Don’t Fear the New Nationalism
The utopian belief in a globalized world without borders is dying in the West.
Jun. 25, 2017
MARRIAGE BETWEEN the Economist and the New Left Review may seem like one of Hieronymus Bosch’s stranger copulations. Liberal capitalists and Marxists have been drawn passionately together over the past few decades in one area: their common utopian belief in the development of a globalized world without nationalism and national borders, a dream now dying in the West. Elsewhere, it never really took root beyond sections of the Western-influenced (and often Western-subsidized) intelligentsia.
Nationalism has frequently been described as a form of religion, and as the social scientist Liah Greenfeld writes,
Like the great religions of the past, nationalism today forms the foundation of our social consciousness, the cognitive framework of our perception of reality. Seen against the record of the great religions’ historical longevity and continuous vitality over centuries of political, economic and technological change, the recognition of this functional equivalence may give us a more accurate idea of nationalism’s projected life span and pace of development.
One of the reasons why parts of Western society fell so comprehensively for ideas of multiculturalism and the weakening of national identities and borders was an intense complacency about the stability, unity and strength of Western states. The European Union itself only worked—for a while—because the states that pooled some of their powers had real powers to pool and felt confident enough to lend some of them to the EU. Elsewhere in the world, people remember very well that they have no grounds for such complacency. These grounds for complacency are now also disappearing in the United States and the West, as political, cultural, ethnic and religious cleavages deepen and—in the absence of strong new ideologies dedicated to reunifying nations—risk becoming irreconcilable.
CENTRAL TO the liberal-capitalist and socialist faith in the inevitable and desirable disappearance of nationalism has been the belief that it is an artificial modern construct, developed by elites and then spread to populations. And what is constructed, the argument goes, can be deconstructed—a thought that linked the analysts of nationalism to Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault and powerful tendencies across wide swathes of academia. The constructivist school of studying nationalism was first developed by Ernest Gellner (for the liberals) and Eric Hobsbawm (for the Marxists). They were joined by legions of followers soon after.
From the start, the constructivist approach had its critics. They acknowledged the new elements of national consciousness introduced by modern mass politics and mass society, but also insisted on the antiquity and strength of collective identities and allegiances (whether or not called “national”). The strongest modern nationalisms, they argued, were precisely those that were able to draw on older roots. The constructivist camp itself produced new and more sophisticated variants, notably that of Benedict Anderson, who traced the origins of nationalism to the appearance of print rather than to the industrial revolution as such, and portrayed it as a process of collective imagination—and like imagination, a partly subconscious process—rather than of artificial and calculated creation. This gave rise to specific studies examining how various nationalisms were generated from below, in response to new circumstances, rather than being simply cultivated from above.
In the meantime, however, a shallow and vulgarized version of the constructivist theory had achieved a form of hegemony in most of academia, the media and think tanks. The notion of nationalism, nationalist sentiments and allegiances as an artificial creation of cynical and self-serving elites became a standard unthinking, automatic trope, even on the part of people who did not consciously identify with the socialist or liberal traditions. Thus, at a conference at Lewis and Clark College on ethnic conflict in the late 1990s, I heard that “Greeks and Turks lived together in peace on Cyprus until politicians divided them in the 1950s”; “Bismarck was an ethnic entrepreneur who invented German nationalism in the 1860s”; and “stories of Croat atrocities against Serbs in the Second World War were an invention of the Miloševic regime.”
For these ideas to gain such purchase required an unusually deep, rich and varied set of motives, some of them noble, others less so. First, of course, comes the ancient Judeo-Christian vision of the Peaceable Kingdom: “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). This tradition flowed into modern socialism, and became mixed up with the underlying socialist and radical liberal belief (so deep as often to be unconscious) in the sinlessness of man in his original natural state, uncorrupted by wicked influences.
Such feelings were given tremendous strength by the European catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century, seen (often rightly) as the product of nationalism run mad. The European reaction against nationalism found its institutional expression in the development of the European Union, seen by much of the Western intelligentsia as the future of all humanity. The EU was, for a time, very successful both in economic development and in banishing war from western and central Europe. Missed in all this was the way in which certain European states have seen the EU not as an opponent of their nationalisms but as a new vehicle for them, and have started to turn against the EU once it became clear that this was not the case.
This has been evidently true of the eastern European countries that joined the EU after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. The spread of democracy and free-market capitalism to these countries was the only substantial victory for liberal internationalism after the end of the Cold War, and was therefore trumpeted as a universal model, applicable all over the world. Completely ignored in all this—one is tempted to say deliberately ignored for ideological reasons, at least by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and other such bodies—was the role of nationalism.
Eastern European populations with deeply conservative social and cultural attitudes (preserved for decades by the carapace of Communism and socialist economic attitudes), were persuaded to accept EU policies that they detested because this was the price of joining the EU and NATO, and thereby getting away from the even more hated power of Moscow. Nationalism therefore worked for EU and NATO expansion and, for a while, for democracy and economic reform in a way that it cannot possibly do in other parts of the world. With EU and NATO membership secured, Poland and Hungary in particular have reverted to older tendencies, including ethnic nationalism. This tendency has especially been brought to the fore by what is seen as the EU’s role in enforcing openness to Muslim migration, thereby threatening the ethnic composition of these states in a way never attempted by Soviet Communist hegemony.
The result is a wave of anti-EU nationalist sentiment in eastern Europe, which is contributing to the fraying of the EU as an organization and a vision. Nowhere in the EU, however, did a common European identity come to prevail over a sense of bounded national communities. Even at the height of the EU’s apparent success, national media were overwhelmingly concerned with national issues, and turnout for elections to the European Parliament were miserable compared to national elections.
IF THE reaction against nationalism on the part of European intellectuals was nonetheless understandable given Europe’s terrible modern history, the behavior of their American equivalents was more surprising—for the United States was founded in a national separatist rebellion, has a political culture inexorably attached to the idea of the absolute national sovereignty of the American people, and—as any visitor to the United States can see—is absolutely permeated by symbols of national allegiance and pride. Moreover, from the 1890s to the 1950s, American nationalism had a positive connotation not just for ordinary Americans, but for much of the progressive intelligentsia. Though its roots lay deep in American and pre-American British history, the term itself had been coined towards the end of the nineteenth century by progressives seeking a way of assimilating and gaining acceptance of the millions of new immigrants from societies radically alien to core U.S. traditions, as well as binding up the wounds of the Civil War.
The turning of the American intelligentsia away from the idea of U.S. nationalism was the result of the European catastrophe, and more immediately the effect of the influx of European academics to American universities, knowing very little of the U.S. tradition, but naturally imbued with hatred and fear of nationalism. This then fused with two other ideas: that nationalism is inherently antimodern, and that the United States is the leader and epitome of global modernity. The logical result of this combination was a belief not that American nationalism is bad, but that there is no such thing as American nationalism—as, to my stupefaction, I was repeatedly told by U.S. academics when my book on American nationalism appeared in 2004. What America had, I was told, was patriotism—a sane, moderate, rational attachment to democratic institutions and traditions, devoid of nationalism’s chauvinism, paranoia, bluster and aggression. Many of the same people who said this are now, of course, in a state of hysteria that so many Americans voted for the dreaded Donald Trump.
The erasure of American nationalism from discussion helped allow liberal internationalists to believe in American power and its infinite expansion because a non-nationalist, benevolent American power could be seen as coterminous with all the positive aspects of globalization. Equally astounding to me, among sections of the Washington liberal establishment in the late 1990s was the belief that globalization would inevitably erode—even to insignificance—the power of national states, when these people lived surrounded by symbols and expressions of American national power and greatness, and themselves belonged to the elite that presided over that power. The point is, however, that globalization for them (whether they themselves are fully conscious of this or not) is seen as an entirely U.S.-dominated process, led by liberal Americans like them who would recruit members of other nations to become just like them. This would, in effect, lead to the Americanization of the world—Francis Fukuyama’s vision in The End of History and the Last Man.
The logical consequence of all of this was a belief that members of other nations, if they were progressive, disinterested or even just rational, had a moral and intellectual duty to “do the right thing,” not only by adopting American institutions but by identifying with and supporting American power in the world, since this power was identical with all the good sides of globalization and with the general interest of mankind. For a long time, U.S. prestige, power, funding by Western institutions and dissent against local regimes did produce small but voluble cadres of intellectuals and even politicians in various countries who were prepared to identify with this view.
This in turn contributed to the final piece of the puzzle, which brings us back to theories of constructed nationalism. These theories in their vulgarized form became a great way of delegitimizing and ignoring any national sentiments, or expressions of national interest, that were in opposition to those of the United States or the West more widely, or were simply ones of which the writer in question disapproved. Rather than being genuinely—or for that matter rationally—held by large parts of the population concerned, such sentiments were portrayed simply as the products of cynical manipulation and indoctrination of the innocent masses by regimes and elites. When democracy dawned, the veils would be lifted from the peoples’ eyes and they would see that their nations’ interests and those of the United States were identical.
THE INTELLECTUAL, moral and political autism fostered by this set of attitudes has been one of the main causes of the failures of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. The chauvinist hysteria now being directed at Russia by supposedly internationalist liberals has its roots not only in the Cold War but in the fact that, after the Cold War, developments in Russia were the first to reveal the emptiness and impracticality of the combination of American imperialism with liberal internationalism.
It should have been apparent as early as the mid-1990s that this was never going to work. Even at its time of greatest weakness, and greatest (apparent) democracy, Russia was not prepared to accept a role as an impotent subordinate in a U.S. global order. India too, though a democracy (of its own kind) with real reasons to seek alliance with the United States, has always been absolutely determined that such an alliance should be on India’s terms and serve India’s interests, and that (as over Iran), India would reject American requests whenever these conflicted with Indian interests. This was as true under the civic nationalism of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty as it has been under the Hindu nationalism of Narendra Modi and the BJP. As for China, the Communist Party’s legitimacy now rests squarely on a combination of nationalism and economic growth—and economic growth presented as necessary not just for individual and social well-being, but for the strength of the nation.
The rise of nationalism in western Europe and the surge in what has been called “Jacksonian nationalism” in the United States are now obvious, and strike the liberal-internationalist project at its very core. These developments also greatly undermine the vulgar and didactic version of the constructivist theory of nationalism, whereby nationalism is invariably the product of manipulation by the state and by elites. For if there is one thing that is absolutely clear about the resurgence of nationalism in the United States and Europe it is its profoundly antielitist character, and the degree to which elites have banded together against it. Indeed, to a considerable degree over the past two generations in western Europe, state institutions themselves have been dedicated to discouraging nationalism.
In many European countries, this has led to a situation in which all the mainstream parties have combined in an attempt to prevent the nationalists from gaining power (something that, while successful in the short term, is having visibly disastrous effects in the longer term, as it leaves opposition to the existing government nowhere to go but the extremes).
In a radical reversal of earlier patterns, the greater part of the state school systems in western Europe have also dedicated themselves to combating their own states’ nationalisms. In America, meanwhile, the school system remains dedicated to propagating U.S. civic nationalism (what I have called the U.S. nationalist thesis) but often with a strong emphasis on multiculturalism and openness rather than, as previously, on assimilation. This approach seemed to have had a remarkable success for many years, and to have borne out the ability of elites to create radically new cultural and political paradigms. But it is now also visibly failing, as far as large parts of the European populations are concerned.
This is, above all, because of the discrediting of a central but partly unspoken assumption of the liberal-intellectual paradigm of recent generations: that multiculturalism was both desirable and possible because culture does not really matter. This assumption is at the core of rational-choice theory (at least in its cruder economic variants), and of the Washington Consensus in economics. It found voice in Tony Blair’s (historically ludicrous) statement to the U.S. Congress in 2003:
Ours are not Western values, they are the universal values of the human spirit. And anywhere, anytime ordinary people are given the chance to choose, the choice is the same: freedom, not tyranny, democracy, not dictatorship.
This belief underpinned the liberal (including neoconservative) case for the invasion of Iraq, and the almost equally disastrous Western overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi. The idea that multiculturalism is possible because culture is unimportant and all the really important things are shared is a profoundly American one. It has allowed the belief that people of every ethnic, racial and religious origin can become full Americans as long as they subscribe to the “American Creed” of belief in the Constitution, democracy, the law, freedom of speech, human rights, capitalism and individualism. Cultural difference then becomes little more than a question of private religious belief (with a marked tendency to a sort of soft Protestantism, as Michael Lind and others have remarked), food (with a marked tendency to taste similar) and dressing up in folkloric costume on national days. And for most of the immigrants who arrived from Europe in the later nineteenth century, and Asians since then, things have worked out that way, albeit only after long and often painful struggles.
As a result, all of these groups eventually gained admittance into the middle classes—a group with its own strong cultural as well as ideological features. Walter Russell Mead has called them a sort of national “folk.” Latino immigrants seemed heading down the same path, until many American whites were driven into a state of panic by the Latinos’ sheer weight of numbers—and especially, unlike previous immigrants, by illegal immigration—coupled with the ghastly pictures of state decay and gang warfare in Mexico and Central America. And this occurred just as economic growth evaporated for much of the white middle classes, and inequality soared.
ISLAM IS different. It has gradually become apparent in Europe that even moderately strict versions of Islam (whether of the Koranic “fundamentalist” variety or those linked to conservative local cultures) do produce important cultural differences, which make assimilation difficult if not impossible, and produce separate cultural communities. For instance, in England as in much of Europe, the most important institution of social interaction is the pub or bar. If your religion does not allow you to go there, then you will at the very least be at a tangent to the rest of British society. Intermarriage is also impossible, unless your partner converts to Islam.
To attract sufficient numbers of young Muslims to break so definitively with their own traditions would have taken the offer of great economic rewards for doing so—and this is precisely what the deindustrialized European economies cannot offer to less skilled youth, whose lack of skill in the Muslim case is being reinforced by cultural isolation and barriers to education, especially for women. Faced with a combination of the widespread failure of Muslim assimilation, ever-growing numbers (the Muslim proportion of Britain’s population has risen by an average of more than 60 percent per decade for the past half century), and the threat of Islamist terrorism, it is hardly surprising that growing numbers of indigenous Europeans have abandoned an ideology of multiculturalism and open borders. Nor is it surprising that, in an EU with stagnant economies and austerity in defense of the common currency imposed by Germany through European institutions, this nationalism should also have a strongly anti-EU character.
JUST HOW dangerous is the new wave of nationalism in the West, and in the world more generally? In terms of relations between states, not so much—or at least no more dangerous than what came before. To draw attention to the enduring strength of nationalism in Western democracies is not to say that those nationalisms have not changed greatly over time. Thus, a key characteristic of nationalisms in the West today, compared to in the past, is that they are no longer focused on external aggression, the conquest of new territory or the recovery of “lost” territory. The National Front in France has no desire to conquer Belgium. Alternative für Deutschland, a new right-wing populist party in Germany, has no plan to fight Poland and Russia in order to recover Breslau and Königsberg.
On the contrary, the entire nationalist posture of these parties is a defensive one: to defend the existing French and German nations (or their ideas of what they are) against economic, social, cultural and above all demographic threats from within and without. A relentless emphasis on the (real or assumed) interests of ordinary citizens leads to strong opposition to EU and NATO expansion and to confrontation with Russia, a country which is (rightly) seen by them as posing no threat whatsoever to ordinary Frenchmen or Germans. On the contrary, it is the liberal-internationalist projects embodied in the EU and NATO that have created confrontation with Russia over the past decade.
In the case of the strain of American nationalism embodied in Trump, things are somewhat different: because of the vastly stronger element of militarism in the United States (not boiled out of the national consciousness by tens of millions of dead, as has been the case in Europe), and because America’s global position embroils it inexorably in a range of conflicts and disputes, whether or not they have anything to do with U.S. national interests.
The greatest threats from the new Western nationalisms are internal, not external: that they will exacerbate political and cultural divisions to the point that orderly government becomes impossible and countries begin to head towards civil strife or even war. This danger is especially great in the United States, for while America lacks Europe’s large Muslim minorities, other divisions concerning race and culture are even deeper. Moreover, the United States’ late-eighteenth-century, now apparently immutable, constitution vouchsafes immense powers of obstruction of government to the opposition, and also increasingly produces election results that are seen by much of the population as illegitimate.
TO BEGIN to think about how nationalism can become a positive force in U.S. and Western affairs, it is necessary to consider the complex historical relationship between nationalism and modernizing reform. Most parts of the world were forced by the expansion of Western capitalist power to try to play catch-up in terms of modernization; to do this quickly required the savage beating down of a host of social, economic, cultural and religious barriers to modernization.
In this struggle, nationalism was an essential ally of modernizing reform, because it was the only force that could create legitimacy for the reformist elites in the mass of the population (and in the military, necessary as the last modernizing argument against conservative resistance). Nationalism was at the heart of what Antonio Gramsci called the achievement of cultural hegemony by the bourgeois liberal elites in nineteenth-century Italy and elsewhere in Catholic Europe. Elsewhere in the world, too, nationalism was central to the success of modernizing elites wherever they did succeed, notably in Japan of the Meiji period and Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Once again, the failure of the Arab world and most of Africa to generate this kind of nationalism has been central to these regions’ failure to develop.
Like other parts of the world that previously had to reckon with Western-driven globalization, the West is now facing its own economic, social and cultural crisis produced by Asian-driven globalization. So far the return of nationalism in the West has been, above all, a reaction against these tendencies on the part of classes and groups endangered by them, and linked to attempts to maintain, as far as possible, the “moral economy” of Western states as they existed in the golden decades after the Second World War.
These efforts are understandable. But they are also, to a considerable extent, futile. Even if the spread of industry to Asia had not doomed the old Western industrial economies, then automation would have done so; and if automation didn’t, then climate change would sooner or later require fundamental economic change. There can be no return to the golden age of mass, well-paid industrial employment. If the strains of globalization and economic change are not to tear our societies apart—as they are very visibly beginning to do—then we need to introduce a range of radical reforms leading to a very new kind of society, with a vastly stronger emphasis on social solidarity and the virtues of austerity. In the United States, there is an increasingly obvious need to reform the Constitution, despite the sacred view of it held by much of the U.S. population. This will be a change so wrenching as to be entirely comparable to those required of traditional societies in the past faced by the need to modernize, and the only way to create national acceptance for such changes is through nationalism, and appeals to national solidarity and strengthening the nation.
The United States has done this once before, when faced by the utter transformation of American rural and small-town Protestant society by industrialization and mass immigration in the last decades of the nineteenth century. One intellectual and political response was precisely the “New Nationalism” of Herbert Croly, given political form by Theodore and, later, Franklin Roosevelt. At the heart of the New Nationalism were the imperatives of creating a stronger American nationalism (civic, but with strong cultural elements) to both assimilate and gain acceptance for the millions of new immigrants, and the need to create new policies of social solidarity and justice to mitigate the colossal inequalities and inequities thrown up by the Gilded Age. In this way, it helped to form the foundation for the New Deal. The New Nationalism aimed at solidarity across class, ethnicity and religion (and now needs to be extended across the races), but it was most emphatically not multicultural, and insisted on loyalty to the nation as a fundamental principle.
Such a unifying spirit most assuredly cannot be achieved either by Trump’s populist rodomontade or by the Democrats’ pandering to a disparate bunch of smaller and smaller identity groups, united only in their ostentatious, insulting and politically disastrous contempt for middle-class white society. No amount of Clintonesque rhetoric about America’s international role as the “indispensable nation” and leader of the free world is going to unite Americans, given these yawning gulfs at home. Indeed, for a considerable time to come, it seems that no Western political party is capable of this kind of approach; but—like the New Nationalism and Progressivism of the early twentieth century—such profound changes in political culture always take a long time to develop. The serious thought about what needs to happen should begin now.
Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and a senior fellow at New America in Washington DC. He is the author, among other books, of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism.
This essay was published in the July/August 2017 print magazine under the headline “The New Nationalism.”