Muslims on the warpath against the Americans and the French over pictures of Mohammed; China and Japan strutting and rumbling about some tiny islands. Identities are back on the scene, yelling and shattering delicate balances that have cost time and effort to build. In the US, Obama's Arab-friendly policy is deemed an Islamist version of Chamberlain and Daladier's appeasement of the Nazis. In Muslim countries there are calls for firmness against what is seen as the West's systematic aggression against their religion. Some in China think that the time has come to act like the great power she is. Meanwhile, in Japan the government is attacked for looking the other way and letting the Chinese puff themselves up. These people are not majorities, but they yell louder, and their message is always the same: sacrosanct principles, threatened identities, historic grievances, intolerable humiliations, red lines...
The resurgence of identity challenges two central assumptions on which our expectations of the international order are built. On the one hand, we tend to take for granted that we live in an economically interdependent world, where actors behave rationally with the aim of maximizing material benefits. While this is true enough, we cannot be so naïve as to think that the economic benefits of globalization alone are enough to ensure peace between states. As we saw in 1914, economic interdependence was not enough to stop World War I; it even accelerated it. In Europe and in Asia, we view with concern how nationalisms and economic frictions between countries feed back into each other.
The other challenged assumption has to do with democracy. It was thought that with the USSR gone, there was no alternative to democracy. And this is largely true. Islam is no alternative to democracy: the only theocracy deserving of the name, Iran, is a failure that no one has sought to repeat, and which survives due to dexterity in manipulating foreign hostility.
Naïvely, too, we like to think that interdependence will lead to economic well-being, and that this will bring political progress. And in the long historical term this may be true, but the rocks and potholes on the road are too deep and too full of victims to allow us to think the process is automatic. As Russia and China show, nationalism may mean that the emergence of a middle class and a developed economy are necessary conditions, but not sufficient ones, for the emergence of democracy.
The fact that there is no serious alternative to democracy does not mean it does not have enemies. Nationalism and religion, in their extreme forms, are the principal ones. And this is where the paradox begins. For though liberalism assigns no importance to identities, we now know that the feeling of collective identification may be essential in ensuring solidarity and social cohesion, and the good functioning of a political system. Ethnically or religiously homogeneous societies have fewer problems in reaching agreements within or between generations when it comes to supporting the elderly, ensuring equality of opportunities to the young and solidarity between social classes or territories. Yet at the same time, they are more prone to manipulation of feelings of identity.
The Netherlands is perhaps the best example of a country which, by reason of the overlapping of religious and geographical differences, should not exist at all, but can show exemplary coexistence between Catholics and Protestants. Malaysia demonstrates the possibility of attaining coexistence between Muslims, Chinese and Indians, with high levels of reciprocal tolerance. In the US, China, Japan and Egypt, identity can be at once a social glue and a solvent of coexistence. This is why it is a factor of power that we cannot forget.
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