Paul Staniland has a very engaging post over at The Monkey Cage critiquing this long Robert Kaplan piece about security competition in the South China Sea. Kaplan’s arguments are interesting, though in my view he fails to examine some baseline assumptions about the nature of modern great power security conflict that could really use some examining. I also think he’s also a bit too credulous about the “moral” dimensions of the twentieth century’s major conflicts, paying too little attention to the divisions over resources, power and economics upon which their ideological superstructures rested. In any case, Staniland zeroes in on Kaplan’s discussion of “old-fashioned nationalism” as the primary ideological driver of potential conflict in East Asia. Really, read both pieces, but here are a couple of relevant quotes, starting with Kaplan:
Instead of fascism or militarism, China, along with other states in East Asia, is increasingly defined by the persistence of old-fashioned nationalism: an idea, certainly, but not one that since the mid-19th century has been attractive to intellectuals. And even if China does become more democratic, its nationalism is likely only to increase, as even a casual survey of the views of its relatively freewheeling netizens makes clear.
We often think of nationalism as a reactionary sentiment, a relic of the 19th century. Yet it is traditional nationalism that mainly drives politics in Asia, and will continue to do so. That nationalism is leading unapologetically to the growth of militaries in the region — navies and air forces especially — to defend sovereignty and make claims for disputed natural resources. There is no philosophical allure here. It is all about the cold logic of the balance of power. To the degree that unsentimental realism, which is allied with nationalism, has a geographical home, it is the South China Sea.
If nationalism is meaningful in world politics it cannot be the same as simple power balancing. The tension between them is why the rise of nationalism in Europe fundamentally complicated great power politics. It is instructive to compare the nature of wars before 1789 – limited, small armies, manageable territorial divisions – with the dynamics of escalation and conflict associated with the rise of nationalism after the French Revolution. This is something Clausewitz keyed on rather awhile ago (see also this forthcoming piece by Cederman et al. on shifts in war intensity after the rise of nationalism).
Scholars have plausibly argued that nationalism can lead to counterproductive “myths of empire” and intellectual myopia. More specifically, China expert Robert Ross has noted the dangers of nationalism for Chinese naval policy. Ross writes, “There is little evidence that land power challenges to the interest of maritime powers [caused by nationalism] are driven by rational, security-driven states making cost-benefit analyses” (80). It is difficult to see how unsentimental realism is seamlessly allied to old-fashioned nationalism, and consequently how nationalism and the balance of power can both be simultaneously the dominant logic of East Asia.
Lots to unpack there, but I actually think both authors suffer from a lack of semantic clarity that in turn dulls the edges of their arguments. Start with Kaplan’s assertion that “old-fashioned nationalism” defines East Asian states instead of “fascism” or “militarism.” Kaplan’s comparing apples to oranges to kumquats here. As I’ve argued before, nationalism is best thought of as a principle for bounding political communities. Fascism (or liberalism or communism) is an ideology prescribing the manner in which economic and political intercourse within those communities ought to be organized. Militarism (an imprecise term which I dislike and reference under protest) is defined by Webster as “an exaltation of military virtues and ideals.” It’s a fetishization of a particular method of political engagement. All three of these ideational constructs address different (if related) questions, and ought not be thought of as oppositional political ideologies in the mold of fascism/communism/liberalism or nationalism/cosmopolitianism.
This isn’t just an issue of superficial semantics. Talking about nationalism as though it “drives” political behavior in the same manner as, for example, communism doesn’t make sense. Communist ideology, at least as interpreted by many of its late practitioners, prescribes a certain political evangelism. Communist countries are supposed desire that other countries also become communist. Liberal countries, generally speaking, should desire the same universalization of their own system. For as long as both doctrines have found meaningful political expression, they’ve been implicated in global power politics precisely because they represent stark challenges to other extant political ideologies. Nationalism, on the other hand, makes no inherent demands on political behavior beyond the enforcement of the principle that each nation should have sovereign control over its own politics.* One need only look at Japan for a demonstration of this. Since the Meiji Restoration, Japan has had a citizenry with an exceedingly strong sense of nationalism. Before World War II, that nationalism enabled a militarily-aggressive , imperialist foreign policy. Since World War II, that same nationalism has found very different practical expression.
So, while Staniland’s critique is important, it’s worth noting that “the balance of power” and nationalism can be the simultaneous “dominant logic of East Asia.” Indeed, as John Mearsheimer has persuasively argued, there is an inherent ideational affinity between the nationalist logic of hard-bounded political communities and the ideal-type Realist “black box” view of the state.
The really interesting question, at which both Kaplan and Staniland obliquely hint, is what kind of political behavior will emerge from an East Asian system of states that features both highly nationalist populations and a high degree of complex interdependence. Modern nationalism, with its insistence on hard-bounded political communities inextricably linked to the state, exists most comfortably in the context of political-economic autarky. This is, of course, the environment in which security competition works at its most rational as well. The ideal-typical form of this combination features states with exclusive and intense claims on the political loyalty of their citizens (check out the Cederman piece that Staniland mentions), along with a high degree of control over the natural and industrial resources that enable warmaking. Trade, to the extent that it is important, should happen in the context of mercantilist colonial arrangements that provide exclusive use of resources and captive markets, preserving the central role of the state over an essentially autarkic system.
Autarky, though, is a thing of the past, especially in East Asia. Multilateral economic and political relationships make classic security competition immensely more complex, as the ripple effects of military action into the economic and cultural spheres get magnified immensely. Contra the standard liberal arguments, though, such relationships haven’t eclipsed nationalism as a political force. We’re thus left with a rather odd disconnect between populations whose identity and sense of political community is best suited to an autarkic political and economic system that no longer exists. How, if at all, this contradiction will find expression in the coming decades is anybody’s guess. Analogies to previous “nationalist” systems, though, require both properly-defined terms and proper attention to the political economy through which the nationalism-security nexus was filtered in ages past.
*This principle actually remains quite relevant for contemporary East Asian politics, just not in the sense being talked about here. Consider that China’s policies toward its internal Uyghur minority became more overtly assimilationist right around the time that nationalism began to supplant communism as the principle legitimating tool for the CCP. Given the extraordinary ethno-linguistic diversity of numerous other East Asian states – the Philippines and India come immediately to mind – nationalist agendas could remain/become quite internally relevant.