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Garnett Genuis: On nationalism, globalism and what we can learn from ancient Athens


Conflict between ideas about “nationalism” and “globalism” are shaping many contemporary debates, here in Canada and throughout the world.

Globalization is breaking down more and more barriers, and global problems increasingly point to the need for global solutions. But we are also seeing plenty of failures in terms of global common endeavour and the ability of global institutions to actually deliver positive results. Increasing numbers of people on the left and the right are reacting to the inequalities associated with globalization and demanding that their leaders focus on the wellbeing of their own countries.

As we debate our response to various global crises and the degree to which our responses should be local, national, or global, it is important that we set clear categories and make clear distinctions between the different competing outlooks.

For me, a useful jumping off point for thinking about these very 21st century questions of nationalism and globalism has been the trajectory of Athens from its golden age of empire through its defeat in the Peloponnesian War and then into the subsequent era of Athens’ greatest philosophers. These are the circumstances that gave us the ideas of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. It is a fascinating story, and one that is particularly relevant today.

Ancient Athens itself does not really have a modern analog. It was a procedurally democratic society in which many were still excluded, populism was rampant, and the city itself formed the democratic center of an empire which was unapologetically exploitative of its periphery. In this sense, Athens was in reality what America’s most virulent far-left critics imagine America to be. Athenian democracy, in which the people voted to put Socrates to death, is frequently and legitimately invoked as demonstrating the problems with unbridled populism and the need for checks and balances. Ancient Athens is a warning about what democracy can become. And it was Athenian colonialism and abuse of its allies that sparked the Peloponnesian War.

In light of modern Sino-American competition for global dominance, the Peloponnesian War is most often invoked in the context of the notion of the “Thucydides Trap” — the idea that conflict is inevitable when a new power emerges to challenge another for dominance. Importantly, no such hypothesis about the inevitably of violent conflict between Athens and Sparta (or America and China) was actually advanced by Thucydides, the Athenian General after whom the term is named. The Thucydides Trap has about as much to do with Thucydides as modern Confucius Institute have to do with Confucius. Unlike the Thucydides Trap, though, there are lessons to be taken from this era that do draw from actual events.

Pericles’ Nationalism and Alcibiades’ Globalism

The two most important players during the war on the Athenian side were Pericles and his nephew Alcibiades.

Pericles, a brilliant strategist and orator, effectively led Athens in the early years of the war. He was what we would today identify as a devoted nationalist. For him, Athens itself was something like a great Homeric hero. Pericles saw his duty as being solely to the good of Athens and he saw justice itself as being whatever was good for his city.

Pericles would likely have led Athens to victory in the Peloponnesian War, if he had not died of a plague that devastated Athens in the second year of the war. Athens was protected by walls and maintained access to the sea. This allowed it to access vital necessities during a siege, but also left it very vulnerable to disease. Today’s pandemic is another element that makes the Peloponnesian War feel more resonant.

In always seeking the good for his city, Pericles was a true nationalist as opposed to a crowd-pleasing populist. He always sought what was in the Athenian interest, rather than indulging the public will. He initially convinced the Athenians to retreat within and stay behind their walls rather than face the Peloponnesians in open country, and he avoided calling a subsequent public meeting for fear that passions would drive the assembled people to an unwise course. He did all this for the sake of Athens, not for himself.

Like Pericles, Alcibiades served as an Athenian general and was recognized for his tactical prowess. Alcibiades also presented himself as a nationalist, though of a very different sort. During a debate about whether Athens should seek to conquer Sicily, Alcibiades was accused of only favouring the expedition in order to strengthen his own position. In his response, he argued that the glorification of a great man like himself carried with it the glorification of the city. The Sicily expedition championed by Alcibiades was ultimately disastrous and was the catalyst for ultimate Athenian defeat.

Alcibiades was also notable for defecting multiple times during the war when sensing personal danger. Facing allegations of sacrilege in Athens, he switched to the Spartan side, and then defected again to the Persians after his liaisons with the Spartan King’s wife put him in an awkward position. From his Persian perch, he managed to scheme and deceive his way back into the Athenians’ good graces and return home. In modern terms, if Pericles was a true nationalist, Alcibiades turned out to be something of a globalist, preserving a soft spot for home while plying his considerable talents and pursuing all manner of conquest under any flag.

The Great Philosophers

Following its defeat in the Peloponnesian War, Athens entered a period of declining geopolitical influence. But this political decline would happen alongside significant intellectual dynamism, marked by the emergence of great thinkers like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Ross Douthat argues in The Decadent Society that civilizational decline is often associated with a decline in creativity, but these great philosophers (as well as people like Augustine and Boethius who lived during Rome’s decline) show us that civilizational decline can actually provide great fuel for creative reflection. Thank goodness.

Is there a connection between Athenian defeat in the Peloponnesian War and the ideas of the great philosophers that followed? It seems to me that there is. The end of Athenian dominance in Greece necessarily forced a re-think of Periclean nationalism. It was no longer attractive for Athenians to contend that “might makes right,” since they had just lost most of their might. Perhaps, therefore, this loss of national power made new models of justice that were universal as opposed to national more necessary. These are the models of justice that we hear proposed by these great thinkers. For example, Plato recounts in The Republic how Socrates effectively refutes the idea that justice is simply “the advantage of the stronger.” In this, he opposes the most extreme expression of an “Athens first” nationalism.

Both Alcibiades and Socrates rejected the extreme form of nationalism represented by Pericles. But it is important that they did so in different ways and for different reasons. Alcibiades discarded his attachments and loyalty to his community in order to pursue a lower ideal — his own self-interest. Though Pericles’ faults are easy to identify in retrospect because of his ill-treatment of foreign peoples, Alcibiades was still clearly a lesser man. Pericles at least loved his country, but Alcibiades only loved himself. In debates about nationalism and its alternatives, we often miss that traditional nationalism is a kind of middle course. It is possible to do worse than Periclean nationalism, and also to do better.

In the 21st century, there is more than one way to be a citizen of the world. One path involves pursuing wealth and opportunity everywhere, working for and with any country or company that serves one’s own private interests, disregarding the interests of one’s own nation or even the people in other nations along the way. This sort of personal selfishness can easily dress itself up as open-minded cosmopolitanism. This is the road of Alcibiades. An alternative way to be a citizen of the world is to draw on the insights of Socrates, building on a love for one’s own community and nation by seeking to advance the common good of all peoples as well as one’s own. This commitment to the universal pursuit of justice builds on a patriotic commitment to one’s own nation by expanding one’s sphere of concern instead of narrowing it. The cosmopolitanism of “I can make it anywhere” is not the same as the cosmopolitanism of a commitment to universal human wellbeing.

These three men from antiquity, Alcibiades, Pericles, and Socrates, were characterized by differing views of the world and differing views about justice. For Alcibiades, justice was whatever served his own interests. For Pericles, justice was whatever served his country’s interests. For Socrates, justice was a universal concept. For those concerned about the tension between nationalism and globalism, Socrates offers a kind of synthesis, emphasizing both fidelity to immediate commitments and the enlightened cosmopolitanism that comes from universal solidarity.

Today’s debates about nationalism and globalism would be somewhat clearer if we recognized the existence of three distinct positions instead of just two. And the particular circumstances of our present challenges, the need for both sacrificial local engagement and universal global solidarity, should point us back to a consideration of the path of Socrates.

Matas and Teich: Trivializing apartheid to attack Israel


Holocaust distortion and trivialization are common phenomena. People get carried away, they lose perspective, they do not know that much about the Holocaust and the immediate matters more to them than historical truth and memory.

We are now seeing a similar phenomenon with apartheid. Apartheid is being distorted and trivialized in attempt to score cheap points in political debates. And the explanation is the same: animus over accuracy.

Human Rights Watch has a long history of exaggerated, distorted, decontextualized criticisms of Israel. It was perhaps only a matter of time before they wallowed in the apartheid comparison. The time has finally arrived with a report released April 27th which accuses Israel of the crimes of apartheid, fuelling the hatred which led, a few weeks after its release, to the recent and ongoing Hamas rocket attacks on Israel and the heaviest fighting since the Hamas aggression which sparked the 2014 Gaza War.

The situation in Israel bears no comparison to apartheid. Yet, unfortunately, as both the Holocaust and apartheid recede in history, we forget what they really were.

Apartheid in South Africa was a legal structure. The South African Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 banned interracial marriages. The Immorality Amendment Act of 1950 prohibited unmarried sexual intercourse between Europeans and non-Europeans. The Group Areas Act of 1950, the Bantu Self-Government Act of 1950 and the Bantu Authorities Act of 1951 denationalized all blacks, disenfranchised them, and allocated them to one of ten designated black bantus or homelands, requiring blacks to have passports to enter South Africa. The Pass Laws Act of 1952 required blacks to have pass books with permission to be in the specific part of South Africa they happened to be if they were outside their bantu.

The word ‘apartheid’ is used without any reference to what it really was.

Israel does not prohibit interracial marriages. Israel does not prohibit unmarried interracial sexual intercourse. Israel has not stripped the nationality of anyone, disenfranchised anyone and required that they live in designated areas because of their race or ethnicity. Israel does not require Palestinians to carry pass books.

Human Rights Watch considers any distinction between Israelis and Palestinians to be discrimination and recommends that Israel “should end discriminatory policies and practices with regards to citizenship”. Yet citizenship is an essential component of statehood. By calling for an end to distinctions between citizens and non-citizens, Human Rights Watch is calling for an end to the state of Israel.

Human Rights Watch itself is not prepared to defend the comparison between Israel and apartheid, even though they assert it. The report states that it “does not set out to compare Israel with South Africa under apartheid or to determine whether Israel is an apartheid state.” The whole report is, then, a scam and a sham. The word “apartheid” is used without any reference to what it really was.

The very existence of Israel has been challenged since its inception by pan-Arabists and is challenged today by those who reject the presence of a Jewish state in the Middle East. Israel is constantly referred to as Arab land while Jewish indigeneity is dismissed. The Palestinian Liberation Organization was originally part of the pan-Arab forces attempting through invasion to destroy Israel. The invasions having failed, the anti-Israel forces have turned to terrorism, demonization, and delegitimization.

When the Israeli military left Gaza in 2005, they had to evacuate all Jews for their own safety. In the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian schools propagandize their children against the existence of Israel, inciting hatred, war and terrorism. Palestinians have victimized their children both as suicide bombers and human shields. The Palestinian Authority glorifies terrorism, referring to suicide bombers as martyrs, and giving out payments to families of terrorists arrested and detained for their terrorism.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an organization bringing together experts and governnments on Holocaust education, remembrance and research, has adopted a working definition of antisemitism which includes as an example “claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor.” This Human Rights Watch report, with its charge of apartheid without regard to the reality of apartheid, its rejection for Israel alone of distinctions based on citizenship, its failure to acknowledge the racism which drives the animus against Israel, its refusal to confront the incitement to terrorism and its almost daily occurrence against Israel and the need for Israel to combat it, fits within this example.

By presenting Israel as an apartheid state, Human Rights Watch victimizes the true victims of apartheid a second time, through distorting the memory of apartheid. Canada was a leader in the struggle against apartheid, imposing sanctions against South Africa as early as 1977. Canada needs to honour that struggle by reminding those who trivialize apartheid in a racist attempt to delegitimize the existence of the Jewish state what apartheid really was.