Charles King's new book Extreme Politics declares an end to the period of "post-communism," both as a period of European History and in terms of the conduct of US foreign policy. The book offers a critique of the way in which academics and policy makers have viewed this period, which began with the fall of the Berlin Wall on 11/9/1989 and ended with the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001. King argues that this period should be viewed as a unique interlude, rather than as a postscript to the Cold War.
King identified nationalism as the most significant—albeit misunderstood—lens through which the political events of this period have been viewed. As scholars and policy makers struggled to respond to the claims of statehood, secessionist movements and national mobilization against communist authoritarianism, they turned to the literature on nationalism, epitomized by Benedict Anderson, Eric Hobsbawm and Ernest Gellner. King characterized this use of nationalism theory as a "misdelivered letter," arguing that the theory of nationalism offers little help for understanding postcommunist politics on the ground.
King claims that the political upheavals, transformation and violence of the postcommunist period cannot be explained as a replay of the conflicts of the 19th century, nor should analysts simply focus on ideas (such as nationalism) as the primary impetus for political action. His study of nations that have failed as states and the insights offered by international law offer alternative explanations for understanding the diverse narratives of social cohesion and violence in the region.
In addressing the problem of social violence throughout the 1990s, King questioned the adequacy of labels such as ethnic war, nationalist violence; and war of secession, and argued that the adjectives surrounding war were taken more seriously than the conflicts themselves. Characterized as ‘ethnic,' violence was explained away as an historical inevitability. Yet, studies in social sciences have suggested that peace between different ethnic groups is more prevalent than violent conflict. King argued that "no instance of sustained violence can ever come from individuals jumping from their beds and killing their neighbors." Rather, violence must be sustained by supporting institutions and patrons of war, which ought to be the focus of research and policy. Ethnicity and nationalism, therefore, explain more about how people involved in conflicts succeeded in "marketing" their activities, and in some cases successfully hid their true motivations.
By proclaiming the "end of Eastern Europe" King did not mean to say that the postcommunist space is irrelevant, but that (much like the concept of "the West") it no longer represents a meaningful category. Each of the postcommunist states has followed a different transition trajectory, which has created a lot of diversity in the region. King warned that the policy and intelligence communities have not necessarily recognized this shift, but continue to search for heroes and villains, in stilted Cold War terms, as many did during the Rose and Orange revolutions. Politics in the region has become far more complex over the last two decades. For example, the narrative of the conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia that occurred 20 years ago no longer informs the current reality. Instead, old enemies have found common cause in their fear of Russian dominance. Consistent U.S. engagement with postcommunist countries remains critical, King concluded, and should be separated from the degree to which Russia is seen as a threat.
By Nida Gelazis
Christian Ostermann, Director, European Studies