The persistent curse of nationalism

Writers on the War: Fernando Savater Spanish writer and member of the International Parliament of Writers
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The Independent Culture
I HAVE never been to Kosovo, and everything I know about this territory, and the rest of the former Yugoslavia, I have learnt from articles and books. My experience of nonsense spouted by outsiders about the Basque conflict based on things they've heard makes me wary of criticising Nato's armed response to Milosevic's aggression.

Although I don't condemn out of hand punitive intervention against the sinister Serbian dictator, a couple of worrying reservations occur to me. The first is practical.

Conventional war functions when it seeks to achieve strictly military objectives: to break the siege of Sarajevo or reconquer invaded Kuwait. But it is too crude an instrument to achieve more sophisticated political aims, such as installing effective democracy or establishing ethnic harmony. In these cases military intervention can even be counterproductive, blocking with blood and fire the mechanisms of civil participation that should institutionalise such processes.

Obviously, the deported Albanian Kosovars are fleeing Milosevic and not Nato bombardments, but the confusion created by Nato attacks has favoured the genocide of the Serbian army, today in Kosovo and tomorrow in Montenegro or Macedonia.

My second objection refers to the democratic legitimation of armed intervention. The present instance, lacking UN authorisation (difficult to achieve, given Russia's right of veto), seems more like a jihad or Western-style holy war against a human rights violator. I accept the possibility of just wars, but not of holy (or humanitarian!) wars. I would like a more secular and less capricious international legal basis for what should be punished or permitted. I think there should be a global policeman. But a policeman subjected to judges and international laws, not a strongman who invents the rules.

My two objections are fragile because they do not offer a viable alternative to the tragic path being trod. I don't believe, either, that diplomatic efforts could have continued indefinitely, merrily substituting exhausted negotiators with fresh ones; Milosevic had already started using military force, without that stopping him from prattling grumpily away to all and sundry. So I don't feel able to reject absolutely Nato's defensive offensive, nor to approve it as enthusiastically as some around me. Is there nothing else but resigned silence?

One of the fierce lessons of this fin de siecle is that nothing worsens a person more than convincing them that they belong to a people. There's no need to add "oppressed"; all people are, by definition.

Leaders who decide to convince ordinary, decent folk that they belong to this anthropophagous and transcendental thing, a people, enforce this affiliation; they emphasise to the point of monstrous caricature ambiguous ethnic features (to maximise the excellence of the group's suffering) and stress their human identification against that of their neighbours ("don't you see that they put you down or exploit you?").

Some time ago I heard Albanian Kosovars saying it was impossible to live with Serbs, since they were not Slavs; and now many refugees declare - more understandably - that they will not return to Kosovo until the last Serb has gone, or that the land is theirs because they have occupied it since before the times of Christ.

The magic word, the abracadabra, is "self-determination", but this is understood according to the ironic definition of Enzensberger: the right claimed by part of the inhabitants of a territory to determine who will live in all of it, and how. Feeling part of a people is to achieve the exquisite dignity of being insoluble among the rest or incompatible with two or three chosen adversaries (always the nearest neighbours).

Michael Ignatieff expresses it well in his recent book Warrior's Honour, subtitled "Ethnic war and modern consciousness", which should be studied in schools: "Nationalism of ordinary people is a secondary consciousness of political disintegration, a response to the destruction of order and of the coexistence of ethnic groups that it made possible. Nationalism creates communities of fear, groups convinced that they can be secure only if they stick together."

This culture produces Milosevic and company. And to think that there are still confused people who demand a Europe of peoples to confront a Europe of states! To demand a Europe of peoples means giving a green light to the Europe of crimes.

This article is from a series produced by the International Parliament of Writers