Friday, June 06, 2014

Nationalism or Law?

In the New York Times today, David Brooks defends President Obama's decision to negotiate with the Taliban for the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the American soldier captured in Afghanistan in 2009. The argument Brooks makes is based on nationalism.

Brooks asserts that "national solidarity is essential to the health of the country" and "especially important for the national defense." The loyalty that soldiers in combat feel for comrades in arms, regardless of religious, ethnic, or other differences, is "based on the notion that we are members of one national community." And as the only officials in our government elected by the whole rather than by a part of the electorate, Brooks says, the president and vice president must work to promote national solidarity.

And yet . . .

"National solidarity" is closely akin to "nationalism," a term Brooks assiduously avoids. (In addition to "national solidarity," he refers to "national fraternity" and "national cohesion.") And just a step away from nationalism is "nativism," a sentiment that already runs rampant in right-wing discourse about immigration.

"National solidarity" was an important factor motivating Americans (as well as the British, French, Russians, and others) to resist German aggression in World War II, but its perversion is what generated Nazism in the first place. "National solidarity" is undoubtedly something that Ukraine needs more of right now, but over in Russia its perversion has led Vladimir Putin to pursue policies that continue to roil Ukraine.

Nationalism is certainly a potent force in international affairs, but its ambivalence should not be overlooked. It has inspired anti-colonial movements and the imperialism against which those movements have fought. It has generated the "melting pot" idea and exclusion acts. It may be convenient to look to nationalism--or "national solidarity"--as a basis for supporting President Obama's decision to negotiate a prisoner exchange with the Taliban, but is it necessary? Perhaps the ancient and very straightforward idea that, at the end of the war, prisoners should be repatriated is enough.

If there are problems with this approach they no doubt flow from the same legal morass that created the prison in Guantanamo--and an ill-defined "war against terror"--in the first place.