On Nationalism

Arguably, it is the concept of “nationalism” that acts as the most powerful force in both politics and international relations, given that it strikes at the very core of the very human issue of identity and selfhood, which in turn gives both meaning and purpose to a person’s existence. One could also argue that the entire political and social world as well as every individual society is divided between what are known as “globalists” and internationalists on one hand, as well as “nationalists” and traditionalists on the other hand. The latter identifies with a local and national culture and way of life, whereas the former seeks to identify commonalities and a common way of life that supersedes national boundaries. Yet, there are many people who are still in a process of self-discovery as a result of continuous education and worldly experience, and as a result they are essentially torn between two or more identities.

Since the beginning of human history, religion and culture have been the central sources of meaning and purpose for virtually all individuals and groups, and arguably both of these things still provide meaning and purpose to people in our present day and age. As the late Samuel Huntington wrote in his famous book titled “The Clash of Civilizations”:

“In the post-Cold War world, the most important distinctions among people are not ideological, political, or economic. They are cultural. Peoples and nations are attempting to answer the most basic questions humans can face: Who are we? And they are answering that question in the traditional way human beings have answered it, by reference to the things that mean most to them. People define themselves in terms of ancestry, religion, language, history, values, customs, and institutions. They identify with cultural groups: tribes, ethnic groups, religious communities, nations, and, at the broadest level, civilizations. People use politics not just to advance their interests but also to define their identity. We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against.”

But due to modernity and globalization, the meaning and purpose that stems from religion and culture is perhaps shaky and in a state of flux and as a result there is immense social turmoil in virtually every society. Moreover, there is friction between those who have been uprooted from their traditional identities as a result of modernity and globalization and those who cling onto culture as well as onto what Barack Obama called “guns and religion.” Cornell Professor Peter Katzenstein has also written about “porous regions” of the world resulting from the spread of the internet and technology that were once closed but are now receptive towards the cultural mores, norms, goods, and products of other nations and regions.

Nevertheless, for most people, a nation or nationality is “the ultimate point of reference for political loyalties and actions,” as suggested by Hans Morgenthau. In turn, Morgenthau added that being a part of a nation means sharing the same psychosocial characteristics as other people from the same nation. Thus, a “nation” and “nationality” are not physical things. Rather, they are abstract concepts and social constructs that are formed by a group of like-minded people. However, the rise of modernity and globalization over the past couple of centuries has impacted individual and collective identities in a profound way in almost every nation around the globe. Fareed Zakaria identified three stages of modernization and globalization. For one, there was the age of Europe in the 1800’s, followed by the age of American ascendancy in the 1900’s. Now, we are witnessing the rise of non-western peoples and nations in the 21st century.

It has been said that “imitation is the biggest form of flattery”; thus, non-western nations are essentially imitating Western nations in order to catch up to Western standards of living, often in an impressive way. For one, projects that take Western countries years to complete are often times completed by China in a matter of months, weeks, or even days. Approximately 40 years ago, 9 out of 10 people in China were living on two dollars per day. But over the last 40 years or so, China has brought approximately 900 million of its people out of poverty, which is an incredible feat in and of itself. Also, while there are some theorists who contend that economic interdependence and the rise of non-western countries will mitigate inter-communal and international conflict, others would contend that economic interdependence and rise of living standards that have accompanied global economic growth will only intensify the propensity for conflict. Who is right and who is wrong? Only time will tell.

At their core, nations consist of both military and economic interests as well as ideologies. While countries may be able to compromise on interests, it is difficult for countries to compromise on ideology, and as a result it is the ideological differences between countries that often lead to friction as it did during the Cold War and today with countries such as Russia, Iran, and North Korea. Nevertheless, “nationalism” and its accompanying fervor and sentiment have often been dismissed as a “mask” for self-interest on the part of shrewd leaders. As G. Lowes Dickinson wrote, national “honor” and sentiment is merely “a mask thrown over interest to make it look attractive to generous and scrupulous spirits.”

Also, the concept of a “nation” or “nationality” in the Western world has evolved over a number of centuries. Whereas in the Medieval and even the Renaissance periods the nation was defined by kings, princes, and elite landowners, the modern nation is defined by the people, or Volk to borrow from German terminology. One report on “Nationalism” by the British Royal Institute of International Affairs in the early 20th century demonstrated the constrained and limited notion of a “nation” in Medieval and Renaissance Europe by stating: “It was said of a Croat landowner of the 19th century that he would sooner have regarded his horse than his peasant as a member of the Croat nation.” Thus, as E.H. Carr wrote: “International relations were relations between kings and princes; and matrimonial alliances were a regular instrument of diplomacy.” Ordinary people were thus left out of the fold, and the social gap between the elites and the masses was immense during both the Medieval and Renaissance periods of European history, which in turn impacted international relations. The sea change in international relations would occur through the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800’s which empowered regular people and involved them in international affairs.

Moreover, the monarchic elites in all European countries had a common goal, which was “maintaining the submissiveness of their subjects” in the words of E.H. Carr. In turn, this common goal of the European elite stabilized relations between the different European “nations.” However, with the rapid rise of technology and its accompanying spread of knowledge and information which in turn would close the economic and social gap between the elites and laymen, a new elite class called the “bourgeoisie” would arise in both Western Europe and the United States. In turn, the bourgeoisie would mitigate the role of monarchs and priests in politics and foster a system based on capitalist democracy where individualism and the rule of law based on the protection of “life, liberty, and individual property” would supplant the arbitrary rule of absolute monarchs and priests.

Nevertheless, the replacement of one elite group (absolute monarchs and priests) with another group of elites (the bourgeoisie) in the modern period of European history did not erase the dichotomy between elites on one hand and the Volk or masses on the other hand in either the United States or Western Europe. As a result, the appropriation of “nationhood” or “nationality” would shift away from an internationalist bourgeoisie and towards the Volk.  The social implications of a Volk that had been neglected or even trashed by the bourgeoisie class were magnanimous in the modern age. For one, the rift between the bourgeoisie and the Volk fostered a form of “Political Romanticism” on the part of the latter which in the words of Eric Voegelin rejected the “objective humanism of the Enlightenment and replaced it with imaginative autonomy, which was then projected onto ‘nationality’ (Volkstum).” In turn, “Political Romanticism” would give rise to Nazism in the early half of the 20th century. Thus, the byproduct of modernity and globalization in Europe’s modern age were two total wars along national lines and a rift between an elite class that took pride in its “rationality” and wealth and regular people who were viewed as “irrational” and angry.

More often than not, nationalist sentiment is also a byproduct of social disintegration and personal insecurity stemming from changes in a society’s economic circumstances. Quite often, populists and nationalists attribute the plight of their nation to foreigners, immigrants, and Jews, when in reality it was the actions of their government that prompted economic and social decline. Nevertheless, individual frustrations and the desire for self-empowerment are collectively projected onto foreigners and the international scene from within a particular nation, thus prompting war and social strife between nations, as suggested by Hans Morgenthau.

However, in a modern and globalized age with improved living standards for many people in the 21st century, individual and collective frustrations are perhaps of a sexual nature and as a result the solutions are arguably Freudian in essence. Freud argued that everything a person does stems from two motives, namely, the sex urge and the desire to be great, and he may have been correct in regards to the vast majority of people. As Henry Kissinger said: “Power is the greatest aphrodisiac.” Thus, for many people, the lack of power means sexual frustration, the inability to satisfy personal desires, as well as the failure of wish-fulfillment. Yet, as many religious and spiritual traditions have contended, the doors of heaven open only when anger such as the type that arises from individual and collective frustration as well as base desires stemming from the “material appetites” of the stomach and genitals are eliminated.

Nevertheless, America’s 20th century rise prompted costly wars of hegemony in the early 21st century which in turn spurred the American Volk in the form of the “Trump Movement.” Now, the fear is that the rise of Asian powers like China and India will prompt nationalistic wars between a frustrated America and self-confident Asian countries like China. In the end, however, it would perhaps be wise to heed the words of Lord Acton, when he said: “[Nationalism] does not aim either at liberty or prosperity, both of which it sacrifices to the imperative necessity of making the nation the mold and measure of the state. Its course will be marked with material as well as moral ruin.” Nationalism is thus a play on our base instincts which have to be controlled and tempered through education and self-restraint, lest it leads to self-destruction.

As the rise of Europe demonstrated during the Enlightenment period – along with America’s rise in the 20th century and Asia’s rise in the 21st century – education and job creation serve as the impetus for bringing individuals and groups out of poverty and ignorance, which in turn can mitigate self-destructive nationalist fervor and sentiment. At the helm, there should be leaders who empower individuals both economically and socially through the “bully pulpit” and in a didactic manner. In a world where interconnection and interdependence supersede national boundaries, only global cooperation will resolve outstanding transnational dilemmas and issues. Yet, only a “small elite” in the words of Morgenthau are willing to acknowledge this reality, while the majority of people are bound by nationalist biases and sentiment.

However, while governments and leaders can foster the environment for education, economic growth, and social harmony, it is ultimately up to the individual to choose whether they want to remain in a state of poverty and ignorance or to climb up the social ladder with the aid of education and thus make a positive impact on others. After all, the life of a nation is comprised of the life of individuals. As Marcel Proust said: “The life of nations merely repeats, on a larger scale, the lives of their component cells; and he who is incapable of understanding the mystery, the reactions, the laws that determine the movements of individuals, can never hope to say anything worth listening to about the struggles of nations.” More importantly, however, the aim and purpose of life-long education – which the Germans call Bildüng – is to answer and resolve the most basic and formidable question of human existence, which is: “Who am I?”

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