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The Case for Nationalism: 12 Arguments

By the end of World War II, nationalism had been thoroughly discredited. Critics charged that national self-interest had prevented democratic governments from cooperating to end the Great Depression, and that nationalist passions had led not just to war, but also to some of the worst crimes groups of human beings had ever perpetrated on others. The construction of international institutions and norms—in economics, politics, and human rights—as antidotes to nationalist excesses dominated Western diplomacy for decades after 1945, and the global struggle between liberal democracy and communism muted the expression of nationalist sentiments on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The peace and economic growth that characterized this period built public support for this strategy.

As decades passed and new generations emerged, memories of the Great Depression and World War II lost their hold on the Western imagination. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the postwar era began giving way to new forces. The European Union, its boosters convinced that their enlightened post-national project represented the future of politics for mankind, sought to move from economic integration to political integration. But public opposition swelled in many member-states. The “captive nations” of eastern and central Europe reemerged as independent actors, and long-submerged nationalist feelings resurfaced.

But the feelings were not limited to the east: Growing regional inequalities within countries drove a wedge between left-behind populations and the international elites many citizens held responsible for their plight. The Great Recession of 2008 undermined public confidence in expert managers of the economy, and in the internationalist outlook that had long dominated their thinking. In Europe, concerns over immigration grew as people from lower-wage countries in the EU moved freely to wealthy member-states. These concerns exploded in 2015 after German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to admit more than one million refugees from Syria and other countries wracked by conflict and economic stagnation.

All these trends, and others, were at work in the United States. The consequences of China’s entry into the WTO, especially for U.S. manufacturing, stoked concerns about international trade. Five decades of robust immigration transformed America’s demography, a shift celebrated by some but deplored by others. In the wake of the Great Recession and the Iraq war, the costs of America’s global leadership became increasingly controversial, and the belief that other nations were taking advantage of the United States intensified. Postwar internationalism became a new front in the decades-old culture war. In retrospect, it was only a matter of time until someone mounted a frontal challenge to the consensus of elites in both major political parties. When it did, “America First” hit the established order with the force and subtlety of a wrecking ball.

The growth of nationalism as a political phenomenon encouraged the emergence of nationalist theoreticians and ideologues. In the United States, a July 2019 conference on “National Conservatism” brought together thinkers who argued—in direct opposition to the leaders of the postwar era—that nationalism offers a more secure and morally preferable basis for both domestic and international policy. Similar convenings have occurred in Europe. Critics of the new nationalism have been quick to weigh in.

As the battle has been joined, the ratio of heat to light has been high. And yet so are the stakes. Our democratic future depends on whether publics come to see nationalism as the solution, the problem, or something in-between. As a contribution to clarifying the debate, I offer twelve theses on nationalism.

Thesis One: Nationalism and patriotism are not the same. Patriotism is love of country—as George Orwell puts it, “devotion to a particular place and way of life.” Nationalism means giving pride of place, culturally and politically, to a distinctive ensemble of individuals—the nation.

Thesis Two: A nation is a community, united by sentiments of loyalty and mutual concern, that shares a cultural heritage and belief in a common destiny. Some nations additionally invoke common descent, which in nearly all cases is mythical, as it was when John Jay posited it for the nascent United States in Federalist 2. As political theorist Bernard Yack observes in Nationalism and the Moral Psychology of Community, not all nationalist claims are based on ethnicity. Ethnonations are distinct, he observes, in that they make descent from previous members “a necessary, rather than merely sufficient, condition of membership.”

Thesis Three: An individual need not be born into a cultural heritage to (come to) share it. Entrants into the national community commit themselves not only to learn their nation’s history and customs but also to take on their benefits and burdens as their own, as Ruth did when she pledged to Naomi that “Your people shall be my people, and your God my God.”

Thesis Four: Nationalism and patriotism can yield conflicting imperatives. Many Zionists felt patriotic connections to the states in which they lived, even as they labored to create a nation-state of their own. Although many of today’s Kurds in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey harbor patriotic sentiments, their primary loyalty is to the Kurdish nation, and their ultimate aim is national self-determination in their own state.

Nationalism rightly understood means that no nation is an island, that in the long run the wellbeing of one’s nation cannot be decoupled from the fate of others.

Thesis Five: Nationalism poses a challenge to the modern state system. The familiar term “nation-state” implicitly assumes that the geographical locations of distinct nations coincide with state boundaries. Occasionally this is true (Japan comes close), but mostly it isn’t. Nations can be spread across multiple states (as the Kurds are), and states can contain multiple nations (as Spain does). What some regard as the ideal arrangement—a sovereign state for each nation and only this nation—is still exceedingly rare despite the convulsions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and still could not be realized without further massive, bloody disruptions of existing arrangements. Hitler’s determination to unify all ethnocultural Germans into a single nation would have been a disaster, even if he had harbored no further ambitions. Today’s Hungarians have grounds for objecting to the Treaty of Trianon, which left millions of their co-nationals outside the borders of their shrunken state. Nevertheless, any effort to reunite them under a single flag would mean war in the heart of Europe.

Today’s state system includes international organizations, which many nationalists oppose as abrogating their states’ sovereignty. This stance rests on a failure to distinguish between revocable agreements, which are compatible with maintaining sovereignty, and irrevocable agreements, which are not. In leaving the European Union, Britain is exercising its sovereign rights, which it did not surrender when it entered the EU. By contrast, the states that banded together into the United States of America agreed to replace their several sovereignties into a single sovereign power, with no legal right under the Constitution to reverse this decision. When the southern states tried to secede, a civil war ensued, and its outcome ratified the permanent nature of the Union.

Thesis Six: It is possible to be a nationalist without believing that every nation has a right to political independence, but it isn’t easy. The U.S. Declaration of Independence speaks of “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” Similarly, Israel’s Declaration of Independence invokes the “self-evident right of the Jewish people to be a nation, as all other nations, in its own sovereign state.”

There are often practical reasons to deny some nations political self-determination (see Thesis Five). But doing so in principle rests on the belief that some nations are superior to others and deserve to rule over them. The claimed superiority can be cultural, hence mutable and temporary, or ethno-racial, essentialist, and immutable. The former often includes the responsibility of dominant nations to prepare subordinated nations for independence, as John Stuart Mill’s defense of tutelary colonialism did. The latter implies that subordinate nations are at best means to the well-being of dominant nations; at worst, lesser forms of humanity who exist at the sufferance of superior nations.

There is no logical connection between the undeniable premise that each nation is distinctive and the conclusion that mine is better than yours. But the psychology of pride in one’s nation can lead even decent, well-meaning people from the former to the latter. Some contemporary defenders of nationalism claim that it is inherently opposed to imperialism. Nation-states want only to be left alone, they say, to govern themselves in accordance with their own traditions. As Rebecca West once put it, there is not “the smallest reason for confounding nationalism, which is the desire of a people to be itself, with imperialism, which is the desire of a people to prevent other peoples from being themselves.”

She would be right if all nationalism were inwardly focused and guided by the maxim of live and let live. But the history of the 20th century shows that some forms of nationalism are compatible with imperialism and worse. It depends on what a nation thinks that “being itself” entails. The proposition that nationalism and imperialism always stand opposed rests not on historical evidence, but rather on a definition of nationalism at odds with its real-world manifestations.

Thesis Seven: It is possible to be a nationalist without believing that the interests of one’s nation always trump competing considerations. Writing in the shadow of World War II, George Orwell declared that nationalism was “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” Although this is an unmatched description of Nazism, it conflates an extreme instance of nationalism with the totality.

In fact, nationalism is compatible with a wide range of ideologies and political programs. It motivated not only Nazi Germany but also Britain’s heroic resistance to fascism. (Churchill’s wartime speeches rallied his countrymen with stirring invocations of British nationalism against its foe.) And because the nation need not be understood as the supreme good, “liberal nationalism” is not an oxymoron.

Giving priority to the interests of one’s nation does not mean ignoring the interests of others, any more than caring most about one’s own children implies indifference to the fate of others’ children. Nations are sometimes called upon to risk their blood and treasure to respond to or prevent harm in other nations. At some point, the imbalance between modest costs to one’s nation and grievous damage to others should compel action. Even though some Americans would have risked their lives to prevent the Rwandan genocide, America’s failure to intervene was a mistake, a proposition that nationalists can accept without contradicting their beliefs.

Thesis Eight: It is a mistake to finger nationalism as the principal source of oppression and aggression in modern politics. As we have seen repeatedly, creedal and religion- based states and movements can be just as brutal, and they can pose, in their own way, equally fundamental challenges to the state system. The Reformation triggered a full century of astonishingly bloody strife. More recently, for those who took class identity to be more fundamental than civic identity, “socialist internationalism” became the organizing principle of politics, and similarly if membership in the Muslim umma is thought to erase the significance of state boundaries. Those outside the favored class or creed became enemies with whom no permanent peace is possible, and the consequences are as negative for decent politics as any of the evils perpetrated in the name of nationalism.

Thesis Nine: As a key source of social solidarity, nationalism can support higher-order political goods such as democracy and the welfare state. Democracy rests on mutual trust, without which the peaceful transfer of power comes to be regarded as risky. The welfare state rests on sympathy and concern for others who are vulnerable, whether or not the more fortunate members of the community see themselves as equally vulnerable. Shared nationality promotes these sentiments, while in the short-to-medium term (at least), increasing national diversity within states weakens them.

This helps explain why many nationalists who are not driven by racial or ethnic bias nonetheless are ambivalent about high numbers of immigrants and refugees. It also points to the most important domestic challenge contemporary nationalists face—reconciling their attachment to their co-nationals with fair treatment for other groups with whom they share a common civic space.

Thesis Ten: Although we typically think of nations as driving the creation of nation-states, the reverse is also possible. A generation ago, Eugen Weber showed how, over the decades before World War I, the French state deployed a program of linguistic, cultural, and educational unification to turn “peasants into Frenchmen.” During the past half century, post-colonial governments have sought, with varying degrees of success, to weaken tribal and sectarian ties in favor of overarching national attachments.

Many historians have discerned similar processes at work in the United States. Prior to the Civil War, lexicographers such as Noah Webster crystallized a non-regional American English, distinct from British English, while historians such as George Bancroft told the story of America’s creation and growth as a narrative that all could share. After the Civil War, as flows of immigrants from Central and Southern Europe accelerated, programs of civic education proliferated—with the aim, one might say, of turning peasants into Americans. Because it was no longer possible to say, as John Jay did in 1787, that Americans were “descended from the same ancestors,” let alone “professing the same religion,” it became all the more important to create a common cultural heritage into which millions of new immigrants could be initiated. The process may have been rough and ready, even coercive, but in the main it succeeded. And today, after a half century of cultural strife and large flows of immigrants from an unprecedented diversity of countries, it may be necessary to recommit ourselves to this task, albeit in less favorable circumstances.

Thesis Eleven: Although scholars distinguish between creedal nationalism and ethnic or cultural nationalism as ideal types, there are no examples of purely creedal nations. In the United States, abstract principles and concrete identities have been braided together since the Founding. Our greatest President, who famously described the United States as a nation dedicated to a proposition, also invoked (unsuccessfully) the “mystic chords of memory” and our “bonds of affection” as antidotes for civil strife and advocated transmuting our Constitution and laws into objects of reverence—a “political religion.”

Thesis Twelve: Although nationalism is a distinctively modern ideology, national identity has pervaded much of human history and is unlikely to disappear as a prominent feature of politics. As Bernard Yack has persuasively argued, nationalism is unthinkable without the emergence of the principle of popular sovereignty as the source of legitimate political power. Because this theory characterizes the “people” who constitute the sovereign in abstract terms, it does not answer the key practical question: Who or what is the people?

The U.S. Declaration of Independence exemplifies this hiatus. Before we reach its much-quoted second paragraph on the rights of individuals, we encounter the assertion that Americans constitute “one people” asserting its right to “dissolve the political bands that have connected them with another.” Americans are one people, the British another. The governing class of Great Britain had a different view: Americans were subjects of the king, just as residents of the British Isles were, distinguished from them only by location. Even to assert their Lockean right of revolution, of which George III was no great fan, Americans had to make the case that they were a separate and distinct people. It turns out that in the case of the United States and many that followed, national identity offered the most plausible way to meet this challenge, which is why John Jay resorted to it. Nineteenth century nationalists had richer intellectual resources on which to draw, including Herder’s account of distinct cultures, but their strategy was much the same.

In short, national identity is transmuted into nationalism through its encounter with the doctrine of popular sovereignty. When the people are understood as the nation, popular sovereignty becomes national sovereignty.

Because pre-modern politics lacked the theory of popular sovereignty, it could not develop a doctrine of nationalism. Nonetheless, national identity has pervaded human history, for the simple reason that we are finite beings shaped by unchosen contingencies. Although we are social, cultural, and political beings, we are born helpless and unformed. We are formed first by the ministration of parents and kin or their equivalents, then by the experiences of neighborhood and local community, and eventually by the wider circle of those with whom we share a cultural heritage. To be sure, the encounter with those whose formative influences were different will not leave us untouched. No matter how much our horizons are broadened, we never set aside our origin. We may leave home, but home never quite leaves us, a reality reflected in our language. “Mother tongue,” “fatherland”—the age-old metaphor of our place of origin as nurturing, shaping parent will never lose its power.

National identity is an aspect of human experience that no measure of education should seek to expunge—nor could it if it tried. But as we have seen, the modern political expression of national identity is multi-valent. Nationalism can be a force for great evil or great good. It can motivate collective nobility and collective brutality. It can bring us together and drive us apart.

In the face of these realities, the way forward is clear, at least in principle. Acknowledging the permanence of nationalism and its capacity for good, we must do our best to mitigate its negative effects. Nationalism need not mean that a country’s cultural majority oppresses others with whom it shares a state; putting one’s country first need not mean ignoring the interests and concerns of others. On the contrary: to adapt a Tocquevillian locution, nationalism rightly understood means that no nation is an island, that in the long run the wellbeing of one’s nation cannot be decoupled from the fate of others. The American leaders who rebuilt Europe understood that theirs was not an act of charity but rather a means to the long-time best interest of their country. The leaders of the civil rights movement knew that they promoted not only the cause of justice but also the strength of their country, at home and abroad.

The details may have changed since the days of George Marshall and Martin Luther King, Jr., but the essentials remain the same. END

About the Author

William A. Galston holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program, where he serves as a Senior Fellow. He served as Deputy Assistant to President Clinton for Domestic Policy. Galston is the author of nine books and more than 100 articles in the fields of political theory, public policy, and American politics. Galston was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004. Galston has appeared on all the principal television networks and is frequently interviewed on NPR. He writes a weekly column for the Wall Street Journal.

This article was published on March 24, 2023.

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