Wednesday, September 01, 2010

More on "Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History"

I have been reading Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan and posted recently on the first four chapters of the book. Here I will comment on Chapter 5, "History and Nationalism" and Chapter 6, "Presenting History's Bill".

Nationalism in this case refers to the concept of the "nation state". I suppose that this goes back at least to the defeat of the Muslim city states in Spain by the Christian states, the unification of Spain under the combined sovereignty of Aragon and Castile and the expulsion of non-Christians to produce a relatively homogeneous state of Spain. During the unification of Germany and of Italy, there was also an ideological presumption that a people with common language, religion and culture should share also a common state. Previous empires such as the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian, and the Ottoman included a variety of ethnic groups under a common government.

MacMillan makes the point that the proponents of the various nation states have used and misused history to support their arguments. I suspect that fellow citizens of nations of immigrants (the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Israel) may find the argument of one ethnic group-one state to be not only specious but difficult to relate to. Increasingly the inhabitants of the European Union may be finding it natural to have many nations share an over reaching governmental institution that takes on some/many aspects of the state. So too do we see emerging nations, built on tribal societies, seeking to build states that serve the whole of their tribal populations.

I suspect that states have grown larger due to the improved transportation and communications infrastructures based on new technologies, and due to the new governance and other institutions that were enabled by that improved infrastructure. It has long been understood that as improved infrastructures reduce the transaction costs of trade over distance, there are economic benefits to be had by expanding markets geographically. I assume these benefits contribute to the development of political institutions that unify political control over the larger market areas. There are also, I would suppose, benefits to governing organizations that are able to tax larger areas and populations in order to finance larger forces to expand control over those areas.

Thus as the factors leading to expanded markets and states push for such expansions, the question arises as to how to culturally justify the expansion. In the case of the United States, there was in the 19th century a theory of "manifest destiny". In Muslim areas there was (and in some cases still is) an idea of the Caliphate. In Europe during the 19th century, the idea of the nation state held wide currency. Does all this sound like seeking arguments to justify what you just want to do?

MacMillan also describes uses and misuses of history in drawing boundaries of states. She points out that the complex history of areas such as the Balkans or Israel/Palestine so many groups have held power at different times that many groups can claim historical precedent for their claims for current sovereignty over the areas in question. I am reminded of the principle in economic project analysis -- ignore sunk costs and consider only current investments and future returns.

Given the current decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, questions are being asked as to:

  • whether we won or lost the wars, questions that seem to have little relevance to what we should do now or in the future;
  • what responsibility we have to the Iraqis and Afghanis as a result of in invasions in the "oughts", and whether the trillion dollars spent in Iraq is sufficient to discharge the responsibility there (a question in which recent history should count);
  • whether the histories of these regions are useful in predicting the effects of recent and/or future proposed nation building efforts.
Anyway, MacMillan is leading us to important and interesting questions, and helping us to recognize that those claiming important historical precedents may be basing such claims on valid or invalid historical information, and may be using them fairly or unfairly.

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