OP-ED: On EthnoNationalism – Democratic Socialists of America



By Evan Heitkamp Boucher

The anti-colonial nationalist movements of the late 19th and early 20th century have largely formed the Western-accepted social process of assessing self-governing and the rules that oppressed groups must abide to articulate their goal of sovereign legitimacy to this day. Albeit highly divorced from its original liberatory intent, the ethno-nationalist model can be very crudely summarized as “distinct nationalities deserve distinct rule.” American political activists, organizers, and analysts largely have not moved far beyond this understanding of political identity and political legitimacy.


In a speech nine months after the United States’ entry into the Great War on January 8, 1918, Woodrow Wilson laid out Fourteen Points for war aims and peace terms to the conclusion of World War I. The address to congress became a watershed moment for reasons far beyond the narrow confines of the war and the Wilson’s vision of the United States within it. Wilson’s understanding of the international system tapped into and formalized a sentiment fomenting all over the world about national self-determination.


Wilson did not miraculously come up with the concepts contained within the speech. After all, the current international system, in some form, has existed for hundreds of years and popular sovereignty has been a desirable outcome and source of ruling legitimacy since the French Revolution. Nevertheless, the Fourteen Points’ ideas became pivotal elements in the political calculations of anti-colonialist nationalist movements across the world. The Fourteen Points speech provided a structure from what later would be widely recognized as a great power articulating at least a measure of national self-determination for areas ravaged by imperial colonialism.

Setting aside the portions dealing with specific provisos related to the divvying up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, asserting pressure on post-revolutionary Russia, and liberal economic positions regarding trade and naval transport, the Fourteen Points’ fifth point advocated “A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable government whose title is to be determined.” This—retroactively milquetoast pronouncement—had a profound contemporary impact on the world and, in particular, the Middle East, once combined with the twelfth point and its specific provision enumerating autonomous rule for much of the area formerly under Ottoman rule.

The Fourteen Points’ provisions became a basis that the Allied Powers felt a need to at least address, if only performatively, and a fact-finding and recommendation development envoy run by two Americans representing the 1919 Paris Peace Summit named the “King-Crane commission” met with broad-based Arab nationalist movement leaders across the Middle East to listen to their post-war preferences as a guide for the reapportionment of the Ottoman Empire. While the commission was not directly empowered by the 1919 Paris Peace Summit—largely because by this point the French and British were fully aware of the benefits of securing colonial value—the Fourteen Points were constantly referenced by local independence movements as an acknowledgement of national rights and a self-governance pathway from a great power.

The anti-colonial nationalist movements of the late 19th and early 20th century have largely formed the Western-accepted social process of assessing self-governing and the rules that oppressed groups must abide to articulate their goal of sovereign legitimacy to this day. Albeit highly divorced from its original liberatory intent, the ethno-nationalist model can be very crudely summarized as “distinct nationalities deserve distinct rule.” American political activists, organizers, and analysts largely have not moved far beyond this understanding of political identity and political legitimacy.

Take, for example, the Polisario Front’s 1975-declared Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic in what most Americans know as “Western Sahara.” In 2015, the Saharawi ambassador wrote an op-ed featured in The Hill outlining the state’s rationale for independence from Moroccan occupation and independent statehood referencing the international framework and historical processes.  "….the International Court of Justice had rejected Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara [in 1975] and confirmed the . legal right of the Saharawi people to a process of self-determination. The principles at work here are simple: the Saharawi people of Western Sahara are the only ones who are legally and morally entitled to decide our future. Why not let democracy prevail by letting the people vote? Let us decide between Morocco and independence. These are the very same principles that the United States was founded on: democracy, freedom and human rights. Without justice, peace and stability will remain a mirage."(emphasis added)

Similarly, when discussing Kurds in Turkey, Iraq, Syria, and Iran, the language used by knowledgeable U.S. onlookers often revolves around Kurdish rights relative to these states. Many Americans debate whether or not the Kurdish people within historic Kurdish lands have a right to national self-determination in an autonomous area, independent state, or simply deserve equal protection under the law in some sort of representative matrix, not to mention major intra-Kurdish distinctions of language and political goals. The answer to this sort of question largely hinges on what an observer feels is a legitimate basis of governance.

While articulating the desire civil institutional elements like democracy, peace, and human rights are explicit, albeit often false, in almost all contemporary nationalist movements, the civil regime framework element is neither necessary nor sufficient. Far more pressure is exerted when the language revolves around national rights. The global north finds it much more convenient to ignore or support existing authoritarian regimes than try to disrupt shipping lanes, international bond markets, and foreign direct—often speculative—investment in the developing world that not so subtly mirror previous international investments by Europeans in Northern Africa in the late 19th century.  

The key problem, though, was and continues to be the question of who gets included in the nationality of the “national self-determination” approach. For Wilson, it seemed to be an amorphous line, which on this occasion can be forgiven, since a nationality is the epitome of a social construction.

To be clear, there’s a deep, meaningful distinction between marginalized groups desiring an independent state from oppressive rule that uses ethnic identifiers as a basis of discrimination like Muslims in Myanmar vs. the oppression wrought upon Shi‘a in Saudi Arabia. Supporting states within ethnic areas that protect those ethnicities is a good thing, when compared to genocide and ethnic cleansing that these groups often face. However, ethno-nationalism’s emphasis on ethnic identity once ensconced as a value enshrined and represented by a narrow citizenry.

Weeks before May 15 this year, a day that is commemorated within Israel for the Jewish emigre community’s declaration of sovereignty within the territorial border of Mandate Palestine for an explicitly Jewish state, Palestinian groups within the Gaza Strip organized a six-week protest leading up to the somber anniversary of Arab displacement within Mandatory Palestine on March 16, dubbed the “March of Return.” This demonstration marked a change in the Gaza Strip’s contemporary politics as it relates to engagement with the Israeli government.

The nonviolent approach used by the Palestinian organizers and protestors, which included Hamas, presented a far more potent challenge to white Israeli hegemony within the Mandatory Palestine border. The common previous use of jury-rigged rockets as a menace to Israel, no matter how impotent, provided a clear justification for asymmetrical military responses on the entire population of the Gaza Strip like Operation Cast Lead in 2009. In contrast, unarmed people walking up to a barrier fence nonviolently trying to move from one fenced off area to another within the same geographic state represented a far more dire threat to the status quo in the region.

The veneer of legitimacy for Israel’s sequestration of Muslim Arabs in the Gaza Strip was enforced by occasional violent liberatory acts like rocket attacks, no matter how comparatively ineffective, which glossed over the key problem of creating ethnic enclaves in areas under Israeli control. Without the armed struggle from within areas nominally under Palestinian control, the abject poverty and clear literal and structural violence imposed on Gazans became much more stark and indefensible to even the most breathless enforcers of the horrific status quo because in response to people walking up to a chain length fence to challenge its legitimacy, Israeli soldiers shot them. Many observers were shocked by the nauseating display of violence, from the soldiers laughing at the people they shot to the Israeli right wing notion that a flaming kite is equivalent to a bomb to, in accordance with the IDF boast that they “know where every bullet landed”, intentionally shooting unarmed and appropriately vested medical personnel.

The fact of the matter is that when the notion of national belonging and therefore government and civil political participation in a regime framework is implicitly or explicitly—white and Jewish, respectively, in this last case—contingent on a defined ethnic nationality, ethnic cleansing whether by violence, population transfers, ghettoization, or state terror is inevitable. Under the political logic of the Israeli regime, there was no alternative to the March of Return than to respond with overwhelming violence, because the mere presence of non-white non-Jewish people in Israel is an existential threat to the regime, which is why nonviolent fence crossing is violence, according to military officials.

Any casual reader of Israeli media knows that the biggest source of anxiety for the current reactionary dominant political ideology is endless anxiety about Jewish birth rates relative to non-Jewish Arab demographic trends. The sense of demographic embattlement is a necessary feature of ethno-nationalism in general and Israeli narrow ethno-nationalism in particular that is amplified by the revanchist government in power. If the underlying structure demands an ethnic majority in an area historically and currently inhabited by another ethnicity, then their exclusion is a necessity of regime survival. As a result, a non-violent territory-wide rejection of the faux “border” of the Gaza Strip cannot be stopped without violence. If the regime had allowed one hundred people to challenge the barrier, then a later human wave demanding basic human rights over the fence would have been unstoppable short of punctuated mass slaughter or this population return would upend the regime’s premise. It bears repeating: Palestinians living under Israeli control cannot actualize a basic level of humanity without their mere existence destroying the ethnostate.

This source of governing legitimacy, though, is not unique or specific to Israel. The American carceral state, enabled by purportedly objective big data metrics that just so happen to apply justice unevenly, is a manifestation of U.S. ethno-nationalism. It does not take a stretch of the mind, either, to see the ethnic cleansing of the United States’ treatment of even recent U.S. naturalized citizens, let alone the government’s abuses carried out against undocumented immigrants. There is a reason the new white supremacist movement has found a new approach to articulate the same policies and world view as white “nationalism” and not “supremacy.” The nation addresses the same superiority but asserts itself through an ostensibly intrinsic natural default hierarchy, while the supremacist feels the need to prove his supremacy. Why shout and attempt to prove one’s superiority in a way that is transparently xenophobic when, instead, one can talk about it in the realm of human rights? The perverse logic of the contemporary right will always invert the language of human rights and inclusion to undermine both.

Ethno-nationalism, as exhibited in developed states, is to deny the basic human equality. An egalitarian framework is when a neighbor’s house burns down, the normal, human, and just reaction is to take in the family, but the ethno-nationalist worldview not only denies this, but inverts it as a crime to suggest there is any obligation in the first place. A broad social repudiation of this worldview is the beginning of a better world. To develop a more just and equitable foreign policy, leftists must conceptualize a world that moves beyond an ethnically-based nationalism—the premise of which is inevitably reactionary on a long enough timeline—as the primary justification for statehood and legitimacy. The project of a just world is necessarily egalitarian and the most radical thing one can say in the agora of the United States is that foreign life is equally valuable and meaningful as one’s own.