The recent positive Swiss vote on maintaining obligatory military service was an important statement. Beyond strategic considerations of how the country can best be defended, there was a certain part of the population saying that conscription re-inforces national identity. In a country with three distinct languages and cultures, the military experience has long been considered an important element in creating a sense of national unity.
Belonging to some group matters. We all like to feel that we are members of a community. From the very local to the national level, people’s identities are crucial to their emotional well being. While in many ways societies have evolved from tribes and clans, there is no question that belonging still matters, even if it means sharing feelings with others on Facebook or Twitter. Virtual communities are still communities, and in many ways reflect nostalgia for being with others through modern technology in spite of the loss of face-to-face interaction.
My recent trips to Kiev and Almaty have highlighted the difficulties of aligning emotional communities with political realities. A political philosopher once observed that “Every nation should have a country and every country should have a nation, and hopefully they are the same.” That is the great liberal ideal. The Ukraine, as an example, will soon decide whether it will have an association agreement with the European Union. If not, it will be much closer to the Russian Federation and its sphere of influence. As a country with a decided split between its east and west, Ukraine will be making a major national decision about its future.
Kazakhstan prides itself as being a bridge between Europe and Asia. Its membership in various supranational organizations as well as the past Chairmanship of the OSCE show a certain political flexibility, including moving the capital to Astana to be closer to Russia. But the sense of national belonging remains controversial, as it does in several post-Soviet countries. Many young Kazakhs are turning to Islam as a basis for communal belonging in the post-Communist vacuum.
But the relationship between an emotional sense of belonging and political affiliations is not only controversial in the post-Soviet sphere. A September 30 editorial in the International Herald Tribune imagines a remapped Middle East, arguing that the current boundaries were superimposed by colonial powers and do not reflect sectarian and ethnic realities. The author, Robin Wright, is obviously part of that liberal idealism which sees emotional belonging aligned with political affiliation. The nation-state, so popularized by Woodrow Wilson, has rarely in fact existed, and when it did, it was brutal to those not belonging to the dominant community. Examples of this phenomenon abound in Africa as well where the establishment of national borders by colonial powers was often arbitrary at best.
Can one have a sense of belonging to a specific community while at the same time being a member of larger communities? For example, I have often observed that today we ask someone in western France to be a member of the Breton community, a Frenchman, a European and a citizen of the world. Is this too much to ask? Can we have so many multiple identities at the same time?
While the answer to that question remains terribly personal, there is no question that globalization and modern technology have led us back to an increased desire for belonging to something more local and immediate. For all modernization is praised, basic emotional needs still remain, and the relationship between those emotional needs and political alignments will continue to be in flux. I predict that no one will ever sing the anthem of the European Union or any other supranational institution. Rational political constructs can never replace communal needs. That the Swiss army may be less needed today for national defense does not mean that its cohesive, emotional role has been reduced.