Nationalism is in the air. The scholars may talk about universal values and the need to combat all forms of determinism and essentialism. The media may see the world through the prism of universal human rights. The global elite may meet at Davos and proclaim the ability to engineer a liberal order that can defeat what it sees as primordial divisions. And yet nationalism -- as well as other exclusivist tendencies such as tribalism and sectarianism -- manages to survive and prosper.
Nationalism is alive and well throughout East Asia, where modern states united by race and ethnicity, such as China, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, contest not lofty ideas but zero-sum geography -- that is, lines on the blue water map of the Pacific Basin. The advance of military technology (fighter jets, ballistic missiles, surveillance satellites, warships) has created a new geography of strategic competition between two great world civilizations, those of China and India. The Middle East has experienced less a democratic revolution than a crisis of central authority, in which ethnic, tribal, religious and sectarian identities have become more important than ever in modern times. In Europe, the steady decline of the European Union, originating in a half-decade-long economic crisis, has led gradually to the resurgence of national identities and right-wing, anti-immigrant movements. In the heart of Africa we see fighting and the fear of ethnic cleansing based on religious and tribal identities in the Central African Republic and South Sudan. Clearly, the scholarly, journalistic and business elites are speaking a different language than large elements of the masses worldwide.
The elite vision of a world in which a universal identity would vanquish narrower ones was a product of the end of the Cold War and the onset of the communications revolution. The Cold War's conclusion fostered the hope that a democratic universalism would make increasing headway, now that ideological battles were a thing of the past. The communications revolution that followed -- that is, the dynamic development of the Internet, smartphones, social media and more frequent and cheaper air transport links -- was believed to be an additional force for global unity.
But technology is value-neutral. It can be a force for division as well as for integration. The more that people of different origins and values come in contact with one another, the more they become aware of not just how similar they are, but of how different they are. Proximity, whether real or virtual, can ignite the deepest animosities.
And so can freedom.
"Freedom" is a sacred cow in the American political lexicon. But freedom can unleash not just the power of the individual, but also the power of the group. For as people become liberated from oppression they become aware not just of a prideful self-identity, but also of a prideful ethnic or sectarian identity. Americans assume that other people's experience of freedom will necessarily mirror their own, but that is a conceit more than an analysis.
In this vein, the immediate post-Cold War era constituted an interlude of naive assumptions. Perhaps the most obscure but telling of those naive assumptions was the easy conventional wisdom in the early 1990s that what the Middle East required was commercial mass media -- a media relatively free of government constraints, which would dilute the region's anti-Western attitudes and its political, ethnic and religious divides, especially those between Arabs and Israelis. If only the dictatorial regimes controlled less of what people thought, then the Middle East would be more peaceful. More freedom, in other words. Well, such mass media did come into being. By the standards of the region's past, Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya were independent networks modeled in style and sophistication after American ones. But their points of view -- in their Arabic language broadcasts, at least -- turned out to be extremely hostile to Western and Israeli interests, perhaps more so than the government channels they replaced. For the new networks reflected the narrow attitudes of their culture just as American networks do.