When Nation-States are born, they remember and reinterpret their pasts. This narrative brings meaning and sense of direction to their members. As countries evolve, they must go back to those pasts and permanently review them, sometimes even adapt them and make them omnipresent, to justify and (re)orient their political, economic and social actions and to gain the support of the people of the state in question. For years and years, studying the history of a country, meant revisiting the history of the nation.
30+ years ago, a wave of disinterest among the academic community members about the review of the nation concept status resulted from the belief that the notion itself was actually in decline and doomed; After all, they saw Nationalism as an old-fashioned idea, fostered during the 19th Century, which caused the massive crimes committed during the 20th Century.
Another day, another world.
At its origin, Nationalism was the catalyst of the modern state idea, it helped to end up with colonial practices and even fueled the welfare state practice: Otto von Bismarck established the first welfare state back in the second half of the 19th Century, mainly to gain the loyalty of the working class of the state. Around 100 years after that, in 1986, as Nationalism was pushing forward the anti-Soviet sentiment in the free world, Stanford historian Carl Degler said: “If we historians do not provide a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job for us.”1Last October in Texas, Donald Trump declared: “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, OK? I’m a nationalist…” and then added: “”Nationalist!”: nothing wrong with it. Use that word!”. The problem is that in the “America First” context, the word becomes divisive and even dangerous. Then, almost one month after president Trump’s declarations, French president Emmanuel Macron declared: “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.” One has to wonder: do they really understand the implications of what they’re saying and the consequences of it? I believe they do… to a certain point.
Civic Nationalism versus Ethnic Nationalism.
The contrast in the intentions of the two mentioned statements by presidents Trump and Macron, lies in the difference between the popular interpretation of the terms “patriotism” and “nationalism” and in the way to define the “identity” of the members of a given Nation-State. When the first-mentioned head of state used the “N” word, he was referring to what academics call “Ethnic Nationalism”, an idea which sustains that the identity of the members of a nation is defined by a common history and language (which implies common ancestry). Mr. Trump was appealing to his “base”, those who believe that being American equals ancestry. On his side, when president Macron used the “P” word, he was referring to the concept of “Civic Nationalism” (also known as “Liberal Nationalism”) or the idea that membership to a state corresponds to all members of the Nation-State in question, where each one counts, independently of their cultural background. The message in both cases was clear. President Trump was speaking of exclusion. President Macron referred to inclusion. In both cases, intention was in the words. The missing point? Patriotism (or Civic Nationalism) is also another form of exclusion (it implies no foreign rule by members of other Nation-States). Inevitably, patriotism = nationalism.
Nothing new under the sun
Even though the idea of Nationalism is recent (18th Century), what lately some have called “New Nationalism” is everything but new, since either form of Nationalism comprises two principles: 1. the members of a nation govern the state in question, and 2. the members of the nation rule the state to ensure its survival and expansion. 2Nationalism is as old as the invention of the state is. Throughout history, Nationalism has been mixed with all forms of ideologies, however, the vast majority of them (at least the dominant ones) comply with these two basic propositions.
The place of Nationalism in an interdependent world.
The Nation-State is so pervasive that the concept of Nationalism seems only logical or even natural, however, it is not; it is a political construction (the State) conceived out of a social one (the Nation), therefore it is susceptible to changes (remembrance and reinterpretation of the past). The state has one main clear aim: to survive; the nation, not so. Actually, in the unclarity of that or those aims, the worst crimes have been committed… and in this sense of lack of definition of aim(s), not much has changed during the present century. Among all the theorists of the perks and flaws of the so called “New Nationalism”, the ideas of Yael Tamir have called my attention; she maintains that the problem lies in the conflict between Neoliberal Globalisation and Nationalism (while neoliberals claim for increased trade and displacement of people, nationalists believe in a pervasive, protective state). I believe that the correlated factor that opens the door to dangerous interpretations of the “N” word is rampant economic inequality among the members of the Nation-States of the world. Keep in mind that WWI happened at what was considered the peak of an economically interdependent (globalised) world3 and that WWII also happened in the name of the survival of the (ethnic) nation.
In conclusion, the issue is political, but also economic. If the representatives of the members of the Nation do not come up with reconciliatory discourses and most of all, effective economic solutions, the world risks (once again) to fall into the hands of “others less critical and less informed”… the ones that Degler referred to, 33 years ago.
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- Lepore, Jill (2019). “A New Americanism”. Foreign Affairs Magazine, March-April 2019, p. 10.
- Wimmer, Andreas (2019). “Why Nationalism Works”. Foreign Affairs Magazine, March-April 2019, p. 27
- Rowe, David M. (2005) “The Tragedy of Liberalism; How Globalization Caused the First World War”, Security Studies, 14:3, 407-447.