How nations build and reinforce their influence | Interview with Dr. Harris Mylonas

How nations build and reinforce their influence | Interview with Dr. Harris Mylonas

We met with Dr. Harris Mylonas to discuss American identity’s impact on foreign policy, political partisanship, tribalism, and much more. Enjoy!

Notable political scientist Dr. Harris Mylonas unpacks nationalism and internationalism from a comparativist perspective. He discusses the American identity and its impact on foreign policy, America’s growing political partisanship and tribalism, and what it takes to create national cohesion within a nation-building framework. Associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and the editor-in-chief of Nationalities Papers, Dr. Mylonas talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

Or is this growing to become what I suggested more of a national schism, and you suggest it to an extent, I think, where people are not even willing to talk to each other, they think of themselves as tribes or clans, where the partisanship has become a story of peoplehood that is actually separating these people from each other, and they're thinking of themselves as different types of Americans, right. And that would be the most worrisome development.” – Dr. Harris Mylonas

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Interview with Political Scientist
Dr. Harris Mylonas

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

00:27In the beginning

Jed Macosko: Hi, this is Dr. Jed Macosko at Academic Influence and Wake Forest University. And today we have a wonderful guest coming to us from George Washington University in Washington DC, Professor Harris Mylonas. And he’s a political science professor, so there’s lots of things that I’d love to hear about. For example…

…how did you decide you wanted to be a political scientist?

Harris Mylonas: Well, as with everyone, I guess that goes back a long time. I grew up in Greece, I grew up in Thessaloniki, Thessalonica, and that was a very important part of that decision. I grew up in a city that had a long multicultural background, it’s the town, or the city now, that Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey was born.

But obviously, it’s a Greek city today. It has an ancient past, it had a majority… Minority being the Sephardic Jews of Thessalonica that made it a really multicultural city that ceased to be as multicultural, obviously after the Balkan Wars and the annexation of that part of the Ottoman Empire into the Greek kingdom then.

So from that perspective, that history of my hometown and the interesting layers that existed was definitely part of my interest in identities, initially.

Jed: And then from there you went off to graduate school in the United States, so tell us a little bit about coming to the… Coming to America.

Harris: Yeah, it wasn’t as automatic obviously, but that initial, original… Or my origins in a way to explain my interest, but there was an intermediary step where I actually after high school… I graduated high school, I went to do my undergrad in Athens which is the capital of Greece, and there I met a lot of influential professors who a lot of them had studied in the United States.

My main mentor was George Mavrogordatos, who was a graduate from Berkeley University, so he had a PhD already from Berkeley, and that definitely had an impact on me and kind of I guess spurred my imagination, because you do need imagination in order to get to that next level from Greece to the United States.

I also went to an American high school that also helped, and so language was not an impediment, but at the same time, I had the motivation and the cultivation of that interest from those mentors that I met at the uni… My undergrad. So that combination made it possible together with a Fulbright scholarship that did help to come to the United States and start my grad school… My graduate work at the University of Chicago, initially. Yeah.

Jed: And what did you do at the University of Chicago? What was some of your thesis work? Who did you interact with?

…concepts are the building blocks of anything we study.” – Dr. Harris Mylonas

Harris: So I went to the University of Chicago to work with Professor Stathis Kalyvas , who ended up being my chair, the chair of my dissertation committee, but there obviously I met a lot of other faculty as well that were really influential, and surprisingly not from my own field.

So unfortunately, he has passed away, but Joseph Cropsey , a really important philosopher, a collaborator of Leo Strauss , so really important philosopher as well. He was really influential in my first two years in grad school, also Iris Young, Marion Iris Young, who was another important political theorist, she was very important for helping cultivate some of my ideas, and to think more broadly about political science, I ended up becoming a comparativist, a comparative politics expert.

But they did influence a lot how I think about concepts, and concepts are the building blocks of anything we study. So I had to do a lot more thinking than I would have done in order to come up with the most sound concepts to study what I wanted to study in comparative politics. So I’m eternally grateful to both of them and to other professors there who really nurtured this.

And I have to say, I don’t think I would have managed to think as clearly and to develop theories if I hadn’t traveled from Greece to the United States, that’s an important part of my career.

05:28International relations and comparative politics

Jed: So in comparative politics, you focus in on international politics especially, and what does your research look like now?

…there is definitely a sense of a re-awakening or resurgence of nationalist politics.” – Dr. Harris Mylonas

Harris: Yeah ironically, I would say I’m between the international relations field, as you mentioned, and comparative politics.

These fields in the past 20 years have been growing closer to each other, these are both sub-disciplines of Political Science, and for your audience, it’s important to kind of not use the jargon I guess, but this is a way for them to understand that this used to be much more separate fields, but over time, because of the way that our work has been developing, they’ve come much closer to the extent that I was hired as an international relations professor at GW while I graduated as a comparativist, right?

So that shows you how these fields have come together. Yeah, so today, I think nationalism, for example, is one of the things that cannot be studied just from the perspective of comparative politics or often perspective of international relations, obviously it’s something that is really pertinent all over the world, and it has always been, but there is definitely a sense of a re-awakening or resurgence of nationalist politics.

Jed: Yes, and we’ve interviewed one of the maybe colleagues you had at the University of Chicago, John Mearsheimer , who talks about how nationalism is a glue that holds countries together that liberal democracy and liberalism doesn’t have. So that… I found that interesting as somebody who doesn’t know much about political science, that you may actually need a bit of nationalism to keep the cohesion of a nation together. I don’t know…

what are your thoughts about that?

Harris: Yeah, John Mearsheimer was one of my professors actually. Now we’re colleagues, I guess, and we’re friends also, if I may say so. We interact in various ways because of his work over time has come much closer to the study of nationalism.

In fact, nationalism was not a very central topic, ironically in IR International Relations for the longest time, it would be under the guise of concepts like the national interest or national foreign policy, the word "national" would be used, but not necessarily the ideology of nationalism.

John Mearsheimer has written a really important book recently, The Great Delusion that he probably talked to you about, that I also teach in my grad seminar, and he’s trying to see how nationalism and internationalism, let’s say, or liberal internationalism are two different ways of engaging with the world especially if you’re a great power, as you mentioned, and how that can put you in harm’s way or not depending on what you do.

My reading of his work though, is that in a way, what he called liberal internationalism, and he juxtaposes to nationalism is actually Americans’ version or some Americans’ version of nationalism. So for some Americans, liberalism or liberal internationalism abroad are actually the content of… The content of the constitutive story of what it means to be American. Right, so if we are going to borrow some concepts from another great political scientist, Rogers Smith .

Jed: Who we’ve had on this show as well.

Harris: Fantastic, you choose well, he would point to the direction of… Well, that may be the content of their understanding of peoplehood for some Americans, so from my perspective, from my nationalism, maybe comparativist perspective, and that’s where the fields are maybe irrelevant there or my even my political theory background, I would say that it really depends on whether you’re thinking of liberal internationalism abroad, especially as part and parcel of what it means for some Americans to be an American, they think that they need to export some of these ideas, and if that’s part… Constitutive part of who they think they are as a people, then that’s no longer just the foreign policy posture, this is actually something about their identity, right?

Jed: Yeah, absolutely. And it’s been interesting interviewing…

Harris: So that’s a… It’s not really a criticism, it’s another way of seeing the distinction that John Mearsheimer’s drawing.

10:14National cohesion

Jed: No, it’s really good. And I was just gonna say that interviewing different types of academics has been fascinating because people… For example, when we interviewed an anthropologist, one of his focuses was on what makes this country feel united.

And certainly if you took, let’s say, all the blue counties and put them all together in the United States, they would feel united by the sense of wanting to spread liberal democracy throughout the world. That would be part of their uniting feeling.

And maybe what John Mearsheimer is more saying is that we need to marry together this liberal democracy with nationalism, because we need to marry together the red states and the blue states in the United States, it’s not so much a general thing that would work in every country but in the United States, maybe it’s important.

Is that sort of the impression you have?

I have talked about what's going on in the United States as a almost something like a national schism… It's almost as if we're experiencing a situation that would precede civil war.” – Dr. Harris Mylonas

Harris: So there is no doubt that everybody agrees that national cohesion at least… Not everybody, but everybody from the people you mentioned at least, sounds like they agreed that national cohesion is an important thing.

Now that in our times, as you know, because of the polarization and everything that is going on is under a lot of stress, not to mention maybe duress. So there is… I have talked about what’s going on in the United States as a almost something like a national schism.

There is a… It’s almost as if we’re experiencing a situation that would precede civil war. There is all the elements in terms of ideational separation between the different groups of people, and that is, as you can tell, really worrisome. And unfortunately, irregardless of what happens in the next few months regarding the transition, it will still remain a wound that needs to be healed in terms of national cohesion.

So I think that’s what you’re alluding to. I don’t think anyone disagrees from the scholars you mentioned about… Disagrees on that. The question is, is the cleavage just a partisan cleavage from a national perspective? And if it’s a partisan cleavage, then it’s not neither here nor there in terms of our national cohesion because it’s just politics as always, or is this growing to become what I suggested more of a national schism and you suggest it to an extent, I think, where people are not even willing to talk to each other, they think of themselves as tribes or clans, where the partisanship has become a story of peoplehood that is actually separating these people from each other, and they’re thinking of themselves as different types of Americans. And that would be the most worrisome development.

I don’t think we’re fully there. I hope we will never get there, but there needs to be specific steps we take, and leadership, especially leaders in the White House or elsewhere, need to step up and realize that we’re actually heading that direction, and there needs to be action in order to stop that.

And that action, we need it more in the state like the United States, because it’s a federal state, as I tell my students as well, that’s something we shouldn’t forget. And that means that even education to a great extent is dealt with at the state level, if not even lower levels of analysis, and that means that a lot of the schooling systems are not developing necessarily a sense of nationhood for people to be Americans, as they would do in a country like Greece that has centralized education system or in a country like… I don’t know, Israel, where it would be more centralized, but rather the actual glue that… What you mentioned as the glue, is something that actually being produced a few blocks from where I live in the White House, a lot of the… And a few further blocks in Congress.

So a lot of the things that are being said and done from the Oval office or from the State of the Union, or from all sorts of national holidays, these are the main practices, these are the everyday rituals that actually reaffirm or help American citizens reaffirm in their daily plebiscites, their belonging and their loyalty to this nation.

Jed: And you’re gonna have to say what "plebiscites" means because… I know your first language wasn’t even English, but I don’t know that word.

What does plebiscites mean?

Harris: So plebiscite is a daily reaffirmation, so we would conduct a plebiscite and we did conduct many plebiscites after World War I, and after a lot of important events like wars or civil wars even, there would be a plebiscite in order to decide whether the local population… To basically… It’s almost like a survey, but it’s in a form of voting where you’re actually declaring your will.

So I use this in a metaphorical sense to mean the daily expression of your will to remain connected to this imagined community, in this case being the United States. But that happens in every nation state in the world, where that daily reaffirmation has to happen, even if it’s not obviously a ritual, although in schools, as you know, it’s… In the United States, it could be the pledge of allegiance to the United States or to Texas. So this goes back to the different way that a federal state would work.

Jed: Oh, this is very fascinating. I could see a lot of directions that we can go in this interview, but I still…

Harris: I know, that’s my problem in my work.

16:33Narrowing it down

Jed: I still have… I still haven’t gotten a clear sense of what research are you doing, like you go out there, you publish papers…

…can you give us kind of a sense of what your latest or greatest area of focus is?

Harris: Yeah, so I started my work by studying the period where the Ottoman empire… So really the period where empires give way to what we call "nation states" in today’s world.

So I studied in particular, the eastern part of the Ottoman empire. And my first book called The Politics of Nation-Building was… You could say history or a theory about how these newly created nation states are thinking about difference, especially ethnic, religious, linguistic differences, and how they go about managing this type of difference in their countries, and how they do this with an eye of creating what you call national cohesion, or in other cases, some people would call "national homogeneity",

So I came up with a new conceptualization of the term "nation-building", thinking of it as a process where governing elites are trying to make the national… Whatever they understand as national constitutive story as we talked about it earlier, the national narrative, congruent with their state boundaries. So they’re trying to make the people who live in their state boundaries feel the same identity as the ruling elites.

And that process is really contentious and violent often process, because it could involve ethnic cleansing, it could involve genocide, it can involve also forced assimilation and less violent also policies like more mainstream assimilationist policies like mass education, or compulsory schooling.

So I try to conceptualize this process and conceptualize in particular the strategies that are available to ruling elites to achieve that. So I came up with three main policies. Assimilation could take violent or non-violent forms, as I said, it could be assimilation through boy scouts associations, it could be secondary associations like in schools and so forth or civic associations, or it could be violent forced assimilation as it has been, like taking children away from their parents and raising them apart from them so that they don’t get the influences of their families, really brutal policies that were followed in Canada, in Australia and other places with Aboriginal children. And the governments have apologized since but nevertheless, those were forced assimilation policies, then you would have…

On the other extreme, the most violent ones would be what I call exclusionary policies, they would go all the way to ethnic cleansing, but they could be taking the form of deportation or a population exchanges as Greece and Turkey had a really big and important one in 1920′s, where over a million and a half people changed countries basically. They walked over the… They were forced because it was an obligatory population exchange, they were forced to flee.

Actually, one of them was my grandfather. So that’s part of… It explains part of why I’m studying all this is that I have, in my family I have several refugees, they were victims, if you want, of this nation-building process.

And in the middle is what we would call accommodation. It’s the form of granting minority rights to those groups that have differences from your own core constitutive group, and you give them the opportunity to continue practicing their religion, to give them the opportunity to use their language, and I’m trying to explain under what conditions would one government do different things with different groups within one country, because up to my work, at least, I think that would be seen as one of my contributions, most works were trying to understand different countries as countries that were more likely to use ethnic cleansing or countries that were more accommodationist, or countries that were more assimilationist, and that was the way we would discuss different countries.

And I was dissatisfied with that approach, and I thought that we understand these policies at the level of each group, so a dyad between the country’s government and a particular group. So in that sense, one country could be assimilationist vis-à-vis its Jewish minority, and it could be acommodationist vis-à-vis its Romanian minority, and it could pursue ethnic cleansing or deportations vis-à-vis its Turkish minority.

So I thought that this was a more accurate depiction of reality, and I tried to test my argument through archival research in the interwar period, what we call the period between World War I and World War II in Europe and in particular in the Balkans, where it was a really, really diverse place, and there were all sorts of what I call non-core groups, groups that were not perceived as being assimilated by the ruling elite, and they had to devise or come up with policies vis-à-vis those groups in order to create what we call this national cohesion.

Jed: Fascinating. So that’s your work, and I can understand it now. Has…

Harris: That was my original work.

22:24A new direction

Jed: Yeah, has it moved into a different direction now? ’Cause that was the original work. Now, which direction…

Harris: So exactly I began by looking inwards, how this nation-building process unfolds within this nation… Most of the times nation states, sometimes more established ones, but then I started becoming much more interested, not that it is more interesting, but it’s equally interesting to see how these ruling elites, these governing elites are thinking about their own co-ethnics abroad…

So it’s not only that you have diversity inside a country that you need to manage somehow and create social order, but it’s also very often these national boundaries came by leaving a lot of their co-ethnics abroad, right?

So it’s not that these boundaries were created by ethnographers or anthropologists where they were saying, well now we have everybody who is a Yoruba in this country, or everybody who is a Greek or Greek-speaking Orthodox Christian is living in Greece.

That was not the way that, as you know, borders came about. And that meant that a vast majority… I don’t know if it’s a majority, I guess the vast number of countries in the world have a lot of other purported co-ethnics, let’s say, because it’s not clear whether everybody agrees that they’re seeing themselves as Greek or Ethiopian or what have you. But there is a significant number of them living outside of the boundaries of that state.

So I started studying what I call "diaspora management policies". So how do these countries of origin or purported countries of origin the homelands as are being called sometimes, how do they, first of all, understand their diaspora? How do they define it? Who do they consider as an insider or who is an outsider? And how do they go about, again, treating different sub-groups, different segments of that diaspora?

And that’s… My second book project is focusing on that, I haven’t published the book itself yet, but I’ve published a special issue on this with Alexandra Délano from The New School in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, it’s coming out as a book from Routledge and soon. And I’m working on several independent papers on that topic, and it’s fascinating because it’s extra-territorial nation-building, right.

25:12Ethiopian politics

Jed: Now you’re in the perfect spot then, because my understanding is you did work in Ethiopia, you’re living in Washington DC. It’s perfect. Tell us a little bit about how that all went down in Ethiopia, tell us the story.

Harris: So because I had a Fullbright fellowship, I had to go back actually to my country of origin, I came as an exchange researcher, going back to how research works, and that was, as I said, really important, this support by Fullbright was really important initially for me to be able to do my grad school.

And one of my obligations was to go back to my country of origin, so I spent a lot of time researching Greece and Greek-related issues, as I mentioned, then did a lot of archival research. But during the year where I did my military service, actually in Greece, because it’s obligatory in Greece to do your military service, I also spent a month in Addis Ababa, which was part of this second book, it’s a chapter of my second book, which includes chapters on South Korea, I’ve done research in Seoul, a chapter on Israel, and I spent some time there too.

And Ethiopia was a really interesting case for a variety of reasons, not only because I live in DC, where it’s huge concentration of Ethiopian diaspora as you know, but also because in Israel, there is another important Ethiopian diaspora, these were the people in the 90′s, The Falash Mura that were actually repatriated, again, from a perspective of Israel, at least, they were the Ethiopian Jews that were actually relocated and evacuated from some dangerous situations in Ethiopia in the 1990′s, as you know.

And so I had already gone to Israel, I had met that community of Ethiopian Jews, and then I went to Israel to also take… Get a better sense of how Ethiopia views these Ethiopian Jews that are now living in Israel, and also how it relates to them vis-à-vis the Ethiopians who live in DC.

So that gives me, again, this lens of the different segments, as I… So it keeps with… It’s keeping with the thing that we discussed earlier in my internal nation-building work of being interested in not aggregate categories, but desegregating based on group characteristics and subgroup characteristics even, and how the governments are adapting and adopting different policies… Adapting different situations and adopting different policies vis-à-vis these different groups with different characteristics.

My experience in Addis Ababa was very much influenced by the period, different periods, you go to a country and the politics of it definitely plays a huge role. And I went in the period just before the things got a little bit more testy and difficult to navigate, so I was able to give lectures at Addis Ababa University and to meet a lot of academics, and people were relatively forthcoming in talking to me, but in different points in time, as you know, in such regimes, it’s hard to really get access and that was really difficult, but possible at the time.

Jed: Fascinating, so for people who are not up to speed on Ethiopian politics, and maybe we can restrict your second book to just what happened in Ethiopia and how it relates to sort of your central research thesis.

There are obviously different ethnic groups in Ethiopia, many, many… And the ruling party, I believe when you were there, was the Tigrayan people who are a smaller group and have typically shared power with the Amharic group of people, whereas the Oromo group is the largest of the ethnic groups in Ethiopia and has rarely had any kind of power as far as I know.

And so the interplay of those just three major groups is probably part of your book, can you tell us a little bit about how Ethiopia sees those three groups as it relates to the diaspora and maybe also to the Black Jews, the Ethiopian Jews?

Harris: So I will add to your schematic narrative that the other important thing about the Oromo is that in fact the capital is sitting in Oromia. So there is an extra tension that comes from the fact that the Oromo also… The Oromo region is very much centrally located which exacerbate things.

And I will add for our audience that the Amhara people were seeing themselves as a traditional elite that actually had the more influence and power over the definition of nationhood, what we call "the constitutive stories" borrowing a term by our colleague Rogers Smith.

Jed: They were the ruling elite in your… In discussion from earlier, yes, so, Amhara people.

Harris: Yeah. So one of the things that is important to appreciate, and one of the things I’m studying is, first of all, how does the constitutive story of what it means to be Ethiopian changes over time from the Haile Selassie period, the periods where it’s a more Amharic definition, regardless of the ethnic background of the different leaders, which is a contested issue, as you know, in Ethiopia, who is from what background?

Many of them are actually from mixed backgrounds. And then there is a Cold War story obviously that we have to take into account in the Mengistu period that we cannot forget and that necessarily has an impact on the constitutive story of what it means to be Ethiopian.

Some elements are unifying elements, like the pride of the Ethiopian people that have never been colonized, for example. Certain things that had to do with the land and the certain traditions.

But then there are a lot of things that, as you mentioned, can divide, potentially divide them. They’re what we call in political science, latent or not so latent cleavages, divisions in society. They can become really important and even detrimental sometimes for the stability or the cohesion of a state, so those…

Some of those are the ethnic distinctions that you mentioned, others could be religious developments. There is a big part that is Orthodox Christian, but then there is a growing group of Muslims, and Islam is growing quite fast in Ethiopia, at least when I was there. And then there are other groups, religious groups, that are making headway, so there is proselytization going on.

So there is a lot of moving parts, and at the same time, we shouldn't forget, there is ongoing small, violent conflicts happening at the periphery of the country.” – Dr. Harris Mylonas

So there is a lot of moving parts, and at the same time, we shouldn’t forget, there is ongoing small, violent conflicts happening at the periphery of the country. Even while I was there, there were, actually, a live conflict was going on in the areas where the Somalis are living, and so on and so forth. And so it was never an easy situation. People mostly know what was going on vis-à-vis Eritrea because that made more of headlines, but that’s not the only thing that is happening, as you mentioned. So all of these developments, all of this insecurity, all of these regime characteristics are things that are making it a very interesting laboratory from a science perspective to start seeing how a regime that is… From my perspective, I’m trying to explain to you how it’s really important to get that vantage point… Is to see how insecure a regime that is surrounded by boundaries and borders that are actually porous in many ways, and feel threatened by a lot of these smaller groups that are creating problems at its periphery. But also insecure because, as you mentioned back when I was there, it was run by a minority group, how all these anxieties are actually affecting their policies abroad vis-à-vis the…

And not surprisingly, as you would expect, there was a lot of vigilance and a lot of measures that were trying to limit the ways that the diaspora could impact domestic politics, and thus it was a very well-curated, let’s say, policy. It was not left to the devices of a civic associations or diaspora groups.

It had to be moderated, and there were, one could say understandably, there were even amounts of money that you could bring into the country or could leave the country were always monitored. There was a lot of worry about certain issues because a lot of this money in theory could end up funding some secessionist movement or some military group.

So those are not considerations that I had to deal with when I was studying the Serbian or the Greek diaspora policy because, as you mentioned, there were not all these considerations of whether this diaspora segment of ours is gonna ally with some sub-group in our country to stage a rebellion or undermine somehow our national security.

Now again, as you know, these are all contested issues. As you can imagine, the Oromo probably think of their cause differently, and some certain Oromo, I don’t know, I cannot speak of all of them, and the moral aspect of all this, who is right and who is wrong is not part of what I’m studying, because that would be amoral political philosophy kind of matter or even of actual politics. I’m trying to understand, given the conditions, how is the government trying to deal with these things? As a person, I have my own views, but those are, I try to keep them as far away from what I’m doing when I’m trying to explain the logic of a government. Similarly, you can study what the governor is doing or a President of the United States without necessarily condoning their actions, obviously.

Jed: Absolutely. So it sounds like you have studied how the ruling elite in Ethiopia wants the people to see Ethiopians who have moved to other countries, and how to guide them in their vision of who’s really Ethiopian and who’s not, so that they can better control the money and the funds and the policies that come back from those same people, back to influence Ethiopia. So, that’s really interesting, and the whole thing…

Harris: And then I’m comparing that with other governments. So that’s why I’m talking about diaspora management logics. That’s the title, hopefully, of my next book, it’s called Diaspora Management Logics, because there are different logics, but I think there are some patterns of similarity even across states you wouldn’t expect them to have.

37:31Sign off

Jed: Fascinating. Well, thank you so much, Harris, for taking a little bit of time out of your day to explain the research that you do and some of your thoughts about just even the politics here in the United States. So we really appreciate you taking the time. Thanks for spending it with us.

Harris: Thank you so much for having me.

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