Is Patriotism at odds with global peace?
Amid a late afternoon pitter-patter of a monsoon downpour, which came after a long, bewildering summer wait, I reached for an Oxford Classics copy of War and Peace by Tolstoy, whose doctrine of non-resistance is said to have influenced Gandhi. The characters of Pierre, Andrew, Natasha, Nicholas and Mary hadn’t changed – they can’t – from my previous reading years ago, but my appreciation of them had. How would Tolstoy have shaped them had War and Peace been set in contemporary today?
And how would Tolstoy have viewed 21st century conflicts, given his aversion to patriotism? The monsoon got me thinking.
Is it natural for us to be possessive about our homes and hearths? Of course it is. Can we live in a house we have been born into without loving it? Of course we can’t.
You cannot quibble about patriotism, or the love of one’s country, to that legitimate extent. It’s instinctive and innate: we cannot help but develop affection for our country. It’s the only one we have.
At a deeper level, patriotism even had a moral basis. As Lord Acton put it, it could be viewed as the sum of our “moral duties” towards our “political community”.
Yet, it is possible to attribute much of today’s conflicts to the sort of patriotism that Machiavelli theorized. The confrontation over Iran’s nuclear program, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, North Korea’s “nationalism”, the Cold War and the Kashmir dispute – all require a necessary condition to remain potent: considerable patriotism.
This partly feeds into criticism of “normative patriotism” by several philosophers, from Leo Tolstoy to George Kateb. Click here
Machiavelli taught that a princely state’s subjects must be adept at scheming, conniving at, misleading, and employing a large set of immoral measures – even largescale violence – if “political circumstances” so require.
“When the safety of one’s country wholly depends on the decision to be taken, no attention should be paid either to justice or injustice, to kindness or cruelty, or to it being praiseworthy or ignominious.” (Machiavelli)
On Saturday, US secretary of state Hillary Clinton announced Afghanistan’s designation as a “major non-Nato ally”, a new status that will hold long after US troops are gone. Clinton said this was a “powerful symbol of our commitment to Afghanistan’s future”. Essentially, this will give Afghanistan preferential treatment for defence co-operation and US arms exports.
The Americans may have moved into Afghanistan ostensibly because of 9/11, but they see long-term interests to remain influential there. This is in America’s interest, and protecting a nation’s interests would be a patriotic thing. All foreign policies therefore must serve, first and foremost, a patriotic purpose.
Global politics today is defined by a universally altruistic goal: of Western nations pushing the envelope of democracy, but with a letter inside that typically carries a business agenda. So, promotion of democracy is pursued, but once achieved, must give way to competitive and potentially conflicting market control.
A useful example is the current dash for Myanmar. British Prime Minister Cameron in April became the first Western leader in decades to visit Myanmar, immediately after the military junta ended its rule last year. “Cameron led the way in making sure this great event was celebrated in the world with the gusto that it merited”, and quite reciprocally, democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi “reflected her acknowledgement that, by championing the restoration of democracy in Burma during the long night of the generals’ rule, the UK had undoubtedly sacrificed important investment opportunities”.
Obviously, the haste is going to be about getting British energy companies – Shell and BP – drill into Myanmar’s rich gas reserves. Click here
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Indian leader Manmohan Singh could not have been far behind, both of who visited the country. China’s long-standing stake in Myanmar obviously could complicate matters in times to come.
What are the patriotic goals, for instance, of the US, Israel, Iran, India and Saudi Arabia, viewed from a global perspective? For the US, it is undoubtedly about ensuring that no world power challenges its ideals and interests. For Israel, there can be no pious goal other than to exist and not yield anything to Palestine. Saudi Arabia would not want a Muslim super power challenge it. India perhaps would largely be focused on maintaining an upper hand over Pakistan. All these patriotic objectives call into play explicit Machiavellian devices.
For Gary Gutting, Professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, “patriotism can take an explicitly amoral form: “My country, right or wrong.”
Sometimes, the problems aren’t just about the conflicting interests patriotism may give rise to. Patriotism can also pose serious philosophical and ethical issues. For instance, India has banned, for good part of the past few years, exports of foodgrains, allowing only a premium variety of rice for shipments abroad. This was despite the country sitting on mountains of food stocks – far more than what it requires or its granaries can hold.
Countries tend to ban exports either if there’s a shortage or if they think exports could fuel domestic inflation. However, one country’s decision to ban food export can exacerbate hunger in another.
Such decisions can lessen food quantities freely available in the international market, thereby pushing up food inflation. High food costs drastically affect poor nations, especially those which don’t produce enough on their own and, therefore, have to rely on imports. Yemen is one such example where political instability and food costs are forcing millions to sleep on empty stomachs. Click here
Yet, nations, especially the developed economies, are most likely to defend their actions on the world stage on the premise that they largely emanate or conform to goals in Article 1 of the UN Charter: to maintain “international peace and security” and “collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace”. We may have a United Nations, but that is not the same as nations united.
The American government will defend its basis for international engagement as one that is borne out of its bedrock patriotic values of “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” for all humans, as set out in its Declaration of Independence.
President Obama may show off the fruits of his international diplomacy: Washington has “reset” ties with Moscow, enabling nuclear-arsenal reduction, agreement with North Korea that gives food aid in return for a curb on its nuclear programme and political liberalization of Cuba, although gradual, etc. But these are ultimately mere specks of progress amid a background of far serious rivalries.
I would like to delve into two influential thinkers of our time I mentioned before – Tolstoy and Princeton professor George Kateb – on their criticism of patriotism.
Tolstoy considered patriotism immoral. It enjoins us to promote a country’s sphere of influence by all means and this invariably conflicts with morality. It involves assuming one’s country to be superior to others.
Kateb views patriotism as a “mistake twice over”, “too often resulting in terrible brutality and injustices”.
Is patriotism, then, at variance with collective cosmopolitan good of the world at large? A tough question. Part of the solution, as modern philosophers, such as Kant, have argued, is to base patriotism on a sound ethical base that is defined ultimately by something larger than mere territorial pursuits can afford.
India could draw its goalposts around Mahatma Gandhi’s portrait of a patriot, who said a patriot is “so much the less patriot if he is a lukewarm humanitarian.”
Assamese philosopher and balladeer Bhupen Hazarika offers a helpful approach in one of his epic renditions, Aami Axomiya (We the Assamese people): Mo’r aai’k bha’al pa’u bulile ja’anu aano’r aai’k ghin kora to bujabo (Loosely translated: My mother, I love thee, but I must also let all mothers be). It is in within these boundaries that I search for my patriotic roots.