Whither Nationalism?

The Scaffolding of American Nationalism | 1 of 2

Nationalism is the most powerful political force in the world.

—Stephen Walt

The nation…is an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.

—Benedict Anderson

Nationalism is a force of nature. Like rain it can sustain life—or vanquish it. Like an earthquake it can renew an ecosystem—or extinguish it. Like fire it can provide warmth and light—or promulgate destruction and darkness. Like wilderness, it can be encountered as a nurturing source of material and spiritual sustenance—or as a remorseless adversary to be challenged and subdued.

Various observers see nationalism from distinct vantage points. Individuals may discern discrete elements, or a mélange of images comprehended within the boundaries of their own psychology, philosophy, education, and experience.

Nationalism is protean. It cannot be comprehended within categories created for other purposes. Nationalism may coexist with them. It may be camouflaged. The full flower of its presence and influence is not diminished because some fail to comprehend it. To overlook it or to try to wish it away can be hazardous.

Whither Nationalism?

Nationalism is freighted with negative associations. If one’s knowledge were limited to recent news reports and political rhetoric, nationalism would appear to be a right-wing, proto-authoritarian, violent, warmongering impulse. It’s been associated with the populism emerging to the fore in various nations, from Brazil to Britain, from the Philippines to Poland and Turkey to the United States.

President Emmanuel Macron of France sums up a widespread view:

Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. In saying ‘Our interests first, whatever happens to the others,’ you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: its moral values.

Macron was speaking at a centenary commemoration of the end of the First World War.  The unprecedented carnage of what was, at the time, known as the Great War, is recalled as having arisen from the heedless nationalism of competing powers.

The role of nationalism in the First World War illuminates its multiple, shape-shifting manifestations. The rising demands of groups seeking recognition as nation-states were a proximate cause of the sporadic violence in the Balkans that culminated in the unleashing of the dogs of war in August 1914.

The dynastic empires that ruled Europe and much of the wider world were increasingly unstable. Their expansionist projects were undertaken to advance the nationalist visions of their countries of origin. Amid the political, financial, cultural, and technological tumult of the new century, they were unable to suppress the corresponding nationalist impulses of minorities within their jurisdictions.  

The contradictions of nationalism in action were all but impossible to sort out after the cataclysm. The postwar settlement cobbled together at Versailles in 1919 was an incomplete, unsatisfactory resolution of myriad claims of national self-determination. Woodrow Wilson and leaders of other victorious powers wished to recognize credible national claims in the creation of new states. The problem, of course, was whose claims would be recognized and where to draw the lines.

The resulting, new order would be tentative. It would require international supervision, elaboration, and adjudication. Wilson and others placed their hopes on a League of Nations that would transcend the selfish, self-defeating tendencies of nation-states enmeshed in realpolitik.

The statesmen of Versailles failed in wrapping up “the war to end all wars.” Despite the best of intentions, their hard-fought handiwork constituted a mere cessation in a series of metastasizing conflicts.  

By the time of Wilson’s death in 1924, the postwar settlement was unravelling. The League of Nations, intended to reconcile national conflicts through peaceful means, was impotent. United States participation was decisive in winning the war; it was now necessary to achieve a durable settlement. Wilson’s failure to secure Senate approval of American participation in the League sealed its fate.

Others moved to fill the void. Wilson lived to witness Benito Mussolini’s early progress toward an Italian fascist regime built upon a distorted notion of nationalism. Ethno-nationalist sentiments were stirring in Germany. In 1933 Hitler would establish a national socialist regime, based on racial classification and hierarchy. Various permutations of national sentiments were rising in other areas, both in and beyond continental Europe.

Events were heading toward the Second World War, a catastrophe only conceivable as a successor to—or continuation of—the Great War. It’s understandable that a Eurocentric, twentieth-century viewpoint would anchor a sense of nationalism as a deviant right-wing phenomenon, a slippery slope to totalitarianism, genocide, and war. No one should be faulted for ongoing vigilance against a recurrence. Macron warns, “The old demons are rising again, ready to complete their task of chaos and death.”

Many on the right are at least as concerned about rising expressions of nationalist sentiment. Some see it as a cat’s paw of ineluctably expanding central government. An American conservative critic expresses a widely held sentiment: “Nationalism is just socialism draped in a flag.”

Nationalism courses through the political left and right. Sometimes one must focus on actions rather than words to recognize it. Citing Karl Marx, Communist regimes declare themselves to be antithetical to nationalist impulses. They avow universal values and aspirations amid a class struggle that transcends borders drawn by politicians. In practice, Russian and Chinese Communist governments have reliably asserted nakedly national interests. There is significant continuity with the old orders they overthrew.

Gandhi and other anti-colonial leaders were nationalists. Going back to the Versailles Conference of 1919, Ho Chi Minh sought national self-determination for Vietnam. Nelson Mandela and numerous other African leaders would also overthrow the yoke of colonial oppression.

The potency of nationalism can be seen in the continuing founding of nation-states. The United Nations now includes just under two-hundred member states, nearly a four-fold increase since its founding in 1945.

Defining Nationalism

If we’re to come to terms with nationalism, we must achieve a shared understanding of it. Perhaps the most authoritative attempt to define it has come from Benedict Anderson, in his seminal book, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.

Anderson suggests that nationalism is mischaracterized as “an ideology.” He proposes that it be classified “as if it belonged with ‘kinship’ and ‘religion,’ rather than with ‘liberalism’ or ‘fascism.’”

He defines a nation “as an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”

Anderson elaborates:

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.

The nation is limited, insofar as “No nation imagines itself coterminous with mankind.” It is sovereign in seeking to be free and independent. It is a community insofar as it supersedes other identities:

The nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately, it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willing to die for such limited imaginings.

The binding attachment need not be expressed or experienced solely or primarily as separation and exclusion, much less as hatred and war.

In an age when it is so common for progressive, cosmopolitan intellectuals (particularly in Europe?) to insist on the near-pathological character of nationalism, its roots in fear and hatred of the Other, and its affinities with racism, it is useful to remind ourselves that nations inspire love, and          often profoundly self-sacrificing love. The cultural products of nationalism—poetry, prose fiction, music, plastic arts—show this love very clearly in a thousand different forms and styles.  

Next—The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name



“The Dollar’s Fragile Hegemony,” Kenneth Rogoff, Project Syndicate, March 30. 2021.

“America Has a Ruling Class: Why do members of the political elite insist that they’re not?” Samuel Goldman, New York Times, March 30, 2021.

“The staying-power of the stay-at-home economy,” Erica Pandey, Axios, April 1, 2021.

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