The standard story IR and security studies tells us is that states are better able to protect themselves in the age of nationalism. The argument goes that because states could, post 1789, rely upon mass armies, constituted by people fighting for the “motherland” or the “fatherland”, deterrence was more likely to hold. This was because territorial grabs by sovereign states would entail seriously high costs relative to the pre-nationalism-world, where people did not harbor such ideological commitment to these large, bureaucratic entities also known as the “nation-state”. As such, leaders peering into their neighbors’ back yards were more likely to back off, knowing they’d be no “quick and decisive” victory; rather, they’d be in it for the long haul. Alsace-Lorraine may be valuable, but not that valuable.
I don’t think this story is particularly accurate for post-colonial states, and I think we’re still grappling with how this big, bad phenomenon known as nationalism has actually affected states’ security. But let’s return to this point in a bit.
Right now, I wish to highlight a new paper in International Organization by Paul MacDonald, in which he tackles the question of why 20th century counterinsurgents are so much worse at their jobs than 19th century counterinsurgents. Here’s the key passage that details his answer:
I think this is broadly correct, and MacDonald is right to consider it “odd that most analyses of counterinsurgency outcomes fail to distinguish between types of incumbents — whether counterinsurgents are nation-states, colonial powers, or third-party interveners — or note the significant shift in who fights counterinsurgencies between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.”
The issue I would raise is that this argument is perfectly complementary to the argument it seeks to take on most directly, from the Wilson and Lyall piece from a couple of years ago, which claims that modern militaries’ mechanization is the key cause for counterinsurgency failure. The basic idea proffered by Wilson/Lyall is that 19th century militaries were forced to “forage” when fighting, thus necessitating intimate contact with the local population, which in turn meant better and more reliable information concerning the identity of insurgent combatants, all translating to the more discriminate use of force. The modern, 20th century military, especially after World War I, relied instead on heavily mechanized forces, losing that advantage. Crucially, they note that
It is this diffusion I want to focus on. The basic point is that nationalism, as a large-scale socio-political phenomenon, really matters to both these stories. If we take a step back, both the MacDonald as well as the Wilson/Lyall arguments are about nationalism. MacDonald’s point is it’s harder to do empire in the 20th century because of nationalism as self-determination (strangely, the word “nationalism” appears in the piece only twice, both to knock down other arguments, but really, if you look at the four pathways in his theory, that’s what he’s saying). Meanwhile, nationalism as state-building is the mechanism through which the Wilson/Lyall argument works (at least in part). Native elites in post-colonial societies had no idea of how to build modern states. So they copied (or tried to) their erstwhile colonial masters, which included building large, mechanized, “national” militaries, which weren’t particularly adept at fighting insurgents.
Moreover, nationalism doesn’t just explain why modern post-colonial states are bad at fighting counterinsurgencies, but why they’re fighting them in the first place. Post-colonial states want to build “nation”-states — they want everyone to speak one language (if possible), study one state-sponsored history (if possible), and so on. Except this state-building nationalism is slightly harder for post-colonial states than, say, France, mainly because of ethno-nationalism, which has taken hold by the time these states are independent (generally after World War II). In fact, this doesn’t just apply to post-colonial states; mutli-national empires, like the Ottoman Empire, discovered all too well the perils of “Ottomanizing” the state, especially in the Young Turk era after the revolution. So state-nationalist efforts get (often violent) blowback from ethno-nationalists seeking to maintain physical, cultural, or economic autonomy, and then these state-nationalists have to go this mountain range or that forest or over that river to get these recalcitrant populations to shut up and do things their (the state’s) way.
That’s a very broad-brush picture of post-colonial nation-state building and its failures, and no, it’s not very nuanced. So anyway, now to return to how I introduced this post: the relationship between the spread of nationalism and states’ security. The standard story, as I said, is that nationalism is great for deterrence, and thus security. My point is, that’s an awfully narrow interpretation of the ways in which nationalism has affected states’ security in the post-colonial world. If we expand our horizons and try to understand how nationalism has constructed enemies, forced (relatively) weak states to aspire to a model that may not be the best one for them, made counterinsurgency harder (per the two IO pieces highlighted here), and made states more aggressive in war-initiation (thus leading to balancing behavior by neighbors, think Argentina or Pakistan), well that picture is slightly more complicated.