Over the past few weeks, I have discussed the relationship between geography and the evolution of three countries: the United States, Australia and Hungary. A key distinction I drew between them was that the United States and Australia were invented countries while Hungary was an organic country. This week, we’ll examine this idea further.
Invented Nations, Organic Nations
The American and Australian nations were forged from migrants who crafted a political system that defined them. In both countries, the political system and its moral principles – along with the social principle that each newly arrived citizen must set his own course and take responsibility for his own condition – defined them. This enabled the simultaneous absorption of migrants into the system and the retention of their familial memory. It was possible, and even necessary, for migrants to graft their own psyches onto an overarching commitment to the national regime and the culture it created, while preserving a residual recollection of where they came from. This was not simply something for recent immigrants. The descendants of the first English immigrants became Americans and Australians through the regimes, but centuries later, they still remembered that they were once English and that they owed something to that past.
This complex identity emerged from the need to invent something different than what existed. The immigrants faced a geography of a vast land occupied by other nations, and they felt a compulsion to create a new reality on that land. The creation of that new reality was in many ways driven by the reality they faced rather than a clear plan. It was a process of ongoing invention and self-invention that bore new nations while embedding in the national psyche the complex tension between the immigrants’ hunger to leave the past and their hunger to retain it.
Hungary, an organic country, is a different case. A Hungarian living in Hungary has a single identity. His family’s past is Hungarian, his mother tongue is Hungarian, and so on. Most important, he is Hungarian no matter what the regime is. And yet, when we step back and think of the origin of organic nations like Hungary, we see they all came from somewhere and they all displaced someone. They just did so a long time ago. Hungary’s history is blurred by time, but at some point between the 6th and 9th centuries, the Hungarian tribes crossed over the Carpathian Mountains and displaced tribes that were already there.
The difference between the United States or Australia and Hungary is not that the Hungarians did not displace native peoples on occupying the land. It was more radical. The Hungarians existed independent of the land and prior to coming to the place where they finally settled; the Americans and Australians as peoples were invented after coming to the land. The Hungarians had community and identity independent of place; the Americans and Australians built it after coming to the land, partly from the land but mostly from the moral and legal principles of their nations. The Hungarians were bound to their people; the Americans, in particular, were bound to the principles of the regime.
This striking difference is illustrated in two very different pledges. In the 9th century, once settled in the Carpathian Basin, seven Hungarian tribal leaders took a blood oath. Although the Hungarian people preceded it, it was on this oath that Hungary as a nation was founded. In contrast, American armed forces pledge to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic” – not specifically to defend the land or the people.
Land, People, Regime
When we think of a nation, we think of three components: the land, the people and the regime. In the American and Australian cases, the identity of the people was always somewhat ambiguous. It was the regime, constitution, laws and moral principles that bound the nation together. The land evolved over time. In the case of Hungary, the land was taken, the people were the absolute, and the blood oath joined the tribes, which were already Magyars, into one.
There is much criticism of modern settler countries displacing native populations. But most nation-states came into existence by displacing someone else. The Hungarian case is simply one in which the conquest took place so long ago, and the destruction of the native peoples – who either were killed or simply scattered – was so total that there is no moral question. The moral question arises with the United States, Australia and other recently founded nations, because the deed is still remembered. The uncomfortable truth is that the creation of one nation requires that another pay some price.
Most people who think about geopolitics think in terms of the interaction of geography and people. But in this equation, the people are a very complex variable. Geography provides imperatives for survival, but geopolitics does not exclude the origins and nature of community, nor the moral character of the nation. And, therefore, it doesn’t ignore the political regimes that emerge.
The difference between the Hungarian blood oath and the American military oath is striking. The first was a pledge to the unity of the people; the second was a pledge of loyalty to the Constitution even against the people if necessary. The blood tied the Hungarians together. The regime and its principles tied the Americans together. The Australians define themselves based on place, though their history makes their moral commitment complex. Still, the moral derives from the necessary – and the necessary begins with place.