Countries on the Cusp: The Power of Nationalism

What’s nationalism got to do with it? If you’re talking about the world economy, then the answer is quite a lot, says HBS professor Rawi Abdelal. In a conversation about his new book, Abdelal describes the power nationalism has over new countries—and its very far-reaching effects.
by Martha Lagace

What does nationalism mean for the world economy? And what does it have to say in a world of ever-increasing globalization?

We recently put those questions to political scientist and HBS professor Rawi Abdelal. His new book, National Purpose in the World Economy: Post-Soviet States in Comparative Perspective (Cornell University Press), which he introduced recently as part of Harvard Business School's ongoing International Seminar Series, tackles the volatile subject of nationalism against the backdrop of what he calls "post-imperial moments"—times when empires dissolve and fledgling nations must choose their own paths, for better or worse.

He later expanded on his ideas in the following interview with HBS Working Knowledge senior editor Martha Lagace.

As a student at Cornell, Abdelal said, he became fascinated by the fact that all fourteen post-Soviet states chose such different economic paths in relation to Russia even though they all had similar starting points. "Some countries thought the dependence on Russia was perfectly fine, and a reason to re-integrate with Russia," Abdelal explained. "Other countries thought that dependence on Russia was just a disaster. It was a problem that had to be solved at any cost."

Their internal debates about whether and how to forge a future economic relationship with Russia, he discovered, were tightly connected to who they believed they were as a society. And how they moved forward, he said, depends to a large degree on who they think they are—and aren't.

Lagace: The word "nationalism" has bad connotations for many people. Some might think of terrible problems in the former Yugoslavia, for example. What does nationalism mean to you as a political scientist?

Abdelal: I think about nationalism as the use of the symbol of the nation for a specific political, economic, or cultural purpose. It's the idea of the nation as a group of people connected to a project of some sort.

Sometimes these projects may well be things that we think of as good: national liberation from an empire, for example; even economic reform or democratization. Almost any project can get hooked up to the idea of the nation, then used in a sense as part of nationalism.

That's not to say that these are always good things. In fact, more often than not, what we see are bad things connected to the idea of the nation. Certainly the wars in the former Yugoslavia suggest how bad those things can be. But the most important thing to recognize is how variable nationalisms have been over time and across countries.

The other important thing about them that varies is their reception within society as a whole. We have to recognize, as well, that national identities have purposes embedded within them that may be much broader than things like language and religion, and encompass ideas about what part of the world, what part of the region, what kinds of political institutions should govern society.

Q: What surprised you most during your research for this book?

A: What was most interesting when I traveled to Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine and talked to these people in the government and in these political parties was to find out what exactly they took for granted and how they framed the problem.

I think what was most interesting was to really see that in each of the countries what the government was doing and what the political parties most agreed upon was obvious. They thought it was the most rational thing they could do. But the most rational thing they could do was different in all three places.

In Lithuania, the government and political parties agreed that, despite the costs, they should reorient toward Europe and reduce their dependence on Russia. It was clearly the most rational thing to do, the most prudent policy choice.

In Belarus, the nationalists thought that it was a bad idea but everybody else—most of the political parties and certainly the government—thought that reintegration with Russia, given the set of material circumstances they faced, was clearly the most rational, the most prudent thing to do.

Then in Ukraine what I found was, yes, everybody knew there was lots of disagreement, but the fact that there was so much disagreement within Ukrainian society meant that, clearly, the Ukrainian government was doing the most reasonable thing it could do by trying to mediate the divide between East and West.

The other thing I found that was very interesting is how embedded in history all of these conceptions were. The stories that people told me about why they believed that these were the most important things for their countries to do were embedded in stories about how their national identities came to be what they are: which important moments in the 19th and 20th century really led them to want to connect their state more with, say, the idea of Europe or the idea of Eurasia (of which Russia was going to be the most integral part).

Q: Why are what you call "post-imperial moments" so important for a country's future?

A: Those trajectories that they chose will continue to define their economic relationships with lots of other states. These were really important moments, which then led to decades' worth of economic policy priorities. So some of the effects that we see now are lingering underlying effects that are almost not even observable anymore because they're so much in the background and taken for granted within each society.

Q: How will nationalisms play out in the future vis-à-vis globalization?

A: If we were to think about how societies think about themselves in terms of national identities, shared national identities and powerful nationalisms, leading to things like sacrifice for the sake of a specific set of purposes, extending the time horizons of governments, and defining a direction for foreign economic policy—almost always away from the nation's most important "other," the country or ethnicity or nation against which the nation is most defined—then we can really see how national identities and nationalisms might interact with globalization.

I think the most important thing to recognize about the possibilities, therefore, is that there is no inherent contest between globalization and nationalism. There is certainly no inherent antipathy between global capitalism and nationalism.

It's definitely true that globalization has tended to produce reactions within societies, sometimes against it, much the same way that economic historian Karl Polanyi described in The Great Transformation, where the expansion of market authority leads to societal reactions against the marketization of social life. That is one aspect of globalization that we have seen increasing over the past three years. Certainly the events of September 11th suggest that is particularly true.

Those trajectories that countries chose will continue to define their economic relationships with lots of other states.
—Rawi Abdelal

But that's not to say that all nationalisms or national identities are going to be constructed against globalism or global capitalism or in some contest with globalization. In fact, we really have to see the variability of nationalisms in terms of their relationship with the global economy. So where we find nationalism is most powerful in, say, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and we find nationalist movements demanding that their states become more capitalist to embrace the global economy—to become part of the European Union, to become more democratic—we can see that these nationalisms are not at all anti-globalization. They're against what was conceived of as the Communist system and Eurasian political economy that had held them away from the world. Now they wish to embrace the world.

Really, a great deal depends on how the leaders of various societies try to construct the national identities, and interact to form national identities in relation to the global economy. It may sometimes be in a way that inhibits economic cooperation among countries, and it may sometimes be in ways that promote economic cooperation among countries, as we've seen in some of these post-Soviet cases.

Q: You've written about how different countries in the former Soviet Union have reacted toward or against Russia. What about Russia and its own orientation and identity?

A: I think that's a really fascinating question. It's one that I don't go into great detail in the book since I'm very much interested in all of these other countries' reaction toward Russia, and whether they're going to be part of Europe or not.

When Russians talk about the post-Soviet world, in general—all of these other fourteen post-Soviet states—they call it "the Near Abroad." Which is distinguished, of course, from the real abroad, which are the other countries that had never really been part of the Soviet state, that hadn't been ruled somehow by Russia, sometimes for centuries.

There has very much been a contest over the past ten years in Russia between what some people have called "empire savers" in Russia—the people who want to maintain Russia's great power status in the region, who consider the Near Abroad to be well within the purview of Russian policy priorities—and those who have wanted to focus on Russia's own internal problems, who are what some people have called the "nation builders" within Russia. People who want to focus on the problems of the Russian state and define Russia's priorities as really just those that exist within Russia. These are the terms, actually, of Roman Szporluk, a historian here at Harvard.

But no matter how you describe it, there is a deep ambivalence within Russia's political elite about what Russia should be doing in relation to the rest of the region, whether Russia should be expending its own economic resources to maintain influence on the region.

The outcome of that deep ambivalence within the Russian political elite has been a real inconsistency of foreign economic policies toward the region. One can see that, certainly, in its policies towards the monetary union that existed after the Soviet Union fell apart—in which Russia eventually destroyed itself—but also in terms of how ambivalent Russia has been about promoting the regional economic reintegration itself. One of the things that some people have assumed is that these countries that have wanted to reintegrate with Russia economically have been embraced by Russia. That, in fact, has not always been the case.

Q: Belarus, for example?

A: The idea in Russia is sometimes that Belarus wants a handout, an economic bailout; and Russia is not sure that it should be expending resources to maintain influence in countries like Belarus. So there's been a real inconsistency in terms of how Russia has approached the region. I think that also reflects the fact that Russia has not collectively decided yet what its role in the future should be.

About the Author

Martha Lagace is senior editor of Working Knowledge.