A pivotal debate is happening over the meaning and merit of “nationalism.” It will decide the heart and soul, as well the character and future of the West.
The French finance minister, Bruno Le Maire, recently argued that Europe needs to turn to an empire to face off China and the United States. That came after both French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued for a common European army. The presidents of Hungary and Poland, on the other hand, have started to lead a bloc that extols the virtue of nationalism and federalism. Of course, President Trump also famously (or notoriously, depending on which paper you’re reading) said that one should be proud to be a nationalist.
Two tweets that showed up one after the other on my Twitter timeline struck me as relevant to the conversation. The first was from Tom Nichols, which somewhat bafflingly and ahistorically stated: “Patriotism is the love of an idea. Nationalism is the love of a chromosome.”
It’s baffling in the sense that it would imply that love for your home, or neighborhood, is the love of a theory. Wonder what John Adams, Mahatma Gandhi, or Vaclav Havel would have to say to that? The second was regarding a podcast of Yoram Hazony, in which he lambasts the European Union as a new liberal empire that wants to kill off every single independent nation-state in the European continent and then turn its sights on other great powers, possibly including the United States.
Why is nationalism being portrayed by a certain section of liberal and libertarian intellectuals as a horrific throwback to a dangerous past? It relates to an understanding 100 years after World War I of the horrific slaughter that ended an old order and propelled us into a new.
Sitting in the present era, it’s hard to imagine how rapidly the world order can change, as we have seen in 1945 and in 1991. But nothing was as pivotal as 1918. The entire old Christian Europe-dominated world collapsed, and we were hurled to the modern, secular, post-religious age, with the collapse of Imperial Russia, the Ottomans, Imperial Germany, and the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Even Great Britain, the superpower of those days since the fall of Napoleon, went into relative decline, as the global balance of power moved from Europe, and started to shift to the Americans and the Soviets. The collapse of the Westphalian nation-states and empires, and the palpable shock that was a result of the mindless slaughter of young men from every social class, from poets to prisoners, scientists to sportsmen, in the Belgian meadows changed the structure of European continent from which the continent arguably never recovered.
The nation-states and empires lost their glories, treasure, and men, and turned to victimhood. This led to the rise of murderous modern internationalist and imperial ideologies like Nazism and Leninism. We all know what that led to.
Since the end of the first world war, and especially after the second world war, there has been a consistent attempt to move past nation-states as the primary unit of global politics, because liberals believe that nations and powers are the primary cause of conflict in the world. The reality, however, is of course much more complex.
Balance of power maintained the century-long peace since the fall of Napoleon, one that broke only after Imperial Germany started wars of aggression. But it is the false myths of the first world war that have led to a periodic push to obliterate borders and nation-states in the cause of global governance and perpetual peace. Liberalism, as Robert Kagan wrote, was an “act of defiance against both history and human nature.”
This is, after all, the crux of the debate, and the prime paradox of liberal internationalism. As John Mearsheimer wrote, “A purely liberal state is soulless: it creates few emotional bonds between citizens and their government, which is why it is sometimes said that getting people to fight and die for a liberal state is especially difficult.”
One can see this in Europe, where the percentage of people who are willing to fight and die for their country varies extremely between the conservative East and the liberal West. Mearsheimer argues that in the clash of national sentiments and liberalism, nationalism will always win, which will, in turn, lead to hardcore liberals behaving like imperialists.
Because liberalism is radically individualist on the domestic front, humans as social animals find that destructive. That either leads to either ethnic or racial tribalism, or supranational empires, like the EU or the Soviet Union. So, in a curious twist of fate, it leads to the same old clash between liberal, or Marxist, imperialism and nation-states that wants to break free of a borderless ideology.
Think about this for a moment. If someone is living and working in America, where would you want his loyalties to lie; to the land that provides him food, work, opportunity, and a good life, or to some vague borderless internationalist idea, like liberal internationalism, Marxism, or Islamism? Would you prefer your fellow countrymen to pledge loyalty to Communist International, the Islamic caliphate, the United Nations, or the European Union?
Liberalism has succeeded in changing Western elite opinions about borders. Borders, nation-states, and nationalism are anathema for a group of people, a transnational class of bureaucrats, who are more interested in having their gardens done by cheap labor pouring in from outside while they sip their lattes and hyperventilate about hairbrained schemes of spreading democracy in Libya as their own countrymen suffer from opioid epidemic and joblessness.
This is the same group of people Samuel Huntington derided as “Davos Men” — global elites with “little need for national loyalty, view national boundaries as obstacles that thankfully are vanishing, and see national governments as residues from the past whose only useful function is to facilitate the elite’s global operations.” These are the same elites who will never serve if the bugle sounds for the wars and interventions they plan to reshape hells on earth in utopian dreams of turning them to liberal paradise, where their less fortunate but patriotic fellow citizens die to try to implement that dream.
Liberals fail to understand and anticipate the desire of normal people to feel passionately about the flag their forefathers fought for. That leads to a vacuum, which is filled by ethnocentric tribalism. If conservatives don’t reclaim healthy civic nationalism, the choice ahead is almost always either ideological internationalism and rules through institutions and bureaucrats, or atomized ethnic nationalism, tribalism, and racism. The elite abhorrence of anything that relates to flags and land and borders shows how much the window has moved in the last couple of decades.
The only unifying force is a healthy, civic, conservative nationalism, the type that stops distinguishing between tribes, races, and ethnicities and unites in a love for the land beneath one’s feet. In a world where the choice is increasingly between Antifa and Abolish ICE mobs on the one hand, and transnational open border Davos Men on the other, conservative nationalism might be the only centrist option.