Robert D. Kaplan is always worth reading. He’s interesting even when I don’t agree with him, and his recent piece in the Wall Street Journal called “The Return of Toxic Nationalism” is right on the money. (It was published over the Christmas holiday, so most of us probably missed it.)
Western elites believe that universal values are trumping the forces of reaction. They wax eloquent about the triumph of human rights, women's liberation, social media, financial markets, international and regional organizations and all the other forces that are breaking down boundaries separating humanity.
Tragically, they are really observing a self-referential world of global cosmopolitans like themselves. In country after country, the Westerners identify like-minded, educated elites and mistake them for the population at large. They prefer not to see the regressive and exclusivist forces—such as nationalism and sectarianism—that are mightily reshaping the future.
This is a real and serious problem. I’m prone to it myself and have to consciously go out of my way to counter it.
Lebanon taught me why this is necessary. When I first showed up there during the Beirut Spring in 2005, I met one cosmopolitan liberal-minded person after another protesting Syria’s military occupation in Martyr’s Square in downtown Beirut. I interviewed some startlingly bigoted sectarians at the same time in the same place in the same crowd of activists, though they were the minority.
Had I left the country immediately after hanging with that crowd, I might have come away with a completely distorted impression. Or had that revolution of sorts taken place in any other country, I might have fallen right into the trap Kaplan describes and assumed Beirut was Berlin in 1989. The reason I didn’t, and couldn’t, is because I stuck around because Lebanon is also where Hezbollah lives.
Hezbollah was, and still is, far too big and powerful and nasty to ignore. So one of the first things I did after orienting myself in Martyr’s Square with Lebanon’s liberals was head down to the Hezbollah office in the dahiyeh south of Beirut, which gave me a serious education in totalitarian Islamist politics which I narrate in detail in my first book, The Road to Fatima Gate. The Beirut Spring was not enough to save Lebanon in 2005. Hezbollah blew the country to hell the very next year.
The first time I went to Egypt, also in 2005, I met the same kinds of people I met in Lebanon. Cosmopolitan, liberal-minded individuals who were like Arab versions of me. Egypt had nothing like Hezbollah controlling large swaths of the country and warmongering against the neighbors. No foreign army smothered the country. Instead it had a police state. The narrative there at first seemed to be: democrats against the regime. That’s what it looked like. But my experience in Lebanon prompted me to ask a question of my liberal Egyptian friends that seems not to have occurred to some of the other journalists and Western internationalists who have been there. I asked these Egyptian liberals, “how many Egyptians agree with you about politics?” The answer stopped me cold: five percent at the most.
These people felt profoundly alienated by their own society, but it didn’t seem to occur to them to tell me about it until I asked. Perhaps they thought I knew that already. And of course they knew they were a tiny minority. How could they not? They belonged to a smaller minority than a Republican in San Francisco or gay feminist activist in rural Utah. It isn’t possible to be so out of step with everybody around you and be clueless about it, at least not before the Arab Spring started.
Well north of five percent of Egyptians are secular, to be sure, but liberalism isn’t Egypt’s only secular ideology. Its biggest competitors after Islamism are Arab Nationalism and socialism.
Kaplan is quite right that Western internationalists often don’t like to see what’s going on outside elite bubbles in distant societies. I also prefer not to see it, but I can’t help seeing it anyway. It’s unpleasant, but I force myself to look anyway. It’s not going away. And it’s not at all hard to see if you take the time and effort to look.
How big of a problem are we talking about? Here’s Kaplan again:
Asia is in the midst of a feverish arms race, featuring advanced diesel-electric submarines, the latest fighter jets and ballistic missiles. China, having consolidated its land borders following nearly two centuries of disorder, is projecting air and sea power into what it regards as the blue national soil of the South China and East China seas.
Japan and other countries are reacting in kind. Slipping out of its quasi-pacifistic shell, Japan is rediscovering nationalism as a default option. The Japanese navy boasts roughly four times as many major warships as the British Royal Navy. As for Vietnam and the Philippines, nobody who visits those countries and talks with their officials, as I have, about their territorial claims would imagine for a moment that we live in a post-national age.
The disputes in Asia are not about ideology or any uplifting moral philosophy; they are about who gets to control space on the map. The same drama is being played out in Syria where Alawites, Sunnis and Kurds are in a territorial contest over power and control as much as over ideas. Syria's writhing sectarianism—in which Bashar Assad is merely the leading warlord among many—is a far cruder, chaotic and primitive version of the primate game of king of the hill.
Nor can Europe be left out of this larger Eurasian trend. A weakening European Union, coupled with onerous social and economic conditions for years to come, invites a resurgence of nationalism and extremism, as we have already seen in countries as diverse as Hungary, Finland, Ukraine and Greece. That is exactly the fear of the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize committee, which gave this year's award to the European Union in order to make a statement against this trend.
Fascists are not about to regain power anywhere on the Continent, but the age of deepening European integration is likely behind us.
I’d like to see a world where the majority of people everywhere have cosmopolitan values. That world might be less interesting to write about, but more pleasant to live in.
We’re not there yet. And I’m not at all convinced we’re even heading in that direction. The cultural elites of the world are heading in that direction, for sure, but it’s not true of everyone everywhere.