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Sep 18, 2013 | 09:01 GMT

Who Are We? The Debate Over National Characteristics

Chief Geopolitical Analyst, Stratfor
Robert D. Kaplan
Chief Geopolitical Analyst, Stratfor
Global Affairs with Robert D. Kaplan
Contributor Perspectives offer insight, analysis and commentary from Stratfor’s Board of Contributors and guest contributors who are distinguished leaders in their fields of expertise.

By Robert D. Kaplan

When someone says he is an American, that means something very specific, right? It connotes a specific landscape, historical experience, set of cultural proclivities and value system, right? Indeed, it has been asserted frequently that all Americans — Jews, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims — are, nevertheless, voluntary Protestants, because it is the Protestant creed and work ethic to which they have all subconsciously subordinated themselves in the course of immigration and naturalization. This is all true, of course. However, it is also true that the American character is itself changing and becoming, perhaps, more subtle. This was exactly the theme of the late Harvard political scientist Samuel P. Huntington's last book before he died, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity (2004). Huntington believed that the massive influx of Latinos over recent decades, coupled with an American elite that was becoming more international and less American, made it questionable whether the very word, American, meant the same thing that it used to.

It isn't only Americans who face these identity questions, but much of the rest of the world. Immigration, refugee migration, the emergence of a global elite as distinct from national elites, jet travel, the rise of expatriatism, and so forth are all, little by little, eroding the basis of nationality, and with it, of national characteristics. Nuance is required here, because nationalism may actually be on the rise in mono-ethnic Asian societies such as Japan, and homegrown populist movements in the United States — themselves reactions in part to the internationalization of society as a whole — may, too, be more feisty than ever. Then there is the ugly specter of anti-immigrant nationalism in Europe. Nevertheless, as technology shrinks geography and people move around the planet more and more, national characteristics are less and less clear-cut and cosmopolitanism is on the upsurge.

Liberal intellectuals would not be displeased. National characteristics — while relatively benign to the American experience — have proved disastrous to the European one. Here is the philosopher Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951):

"When Russians have become Slavs, when Frenchmen have assumed the role of commanders of a force noire, when Englishmen have turned into 'white men,' as already for a disastrous spell all Germans became Aryans," it will "signify the end of Western man. For no matter what learned scientists may say, race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death."

And yet that simply cannot be the end of the argument. For it is a long, long way from outright racism to the reasonable assumption that, for instance, Americans are generally different from Frenchmen, Norwegians are generally different from Greeks, Germans are different from Chinese, and so forth. Though, in the world of humanist intellectuals the distance is less vast than one might think. And for good reason: the belief in national characteristics, taken to an extreme, was an element in Nazism and Japanese fascism. The Holocaust is one lifetime removed from our own, a nanosecond in human history. So it is right that intellectual life (as well as foreign policy) exist in the shadow of it. The upshot has been an intellectual assault on the very notion of national characteristics. This is something that people who study geopolitics need to be mindful of.

They need to be mindful of it since such intellectual trend lines can, I believe, improve geopolitics rather than undermine it. Geopolitics is the study of "space and power," in the words of the mid-20th century political scientist and ambassador Robert Strausz-Hupe. It is about how different populations, inhabiting different geographical spaces, compete with each other for influence and supremacy. Intellectuals can accept this. But what they have more difficulty accepting is that the populations inhabiting those different geographical spaces remain static in their characteristics. In fact, say the intellectuals, such characteristics have been evolving in complex ways, even as they were never so simple to categorize to begin with.

I think, for example, of Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who outlines the flexible, early modern sense of identity encapsulated by the career of 19th-century poet Adam Mickiewicz in the 2003 academic classic, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 1569-1999. Mickiewicz, writes Snyder, saw Lithuania "as a land of many peoples but of an ultimately Polish destiny…" Never having set foot in Warsaw or Krakow, Mickiewicz nonetheless became a "medium" for Polish nationalism; and while he never envisioned a Lithuania separate from Poland, Mickiewicz's writings were utilized by Lithuanian nationalists. Though, technically speaking, as Snyder notes, Mickiewicz would in today's terminology be counted a Belarusian. Then there was the protean statesman and military leader of the interwar period, Jozef Pilsudski, who, Snyder says, "never quite chose between Poland and Lithuania," even as he spoke the "folk Belarusian of the countryside." Buried in Krakow's Wawel Castle in 1935 alongside Polish kings, Pilsudski's heart was cut out and buried next to his mother in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital. For instead of the "settled 'facts' of geography," Snyder documents a wealth of cultural and linguistic interchange, teeming with intricate and overlapping identities in northeastern Europe.

Herein are identities far too subtle to fit within the ethnic straitjackets demanded by modern nationalists and purveyors of national characteristics, who have rejected the elastic definitions of early modernism — of which Mickiewicz, for one, was an exemplar — and turned instead to illusions of group purity and "inborn national traits" that have led, ultimately, to genocide and ethnic cleansing. Indeed, the attraction of the postmodern European Union says Snyder, stems — despite the union's difficulties — from a desire on the part of the peoples of the former Communist states to escape the strictures of modern nationalism and national characteristics and enter a world of individual rights beyond ethnicity.

Snyder's thesis is helped by the fact that the region of northeastern Europe about which he writes is more or less flat, with relatively few natural borders, and is predominantly Slavic, encouraging the movements of people and thus of fluid identities. The mountainous Balkans, with a geography less conducive to such constant human to-ing and fro-ing (even as it is on the path of Eurasian trade routes), and populated as it is by Romance speakers, Hungarian speakers, Turkic speakers, Greek speakers, Albanian speakers and Slavic speakers, might be somewhat less friendly to Snyder's message. Though, the one place in the Balkan Peninsula where war actually broke out following Communism's demise was in Yugoslavia, almost exclusively among Slavic speakers — rather than between Slavic speakers and others. Moreover, the identities of Romanians, Hungarians, Jews and others are not always as clear-cut as they seem. In any case, Snyder's overarching idea is that group identity — and war and peace — depends foremost on human choices and contingencies that "escape national reasoning…" This is something that those who practice geopolitics must always remember.

Huntington, a conservative intellectual, feared the loss of identity and group characteristics in the case of America; Snyder, a liberal intellectual, sees the danger of such a hard-wired sense of identity in the case of Europe. The lesson for geopolitics is not to judge the value of such identities, but to understand that what unites both Huntington and Snyder is their deep understanding that such things as national characteristics are inherently insecure and changeable, and they may in the future be increasingly difficult to pin down.

Geographical space matters, but the identity of those who occupy such space may increasingly bedevil generalization. Lesson: those who write about geopolitics should not only look backward to a 19th- or 20th-century world of national peoples fighting each other for space, but also to a more intricate, more overcrowded and more contradictory world of overlapping identities where elemental battles for space will, nevertheless, still matter.

Robert D. Kaplan was Stratfor's Chief Geopolitical Analyst from March 2012 through December 2014. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., and has been a foreign correspondent and contributing editor at The Atlantic, where his work has appeared for three decades. In 2009, he was appointed to the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board, which advised former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates on key issues. Mr. Kaplan served on the board through 2011. From 2006 to 2008, he was the Class of 1960 Distinguished Visiting Professor in National Security at the U.S. Naval Academy.
Who Are We? The Debate Over National Characteristics
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