Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

The Catch-22 of nationalism

The same nationalist credentials that let a right-of-centre leader like Modi attempt peace talks also require him to respond when his country is attacked by terrorists

On Christmas, hopes for high-level peace talks between India and Pakistan were higher than they had been in years. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a surprise visit to his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, and the two shared a very public and symbolic hug. Now, just two weeks later, the optimism is mostly gone. After terrorists from Pakistan attacked an Indian air base, killing seven Indian security personnel, Modi told Sharif that talks wouldn’t go forward unless Pakistan took action against the terrorists. It seems altogether likely the talks won’t happen at all.

On the surface, nothing is more predictable than the suspension of impending peace talks between traditional enemies after a terrorist attack intended to produce exactly that suspension.

But this latest instance raises an interesting question about the pattern: Why does the terrorists’ technique work? After all, everybody knows that the point of the attack is to derail peace. So, why don’t the public and politicians alike simply discount the effect of the attacks, rather than giving in to their irredentist logic?

In this case, at least, the answer has to do with what you might call the Catch-22 of nationalism.

Modi is a right-of-centre Hindu nationalist. His credentials as a nationalist are exactly what allowed him to visit and embrace Sharif in the first place. His predecessor, left-of-centre prime minister Manmohan Singh, would have loved to have serious peace talks with Pakistan. But, among other factors, he was prevented by Modi and his party, which criticized him from the right as too weak to negotiate effectively with Pakistan.

Modi in contrast could count on the fact that the opposition wouldn’t be able to criticize him from the left for reaching out to Sharif. To this extent, nationalist credentials are a blessing for a peacemaking leader.

The catch is that the same nationalist credentials that let a right-of-centre leader like Modi attempt peace talks also require him to respond when his country is attacked by terrorists.

To make matters worse, the defence seems to have been bungled. Reports suggest that Indian authorities were informed of the impending attack on the Pathankot air base by an Indian superintendent of police, who had been abducted and then freed by the terrorists.

Yet, notwithstanding the notice, the Indian military lost men to the terrorists. And it took several days to track down and kill all the terrorists. The embarrassment of the weak response further fuelled Modi’s need to show strength in response—by delaying or suspending the peace talks.

To be clear, India’s national security wasn’t seriously harmed by the attack, perpetrated by lightly armed terrorists against a defended military base. Its sole purpose was to interfere with the peace talks.

But that fact, even if widely understood, doesn’t matter to a constituency that votes based on national pride. It’s no less insulting, embarrassing and infuriating to be attacked by terrorists if their intent is nakedly to oppose peace.

So what, if anything, can be done to avoid the nationalist Catch-22? The only long-term answer would be for nationalist politicians to educate their constituents to see the terrorist attacks as a sign of their opponents’ weakness. Pakistani terrorists clearly fear the consequences to themselves and their country of peace talks with India. If nationalist Indian voters understood that, perhaps they would allow their leaders to go on negotiating.

The only problem with this informational solution is that it assumes nationalists really want peace in the first place. Sometimes they do—but often nationalists fear and loath their historic enemies, and are prepared to abandon their own leaders if they go too far down the road to peace. When that happens, they deserve the unending war that results. Bloomberg

Noah Feldman is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University.

Comments are welcome at