High hopes.

Source: Indian Press Information office/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

The Catch-22 of Nationalism

Noah Feldman is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of constitutional and international law at Harvard University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. His books include “Cool War: The Future of Global Competition” and “Divided by God: America’s Church-State Problem -- and What We Should Do About It.”
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On Christmas, hopes for high-level peace talks between India and Pakistan were higher than they’d 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. We all know the script, which has been used by extremists all over the world, from Ireland to Israel to India.

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-center 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-center Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, would’ve 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 Singh's Congress Party and the others now in 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 peacemaking leader.

Consider the classic case of Menachem Begin, the Israeli prime minister who made peace with Egypt. Begin, who founded the right-wing Likud Party, understood that doves from the Labor Party opposition wouldn’t be able to criticize him.

To some extent, the same nationalist credentials helped Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president, meet Begin halfway. Sadat had recently helped his country recover its pride and military credibility in the October War that began with the Egyptian surprise attack on Yom Kippur 1973. He therefore calculated he could afford to take the risk of making peace, although the gamble arguably cost him his life.

The catch is that the same nationalist credentials that let a right-of-center leader like Modi attempt peace talks also require him to respond when his country is attacked by terrorists. Nothing undercuts national pride like a feeling of vulnerability. Modi’s voters chose him in part because they expect him to protect them -- and to project power in the face of attack or insult.

To make matters worse, the defense against the attack 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’d 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 fueled 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. In fact, such an attack underscores nationalists’ feeling that “the other side” doesn’t really want peace at all, and will use negotiations simply as another tool of power.

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; the durable peace between Israel and Egypt is a good example. 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.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Noah Feldman at nfeldman7@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net