William Pfaff, syndicated political columnist for the International Herald Tribune (Paris), is probably the most perceptive writer in the world today on European affairs, particularly as they affect and are affected by American policy. He is not as much of a political philosopher as some others, like Jacques Ellul and the late Bertrand de Jouvenel, but he has an amazingly detailed grasp of history spanning continents and millennia nevertheless.

Pfaff is particularly alert to all aspects of the political situation in Germany and Central Europe. He has a high appreciation of the value of the multinational societies that we smashed in World War I: Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. His thesis is that nationalism is a phenomenon of recent origin, having first arisen in England and France in the course of the Hundred Years War. In the history of Europe, according to Pfaff, nationalism has frequently been a disruptive and destructive force, most recently in the breakup of what used to be Yugoslavia.

Pfaff thinks that America’s naive commitment to democracy as we understand it and to national self-determination has caused it to make frequent blunders whose effects on the peace of nations will be far-reaching. The principle of self-determination, which was so exalted by Woodrow Wilson during and after World War I, required the breakup of what had been two fairly harmonious societies in the prewar period, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, and caused insoluble problems to arise across Southeastern Europe, ultimately leading to World War II. The mixing and intermingling of population groups in Central and Eastern Europe makes it impossible to draw boundaries along nationalistic lines with any degree of equity; until now, all attempts to do so have failed. The dismal situation in the former Yugoslavia is only the most dramatic illustration of this failure, and serious tensions will continue to exist throughout Eastern Europe and the former U.S.S.R. Although he devotes less attention to Africa and Asia, Pfaff draws our attention to the problems of nationalism—often artificial and imported from the West—on those continents as well.

None of the Asian countries was a nation in the nationalist sense until it encountered Europeans. Japan was the first to understand and adopt nationalistic principles, which permitted the smaller nation to defeat both China and Russia at the turn of the century and which tempted it to its unsuccessful challenge to the United States in World War II. Japan’s nationalistic fervor, directed into commercial rivalry since the war, has given her much of the success that she failed to obtain by force of arms.

In Europe, after the nationalistic fragmentation that followed World War I, two or three major attempts at internationalism occurred. Fascism and Nazism began, to all appearances, as nationalistic phenomena, but fascism soon took root outside of Italy, and Nazism, contrary to the common interpretation, was from the outset an international phenomenon. (Its racially selective internationalism, appealing to the Nordic nations, was not in Pfaff’s view limited to the state of Germany.) The Soviet Union under both Lenin and Stalin was internationalist in orientation, although Stalin found it expedient to evoke the spirit of Russian nationalism during the war with Germany, which he called the Great Patriotic War. Stalin attempted to make Russian domination of the Soviet Union more palatable to the other nationalities by creating a number of supposedly autonomous republics (the Baltic states were independent before Stalin annexed them in 1940). When the hardliners’ coup d’etat failed in 1991, this fictitious nationhood suddenly became a reality, turning the Soviet Union into the short-lived Commonwealth of Independent States, which effectively no longer exists.

The most auspicious development since World War II to counteract the evils of nationalism is, in Pfaff’s opinion, the creation of the European Community, which he believes is unfortunately entering a critical and dangerous period as a consequence of the emergence of new nationalistic forces in Central Europe. Although he praises the economic cooperation between France and West Germany inaugurated in practical ways by Jean Monnet and Konrad Adenauer, Pfaff fears that the addition of state after state to the (Western) European economic confederation will make political unity and a common foreign policy increasingly impossible, as demonstrated by the failure of the European Community to exercise a constructive influence on the continuing crisis in the former Yugoslavia.

Pfaff has some wise but politically incorrect ideas about the future of Africa, arguing that the African states created by the withdrawal of the colonial powers are essentially unstable and have generally created more miserable conditions for their populations than those that prevailed under the more or less enlightened rule of the colonial powers. He also predicts a very bleak future for South Africa after the abdication of the minority white government. He recommends a reintroduction of a kind of colonialism patterned on the mandates that were granted Britain and France after World War I, but holds that such mandates would need to be granted to the United Nations, rather than to individual powers, in order to make them acceptable both to the mandating powers and to the countries where the mandates are to be exercised. Finally, Pfaff considers the question of whether the United States is a nation, and, if so, how and when it became one. He appears sympathetic to the cause of the Confederacy and suggests that if the South had become independent the subsequent history of the world might have been much more peaceful.

In short, Pfaff offers a masterful analysis of a situation that he deems almost impossible to remedy, concluding with lines that seem to echo Calvin as well as Pascal: “Man as such does not grow better. He is free. He remains the beast/angel that Pascal called him, a chaos, contradiction, prodigy. He progresses only by recognizing his nature, his misery together with his sublime possibility. A politics has to be built on that.”


[The Wrath of Nations: Civilizations and the Furies of Nationalism, by William Pfaff (New York: Simon & Schuster) 256 pp., $22.00]