Monday, June 10, 2024

Ethno-states and Ethnic Nationalism

This is Joseph.

I had a conversation with Mark about why I was not a big fan of ethnic nationalism and ethno-states. I thought it might be worth putting these thoughts out. This is especially true in the context of nation states, which, by definition, tend to have borders. One of the great challenges is deciding what borders each ethnic group is entitled to based on history and links to the "soil". Here is a rather extreme example:

Does this mean that the natural range of this ethnic national group includes modern Germany and Vietnam? And, if so, what is the plan for the Germans and Vietnamese? 

What about Ireland? Northern Ireland has settlers who have been there for centuries. There was a big wave of English settlers in Ireland during the early to mid-1600's, the same time as the Acadians were settling in North America. Which of the different ethic groups has title to Ireland? Or Acadia, for that matter, which included modern Nova Scotia, a place with relatively few Acadians today but many other families who have lives there for centuries.

You also have new groups arising. Sikhs seek a homeland but Sikhism arises in the 1500's, well into historical time and there will be competing historical claims to any reasonable Sikh homeland. That is in the same timeframe that Istanbul was Greek, but who thinks evicting the current inhabitants would make sense?  

So any specific piece of land is always going to end up with a set of competing claims from different ethnic groups, if you are going to use historical claims and crimes to support ownership. This doesn't mean that pragmatic decisions cannot be made. The splitting up of ethnic groups after World War 2 seems to have lessened tensions in Europe and it is a reasonable argument for a group which is being discriminated against in a larger state to want to form their own ethno-state, given the woeful record of states at ending such issues. 

But I think you end up with claims that are impossible to adjudicate from a perspective of historic rights (and wrongs). Where I think there are legitimate claims is where a nation state is unable to demonstrate the ability to treat citizens of a particular ethnicity with fairness under the law. Even there, I think the goal is to ensure that the human rights abuses end, and a separate state is just one of several possible tools. I see First Nations as having stronger arguments under "we are not being treated as full citizens" then a land claim because of history. Not that claims of land theft and dishonest dealing do not have moral weight, but that there is no way to ever repair the evils of the past.

Caesar was a war criminal in Gaul, but the modern Italians are not going to be able to compensate the modern French, nor is it even clear that "Roman" and "Gaul" map onto anything recognizable in the modern ethnic map. The citizens of Russia had ancestors who were treated badly by the Mongols, but it isn't at all clear what would be a remedy for this in the modern world. The Celts have legitimate historical issues with the Anglo-Saxons, but what is a remedy for that? Send people back to Germany? Mexico once owned California and Texas -- is it time to shift populations around to return the land? How many ethnicities are in modern China and how do you cut them up? Is Taiwan Chinese? The questions make one crazy. 

Instead I want to hear about mitigating modern war crimes and how to ensure that human rights are respected. Russia's actions against Ukrainians in the latest war are the best argument for Ukrainian independence, even if you accept some of Russia's imperial claims. I think a state has an affirmative duty to not oppress or tyrannize its citizens and that is where the arguments for separation seem strongest to me. Sometimes this overlaps with ethnic claims and sometimes it does not. 

But I think it is much less problematic to base the integrity and legitimacy of the state on its ability to provide fair government for all. I know, it makes very ethnically American to have this type of view. But I think it's worked rather well in the United States and see it as a more productive lens for examining these questions.  

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