The narrative in a nutshell and the moral of the tale
Nationalism demands that rulers and ruled hail from the same ethnic background. The gradual adoption of this principle of legitimate statehood has transformed the shape of the political world over the past 200 years and has provided the ideological motivation for an increasing number of wars fought in the modern era. Before the age of nationalism set in at the end of the eighteenth century, individuals did not pay much attention to their own ethnic background or that of their rulers. They identified primarily with a local community – a village or town, a clan, or a mosque. In much of Europe and East Asia, their overlords ruled in the name of a divine dynasty, rather than “the people,” and many were of different ethnic stock than their subjects. In parts of the Middle East, Africa, or Central Asia, charismatic leaders held tribal confederacies together and were respected and feared for their political skills and military bravery. Vast stretches of land in the Americas, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe were ruled by emperors whose legitimacy derived from spreading God’s word across the world (as did the Ottomans and Bourbons) or bringing civilization to “backward” peoples (as France and Great Britain claimed to do in their colonies). At the beginning of the nineteenth century, such empires covered about half of the world’s surface, while dynastic kingdoms, tribal confederacies, city-states, and so forth, made up most of the rest, as Figure 1.1 shows.
In this world of empires, dynastic kingdoms, city-states, and tribal confederacies, few wars concerned the ethno-national composition of government. Rather, they were fought by dynastic states over the balance of power between them or over the rightful successor to a throne. Empires conquered fertile lands far away from their capitals. Alliances of city-states competed over trade routes or rural hinterlands. Rebellious movements saw to bring heavenly order to the corrupt politics of the day or to repeal an unjust tax increase. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, still only one-fourth of the wars were ethno-nationalist, as can be seen from Figure 1.2, while balance-of-power wars between states, wars of conquest, and non-ethnic civil wars each comprised another quarter of all violent conflicts.