Right for the Wrong Reasons: Understanding the Real Risks Behind National Identity

National identities take many forms: from exclusion and violence to unity over religious, ethnic, and tribal differences. Photo credit, left to right: Ceslo Flores, spoilt.exile,Jurjan von Enter, Damien Thorne

A recent video posted by The New York Times provides an interesting take on the role of national identity in spurring social contention, authoritarianism, and inter-state disputes. While much of the video provides an accurate portrayal of how national identities were manufactured as a way to generate modern nation-states, some of the arguments offered by the team at The New York Times paint a somewhat inaccurate picture. By tying so many instances of political instability to the formation (and continuation) of a national identity, the video brushes past important political phenomena that contribute to autocratic policies and political violence. Though nationalist appeals have clearly been tied to many horrific acts in history, it may be inappropriate to ascribe blame for these acts on nationalism itself.

A key problem with the video is that it largely equates national identity (and nationalism more broadly) with exclusionary policies. However, this is not always the case. Rather, national identities can be hijacked by elements within society to foment exclusionary policies to benefit an in-group to the detriment of other segments of society. On the other hand, the formation of national identities has been used by some developing countries to overcome differences, to ensure the provision of public goods, and offer relative stability. As noted by Stuart Kaufman, the key difference between nationalism as a weapon of exclusion and nationalism as a tool to strengthen society is how the myth of national identity is crafted.

To be sure, nationalism has been used by numerous leaders as a way to strengthen their political base by vilifying and sanctioning those portrayed as outsiders. While this certainly involves emotional and psychological elements, the use of exclusionary policies can be a rational, base political motive by elites within society. Russell Hardin offers a compelling narrative of how leaders and vested interests within a country may manufacture exclusionary policies to ensure their own wealth and prestige. By creating norms of exclusion, those selected to be part of the “in-group” may guarantee that they will have access to employment, education, and political representation. With regard to nationalism, an identity can be easily formed to only encompass certain ethnic or religious groups, relegating others into the “out-group.” Equally, leaders within the government may willingly promote a continuation of political exclusion even if it risks leading to armed conflict with those disabused by the laws of the country. For example, following democratic reforms in the Ivory Coast, politicians fostered a nationalist movement to persecute and exclude citizens that immigrated from largely Muslim countries to the north such as Burkina Faso and Mali. This came to a head when these exclusionary policies led to a civil war in 2002 and a recurrence of fighting in 2011. Similar exclusionary, nationalist policies have led to prolonged conflicts in Sudan, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines.

With that said, national identities may be used to overcome linguistic and tribal differences to provide public goods and promote stability during times of great upheaval. One key example of how the formation of a national identity was used to promote political stability was the nationalist movement in Tanzania following the country’s independence. After the 1964 formation of the Republic, President Nyerere set into motion a policy of forming a unified national myth of Tanzania. This included making Swahili the national language and starting a de-tribalization program in the country’s school system. As compared with similar countries throughout East Africa, the politics of nationalism in Tanzania led to a significant growth in public goods offered to its citizenry. Equally, Tanzanian political parties were forced to solicit support from different tribes in order to gain an electoral advantage (something that is often abandoned in the politics of the developing world).

Our own research also points to the benefits of policies that promote national unity over ethnic identities. In his paper, The Role of Kenya’s Private Sector in Peacebuilding, OEF Research’s Victor Owuor describes how business associations in Kenya attempted to create national cohesion as one strategy to prevent post-election violence.

So, what explains these divergent experiences with nationalism? Again, it appears that positive and negative experiences with the formation of a national identity depend heavily on whether it is used by those in power (or those aspiring to take power) to divide the country by campaigning on policies of division. This was echoed recently in Yascha Mounk’s editorial on how Liberals may reclaim nationalism from conservative elements in society. Though we offer a less partisan perspective, Mounk’s article articulates the goals that any country may aspire to when attempting to unify an increasingly pluralistic society.

Our research on peace and good governance has identified that political exclusion is a key predictor of armed conflict. If leaders use national identity as a way to divide a country, then expect that nationalist policies will generate social contention. On the other hand, if nationalist appeals are used to form common bonds between those of different tribes, religions, or ethnic groups, a new myth of national identity may do more to stabilize the country.

Eric Keels is a contractor at OEF Research, a Program of One Earth Future and a post-doctoral research fellow in global security for the Howard H. Baker, Jr., Center for Public Policy at the University of Tennessee.