Hoover Daily Report

The Era of “Moral Essences”

Monday, November 27, 2000

A State which is incompetent to satisfy different races condemns itself; a State which labors to neutralize, to absorb or to expel them, destroys its own vitality; a State which does not include them is destitute of the chief basis of self-government.”

These are the words of Lord Acton, the British historian and moralist, written more than a century ago. How clearly they apply to the Balkan states and in particular to Serbia. And how clearly they apply to other parts of the world with conflicting nationalisms.

Lord Acton was writing when the Balkans were the powder keg of Europe and when what was happening between the expiring Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, its vassal state, engaged the statesmen of Europe. Today the statesmen of Europe, this time with the support of the United States and NATO, are trying in the name of the United Nations to stop war-crime killings in the territories of what was once Yugoslavia. Will the new Yugoslavia permit a nationalist-driven Albanian population to create an independent Kosovo?

Lord Acton’s words lead to a question of some importance to existing states: Was the UN condemnation of Serbia based on the vague, undefined notion that every “nation” has a right to its own state? Corsica, a French island in the Mediterranean, wants independence. There is an independence movement in northern Spain among the Basques. The population of Acheh in faraway Sumatra has been seeking independence from Indonesia for more than half a century. Does Tibet, a victim of communist imperialism, have a right to independence from China? Will Sri Lanka allow the Tamil Tigers to form their own country? Are these legitimate claims?

These claims to “independence” have proven one thing: Marx and Engels didn’t know what they were talking about when they wrote in the Communist Manifesto that “national differences and antagonisms between peoples are daily more and more vanishing. …The supremacy of the proletariat will cause them to vanish still further.” Tell that to the Chechens.

Nationalism (or subnationalism) has been the major political “growth industry” since the end of World War II, although its modern origins go back to the mid-nineteenth century. Whereas there were fifty-one signatories to the original UN Charter back in 1945, today’s UN membership numbers 190, and more are surely coming, among them ministates with no visible means of support.

Alan Bullock has defined nationalism as “a mass emotion [which] has been the most powerful political force in the history of the modern world.” How to deal with that mass emotion will be the real task of the twenty-first century. Prague showed one way to do it: when Slovakia wanted to secede from Czechoslovakia it did so peacefully. Will Montenegro be allowed by Yugoslavia’s new leadership to secede peacefully from Serbia? The Western concept of nation was well summarized by Edmund Burke: “A nation is a moral essence, not a geographical arrangement.”

Who’s the next “moral essence”?