The perception of a common national identity is essential to democracies and to the modern welfare state.
But these failings should not lead you to dismiss the value of nationalism, which, by itself, is neither good nor evil, liberal nor conservative. The perception of a common national identity is essential to democracies and to the modern welfare state, which depends on the willingness of citizens to pay taxes to aid fellow citizens whom they may never have set eyes upon.
LONDON — The recent independence referendums in Iraqi Kurdistan and Catalonia, and the predictable heavy-handed responses from the central governments in Baghdad and Madrid, have raised many questions — a catechism without answers — on the meaning of nationhood in the 21st century. What is a nation? What is a nation-state? Is it the same as a country? Are a people, or a tribe, the same thing as a nation? In a globalized economy what does national sovereignty really mean?
The repercussions of the post-national ideology that (re-)emerged in the 1980s, and then became all-pervasive in the 1990s and 2000s, are still being felt today. Conventional wisdom holds that that globalisation and the internationalisation of finance has ended the era of nation-states and their capacity to pursue policies that are not in accord with the diktats of global capital. But does the evidence support the assertion that national sovereignty, which so often throughout the twentieth century has been wrongly proclaimed dead, has truly reached the end of its days?
I offer three main sets of arguments. First, because states in the modern world are deeply interconnected in a variety of ways, orders are essential for facilitating efficient and timely interactions. There are different kinds of international orders, and which type emerges depends primarily on the global distribution of power. But when the system is unipolar, the political ideology of the sole pole also matters. Liberal international orders can arise only in unipolar systems where the leading state is a liberal democracy.
In his influential 1882 essay “What Is a Nation?” French philosopher Ernest Renan wrote about the bonds that hold nations together. He explained, “A heroic past, great men, glory [are the links between people] upon which one bases a national idea. . . . A nation is . . . a large-scale solidarity, constituted by the feeling of sacrifices that one has made in the past and of those that one is prepared to make in the future.” Others have stressed language, ethnicity, or even pseudo- scientific ideas about “race.” The migration of people between one nation and another is challenging long-held assumptions about who belongs.
Nationalism” is rapidly overtaking even “populism” as a foremost political bogeyman. Yet progressives will often still embrace “patriotism.” The elevation of the last term is meant to deflect Trump-style accusations that the left hates the United States and wishes it ill. Liberals often maintain that true love of country means calling the nation to its best self and thus subjecting it to criticism.