nations real? What makes them more or less real? Consider two concrete examples of the embodiment of national ideology.
Are nations real?
Because of their establishment in the political firmament of contemporary society, nations seem or 'feel' so real that we forget most of the nations we take for granted are relatively young constructs. Italy and Germany were fractious, yoked-together provinces well into the 19th century. Even the United States only became united by a civil war, and today many Americans still proclaim the virtues of states' rights. During the end of both global conflicts in the 20th century, there was an international debate amongst the victorious map-drawing nations as to what constituted a 'nation' and what types of ethnic, religious, and cultural claims justified a right to sovereignty. "Nationalist claims are focused upon the non-voluntary community of common origin, language, tradition and culture, so that in the classical view an ethno-nation is a community of origin and culture, including prominently a language and customs" (Miscevic 2010). Traditional nationalism asserts that 'nations' are self-evident, and the notion of national borders and sovereignty honors this self-evident status. However, in the post-modern era, this supposed self-evident nature of national identity has been continually called into question.
To further confuse the debate about the reality of nations, there are 'nations' that exist that do not have formal, institutionalized power within the global system of states, even though they may have some minor powers (such as regarding taxation) in terms of sovereignty. "It is traditional, therefore, to distinguish nations from states -- whereas a nation often consists of an ethnic or cultural community, a state is a political entity with a high degree of sovereignty. While many states are nations in some sense, there are many nations which are not fully sovereign states. As an example, the Native American Iroquois constitute a nation but not a state, since they do not possess the requisite political authority over their internal or external affairs. If the members of the Iroquois nation were to strive to form a sovereign state in the effort to preserve their identity as a people, they would be exhibiting a state-focused nationalism" (Miscevic 2010). The Iroquois are united culturally, but as a practical matter, do not have the same power as the United States government, even though the U.S. government is prohibited from regulating the Indian nations based upon the Indians' claims to sovereignty. Indian nations do not have "statehood with complete authority over domestic and international affairs" in the conventional sense (Miscevic 2010).
The principle of national self-determination was one of the cornerstones of the mapping of Europe during the Conference of Versailles at the end of World War I. The notion of national self-determination was also used to support the creation of the state of Israel after World War II, and the liberation of the colonial powers from European yoke. Nationalism is "often defined in terms of common origin, ethnicity, or cultural ties" yet, as a matter of practical fact, an "individual's membership in a nation is often regarded as involuntary," given that one cannot choose where one is born, only the cultural practices one assumes (Miscevic 2010). The extent to which nationhood is defined by birth or by location, and what specific types of cultural practices are considered significant enough to cause one to be called a member of a nation likewise have varied greatly over the course of history; again underlining the subjectivity in the notion of what validates the existence of the nation-state.
During the Cold War, the United States was a vehement supporter of national self-determination, because of its fears of Soviet domination over Europe and the larger would. This fear seemed justified by the dominance of the Kremlin over Eastern Europe in the form of the Warsaw Pact, and the sheer, sprawling size of the Soviet Union itself. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, America and the other Western powers cheered on the creation of new states, such as the Ukraine and Estonia. However, the multiplicities of nations and the difficulty of supporting every people that had a right to sovereignty quickly became apparent during the struggle between the Russian state and the ethnic group known as the Chechens. In 1990, "an opposition bloc, the 'National Movement of the Chechen People', whose main goals were the struggle to realize the idea of 'national sovereignty' of the Chechen Republic and the desire to unite the peoples of the Northern Caucasus into a confederative state" was formed, with an explicitly hostile intent against Russian rule (Yevsyukova 1995).
The United States had always strongly supported the independence of the republics of the Soviet Union. But the question arose: did it, and the international community, have a moral obligation to support the sovereignty of every single state or ethnic group that wished to secede? Given the multiplicity of such groups, to set a precedent seemed disastrous. Additionally, the Chechen people did not establish a coherent governing structure that provided a meaningful alternative to Russia. "After a year of independence, there was an economic and political crisis in the republic. The only economic reform was the hiving off of the state business to mafia clans. The state farms were robbed and crime grew at a frightening rate" (Yevsyukova 1995).
The creation of a global community, where individuals often possess multiple identities, has further eroded the idea of nations as self-evident constructions. For example, a common definition of nationhood is that "a group of people of a sufficient size has a prima facie right to govern itself and decide its future membership, if the members of the group so wish" (Miscevic 2010). But does this mean that factions of the diverse United States can break into 'nations' as is sometimes facetiously suggested for New York City, for example, because of their unique culture?
Another argument is that "oppression and injustice give the victim group a just cause and the right to secede" Miscevic 2010). The notion that oppression of a people constitutes valid grounds for the establishment of a nation-state was used to justify the creation of the state of Israel, for example as well as historical claims of the Jewish people upon the territory (Israel, 2011, U.S. Department of State). Protecting vulnerable ethnic populations was also used to justify the bolstering of the status of nationhood of Bosnia, for example, during the ethnic conflicts that ravaged Yugoslavia. The troubles of the former Yugoslavian republics, however, have largely been seen as evidence of the dangers of nationalism, given that old, ethnic rivalries can be used to justify vengeance upon people who had no role in the historical grievances. For example, the aggressive Serbian republic justified its actions against the Croats because of its contention that the Serbs had been oppressed by the Croats during World War II. Justifying the existence of a nation-state solely based upon a sense of historical injustice seems to inevitably lead to violence.
The pliability of a sense of 'oppression' also makes it difficult to justify a history of oppression as a reason for defining a 'nation-state.' For example, depending upon the caprices of history, one people can oppress one another for a time, and vice versa. The Croats dominated the Serbs, the Serbs then dominated the Croats, and there is no way to state which people is the more oppressed of the two 'nations.' Additionally, before the end of communism, representatives of different ethnic groups lived side-by-side in Yugoslavia without major conflicts. This is what made the eventual civil wars so volatile: "none of the other national groups the former Yugoslavia comprised, with the exception of the Slovenes, lived within clearly defined ethnic borders inside the federation...Bosnia-Herzegovina posed the greatest challenge to the peaceful dissolution of Yugoslavia because both Serbs and Croats lived there in large numbers, and because both Serbia and Croatia had historical pretensions to the republic's territory" (Pesic 1996). Using a common sense of national solidarity in a world where populations are mobile is thus likewise a challenge. "Almost every one of Yugoslavia's peoples has been perceived as a threat to another national group and has felt threatened itself" (Pesic 1996). Nationalism or the creating of a nation to protect one's own population often results in the victimization of other peoples and the overriding of their rights to territory.
A final problem with the acceptance of the notion of the 'nation' as a real force is the fact that 'nations' have also been defined based upon a sense of solidarity across borders based on shared religion or culture. The Pan-Arab League of Egypt's Nasser was called an example of Arab 'nationalism' as he attempted to unite the former Arab colonies against the West. Conversely, even within nations today, the hostility and a lack of a sense of a shared culture or nation in nations with substantial minority populations, such as Iraq's Kurdish population calls into question the 'nationhood' of an area where divisiveness within the nation runs so deep it…