Nationalism is a term that has moved to the front and center of American and world politics over the last three years. From the resurgence of the slogan “America First,” to Brexit, to the rise of the Nationalist Party in India, the idea of nationalism has reared its head yet again.
President Trump’s speech to the United Nations in the Fall of 2019, called for all nations to embrace their nationalist tendencies, because it was natural to do so. The President said, “The free world must embrace its national foundations. It must not attempt to erase them or replace them.”
He went on to add that “[t]he true good of a nation can only be pursued by those who love it: by citizens who are rooted in its history, who are nourished by its culture, committed to its values, attached to its people, and who know that its future is theirs to build or theirs to lose. Patriots see a nation and its destiny in ways no one else can.”
These words sound like a clarion call for each nation to embrace its individuality and thrive because of it.
However, what they fail to do is show an adequate understanding of the difference between a nation, and a nation-state. The two are not the same thing, and haven’t been for some time.
At one time in the not-so-distant past in human evolution and social development, nations were a political system of a group of people who shared the same language, the same culture, the same religion, and the same values within a geographic area.
Think of the Franks in what would be France, the Spanish in Spain, the Rus in Russia, the Italians in Italy, and the Japanese in Japan. However, that also includes the Serbs in Serbia, the Ukrainians in Ukraine, the Basques in the Pyrenees Mountains, the Catalonians in Catalan, and the Carpathians in the Carpathian region of central Europe.
These groups of people, some successfully, others not so much, were able to create geographic areas in which a political (or military) majority made a nation-state. In other words, the members of a national group were now a political state where that national group claimed power.
Over the last millennia and a half, these nation-states have appeared, disappeared, changed boundaries and caused huge migrations of people, Diaspora of other peoples, and, most tragically, the extermination of entire nations. To top it off, all of this has been done in the name of nationalism.
This may seem like a very esoteric topic on a subset of political history which has no consequence in today’s world. Yet, tragically, it has very real consequences in today’s international environment, and in the United States’ domestic political system.
The president uses the terms nationalism and patriotism interchangeably. However, they are not the same word. Nationalism asserts that a people share the same language, culture, religion and political roots. Patriotism asserts that one’s state and government are to be loved and valued at all times. However, a nation, and a state are no longer synonyms in the world.
In 2019, for babies born in France, 20% had only one or no French parents. This is a trend which is expected to continue. In America, the largest segments of the population growing are Hispanic members, which in some states will be a plurality of the population within 15 years. These numbers reflect a significant change in the demographics of the population, and the nations of France and the U.S. are not alone.
Since World War Two, populations around the world have been moving at an incredibly fast rate, and no nation is immune. Some, like Australia and Japan, which are large islands, have been exceptionally successful at stemming the flow of immigration. Others, like the nations of Western Europe and the United States, with giant land borders, have not. A few, like Britain, which is an island, became an anomaly because of its membership in the European Union and its former colonies.
All of the migration, however, has changed the national makeup of most nation-states, and brought back the resurgence of nationalism.
Where had it gone? One hundred forty years ago, nationalism had its Great Awakening. The consolidation of the Italian States, and the breakup of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, led to the explosion of successful nationalist movements throughout Europe and the Middle East. The idea that the Serbs, the Croats, the Italians, the Poles, the Germans, and the Greeks could all be independent nations AND independent States, governing themselves, led to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the Boer War at the turn of the 20th century, the Balkan Wars of 1902-1903, the Great War of 1914-1919, and, of course to World War II.
Fascism of the 1930s did not arise out of a vacuum, but out of the specter of nationalism. Nationalism led to the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand, by a Serbian anarchist in 1914. It led to France claiming part of Germany, Germany claiming part of France. It led to the Turks claiming all of Greece and the Greeks claiming parts of Turkey.
Every nation used the idea of nationalism to claim its special place in history and then used the clarion call of patriotism to support its nationalist agenda.
At the end of World War Two, however, the great powers, for very different reasons not to be explored here, created different ways to curb nationalism.
In 1951, with the Treaty of Paris, and significant support of the United States, the European Coal and Steel Community was created. This became the European Union. The idea was to so intricately combine the economies of France and Germany, and later, Belgium and all of the other nations of the European continent, into such a tight partnership, that any attempt to exploit nationalism would lead to economic collapse.
The long-term hope was to lead to an end to European wars. By 1991, this had failed. Perhaps not with the major powers, France and Germany, but with the other nations in Europe which were not so intricately combined?
The war did not come from the partners, but from the nations in Europe where national identity was still a powerful, powerful force. These little nations of Croatia and Slovenia, for almost 80 years, part of Yugoslavia, sought, once again, to exert their national identity – their nationalism – into the creation of political states based solely upon their national identity. This is what nationalism is all about.
In Britain, the rise of nationalism led to the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union. Books will continue to be written about the departure, its causes and effects, but the basis of it is rooted in English nationalism. Note the word “English.” This is because Scotland and Northern Ireland residents almost unanimously voted to remain within the European Union. Those people, who were not English, did not hear the clarion call of English nationalism. And they were left behind. (I will note, significantly, that the Welsh did seek to leave, but I would argue that their national identity is not as divisive as Scottish and Irish.)
And what was the driving force behind English nationalism? It was the immigration issue that motivated voters. They wanted control over their borders and over their British laws and norms. They didn’t want foreigners telling them what to do and who to let into their country. They wanted English laws for English people.
The great irony of this is that more and more of Britain’s population is becoming less English. The foreign birth rate and immigration from former colonies has increased exponentially over the last three decades. Britain is becoming less and less English, and more multicultural. This loss of identity (and feared loss of control) is exactly what drove Brexit and English nationalism.
It is the same force driving Trump’s nationalist agenda in the United States: And it is based on race and ethnicity. The only identity that American and English nationalist groups share is their belief that they share a common ethnic, religious and political identity. This includes the color of their skin. Anyone making decisions that don’t share this must not share the same values and beliefs.
In both countries, this is a farce. The English do not identify themselves as an Anglican, Caucasian nation any longer. America is not a protestant, Caucasian nation any longer. These are multi-ethnic, religiously diverse, non-homogeneous conglomerations of many peoples. They do not share a common heritage and religious background. They do not share a common belief that the best parts of the country were in its past.
Both countries were major supporters and benefactors of the slave trade. Both were colonial powers that suppressed the native populations of the lands they occupied. Both have histories resplendent with wealth and glory. And yet, this wealth and glory came at the very real price of other people’s lives, heritages, cultures and property.
Now, these descendents are a major part of the populations of both Britain and the United States. They do not share the national identity of the native Englishman or the Caucasian protestant American. They do not share the religious identity of the Anglican church or the protestant evangelical.
However, nationalism wants them to do so. But, it can’t. Nationalism presupposes that the ethnic, religious and cultural makeup of the people is homogeneous. But in American and Britain, it no longer is so. Nationalism can only lead to further division of the political realities of both nation-states of Britain and the U.S.
The clarion call for nationalism in each country is a call to displace people of color and sows the seeds of political disagreement in favor of one people and one identity.