May 1989 – September 1992
The 1991 disintegration of the Soviet Union was not widely anticipated. Academic Sovietologists were probably less likely than knowledgeable non-academics to anticipate that the Union was not going to last. One of the small number of people who got it right was public intellectual (and long-time Senator from New York) Daniel Patrick Moynihan. He argued a decade earlier that the Soviet system faced serious economic problems and that ethnic divisions were likely to lead to a collapse of the Union, as they had to earlier colonial empires like the British.
Being of Irish ancestry helped Moynihan to appreciate the continuing importance of ethnicity and nationalism under the cover of universalist ideologies. As warfare diminished in importance over the later twentieth century, the earlier Orwellian nightmare of a world divided into a few warring super-states receded, and an older vision of a Europe of nations revived. In 1900, neither Ireland, nor Poland, nor the Czech Republic was an independent country; by 2000 they were all running their own affairs – not because they built unstoppable military machines, but because they mobilized feelings of imagined community.
However there was a dark side to the return to nationalism. The newly independent nations of Eastern Europe were successful in resolving older border conflicts partly owing to a wave of mass killing and mass expulsions during and after the Second World War that tidied up the ethnic map. In Yugoslavia, where different nationalities were still heavily intermingled, the return to nationalism resulted in a civil war that killed about 130,000 people, and introduced the phrase “ethnic cleansing” to the language.
At the time, the fall of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact, and of communism is Eastern Europe, was widely seen as the decisive victory of one ideology – liberal capitalist democracy – over another. As it has turned out however, the fall of communism in Eastern Europe did not represent The End of History, even European history. Nationalism helped finish off the Soviet Empire; more recently it has emerged as a challenge to the multinational institutions of the West, NATO and the European Union.
On a scholarly note: Is ethnic nationalism an expression in the modern world of an evolved human psychology, a psychology shaped by the process of kin selection, as some scholars have argued? I considered the matter in an article, Kin selection and ethnic group selection (and here’s a blog post). The short answer: it’s complicated. Here’s my conclusion to the paper
Both the study of prehistory and political psychology are changing rapidly in the face of new evidence from biology, especially genetics. It would be intellectually satisfying if we could integrate these findings under the heading of an already existing theory, by equating ethnicity with kinship and applying kin selection theory. But we’ve seen that this won’t work. Ethnicity, like kinship, may have to do with shared genes. There may even be such a thing as ethnic nepotism. But an evolutionary theory of ethnicity – even the barebones theory presented here – has to be something more than the theory of kin selection, because of the way ethnicity is entangled with some of the most complicated aspects of human sociality: norms, rules, and political ideals, and their connection with large-scale population processes.