Are Some Nations More 'Real' Than Others? Does This Matter?

09/13/2012 08:13 pm ET | Updated Nov 13, 2012
  • Peter Henne postdoctoral Senior Researcher at the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism

Wednesday on MSNBC's Morning Joe, Joe Klein was a guest, discussing the current showdown over Iran's nuclear program. Klein is a smart and reasonable man, and most of what he said made sense. But he made a few almost throwaway comments about "real" vs. "fake" nations that, in my mind, at least, were a bit disturbing.

The two comments can be heard at the 8:35 and 9:40 marks.

In explaining why we shouldn't attack Iran over its nuclear weapons, he said it is a "real" country, unlike many others in the region, with a strong sense of identity and history. When the conversation turned to Pakistan, he contrasted it with the real-ness of Iran in explaining why its possession of nuclear weapons is more concerning than Iran's.

Again, I don't necessarily disagree. The people of Iran are not rabid America-haters, and its leaders, while ideologically driven, are not crazy. Moreover, Iran has a long and proud history, going back to the Persian Empire. Likewise, Pakistan has had a difficult history due to its multiethnic composition and often-poor leadership, as I've noted before.

What got me was the real-vs.-fake distinction. To be fair, he meant that Iran existed as a political entity before the modern era, while Pakistan was formed through post-colonial demarcation and the efforts of political figures like Muhammad Ali Jinnah after World War II. But the extension of this argument is that countries with a pre-modern existence will likely be more stable and friendly to the United States, while those of more recent genesis will not.

Whether or not Klein meant it, he interjected himself into a long-running debate over the origin of nations. The classic view of nations as eternally existing entities is, while prevalent in popular discussions, not in line with contemporary scholarship. Gellner , Anderson, Kedourie, and others demonstrated how nations emerged from various processes of modernity, such as industrialization, the spread of vernacular languages, or political manipulation by elites. In Gellner's words, many nations do not have a navel; they emerged fully formed from modernity, not pre-modern social groups. Of course, many disagree with this, most prominently Anthony Smith, who argues that pre-modern "ethnies" set the stage for modern nationalism. But both sides agree that whether a contemporary nation arose from pre-modern social groups or the disruptive processes of modernity, once established, none are any more "real" than others; nations are based on the intersubjective beliefs of their members, not objective characteristics like land or genetics.

Just to recap: Klein's implication was that some nations are "real" by virtue of pre-modern existence, and others are not, as they emerged more recently. The latter group is more likely to experience instability and violence. In discussion of political reform in the Middle East, or plans to resolve the post-invasion chaos of Iraq, the supposed "fakeness" of countries in the region factored into assessments of what will happen and what to do about conflicts there. If the countries are "fake," then can a stable political system ever arise? Should we just help create new countries that are somehow less "fake"? It's actually an interesting corollary to the "ancient hatreds" argument that because some groups have been fighting for thousands of years, try as we might to resolve their conflicts with shiny democratic institutions, there's nothing we can do. In this case, the argument is that if some nations were never meant to be, then we can never really expect them to develop into stable democracies.

Now, again, to be fair, Klein made these comments on a morning show. He's a smart guy but was giving a blurb on TV, not in an academic lecture. And as an academic, I admit that I share academia's often-irrational irritation with pundits who simplify scholarly debates. But Klein's attitude, which I'm sure is shared by others in the punditocracy and policy community, is potentially dangerous. Multi-ethnic states born of modernity can work out well, like the United States. States with ancient histories can be disruptive internationally, like Iran. And the fact that Pakistan is less than a hundred years old doesn't mean "real" Pakistanis don't exist.

I guess it's a little much to expect pundits to peruse Imagined Communities before appearing on the morning talk shows, but it would be nice.

A version of this post originally appeared at the Duck of Minerva.