Identity matters in international affairs. How political, economic, or military power moves the affairs of state is easy to see. But it is what people believe and holds to be true—their identities—that underpins these power resources and define their use. From transnational movements to nation brands and even new nationhood, national identities are increasingly vying for international influence. They are being packaged for global consumption and exist inasmuch as they earn international recognition.
These identities represent a new form of nationalism—what we might call “nationalism 2.0”—and it is one that is externally oriented, inclusive, and participatory. Traditionally, the notion of a “national” identity was wedded to the nation-state. It was an identity rooted in the common bonds that defined and united a national constituency, such as ethnicity, religion, and language. It was an identity that came as a birthright, produced patriots, and fought “for God and country.” It served as the je ne sais quoi that made Frenchmen French and Germans German.
But anyone with an Internet connection is no longer a prisoner of geography; identities are no longer accidents of origin. The ease of access to information and international experiences has replaced the traditional notion of a national identity with something more of our own choosing.
For those of us who have come of age with this exposure, our self-selected identities are increasingly wedded to nations of like-minded individuals rather than to nation-states. We are defined and united less by the national identities we are born into than by the transnational identities in which we choose to believe. We are becoming advocates rather than patriots. Our fight is increasingly for cause before country.
Nowhere is this reality more apparent than in transnational movements like Free Tibet and Save Darfur. That there is scarcely an elected official in the United States who would openly argue against either of these movements is indicative of the extent to which the electorate has internalized these transnational identities as part of the American national fabric. According to a 2010 CNN/ORC poll, 73 percent of Americans believed that “Tibet should be an independent country.” A 2006 WorldPublicOpinion.org poll, conducted at the height of the Save Darfur campaign, found that 62 percent of Americans believed that the United States “has a responsibility to help stop the killing in the Darfur region.” Interestingly, according to a CBS News/New York Times poll conducted this past fall, only 43 percent “agree with the views of Occupy Wall Street,” a movement that ostensibly represents 99 percent of Americans and concerns issues far closer to home than Tibet or Darfur.
What Free Tibet and Save Darfur represent, in contrast, to Occupy Wall Street in late 2011, is the key tenet of nationalism 2.0: identities that appeal to individuals’ aspirations for advocacy and provide a coherent platform in which many may participate can have a discernable impact on policy. Save Darfur proved instrumental in securing Congressional support for putting UN peacekeepers on the ground in Sudan. U.S. presidents continue to chide China over the treatment of Tibetans, to the great ire of Beijing. More than a few countries have recognized the power of nationalism 2.0 and are making conscious efforts to package a coherent, consistent, and well-communicated identity to the outside world through the use of a nation brand.
Some nation brands are small and product focused, such as the Bahamas promotion of great tropical holidays, while others encapsulate an entire national idea like those for India and South Africa. They might be used to raise reputations, as in the cases of Ghana and South Korea, or change them, such as with the states of former Yugoslavia. They may be as explicit as China’s “Made-in-China” Times Square advertising blitz or as subtle as Dubai’s steady drumbeat of positive, well-placed business news stories positioning the city-state as an oasis of stability and opportunity in a volatile region.
These diverse nation-branding campaigns all seek to project an internationally appealing and participatory identity that can work in support of policy objectives. Many do so through the explicit connection of a product or experience with its country of origin. While not everyone can call Cape Town, Seoul, or Mumbai home, many can go on safari, own a Samsung phone, or learn yoga. The greater the appeal of these products and experiences, and an individual’s awareness of their origins, the more likely that individual might be favorably predisposed to supporting, or even advocating on behalf of, a World Cup bid for South Africa, a free trade agreement for South Korea, or a UN Security Council seat for India.
Where the stakes are particularly high, countries foster nationalism 2.0 less through links with engaging products and experiences than through appeals to the values of their intended audiences. In particular, new states such as Kosovo, South Sudan, and, potentially Palestine have sought to win support for nationhood by projecting identities that appeal to an American sense of Wilsonian idealism. By casting their struggle for self-determination in a familiar ideational context, they have succeeded in engaging significant levels of public advocacy in the United States to support their aspirations for independence.
These examples stand in stark contrast to the no less deserving independence-minded region of Kurdistan. There are many reasons a Kurdish state has not materialized, not the least of which are the geopolitical ramifications for Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran of such a state. But Kurdistan, like Occupy Wall Street, has also failed to project enough of an externally oriented, inclusive, and participatory identity to capture a transformative level of global advocacy for its cause.
Identity, indeed, matters in international affairs. An identity that cannot travel, one that remains restricted to its national boundaries, becomes the tree that no one heard fall in the forest; its ability to affect policy will be minimal. In a world where national identities are increasingly of our own choosing, the ability of a country or cause to influence events will hinge on its capacity to cultivate nationalism 2.0. This is a world in which success will depend less on the degree of blind patriotism already existing at home, than on the extent of dedicated advocacy achieved at home and abroad.