Western Europe thought it had conquered nationalism, only to discover that countries are being torn apart by internal separatist forces.
Not the end of history, but the end of the nation state
When the Cold War ended, the American political economist Francis Fukuyama famously declared the "end of history". He did not mean that events would cease to happen: his thesis was that the global ideological struggle between Left and Right had been resolved with the triumph of western-style liberal democracy. The job of politicians was not to chart a strategic course but to manage the economy in order to maximise the benefits to all.
In some ways he was right: Communism is dead, and though China is still run by the Communist Party, it is just a simulacrum, owing nothing to Marx. In the West, the triumphalist free-market ideology that followed the Cold War has been proved to be an empty shell, as the banks have rushed to the state for bailouts. The free market is a busted flush. Everywhere countries are feeling their way, more intent on managing the crisis than finding a creed to guide them. There are of course exceptions - the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, is promoting a Latin American style of socialism - but this is a luxury he can afford thanks to Venezuela's buoyant oil revenues.
The ideology-free zone predicted by Prof Fukuyama could not last. Nationalism, in various forms, has flooded in to fill the vacuum. In some cases, such as China, it is the only glue holding together a vast and disparate country. Other countries are being torn apart by mini-nationalisms - ethnic, religious or sectarian affiliations that had hitherto been suppressed by the power of the nation state.
The biggest test of the dream of liberal democracy is taking place now in Iraq. The poll held on March 7 had originally been hailed as the first where all sectarian groups would take part, the Sunnis having largely boycotted the previous parliamentary election. The world, however, is too jaded to see an American triumph just because the Sunnis got their index fingers dipped in purple ink. The fact that no less than 306 political groups are contesting 325 seats in the Council of Representatives does not betoken a workable political culture. Even before the final voting tally is announced, it looks like the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki, will have rely on the support of his old enemies, the followers of the anti-American Shia cleric Muqtada al Sadr, to stay in power. This would mean creating a Shia block that could only alienate the Sunnis.
This is the antithesis of the principle of democracy, serving to exacerbate sectarian tensions, rather than smooth them over. This outcome is hardly unexpected, but gives the lie to American predictions before the 2003 invasion that the removal of the Iraqi Baath Party's dying creed of Arab nationalism would give way to a vibrant and beneficial Iraqi nationalism. Western Europe thought it had conquered nationalism, only to discover that countries are being torn apart by internal separatist forces. As the sovereignty of the nation state is slowly dissolved in the institutions of the European Union, regional nationalisms are coming to the fore.
In Spain, one of the causes of the budget crisis is the amount of money extorted by the country's 17 autonomous communities, each with a growing bureaucracy. The Madrid government has to channel funds to the regional governments because it needs the support of separatist parties in parliament and to keep a lid on outright demands for independence. Globalisation, which has shown national governments to be hobbled by economic forces they cannot resist, has encouraged local nationalisms: people want what little power they have to be wielded close to home, in their own language.
An even more serious crisis is looming in Britain. At the forthcoming general election, likely to take place at the start of May, it is quite possible that English voters will vote for the Conservative Party, now in opposition, while voters in Scotland and Wales will vote for the nationalist parties and for Labour. This would for the first time produce a constitutional crisis, showing that the United Kingdom is not a nation, but several countries pulling in different directions. The impetus for Scottish separation would increase dramatically.
American commentators often express fears that such ethnic or sectarian separatism will infect the US as well, particularly with immigration still running at high levels. The adding of hyphens - where everyone is an Italian-, or African- or Hispanic- or other-American - has certainly diluted American identity. But to a foreign eye, America seems the exception to the trend of separatist affiliations splitting countries apart. America still has a powerful national narrative that ensures that anyone who wants to succeed has to sublimate the first part of their hyphenated identity to the second.
As Patrick Buchanan, the American conservative political commentator, pointed out last week, the problem in Iraq lies with the American belief that the success of its own democracy is transferable, and indeed should be spread around the world for all to enjoy. "We see democracy as an end in itself," Mr Buchanan wrote last week. "Many in that part of the world [the Middle East] see it as a means of establishing their ascendancy and hegemony over other religious and ethnic minorities."
The Buchanan view is too harsh: it is quite normal for people emerging from a dictatorship any-where in the world to fear most of all the imposition of another dictatorship, and to vote for those they feel will protect their interests most assertively. It is also not an issue confined to the Middle East. But he is right that a wide-eyed belief in western-style liberal democracy as a global panacea will only create problems. In themselves elections are not guaranteed to produce peace and harmony; they can just as easily lead to civil war.