By Peter Henne

Before the US mid-term elections in early November, US President Donald Trump gave a speech that cheered his supporters and alarmed his critics. Trump identified himself as a “nationalist” at an election rally, contrasting this with the “globalists”—a problematic term with anti-Semitic overtones—he opposed.

Earlier, Trump called a caravan of Central American migrants an “invasion,” and attempted to explain an “America First” foreign policy based on national sovereignty. Concrete policies also flowed from this rhetoric, such as the deployment of US troops to the Mexican border and attempts to ban Muslims from entering the United States. As a result many were worried about the aggressive nationalism expressing itself in US policies.

This trend isn’t confined to America. Nationalist leaders have risen around the world. The Philippines’ Duterte has paired nationalist rhetoric with aggressive police tactics. Hungary’s Orban has adopted a particularly xenophobic form of nationalism. Brazil recently elected a far-right nationalist to power. And of course Russia’s Putin has used Russian nationalism to consolidate power domestically and pursue aggressive policies abroad.

One powerful expression of alarm at this spreading nationalism was a speech France’s President Emmanuel Macron gave in response to Trump’s appeal to nationalism. Macron, speaking at a World War I memorial, contrasted nationalism with patriotism. He claimed the rise of nationalism in America and elsewhere was “old demons coming back to wreak chaos and death.” Nationalism is a “selfishness,” he said, of states “looking after their own interests.” Instead, French patriotism—he claims—is a defense of “universal values” that will help uphold the liberal international order.

Many observers seemed to side with Macron, arguing nationalism is a bad thing and patriotism can be good. But is that really the case? Scholars of nationalism have warned about its dangerous implications, but don’t think they are inevitable. The key distinction, these scholars argue, is not between nationalism or patriotism—or even the similar idea of civic versus ethnic nationalism. Instead, it is the difference between nationalism in service of the state, and nationalism independent from the state. This provides some guidelines for resisting the rhetoric of Trump and others, but also suggests caution with accepting Macron’s framing.

Is nationalism always a bad thing?

To start with, what do we mean by nationalism? First we need to define the nation. I like Benedict Anderson’s definition of the nation as an “imagined political community…imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”

There are a multitude of other definitions—which is part of the problem—but they generally agree that a nation is an exclusive identity related to a fixed territory or ethnicity. “Nationalism,” then, is—following Gellner—a “political principle” that “holds the political and national unity should be congruent.” That is, it argues the nation should rule itself. “Nationalist sentiment” arises from “anger aroused by the violation of this principle” or “satisfaction at its fulfillment.” For example, Arab nationalism emerged in the early 20th century as a political force. Arab nationalists initially wanted to rule themselves, as opposed to being subjects of the Turkish-ethnicity Ottoman Empire. After the Ottoman Empire broke up and European colonial powers seized land in the Middle East, Arab nationalists called for independence, which at times included a desire to unify the various Arab states together.

But Macron wasn’t just responding to an exclusive identity, he was critiquing a specifically aggressive nationalism that targeted those outside its borders.

There has been a debate in the scholarly literature about whether nationalism is necessarily a bad thing. Some see it as a destructive, cynical force. Others think it is a byproduct of modernisation that can lead to dangerous effects in certain conditions. Still others think nationalism can be a positive force when it takes on a civic, rather than ethnic form.

One scholar who saw nationalism as a dangerous force was Elie Kedourie. Kedourie argued nationalism was an ideology or political doctrine developed by elites and spread throughout society. Its effects were often disruptive. He pointed to tensions in Eastern and Central Europe throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as example, in which previously diverse states experienced conflict along ethnic divisions.

Kedourie argued that “nationalism and liberalism were…antagonistic principles.” He also argued nationalism increased tensions in diverse states, as it “tends to disrupt whatever equilibrium” had been reached by different ethnic groups in a country due to its call for a “redistribution of political power.” Similarly, Walker Connor argued the “sense of kinship” in nationalism “helps to account for the ugly manifestations of inhumanity that often erupt in the relations among national groups.” Connor pointed to the violence surrounding the breakup of the Soviet Union; as the multinational Soviet empire fell apart, numerous states erupted into civil wars between different ethnic groups that had previously been controlled by Soviet authorities.

Others, however, saw nationalism—specifically civic, as opposed to ethnic, nationalism—as a potential force for good. The former defines the nation based on kinship and appearance, while the latter draws on shared values. As Anthony D Smith pointed out, some scholars, like Ignatieff, see civic nationalism as “benign,” while ethnic nationalism was “aggressive and exclusive.”   Moreover, as Rogers Brubaker notes—critically—some accounts of civic nationalism are “triumphalist,” arguing the superior civic form of nationalism is what distinguishes Western Europe.

Other scholars thought nationalism could be dangerous in certain settings. Both Ernest Gellner and Benedict Anderson argued that nationalism was a product of modernity, either the impacts of industrialisation (as Gellner claimed) or broader shifts in consciousness (in Anderson). So nationalism itself would be neither good nor bad; it just is.

Under certain conditions, however—when nationalism became closely connected to ethnic differences—nationalism could take on a negative form. Gellner discussed “entropic-resistant traits;” individual aspects that would make it difficult for pre-national ethnic differences to disappear in the modern national identity. One of these aspects is visible racial differences. In these instances, one ethnic group will remain separate from the national majority, facing discrimination as a result. Anderson acknowledged the prevalence of racism among nationalist movements, but saw them as distinct; nationalism “thinks in terms of historical destinies,” while “racism dreams of eternal contaminations.” He argues racism actually is an attempt to erase the national identity of the group discriminated against. Moreover, racism relates to “claims to divinity among rulers” and class distinctions, rather than nationalist sentiment itself. One of his primary examples of European racism in the midst of 1800s colonialism. He argued Europe’s elites were threatened by spreading national identities, so they promoted racist ideas about colonised peoples to distract European lower-classes from their own oppression. That is, while nationalism can lead to destructive racism, this arises from the imposition of class-based chauvinism over national movements.

Liah Greenfeld and Daniel Chirot similarly suggested that certain forms of nationalism could lead to aggression and hostility. They argued that aggression was most likely in “collectivist-authoritarian” visions of nationalism that are based on ethnic differences. That is, some nationalist movements were based on “a people’s uniqueness” assuming a “single will” behind the nation; this leads to authoritarianism because “someone is bound to be its interpreter.” This form of nationalism lends itself towards demonisation of other ethnic groups, making violence easier to justify. Additionally, when nationalist movements feel weak or aggrieved, they often developed a sense of envy towards foreign cultures, leading to “xenophobia, providing emotional nourishment” for the nationalists. Greenfeld and Chirot pointed to German nationalism in the 1800s and early 20th century as an example, arguing there was an “indifference toward individual rights and lives” and a “predisposition to regard other populations as belonging to different species.”

These varied views suggest the situation is not as clear as Macron suggested. We do not face a choice between positive patriotism and negative nationalism.

How to encourage a positive nationalism? Avoid close ties to the state

So, based on the nationalism literature, it is unclear whether nationalism itself is always a problem. But one common solution to aggressive nationalism emerges from several scholars: keep it away from the state. Whether movements frame nationalism as ethnic or civic in form, it can still lead to destructive xenophobia if mobilised by the state.

First, several scholars questioned the distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism. Brubaker argued it is hard to distinguish between the two, as there is usually some sense of cultural difference with any nationalism, even one that defines itself as civic. He also argued that civic nationalism can be just as aggressive and exclusive as ethnic nationalism, as seen in the violence following the French Revolution. While Smith saw the terms as useful, he did not necessarily think civic nationalism was superior to ethnic nationalism, as civic nationalists are “capable of imposing a uniformity every bit as draconian and exclusive” as ethnic nationalists.

If we can’t avoid aggressive nationalism by emphasising civic ties, then what can we do? Well, Anderson highlighted the destructive nature of “state nationalism.” He argued that the nationalism of the 1800s threatened the power of Europe’s monarchies, as the people began to call on the governments to represent them not the dynasties that ran them. Thus, leaders became accountable to their people as they “had a representative function” and could “be a traitor” to their fellow national kin. Elites “threatened with marginalization” come to adopt “official nationalism,” tying nationalist sentiment to the state and maintaining their power. One example he gave was the “Russification” policies of Russia in the 1800s, which promoted Russian culture among the state’s various ethnic groups. This succeeded in “marshalling a growing ‘Great Russian’ nationalism behind the throne.” To Anderson, then, nationalism could be a force for positive political change unless it was co-opted by the elites it was intended to overthrow.

Similarly, Greenfeld and Chirot suggested an alternative to the collectivistic-authoritarian version of nationalism. They argued that the earliest form of nationalism was “individualistic-libertarian” based on civic identity. Because this nationalism was based on “the universalistic principle of the moral primacy of the individual,” it is less prone to xenophobia. They believed that this form of nationalism arose through particular economic conditions, so it is not easy to replicate. But it does suggest a wariness of nationalisms closely tied to the state. The example they provide is England in the 16th and 17th centuries. English nationalism, they say, was “the creation of upwardly-mobile, confident groups” with a “confident, relatively open and tolerant elite.” They argue its nationalism “produced a sense of restrain unusual for a dominant world power.” The victims of English colonialism starting in that time period would likely differ, but Greenfeld and Chirot are speaking specifically of its “largely limited goals” as a dominant state in that time period.

Finally, Brubaker argued for the desirability of a “counter-state” nationalism. Instead, he argued a better distinction is between “state-framed” and “counter-state” versions of nationalism. State-framed nationalism views the nation as “congruent with the state,” and “institutionally and territorially” dependent on it. Counter-state nationalism, in contrast, is “distinct from, and often in opposition to,” the state. Brubaker points to early Hungarian nationalism as an example of this, which emphasized “protecting and developing the Magyar language” from foreign rulers. He suggested these as categories for analysis, and didn’t claim one was superior to the other. But it supports other scholars’ warning against state-based nationalism.

Trump vs Macron

So, what does this tell us about the dispute between Trump and Macron?

Well, all of these scholars would probably be wary of Trump’s approach to nationalism. Trump’s nationalism includes an enemy—the aforementioned “globalists”—and policies that harm citizens of other countries. Trump’s nationalism is connected to the resentment of certain segments of society towards a perceived loss of power. This is the kind of nationalism both Anderson and Greenfeld-Chirot warned us about. Also, Trump’s rhetoric closely ties American nationalism to him—as seen with his frequent emphasis on loyalty—resembling Anderson’s “official nationalism.”

But Macron’s embrace of patriotism is not necessarily better. First, it’s not clear patriotism and nationalism are really that distinct. Gellner argued “nationalism is a very distinctive species of patriotism,” albeit one marked by “culturally homogenous” societies. And Connor, while believing nationalism and patriotism were separate things, suggested that states can wrap service to the state—patriotism—in nationalist rhetoric. So it may be hard to differentiate between nationalism and patriotism when assessing which collective identities to support.

Second, Macron is appealing to universal values based on human dignity, but it’s still an appeal connected to the state. He claims French soldiers in World War I fought in “defense of universal values” and against “the selfishness of nations.” These are admirable ideals, but Macron says they are tied to the French state. That suggests an exclusive group, one that may even be superior to others. Also, I don’t think Macron would argue that every expression of patriotism is motivated by universal values. There are some bad patriotisms; some commit aggressive acts against neighbors or repress dissident in the service of their state.

So patriotism is not always superior to nationalism. Instead, scholarship on nationalism suggests societies should be wary of any collective identity connected to the state, whether through ethnic ties or appeals to patriotism. Nationalism can be bad when it promotes xenophobia and authoritarianism. But patriotism can be bad too, as it can be indistinguishable from nationalism and promote an equally exclusive authoritarianism. We should, then, oppose aggressive nationalism through a nationalism focused on individual rights and dignity, rather than replacing nationalism with devotion to a state.

Now, this may be unfair to Macron. I’m nit-picking a few words out of a speech that had a generally positive tone. And scholars like Connor do see patriotism as different from nationalism; whether loyalty is to the state or ethnic group. But that doesn’t mean nationalism is a “betrayal” of patriotism; the two can work in tandem. Macron may be suffering from the “terminological confusion” over nationalism that Connor warned about, substituting “patriotism” for something like “liberal values.” Or he may be suggesting service to the state is the antidote to aggressive nationalism, which—as we’ve seen—is problematic.

Also, one may point out that none of these scholars were writing about Trump, so I may be stretching their arguments a bit. It is hard to apply broad historical arguments—like the ones I’ve referenced here—to a specific case, especially in a relatively short article. At least, however, they suggest there is no consensus among scholars of nationalism about the dichotomy Macron laid out. Those rushing to cheer Macron should do so for his critique of aggressive nationalism, but not the solution he provides as an alternative.

The broader question is whether we should avoid any sort of exclusive identity, and instead promote cosmopolitanism that transcends both national and state borders. That is, suggesting a counter-state or individualistic nationalism as a solution to aggressive, authoritarian nationalism.

But maybe any form of exclusive identity will eventually take on a malevolent nature. That may be true. But another common theme of scholarship on nationalism is that it is frequently predicted to disappear, but keeps re-emerging—as we’re currently witnessing. For the time being, the most pragmatic solution to aggressive nationalism may not be the promotion of a cosmopolitan consciousness. Instead, those concerned about the aggressive nationalism the world is experiencing should foster a collective identity that exists independently of any particular state, allowing human dignity to flourish.


This piece expands on an earlier post from Duck of Minerva.

 Peter S. Henne is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Vermont. His book, Islamic Politics, Muslim States and Counterterrorism Tensions, was published in 2017 by Cambridge University Press.

See Also:

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