National Interest as a Cultural Issue

21 september 2015

How to Use It to Overcome the Distrust of Peoples

Vadim Mezhuyev holds a Doctoral degree in Philosophy. He is a Professor and Senior Research Fellow with the Institute of Philosophy at the Russian Academy of Science.

Resume: The state is a community that is brought into being not by a common faith or ethnic bonds, but by the unanimity of culture open to all manifestations of creative freedom and individual self-expression. The extent to which the citizens of a country and the government share this desire indicates their maturity as a nation.

Like any other country Russia has certain interests it follows in domestic and foreign policy. Can those interests be regarded as national interests? This is a crucial question in a multiethnic country that has never associated its identity with a specific nationality. In the Soviet era the authorities were keen to position themselves as a proxy of the “Soviet people,” and today they are acting similarly on behalf of the people of Russia. But what is really behind these terms? The existence of an integral nation in imperial, then Soviet, and currently federative Russia has always been a matter of justified doubt. So, if that is the case, then the interests of what nation are called national?

Countries have various interests. Some of them distinguish private and public interests and give preference to the former or the latter irrespective of ideological preferences. Public interests are subdivided into the interests of social groups differing by the degree of cohesion. In the Soviet era all judgments were made from the standpoint of class interests. The Soviet Union was portrayed as a safeguard and advocate of the interests of the working classes and oppressed peoples the world over. Soviet military intervention in the affairs of friendly states (for instance, Czechoslovakia in 1968) was not described as a move to protect national interests, but as an internationalist duty. During perestroika common humanitarian interests took center stage. In fact, it was only after the breakup of the Soviet Union and the collapse of perestroika policies that the question emerged concerning the nature of interests that Russia as a sovereign state should pursue on the international stage. Those interests began to be called national in conformity with universally established practice.

Previously the very term national enjoyed little, if any, support from the authorities. For instance, Vladimir Lenin slammed the term “national culture” as bourgeois and even reactionary, in contrast to the slogan of internationalist culture of working class people worldwide. In the Soviet Union the interpretation of national culture as exclusively bourgeois was eased somewhat. The government began to postulate that real culture had an ethnic form and socialist content. The ethnic component of the notion national was restored formally. Today the term national is applied to everything that meets Russia’s interests.

But what is it that allows Russians to consider themselves as one nation? In the Soviet Union, the role of such cementing power belonged to the Communist ideology and Communist Party rule. What is it that can work as a factor for unity these days? The traditional values of the Russian people alone can hardly succeed in this capacity, because it remains unclear how the values of all other ethnic groups of Russia, which are full-fledged entities of the Russian Federation, should be regarded. Obviously, the national interest issue in this case will remain suspended until the answer has been formulated to the basic question: What should be called a nation?

The nation as a cultural entity

“A nation is certainly not a racial category, let alone an ethnographic one. Firstly, it is a cultural category, and secondly, a political one,” said Russian historian Georgy Fedotov. The proposed sequence is quite noteworthy: culture comes first, and politics second.

 The existence of a country by no means proves the existence of a nation; it only becomes a proof in combination with a certain prevailing type of culture. “We can define it [the nation] as a perfect match of the state and culture,” Fedotov argues. “There where the entire realm of a given culture is encompassed by one political organization and where inside there is place for one prevailing culture, there emerges the phenomenon that we call a nation.”

Consequently, nation is above all a cultural category, not a political or legal one. Before becoming a political nation, a country must develop as a “cultural entity.” Fedotov’s understanding of that unity was very broad. He maintained that it included “religion, language, a system of moral ideas, common lifestyles, art and literature.” “Language is merely one of the fundamental features of cultural unity, but not the sole one.” Fedotov firmly believes that in terms of culture Russia has taken shape as a nation, but its political system is still very far from reaching this status. “Over its one-thousand-year-long history Russia has been looking for a national balance of state and culture, but it has not achieved it to this day.” This is the root cause of the extreme instability of that state, which, as Fedotov predicted, would result in its collapse sooner or later.

By contrast, Pitirim Sorokin denies the possibility of defining a nation through religion, language, or morality. All elements of culture, he argues, have no explicit ethnic tinge. Most religions are not pegged to a specific nation and different cultures (Anglo-American, Spanish, or Latin American) often use the same language. It appears that art does have national properties, but how can one national art be distinguished from another? If language is used as the distinguishing feature, how should one regard music and the fine arts? Sounds and colors have no ethnic features, but nevertheless Verdi’s music is Italian and Tchaikovsky’s compositions are unmistakably Russian. Every people have their own poets, authors, and playwrights who use different languages but share the same literary forms and genres. Is the Russian novel different from the French only in language? If yes, then translation easily removes this difference. What will remain of national culture in the end? Sorokin raises the following question: “But doesn’t this ‘blank spot’ consist of the very same elements just discussed above? Strip away the ‘culture’ of the language, religion, law, morality and the economy – and only a ‘blank spot’ will be left in culture’s place.”

Those involved in the quest for the “substantial basis” of national culture usually argue that it expresses the “soul” of the people, the people’s mentality, the commonness of historical destiny, the specific features of people’s psychological disposition and character, the innate world outlook, etc. Sorokin maintains this explanation is too abstract and metaphysical. It refers to realities that are not subject to verification and theoretical analysis, and therefore such a description is not enough to distinguish one national culture from any other, which for its part is an expression of somebody else’s “soul.” Apparently, Sorokin is right in saying that one should not have too much confidence in definitions that describe a nation as a “metaphysical principle” and as some mysterious “extra- and super-intelligent substance.” The definition of a nation as a “collective soul” also belongs here, because it emphasizes the “psychological nature of this phenomenon.” Hence the following conclusion: “there is no nationality as an integral social element, nor is there a special national bond,” because in the social world there exists nothing that would unconditionally deserve to be called national. By defining a nation through culture we run the risk of turning a nation into a phantom that has no proper equivalent in reality.

Oddly enough, both Fedotov and Sorokin have a point. Culture does incorporate language, religion, morality, and art, but the same set of components, although varying in content, is present in any culture, which becomes obvious during a comparative analysis. National is apparently not a substantial entity incorporating some innate metaphysical or psychological substance, but a functional one, meaningful only within a certain system of relations and inter-dependencies. Each national culture exists not by itself, but in relation with other national cultures. Without the existence of its counterparts, culture might have never been what it is. Such interdependence develops only among cultures capable of rising above ethnic and religious distinctions.

National culture as a phenomenon and notion

Not all cultures create nations and cannot be regarded as national in this sense. For instance, the term national cannot be applied to the cultures of peoples who use oral speech, but have no written language. Such cultures are customarily called ethnic (or folk), and not national. They constitute the lowest, grassroots level (or tier) of culture.

The borderline between the terms nation and people is very thin. Both words exist in all European languages, but in Russian alone the Latin root nation does not have a clear connotation distinguishing it from the word people. Nobody doubts that Russians are a people (even a great people), but in what sense are they a nation as well? In the nineteenth century Vissarion Belinsky was one of the first to point out the different meanings of these two words. “In the Russian language two words that have the same meaning are widely in use – one of purely Russian origin, and the other, borrowed from Latin through French – nationality.” However similar in meaning, these two words are quite distinct. The relationship of the Russian word meaning people and its borrowed equivalent (nationality) is that of genus and species; within each nation there is a people, but far from every people is a nation. Belinsky maintains that the Russian word narod (people) should be applied to the lower classes of society (mostly peasants at the time of Belinsky); and nation should refer to the “entity of all classes and groups of the state,” including the upper and educated strata, who posses knowledge unavailable to the ordinary people or common folk.

Within any nation people are preserved as an invariable substance. The people are a “potential nation, not a real one,” the first and most imperfect manifestation of national life. Belinsky believes that the Russian nation emerged during the rule of Peter the Great, when the people separated from the nobility and stopped understanding them, while the upper classes were still able to understand the lower classes. They were the ones who represented the Russian nation. Meanwhile, even though they contain the potential possibility of the nation’s existence, people are not a nation in the full sense of that word.

Folk cultures date back to prehistoric societies, kin-based societies, and territorial proximity. They rely upon the strength of tradition, long-established modes of behavior and mentality passed from generation to generation in the family and among neighbors. Incorporating rituals, customs, beliefs, myths, and folk arts, those cultures continue to exist and are shared through natural means of communication among humans – memory, an ear for music, and bodily movements and gestures. This sort of communication does not require any special technical means or trained people. Such cultures do not need a written language because they are preliterate cultures.

The stronger the tradition, the narrower is the space where it is replicated. Ethnic cultures are greatly isolated and locked inside a limited territory. They can be compared to a natural economy – self-sufficient and ignorant of other cultures. Isolationism is the basic principle of their existence. The friend-or-foe attitude towards the surrounding world is very harsh (only domestic lifestyles are considered normal and have real value), while everything beyond the familiar corner of the world evokes hostility. An outsider is viewed almost as an enemy, and other people’s customs and traditions are perceived as weird and worthy of ridicule. While possessing spatial variety, they are quite non-perceptive to temporal changes. That their reproduction lacks a temporal (historical) dimension while possessing a spatial one is a direct consequence of excessive traditionalism.

The key feature of these cultures, though, is their collectivist nature and lack of a well-developed individual component. In a culture of homogenous groups, in which the individual has not yet been distinguished in some way, authorship does enjoy personal recognition, and individuals remain anonymous and unknown. Nobody knows who created a certain ancient myth or work of folk art that has come down to us. Their authorship is collective and the names of the authors are unimportant. The seclusion of these cultures from outside influences and their impregnability to external borrowings is explained by the homogeneity and inseparability of individual and collective factors.

Hence the problems in the dialogue between cultures. While staying within the limits of one culture, it is hard to see representatives of another culture as similar in spirit and mentality. Cultures in which individuals do not distinguish themselves from the collective and whose thoughts and actions follow patterns common to all are devoid of the gift of communication, even though they have structural similarity. In case of immediate contact with each other their adherents prefer to address the arising problems through the use of force, and not by means of negotiated agreements. In that sense the expression “the friendship of people” is not very accurate. People never make friends. Rather, individuals representing different peoples are capable of going beyond the narrow horizon of their ethnic existence and can establish friendly terms with each other. The advent of such people will herald the rebirth of national cultures.

Transition to such a model is an entire revolution in the history of culture. The invention of writing launched it all. The mainstream of the grand written tradition (in contrast to smaller, oral ones) led to what would eventually be called national culture.

Naturally, writing emerged long before nations appeared. Ernest Gellner asserts that the invention of writing was no less significant than the emergence of the state. There is a possible direct link between the two. “The written word seems to enter history with the accountant and the tax collector: the earliest uses of the written sign seem often to be occasioned by the keeping of records.” The connection of writing with world religions is even more important.

“God himself eventually puts his covenant with humanity and his rules for the comportment of his creation in writing.” Whereas ethnoses address their local gods in verbal form, world gods address people of different ethnic groups in the language of holy texts and scriptures.

Writing is a language of world religions and states, which, towering high above ethnoses, herald the people’s entry into civilization. It can be described as a language of civilized people in contrast to the oral language of those still existing outside civilization. The written language is confronted with the chaos of the oral language and with local dialects. This feature alone helps link people living in vast territories and who do not share a close kinship with each other. Simultaneously it expands their bonds in time, letting each successive generation receive messages from their ancestors and to address messages to descendants.

At first written culture is not available to all members of society, but to its educated strata, constituting an obvious minority in contrast to the rest of the population. Hence the gap between the grand tradition of written culture and the smaller traditions of local cults – in other words, between the literate and the illiterate, characteristic of most agrarian societies. This gap indicates that the nation is still in the process of taking shape as a “cultural entity.”

Oriental peoples, who created the first writing-based civilizations, distinguished themselves from others not by culture, but by religion. Particularly, that part of a culture not yet separated from the cult. Each of those civilizations had its own pantheon of gods or one God and became crystallized around a common religious cult. As Samuel Huntington put it, “To a very large degree the major civilizations in human history have been closely identified with the world’s great religions...” The barrier between religions is practically insurmountable. While it is possible to change faiths, they cannot be blended into one religious system. Each faith is universal and self-sufficient in a sense. Religion is the last barrier separating one civilization from another. As long as gods separate people, people do not regard themselves as a nation with their own special cultural image and prefer to refer to themselves with ethnonyms and cult-related terms.

Talk about nations began in Europe. In medieval Europe, which read and wrote in Latin, the term nation was first applied to people sharing the same faith – i.e. Christians. Indeed, the term nation emerged as a religious term. With time it would acquire a secular meaning, clear of any religions connotations. European monarchs wanted political independence from the Roman Catholic Church and a separate government from the Church (secularization of government). This required, among other things, the recognition of native (national) language as the official language of the authorities. As a result, the Bible and other sacred texts were translated from Latin into the languages of Europeans, which triggered the emergence of literary national languages. A national culture usually begins with the creation of national languages. Culture appeared in Europe at a crossroads of the values of European civilization (ancient and Christian above all) and the specific features of ethnic cultures.

Each nation has what Vladimir Solovyov once called “supra-national unity.” “The meaning of the nation’s existence is not inside it, but inside humanity,” which is not an abstract unity, but with all of its imperfections “exists on the Earth in reality,” “moves towards perfection..., grows and expands outwardly, and develops internally,” Solovyov wrote. One can argue with Solovyov about what he saw as such unity, but without him it is impossible to realize the historical imperative that brings nations into being. Nations appear between special and general, between local and universal, manifesting themselves as a combination and synthesis of both. When becoming a nation, people do not just disappear into the supra-national space of civilization, but become involved with the minimal losses and costs and retain their unique features and identity. In that sense the nation is not the end of history, not the last peak along the path of each people’s development, but a transit point along the way towards a common humanitarian integration.

In contrast to monological ethnic cultures, which are capable of listening to and hearing themselves only, national cultures are dialogical by nature and lead humans out of ethnic self-isolation. Such people keep an open mind and never lock themselves up within their own boundaries. They manifest themselves as an example of open systems. As a rule, mature nations are not xenophobic or hostile towards everything foreign. Because it recognizes only everything domestic and denies everything foreign, nationalism is the infantile disorder of a maturing nation. The remnants of the past and group egoism are still strong, while the basics of individualism are still embryonic.

The distinguishing feature of cultures that make a nation is, therefore, not writing as such, but its secular nature, separated from the cult. The conversion of writing from the language of God (and his prophets) or top government officials into the everyday speech of any layman with his own name gave birth to that type of culture. At the dawn of any culture one finds the names of authors, artists, and thinkers whom generations remember as creators of culture and classics. Hence the diversity of styles and content of individual self-expressions inherent in any national culture is considerably different from the anonymity of an ethnic culture. One national culture may incorporate people adhering to different views, ideological preferences, and aesthetic tastes. Accordingly, culture is acquired not at the level of a group (the way it happens in the case of ethnic cultures), but of a separate individual. The ability to read and write requires a personal effort. Illiterate people do not form nations. Although from the formal, juridical point of view they can be assigned to a civic nation, in reality they form it as individuals with their own special, unique image and a set of cultural values and preferences. Joining a nation is possible only by mastering the culture that created it, by identifying one’s personal place in it.

National culture cultivates a very special type of personality, a person who is capable of being something larger than just an ordinary component of a collective entity. In a sense national culture recognizes a person’s right to be oneself, to be an individual, to have an opinion, and a stance, which, of course, does not exclude the preservation of some universally important rules and samples inherited from the ethnic past. Respectively, a nation is an association of people united not by virtue of their common ethnic origin or place of residence – purely external factors – but by their own choices and personal efforts. You cannot choose an ethnic group for yourself, but you can choose a nation. People who emigrate to other countries sooner or later begin to regard themselves as a different nation.

With the emergence of such an individual the question arises of the type of political organization capable of protecting that individual from arbitrariness and violence. Only a state that assumes this function can be called national. Its establishment completes the process of forming a nation.

Governmental and political aspects of national interest

Obviously, a national culture is a secular phenomenon and is not created by superior forces, but by “earthly” individuals. This is the basic characteristic of a national culture. Therefore, in political terms a national culture only matches a secular state and not any type of government. Significantly, such state is not governed by the will of individual officials, but by a social contract guaranteeing equal rights and freedoms for all. Only a secular state ruled by law can be regarded as national and consonant with the culture of the state-forming nation. Generation, protection, and reproduction of this culture that makes a people a nation is, in our opinion, the national interest of such a state. All other interests – geopolitical, economic, technological, environmental, national security-related, and others – are national to the degree that enables them to help solve the main task facing any nation – self-preservation in the shape and quality represented by its national culture.

In fact, when used in combination with interest, the adjective national means nothing else. It expresses the wish of individuals and the state to be a nation. The state is a community that has been brought into being not by a common faith or ethnic bonds, but by the unanimity of culture open to all manifestations of creative freedom and individual self-expression. The extent to which the citizens of a country and the government share this desire indicates their maturity as a nation. Sometimes a culturally more advanced section of society safeguards the interests and values of national culture (the right of each person to choose an ideological, aesthetic, and even religious identity), while the other part tries to counter those values with archaic forms of personal dependence on the authorities and official ideology and interprets such dependence as the country’s genuine national interests. This is precisely the case when the national interest is confused with its antagonist.

Quite often it turns out that those who argue they protect national culture in reality protect something very different, and in doing so they ruin genuine cultural shrines and values. Some restore old rituals and traditions that had existed when no nation was in sight yet, and remain indifferent spectators to the disastrous condition of schools, museums, and libraries – mandatory attributes of any national culture. Cultural archaisms are culture in a sense, too, but certainly not a national culture. They can help restore tribal lifestyles – at best, the lifestyles of grandfathers – but gaining and preserving a national identity essential for existing in modern society in this way will be impossible.

But if it is true that the national interest of the state is rooted in the interests of the nation that forms it, what makes one nation different from another? Each nation pursues such an aim. Can their dissimilarity generate conflicts between states? A conflict of interest in the modern world (for instance, the one between Russia and the West) is a fact of life, but to what degree can it be interpreted as a conflict of national interests? Why do Western countries, however different their national interests, tend towards integration into various kinds of supra-national alliances, and not confrontation with each other?

Now we have approached the bottom line. National interests, provided their meaning and mission are understood properly, do not antagonize states. They do not cause a head-on collision in an irreconcilable struggle, but, on the contrary, reconcile countries and bring them closer together. National interests provide conditions for mutual understanding and cooperation, and make it possible to address new problems through mutual concessions, compromise, and agreements. As it has already been stated, mature nations are not infected with xenophobia. They feel no enmity towards each other, because each of them is built on the basis of individual choice to freely and voluntarily choose an identity. As a matter of fact, nations appear for the sake of this choice. They emerge to assist the increasing unity of humankind, and not for dissociation and self-isolation. This is an essential step, albeit not the last one, towards integration on the global scale.

Current global conflicts and clashes are not taking place because national interests are different, but because the genesis of nations is far from complete in many countries. In fact, the legacy of ethnic and religious intolerance to everything foreign that precedes the emergence of mature nations is still very strong. As a result, instead of national interests, there are endless nationalist phobias and claims that absolutize everything native and place it above everything foreign. Any kind of nationalism is a disorder of an adolescent nation, a relapse to the past with its distrust of peoples from different religions and cultures. There is only one way to overcome that – by turning people into a nation. Specifically, into a community of free and open human beings not just inside one’s ethnic group, but also outside it. This appears to be the national interest of any modern state.

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