John O´Sullivan: In Defense of Nationalism

Autor: John O'Sullivan | Publikováno: 11.12.2007 | Rubrika: English
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TO SAY THAT we live in an age of nationalism is both a platitude and a provocation. It is a platitude because there are more nation-states in the world of today than at any other time in history. Decolonization gave birth to several score new nation-states in Africa and Asia from the 1940s to the 1970s. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the break-up of the Yugoslav Federation released a number of "new" old nation-states from communist imprisonment across Central Europe to Central Asia. And unsatisfied nationalist movements today seek statehood from the Basque country to Palestine.

Yet nationalism also runs counter to other trends: namely, that the internet and globalization are shaping a borderless world in which multinational corporations are more powerful than governments; that transnational bodies from the European Union to the International Criminal Court are usurping powers that once belonged to sovereign states; and that new non-governmental organizations claim to represent public opinion on international questions more faithfully than democratic governments. So nationalism looks increasingly constrained functionally even as its geographical sway extends.

To complicate matters further, there are influential intellectual trends in the advanced world that deny the legitimacy of nationalism altogether as an atavistic concept. Their adherents regard nationalism as an obstacle to human rights, international harmony and economic rationality. They accordingly seek to reduce the scope of national sovereignty in international affairs, transferring power upwards to global bodies and downwards to ethnic and other subgroups. Both President Bill Clinton and Prime Minister Tony Blair justified their Kosovo intervention in terms not simply of halting ethnic cleansing, but of defending the positive principle of multi-ethnic statehood. And General Wesley Clark stated flatly: "There is no place in modern Europe for ethnically pure states. That's a 19th century idea and we are trying to transition into the 21st century, and we are going to do it with multiethnic states. (emphasis added).

To those who think of nationalism as a natural loyalty to one's nation and who therefore regard the Westphalian system of nation-states as an equally natural world order, this hostility to nationalism must be something of an intellectual mystery. Is railing against nationalism not as foolish as cursing the weather or complaining that water will not run uphill? Have not nations existed since time immemorial? Is it not reasonable as well as right that a people who lack their own state, such as the Kurds, should strive to acquire one or that a people who have their own state, such as the British, should seek to protect its sovereignty against legal erosion or military attack?

These questions probably strike most people in Western countries as common sense even today. But since the Second World War--not coincidentally--there has been an immense scholarly dispute over the naturalness of nationalism. Writing in The National Interest (Fall 1997), Anatol Lieven, the historian and journalist, summed up this debate:

One side of the scholarly debate on the origins 
   of nationalism stems ultimately from the 
   belief that ... the roots of modern national 
   allegiances lie in old and deeply felt ethnic, linguistic, 
   religious and cultural differences.... In 
   Western academia in recent decades, however, 
   this approach has not been so much dissected 
   as slashed to pieces by a range of scholars who 
   have ... sought to expose the numerous ways 
   in which nationalisms and, indeed, national 
   traditions were artificially created in modern 

Natural or artificial? These are the two points of view from which we are generally asked to choose. Good authorities can be cited to justify each of them. Suppose, however, that both viewpoints mix quite different things under the name of nationalism? Might they then not both be wrong--or at least oversimplified? Let me suggest that this is the case and that three quite different sorts of political commitment have been confused under one misleadingly similar heading.

These three concepts are, first, the political doctrine that the nation is the only legitimate basis for statehood; second, the political emotion of collective loyalty that might be attached to a nation, a race, a class, a religion or even a political ideology; and, third, the sense of national identity, sometimes called patriotism, that arises from living together under the same institutions and sharing a common language and culture over time.

THE CONCEPTS may seem indistinguishable at first hearing. And they are all linked, as we shall see. But they also differ fundamentally. To see exactly how, let us examine each one in detail, beginning with nationalism as a doctrine of statehood.

Elie Kedourie's classic book Nationalism opens with this simple but dramatic definition:

Nationalism is a doctrine invented in Europe 
   at the beginning of the 19th century. It pretends 
   to supply a criterion for the determination 
   of the unit of population proper to enjoy 
   a government exclusively its own for the legitimate 
   exercise of power in the state and for 
   the right organization of a society, of states. 
   Briefly, the doctrine holds that humanity is 
   naturally divided into nations; that nations are 
   known by certain characteristics which can be 
   ascertained; and that the only legitimate type 
   of government is national self-government.

Those sentences are quite literally mind-altering. At least they altered my own mind when I first read them, persuading me that my own unexamined sense of nationalism as a natural emotion like love of family was simply a misconception. Once we grant Professor Kedourie's definition, moreover, we are drawn eventually to the conclusion that nationalism is not just an intellectual error, but also a destructive one.

To begin with, the doctrinal nationalism he condemns is rooted in a false and ideological conception of statehood. Its underlying error is to suppose that legitimate statehood must rest upon some universally valid principle. In fact, states are the product of history and accordingly rest upon many different foundations--dynasty, ethnicity, culture, religion, ideology, conquest and revolution.

No sensible statesman asks of a state: "Is it based upon a recognizable nation?" (Or, as Clinton and Blair might prefer, "is it multi-ethnic?") He asks rather: "Is it stable? Does it have generally accepted boundaries? Does its government really control its territory? Does it enjoy the loyalty of its citizens?" And so on. If these questions can be answered more or less positively, then it scarcely matters whether the population of the state is ethnically pure, as for instance Norway, or composed of several ethnic groups, as for instance the United Kingdom. It is likely to be a reasonably successful state and an orderly presence on the international scene.

Doctrinal nationalism is also rooted in a false account of history. As a matter of historical fact, very few states can trace their origins to ethnically distinct peoples that have remained uncontaminated by their neighbors over the centuries. That is why historians and teachers were conscripted in the 19th century--and more recently in the Balkans--to trace their present nation back to ancient times with the help of maps, poems and ancient scripts. The objection to this is not that it is patriotic in effect--so is much good history--but that it is false and invented for a political purpose.

As it happens, in Europe, where doctrinal nationalism was itself invented, very few existing states fitted the nationalist theory. In Hugh Seton-Watson's words: "Every England had its Ireland, and every Ireland had its Ulster." Nationalism was therefore divisive--not in the modern sense of stimulating debate, but because it encouraged national minorities to seek the breakup of the state in which they were allegedly imprisoned, and because it gave neighboring states a pretext to intervene on their behalf. Conflict was perhaps inherent in the circumstances of Mitteleuropa. At the very least, however, doctrinal nationalism aggravated it.

If doctrinal nationalism is easy to dismiss or condemn, does that demolish nationalism of other kinds? After all, how many people who think of themselves as nationalists because they love their country hold the opinions of the 19th century German intellectuals who largely dreamt up this theory of nationalism? Most of them would never think of asserting that nationality is the only legitimate basis for statehood. Yet they experience strong emotions of loyalty and allegiance to their country.

RECOGNITION OF this truth is the beginning of the second theory. This theory sees nationalism as a form of collective political loyalty that is usually attached to the nation but that is capable of being separated from it and re-attached to some other unit of humanity. The most famous theorist of this form of nationalism is also its most famous critic, namely George Orwell in the essay "Notes on Nationalism."

Orwell begins by specifying that nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. In his formulation, the former is aggressive and power hungry, the latter defensive and devoted to celebrating a particular way of life. In order to justify this distinction he has to define nationalism in a singular and arguably eccentric way: namely, as "The habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil, and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests." He then extends this definition to cover almost every political unit of humanity. Nationalism in this extended sense, he argues, covers a variety of movements, including communism, Zionism, pacifism, political Catholicism and anti-Semitism. And he observes, finally, that the devotee of some transferred nationalism, such as a Stalinist or a pan-Europeanist, is able to be much "more nationalistic, more vulgar, more silly, more malignant, more dishonest than he could ever be of his native country or of any unit of which he had a real knowledge."

In other words, Orwell's essay is not really about nationalism as other people understand the word at all; it is an essay on power-worship. That becomes clear in Orwell's crucial concession that nationalism is probably least dangerous when it is attached to one's own country--when it is no more than a harsh variant of patriotism--and most virulent when it is attached to some other unit of humanity. If proof were needed for this proposition, it would come in the support that the political intellectuals on the Left have given to such foreign utopias as Stalinist Russia, Maoist China, Cuba and North Vietnam over the years, transforming themselves into ideological chauvinists and justifying torture and mass murder in the process.

LET ME NOW turn to the third concept of nationalism. This is the argument that people come to share a national identity, mutual loyalty, and sense of common destiny as the result of sharing the same language and culture and of living under the same institutions over a long period of time.

This group to which people feel loyal may be a tribe, an ethnos, a people in an ethnic sense. Or it may be a group that was originally diverse ethnically but that has become a single people, through time and intermarriage, rather like an extended family. Or it may consist of the subjects of a dynasty who originally felt no attachment to the state but who developed one over time. Or it may consist of immigrants to a settler society, such as Australia or the United States, who assimilate to a common culture and identity established before their arrival. What matters is that over time they come to feel that they are part of the same collective body and feel a loyalty to it and to its symbols, whether the monarchy in the UK or the flag in the United States.

Because a shared language and culture are at the root of this political loyalty, a wider national identity, naturally replaces more local identities in periods when we see the spread of communications. In the early 19th century, nationalism spread because it was transmitted by new organs of mass circulation, in particular, newspapers, pamphlets, novels, popular histories and so on. These enabled many more people to feel a sympathy for--and to forge an identity with--others beyond the boundaries of their village or province. Nationalism of this kind is, as we shall see, inseparable from improved communications.

Now, the constructivist historians object that this sense of common sympathy is an artificial construct planned by governments and built with the help of intellectuals and artists from Sir Walter Scott to Rudyard Kipling. A new sense of national identity was manufactured in Britain, for instance, by persuading the English, the Welsh, the Scots and (some of) the Irish that they were a people gifted with Protestant liberty in peril from continental Catholic absolutism. As the historian Noel Malcolm has pointed out, however, while the process of building may have been artificial, it drew upon real materials. The Catholic powers in 18th-century Europe were largely absolutist and Britain was a free society by contemporary standards. Louis XIV and Napoleon were threats to British independence. If artifice too played a part, the short answer to the constructivist historians is Burke's observation that "Art is man's nature."

Once we grant that conventional patriotism is real, even if artifice went into its construction, however, is it also virtuous? Orwell comes near to conceding that it is. Describing the nationalism of power-worship that he despises, Orwell remarks in passing that "Its worst follies have been made possible by the breakdown of patriotism and religious belief." He hesitates almost immediately, warning that "if one follows this train of thought, one is in danger of being led into a species of conservatism." But the damage has been done. He has conceded what conservatives have long contended. When patriotic sentiments have been expelled from polite discourse, all manner of brutish ideologies rush in to occupy the vacant space--whether that space is the public square or the human heart.

Indeed, we might consider the three types of nationalism we have been discussing not as three distinctive concepts but as three stages in a process of collective ideological conversion. First, an existing national identity ceases to satisfy its former adherents for a variety of possible reasons--defeat in war, internal religious oppression, political boredom, the influence of bad companions, and so on. We might concede (with a bow to the constructivists) that such national identities, once abandoned, seem invented and imposed to those no longer under their sway. In the second stage these ex-patriots, now vulnerable to the attractions of the power-worshipping ideologies listed by Orwell, adopt one of them as a new, more authentic and more rational identity. And when they do so, the scales fall from their eyes. The possessors of this new self-conscious identity are soon seized by a missionary impulse to spread the good news. That leads them to the third stage of doctrinal nationalism. To convert others, they must first demystify the false identities still extant and demonstrate the rationality of their chosen identity. Hence they develop a doctrine to establish that their new identity is the only real and legitimate kind. And that doctrinal nationalism now sets out to replace the national identity whose weakness started the entire process.

There is an inevitable rivalry between ideological nationalism of this kind and taken-for-granted national identities rooted in a shared culture. Pre-existing loyalties are an obstacle to any new political identity that is striving to assert itself. These rivalries can sometimes be murderous--real men and real women perished in Stalin's campaign to kill nations to create a new Soviet man. With the demise of Soviet communism and the corresponding decline in some power-worshipping ideologies cited by Orwell, however, it might seem that there are no more power-worshipping ideologies and doctrinal identities to disturb us--and that more traditional identities can therefore rest secure. In fact, however, there are two important new examples of doctrinal nationalism entering the lists: multiculturalism in the United States and the European Idea across the Atlantic.

THE WORD multiculturalism means many things, but in its largest sense it is an alternative national identity for the United States. It seeks to replace the present political system of liberal democracy based upon rights-bearing individual citizens with one of multicultural democracy in which the fundamental unit is the ethnic or cultural group with its own worldviews, values, history, heritage and language. It holds that people should express their political aspirations through membership in such groups. And it predicts that in the future, national sovereignty will devolve upwards towards transnational bodies and downwards towards these now semi-autonomous groups.

It is hard to take these ideas seriously, because they clash sharply with the liberal U.S. Constitution, in part because, if implemented, they would transform the United States into a larger version of Lebanon or Northern Ireland, and in part because there has been a unifying upsurge of American nationalism since September 11. But the fact that something cannot work does not mean it will not be tried. Multiculturalism remains the orthodoxy in law schools, corporate America and elite institutions. If nothing else, it is likely to sharpen the sense of ethnic grievance, to chip away at national cohesion, and to obstruct improvements in homeland security. Insofar as multiculturalism is a rising nationalism, then, it is one that threatens not foreign countries but internal security and stability in the United States.

The "European Idea" rests somewhat more openly upon hostility to existing European nations and their national identities. Its justifying claim is that the European Union has overcome the shameful legacy of the European nations that were responsible for two world wars and threaten the peace of the Balkans today. Since its foundation in the 1950s the EU has been a bulwark against the recrudescence of such dangerous nationalism, ensuring that nations like France and Germany will never go to war again. The United States should be grateful, since GIs will never again die in European civil wars.

Every single argument in this list is either highly questionable or plainly false. Half of the states involved in the First World War were multinational empires such as Austria, Hungary and czarist Russia. The Second World War was caused by the colliding ambitions of the two great transnational ideologies hostile to nationalism: Nazism, with its belief in a racial hierarchy transcending nations, and communism, with its belief in a class hierarchy transcending nations. It was local nationalisms in Britain and occupied Europe that provided most of the morale to resist fascist ideologies. Indeed, nationalism is being used as a synonym for interstate rivalry. But the European Union is not proposing to abolish the system of states, merely to create a larger state in a world of larger states--in other words, to replicate 1914 on a larger scale.

Nor is the EU the cause of the postwar peace in western Europe. Rather, it is the consequence of that peace. As the dates plainly show--NATO was established in 1949 and the EU's forerunner in 1957--what has ensured a European peace since 1945 is the military and diplomatic presence of the United States. And this security has enabled countries to trust their neighbors and form cooperative arrangements in the economic, political and military affairs from which they would otherwise have shrunk.

It is, finally, hard to characterize as anti-nationalist a political idea that asserts Europeans are a single people, united by a culture, whose manifest destiny is to form a single state with its own flag, anthem, currency, citizenship, foreign policy, armed forces, parliament and government. In every other context people who believe this kind of thing are called nationalists. If therefore the EU is the latest incarnation of European nationalism rather than an antidote to it--as its supporters claim--it should surely receive more skeptical scrutiny than it has done until now.

Particular skepticism should be directed towards the democratic credentials of this new Euro-nationalism. The traditional nation-state rooted in a shared language and culture has proved to be the most--indeed the only--reliable incubator of democratic government accountable to the people. Multiculturalism is hostile to majority rule in principle and yet has produced no plausible substitute for it except for power-sharing arrangements like those in Northern Ireland, which require an external umpire to enforce them. And as the Europeans admit with their phrase the "democratic deficit", the EU has still not developed an acceptable democratic structure. Its proposed constitution, for instance, retains the extraordinarily authoritarian arrangement whereby an unelected and largely unaccountable commission has a monopoly on initiating legislation.

Some defenders of the EU claim that this admittedly undemocratic provision is offset by the increased powers of the European parliament. But this greatly exaggerates the representative nature of the Euro-parliament. Though formally democratic by virtue of being elected, it has no continent-wide European public opinion to which it might be accountable. It debates in several languages--some of its key terms, such as "federalism" and "subsidiarity" mean quite different things in the different languages. It consists not of European political parties but of alliances of national political parties that represent quite different political attitudes in their respective countries. It is divided not by continent-wide political philosophies--there are none--but either by national concerns or by the interests of the EU political elite, including itself. And it is elected by a very small percentage of the eligible voters in elections that turn not on European issues but on the fortunes of national governments and opposition parties. The fundamental problem underlying all these difficulties is that there is no single European demos--no European people united by a shared language, culture and history--which the parliament can represent and to which it is accountable. Living under the same European institutions is not enough. And no demos, no democracy.

MANY PROPONENTS of the "European Idea" resist the notion that a shared language and culture are necessary components of nationality and democracy. When faced with the question of what holds the state together, they offer two answers: liberal institutions and social-democratic transfer payments. Under liberal institutionalism (Michael Ignatieff's "civic nationalism" seen from another angle), citizens are held together by a strong state which protects citizens and their rights and enables them to go about their business peacefully. They therefore owe the state their loyalty. Unless it brutally oppresses constituent groups, they have no right to secede and found their own state.

Yet this position presents almost as many problems as doctrinal nationalism. As Noel Malcolm points out: How strong is a state going to be if people are taught to think of it merely as a geographical area containing a certain number of human beings endowed with rights? If such a state holds in small nations against their will, it is likely to be further weakened by the reality that not all of its citizens will in fact be loyal. And as the recent fates of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia illustrate, a velvet divorce will sometimes have happier consequences than a loveless marriage maintained by force. It is probably no accident, as some people used to say, that the United States, founded as it is on the principle of popular consent, has until recently taken great care to inculcate the national language and a common culture in both immigrant and native-born citizens.

According to the second answer--financial flows--governments promote national solidarity first by transferring resources from favored to disadvantaged groups and, second, by encouraging all citizens to participate in entitlement programs, like Social Security, that subtly promote an ethic of equal citizenship. As long as the state retains the fiscal ability to keep the checks flowing, it can maintain national cohesion even without a shared national identity rooted in culture and language.

But what happens when the treasury runs out? The costs of financial flows are rising rapidly in the advanced world because of aging populations. Research shows that those paying the costs of financial flows are more willing to fund government transfers if they are linked to the recipients by the ties of sympathy and fellowship that exist in a shared national culture. The more diverse a society is, the less willing it is to spend money on welfare. In the new globalized economy, the fiscal costs of transfer payments will be easier to avoid by emigration, capital movements and competition between governments to attract scarce capital investments. So the time is approaching when financial flows, far from being a method of sustaining national harmony, will become a positive threat to it.

Social democratic states are already responding to these pressures by seeking to ensure that neither individual nor corporate citizens can escape their controls. They seek to close tax havens, transform trade agreements into vehicles for extending regulations, impose taxes on international financial flows, establish international regulatory bodies, "harmonize" regulations upward in bodies such as the EU, and so on. As a result, transnational bodies gain new powers, NGOs gain influence over more decisions, and international civil servants gain more profitable careers. It would be a rash man who bet against such a constellation of forces-and against the global social democracy that they imply. In effect governments are forming cartels--the EU is one such--to maintain near-monopoly prices for their services.

But these large cartel structures suffer even more fiercely from the same defects as "economic" states. They are remote, undemocratic and unsupported by a shared culture and language--indeed, they are bitterly divided by such factors. So they are likely to exhibit even more fissiparous tendencies than afflict the states forming them. What they will mainly transfer upwards is crises.

Both transnational political structures divorced from democratic consent and national political structures that are not rooted in a shared culture and language are likely to prove fragile and while they last, disruptive. Why governments and public intellectuals should have decided that they are morally obliged to erect both states and international agencies on exactly the opposite assumptions is a mystery. If they stick to this course, however, one day it will become a tragedy.

Breathes there the man with soul so dead, 
      Who never to himself hath said, 
      'This is my own, my native land!' 
   Whose heart hath ne'er within him burn'd 
   As home his footsteps he hath turn 'd 
      From wandering on a foreign strand? 
   If such there breathe, go, mark him well; 
   For him no minstrel raptures swell; 
   High though his titles, proud his name, 
   Boundless his wealth as wish can claim; 
   Despite those titles, power and pelf, 
   The wretch, concentrated all in self, 
   Living, shall forfeit fair renown, 
   And, doubly dying, shall go down, 
   To the vile dust from whence he sprung, 
   Unwept, unhonour'd, and unzung. 
--Sir Walter Scott

John O'Sullivan is editor of The National Interest. This essay is drawn from a Bradley Foundation lecture given at the American Enterprise institute.

 The National Interest 22-DEC-04

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