Robert Kaplan, Nationalism, and Confusion (Guest Post by Paul Staniland)

Robert Kaplan has written a fascinating big-picture piece on the evolving security environment in East Asia. He argues that the future of conflict is the South China Sea, where China, the US, and a set of key regional players will engage in a complicated, but potentially stable, balancing act as China rises. Kaplan is a provocative and serious thinker about war and global politics. He is right to focus on the emerging conflicts in East Asia and he has many insights to offer. Yet this piece shows the downsides of free flowing foreign affairs punditry. I’m not a China or East Asia scholar, so I will leave those issues for others, but I was particularly puzzled by his arguments about nationalism.

Kaplan argues that East Asian security competition is different from past conflicts:

Instead of fascism or militarism, China, along with other states in East Asia, is increasingly defined by the persistence of old-fashioned nationalism: an idea, certainly, but not one that since the mid-19th century has been attractive to intellectuals.

This is a remarkable claim. The rise of nationalism has historically been intertwined with the efforts of intellectuals to construct and re-imagine national pasts and articulate present worldviews and demands. Greenfeld has noted “the central role played in the emergence of national identities by intellectuals” (22). There were many romantic nationalist intellectuals in Europe prior to the horrors of World War II. After the war, anti-colonial nationalisms frequently had roots in the upwardly mobile local intelligentsia (India and French Indochina being excellent examples). Anderson argues that “intelligentsias were central to the rise of nationalism in the colonial territories” (116), which tended to occur well after the mid-19th century. Even in the modern world, battles over identity are often waged by nationalist intellectuals. Nationalism is one of the most important forces in the modern world, in part because of its production and propagation by intellectuals. It’s hard to know what to make of an analysis of nationalism that says the exact opposite.

Kaplan then moves on to argue that “it is traditional nationalism that mainly drives politics in Asia, and will continue to do so. That nationalism is leading unapologetically to the growth of militaries in the region—navies and air forces especially—to defend sovereignty and make claims for disputed natural resources. ” Later in the same paragraph, he suggests that “It is all about the cold logic of the balance of power.” He goes on to state that “unsentimental realism” is “allied with nationalism.”

If nationalism is meaningful in world politics it cannot be the same as simple power balancing. The tension between them is why the rise of nationalism in Europe fundamentally complicated great power politics. It is instructive to compare the nature of wars before 1789 – limited, small armies, manageable territorial divisions – with the dynamics of escalation and conflict associated with the rise of nationalism after the French Revolution. This is something Clausewitz keyed on rather awhile ago (see also this forthcoming piece by Cederman et al. on shifts in war intensity after the rise of nationalism).

Scholars have plausibly argued that nationalism can lead to counterproductive “myths of empire” and intellectual myopia. More specifically, China expert Robert Ross has noted the dangers of nationalism for Chinese naval policy. Ross writes, “There is little evidence that land power challenges to the interest of maritime powers [caused by nationalism] are driven by rational, security-driven states making cost-benefit analyses” (80). It is difficult to see how unsentimental realism is seamlessly allied to old-fashioned nationalism, and consequently how nationalism and the balance of power can both be simultaneously the dominant logic of East Asia.



Kaplan is an important writer and I consistently read his work. I agree with a number of his prescriptions for US policy in Asia. But this piece suggests some of the problems that arise from sweeping assertions with a problematic relationship to the historical record.[1] This approach makes for intriguing and readable articles, but tighter and more plausible claims grounded in history and area knowledge are more likely to accurately guide policy.

[1] There are other issues of consistency. For instance, at the end of the piece Kaplan argues that in the region “morality may mean giving up some of our most cherished ideals for the sake of stability.” Yet earlier in the piece he argued that “It will likely produce relatively few moral dilemmas of the kind we have been used to in the 20th and early 21st centuries.” These claims seem to contradict one another.

[1] There are other issues of consistency. For instance, at the end of the piece Kaplan argues that in the region “morality may mean giving up some of our most cherished ideals for the sake of stability.” Yet earlier in the piece he argued that “It will likely produce relatively few moral dilemmas of the kind we have been used to in the 20th and early 21st centuries.” These claims seem to contradict one another.


4 Responses to Robert Kaplan, Nationalism, and Confusion (Guest Post by Paul Staniland)

  1. Benjamin Geer August 17, 2011 at 7:31 pm #

    I agree with you. My sense is that Kaplan’s statements reflect a more widespread lack of familiarity with nationalism studies among social scientists.

  2. Matt August 18, 2011 at 9:43 pm #

    Great piece. Per email, I have a response up over at Foreign Policy Watch: I think there’s some further work to do separating out the specific ideological work that nationalism, a means of bounding political community, does as opposed to something like liberalism or fascism, which is more about the manner by which such communities are governed. I’d also be interested in your thoughts on the compatibility of nationalism in a world that’s moved significantly beyond political-economic autarky at the state level.

  3. Paul August 19, 2011 at 10:52 am #

    Matt: many thanks for your thoughts. I disagree with parts of the Mearsheimer paper you draw on (as I’ve told him!): there can be powerful complementarities between nationalism and balance of power logic (as Posen and Tilly have argued) but I think there are also potentially severe tensions. Nationalism isn’t just a way of drawing boundaries; it’s also a political project that can reshape the incentives facing leaders. There is always a politics to the formation of boundaries; it’s not distributionally neutral. Changing the relationship between state and society in fundamental ways also should fundamentally shift the calculations of the state. Moreover, intensive nationalizing policies also affect education and elite worldviews and should affect perceptions of threat, opportunity, and legitimacy in foreign policy.

    Some of these incentives may encourage greater aggression, such as fears of being outbid by ultra-nationalist rivals, the possibility of mass protest if a nationalist line isn’t followed, or interference from a hard-line military, or elite perceptions of other countries as simultaneously intrinsically threatening and weak. Interestingly, it may also moderate otherwise-aggressive policies (Saideman has done some work on how domestic identity politics can actually undercut irredentism). These new incentives can confound a simple BofP logic from several angles; I think it’s hard to have it both ways unless nationalist sentiment is a force that can seamlessly be turned on and off by omniscient elites, which seems unlikely to me (though others might disagree).

    Your Japan example is a smart one but I would note that current Japanese nationalism still has its negative security effects (Yasukuni is probably not – though I’m not an East Asianist, so I could be wrong – what a pure security-seeker free of domestic politics would emphasize). On complex interdependence and nationalism, I’ll have to defer to someone else! Great question though.

    Benjamin: good point. Defense analysts and journalists often (for understandable reasons) don’t spend their time reading Gorski or Gellner or Greenfeld or other works on nationalism, state formation, etc. CNAS, Brookings etc have a different, and very valuable, mission. But there are some basic historical facts – rather than obscure historiographical tweaks or methodological battles – that Kaplan in this piece seems curiously unaware of, like how nationalism arises, that are directly relevant to big current policy debates. There are downsides to the free-floating-foreign-policy-generalist approach to punditry, as well as powerful upsides.

  4. Matt August 19, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    Well taken points. I largely agree (one of the reasons I don’t really consider myself a Realist unless you really water down and warp the term). I think Mearsheimer’s arguments work best in affiliating nationalist sentiment with the idea of states as unitary actors (a crucial, but not sole, component of Realist thinking). A populace that is especially nationalist (or, really, a populace that is politically mobilized to any significant degree) obviously constrains the options available to political leaders and makes “pure” balance-of-power behavior more difficult to consistently practice. I would argue, admittedly based on historically-informed intuition rather than systematic evidence, which would take more time to assemble than I have at the moment, that political leaders retain a relatively large degree of flexibility in most foreign policy decisions outside of Schmitt’s “extreme case” examples. Something like Japanese leaders visiting Yasukuni is obviously provocative and quite political, but in the realm of security politics, it’s largely theatrical. In other words, I don’t see “nationalism” as overly constraining the specific disposition of China’s Navy, or the kinds of security cooperation agreements that other East Asian states might form. More fraught decisions, like how to respond to an obvious military provocation or other cassus belli are obviously different animals.

    I do think that Kaplan is overly sloppy when he talks about politics being “driven” by nationalism without specifying what it is about particular nationalisms that drive politics in a particular direction. My point was that nationalism, while it obviously by definition involves popular political mobilization and will thus complicate the logic of ideal-type neorealism to some extent, needs not inherently dispose states toward a particular foreign policy orientation, though it may reduce leaders’ flexibility in altering that orientation should they judge it prudent.