There is a long history of “cosmopolitan,” universally minded great powers blundering into conflicts in which none of the belligerents feel that there is anything historically doomed or atavistic about fighting in the name of race, ethnicity, religion, confession, or tribe:
In Afghanistan the Soviets thought Pashtun tribal loyalties would be no match for the kind of modernization they had imposed on the Central Asian republics to Afghanistan’s north, although anyone who has spent any time in post-1989 Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, or Kyrgyzstan will know that the sectarianism and tribalism that was quiescent during the Soviet era are back with a vengeance. As for NATO, the alliance went into Kosovo imagining the province to have the potential for the kind of ethnic comity that truly did exist in Bosnian cities like Sarajevo and Tuzla before 1992, when, in fact, Kosovo proved to be a zero-sum game. When the province was ruled from Belgrade, the Serbian minority held sway. When NATO arrived, it was the Albanians’ turn, and while on utilitarian grounds the oppression of a minority is perhaps to be preferred to the oppression of a majority, that was scarcely what NATO intended, or predicted would happen once Yugoslav regulars and Serb militias had been sent packing.
But the textbook example of this amnesia about the importance of sectarianism has been the American involvement in Iraq. The great physicist Max Planck once criticized his colleague James Jeans for refusing to relinquish his theory even in the face of facts that should have caused him to do so. Jeans, Planck wrote to a mutual colleague, “is the very model of a theorist as he should not be, just as Hegel was in philosophy: so much the worse for the facts if they don’t fit.” By analogy, one can say that the people who called for an invasion of Iraq in 2002 and early 2003 — many of whom, lest it be forgotten, were liberal democrats (beyond the usual suspects in Congress, these included the current editor of the New Yorker magazine and the then executive editor of the New York Times, institutions not exactly known for their support of the Bush-Cheney administration) — were the very model of interventionists as they should not be. And, again echoing Planck, it is arguably the current Hegelian consensus that history is an evolutionary progress in a positive direction toward an ideal end state in which some form of liberal, law-based, rights-observing capitalism is, as Francis Fukuyama has put it, history’s culmination, “the only viable alternative for technologically advanced societies,” a conclusion that would almost certainly bring a smile to the lips of the members of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China. But unable to free themselves from the bear trap of one version or another of contemporary Western progress narratives, Fukuyama, his erstwhile neoconservative comrades, and many prominent activists within the largely left-leaning human rights movement, either remain entirely blind to the perdurability of sectarianism, or else imagine that — rather as Marx thought that once communism had been achieved the state would wither away — once prosperity has been achieved sectarianism will also disappear.