, and especially Ankara, are seen as open. In short, Turks have a chance to decide how much they care about an independent judiciary, a free press, and autonomous institutions. That is how democracies renew themselves.