Is the return of nationalism bringing us back to the 19th century? Source: Interim Archives/Getty Images
Is the return of nationalism bringing us back to the 19th century? Source: Interim Archives/Getty Images

I'm starting to miss communism.

In its later years, at least, it certainly seemed like a less volatile unifying force than naked nationalism, which the leaders of Russia and China have increasingly embraced. Beyond a desire to stay in power at all costs and a reflexive anti-Americanism, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have neither an ideological North Star to steer by nor a coherent set of values to affirm. Really, what do China and Russia stand for? And please don't say "non-interference in internal affairs."

The answer, it seems, is revanchist empire-building. Putin's speech on Crimea was an ugly tour of Russia's aggrieved imperialist id. Yet change a few words, and tone down the theatrics, and it could have expressed China's bluster about its "indisputable sovereignty" over the entire South China Sea.

Yes, I know communism was predicated on global domination, and that the USSR, for one, was not shy about stepping in with jackboots and tanks to keep its socialist satellites in the proper orbit. And no, I don't really miss it. But we should worry about the rise of nationalism to fill the ideological vacuum left behind. In some ways, the need to market communist ideology constrained outright territorial grabs that could lead to war: Mao Zedong couldn't very well promote national liberation movements in Southeast Asia while simultaneously saying that, oh, by the way, those waters you thought were yours are, in fact, ours.

Today Putin and Xi rely ever more on nationalist appeals to unify their citizens and distract them from their troubles -- whether shaky economies, ethnic unrest, or dwindling political freedoms. For Russians, the model of an autocratic great state proffered by Putin has been a welcome alternative to the democratic chaos of the Yeltsin years, and taps into an older Eurasian fantasy. For Chinese, once Deng Xiaoping gutted the tenets of Maoism in the name of modernization and reform, nationalism gradually took socialism's place. As the political scientist Cheng Chen noted in "The Prospects for Liberal Nationalism in Post-Leninist States," the Chinese Communist Party "now represents not the vanguard of the proletariat but [what Jiang Zemin called] the 'advanced productive forces, advanced Chinese culture and the fundamental interests of the majority.' "

Both leaders have tried to deploy civilizational assets to buttress their rule: the Orthodox Church in Russia, Confucianism in China. They have either abetted or tolerated the repression of minorities: Central Asians in Russia, Tibetans and the Uighur in China. And they have not been shy about stoking xenophobia in general and anti-Americanism in particular.

Nationalism, though, can be hard to control -- as the Chinese have learned in attempting to modulate outbursts directed at Japan and the U.S. (Try telling the average Chinese that the U.S. bombed their Belgrade embassy in 1999 by mistake!) Indeed, despite the official attitude in Beijing and Moscow that the enemy of hegemony is my friend, when Xi visited Moscow last March, Chinese nationalists demanded that Russia return land ceded by China in unequal treaties during the time of the czars.

Another problem with using nationalism to underpin your legitimacy is that you have to keep stirring the pot. That makes for a very unsettled world. Welcome back to the 19th century.

(James Gibney is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter @jamesgibney.)

To contact the writer of this article: James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net.