How the World Embraced Nationalism, and Why It’s Not Going Away Soon
Perhaps one of the more astute observers of Russian foreign policy in recent decades has been John Mearsheimer at the University of Chicago. He has spent years warning against US-led NATO enlargement as a tactic that would provoke conflict with the Russian regime. Moreover, Mearsheimer has sought to explain why this conflict exists at all. Why, for example, doesn’t the Russian regime just accept US-led expansionism in the region? Or perhaps, more precisely, why have so many Russians continued to support Vladimir Putin in his efforts to counter US influence in the region? After all, many countries—Poland and Estonia, for instance—have benefited materially from embracing “the West.” For Mearsheimer the answer to this question is related to the question of why the Iraqis didn’t just accept the US’s occupation of their country. Why did so many Iraqis refuse to embrace the promised “freedom” and “democracy” the US regime said would flow from American consquest?
I believe that nationalism is the most powerful political ideology in the world. I believe it is no accident that the world is populated with nation-states. I think the United States is a thoroughly nationalist country. …when you hear Americans talk about American exceptionalism, American exceptionalism is American nationalism at play.”
When Mearsheimer says that nationalism is a driving force behind the US’s conflicts with places like Russia or Iraq, he’s not just talking about Russian nationalism or Iraqi nationalism. He’s talking about American nationalism as well. American multilateralism and internationalism is really just American nationalism.
He’s right, and this reality extends far beyond US, Russia, and Iraq. The overwhelming majority of human beings on earth today are nationalists to one degree or another. One’s nationalism can be held with varying degrees of enthusiasm, of course, but the fact is the notion remains exceptionally popular. Its popularity explains in part why national states continue to be the dominant means of organizing polities on earth today.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There are other ways of organizing society and other ways of thinking of ourselves and how we fit into the world. The idea of nations and nation-states as we now conceive of them is a relatively modern idea that would once have seemed bizarre and alien to most human beings 400 years ago. For now, though, nationalism continues to be one of the defining ideologies of our time, and it may be helpful to examine its history and how nationalism became so important.
Where Does Nationalism Come From?
Nationalism has proven to be a concept that is difficult to define although it clearly is something that exists and affects the world around us. Nonetheless, we can make observations about nationalism that provide us with a better understanding.
The first is that nationalism is an ideology. That is, it is a set of ideas that forms our own notions about membership in a community shared with other human beings. According to the ideology known as nationalism, we share common interests and ways of living with other people in our national group. Very often, this national group coincides very closely with a particular state. This we often call a “nation-state.”
This sense of national belonging is not to be confused with a mere sense of community. People in face-to-face societies naturally enjoy a sense of community with the other people in their cities or villages. People in city-states and tribal societies, for example, encounter this on a daily basis. Tribal communities may number only in the hundreds or low thousands and very often city-states—the Republic of Florence, for example—had inhabitants numbering only in the tens of thousands. Bonds through kinship, proximity, daily encounters, and economic interest are common in societies of this sort. Feelings of nationalism, however, suggest something on a larger scale and with fewer organic bonds.
The influential historian of nationalism Benedict Anderson has therefore described national groups as “imagined communities” because they rely on “invented” bonds that are far less self-evident than the bonds of in-person shared activities and extended family connections. Or, as Anderson is careful to note, nationalism is not naturally occurring, and ”[n]ationalism is not the awakening of nations to self-consciousness: it invents nations.”1 [emphasis in the original] Anderson continues:
Consequently, 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.2
Another important aspect of nationalism is that it is limited and never universalist. By definition, nationalism limits who is included in the imagined community, and expressly defines most human beings as “outside.” That is, as Anderson puts it, “[n]o nation imagines itself
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