Since the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump, the theme of nationalism has been thrown around like some 20th century disease that grew out of Nazism and with movements rife with xenophobia and worse, racism. Well, there are some nationalists who might harbor such instincts, but it is an unfair characterization of nationalism as a general proposition. I have used this quote before because I believe it is a good description of the concept as we seem to use it currently, particularly in comparison to its opposing view, globalism. It is from an essay entitled “Why Historians Get It Wrong”, by Jeremy Black in The New Criterion:
There is no greater gulf than between, on the one hand, those who identify primarily with their nation, and are concerned at what globalization might be doing to it and to them personally, and, on the other hand, those who identify with wider abstractions and are more concerned with retaining the benefits that globalization has brought them.
At a recent campaign stop in Houston, Donald Trump proudly announced that of the two choices, he is definitely a nationalist. No surprise here for one whose entire campaign over the past three years has been about “America First”, but I wonder if he realizes the full spectrum and implication of that identity. If not, I hope he will read a great book on the subject, The Virtue of Nationalism, by Yoram Hazony.
Hazony lays out a compelling case that nationalism as a political theory comes from the principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own individual course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference. He opposes this theory with that of imperialism, which in various forms including global institutions, seeks to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind, as much as possible, under a single political regime. He recounts how, beginning in the 16th century and through the Treaty of Westphalia ending the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, English, Dutch, and American Protestants revived the Old Testament’s emphasis on national independence, leading to the founding of the first nation states.
He laments that nationalism has been unfairly characterized by the internationalists as the cause and home of racism and hatred, largely because of its association with Nazi Germany, a view he rightly says is misguided because the Nazis were nothing if not imperialists to the core. The answer offered by the internationalists–global governance–is well-intentioned, he maintains, but misses the point that all of us are inevitably shaped by the bonds tying us to our families, communities, and nations, the true source of our identities and our strength. But he is quick to acknowledge the argument most commonly made against nationalist politics that it encourages hatred and bigotry and takes on the issue by suggesting and offering evidence that pushing for universal political ideals as with global organizations like the European Union invariably generate hatred and bigotry to at least the same level as nationalist movements.
This is an important book, deeply philosophical, and one that could be very useful in the hands of opinion leaders who need to better understand the deeper history and meaning of the words they use.