For as long as I’ve been teaching university courses on nationalism, the literature in the field has contrasted civic and ethnic nationalism.
The former was seen as liberal and inclusive, while the latter, in which sovereignty was based on ethnic self-determination, was viewed somewhat suspiciously. It had, some felt, the potential of veering off into racism and fascism.
The nationalism in old established nation-states could be both — if a country was very homogenous, such as France, Portugal, or Sweden, there was no reason to choose. These could be nations as democratic as those founded along a political ideal, such as the United States.
But in the 21st century, something strange has happened. The old idea of civic nationalism, as a counterweight to the “blood and soil” ethnic variety, is disappearing, as political elites on the left have become globalists.
Nowadays, left-wing liberals in Europe and North America are jettisoning the idea of nationalism altogether, in favor of various versions of “cosmopolitan democracy.”
The Democratic Party in the United States is now a coalition of ethnic and gender sub-groups. It seems to believe in what amounts to open borders.
In Canada, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has proclaimed himself a “post-nationalist.” This would surely have been a surprise to his father, Pierre, who fought for a distinctive Canadian identity, replacing the “founding nations” narrative by one that was civic and open to all, regardless of ethnic or religious origin.
On Remembrance Day, French President Emmanuel Macron called patriotism “the exact opposite of nationalism.” Since when have these been antonyms? This, from the leader of the republic whose national anthem is La Marseillaise.
For Macron, “patriotism” means putting the European Union above France, the nation. In this, he more resembles Marshal Philippe Pétain, who led Vichy France under Nazi occupation during World War II and served Adolf Hitler’s “New Order” in Europe, than resistance leader Charles de Gaulle, who was the patriot — and nationalist.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, has remarked that borders are the “worst invention ever made by politicians.”
Donald Trump is now assailed as a proponent of ethnic nationalism. But this is nonsense — Americans are a political nation, based on their adherence to the country’s constitution.
The country was formed through a voluntary union of people who rebelled against an empire. There is no American “ethnicity.” Indeed, the old “melting pot” ideal was the very antithesis of ethnic nationalism.
Liberal globalists fail to distinguish what is legitimate and justifiable in nationalism from what is small-minded and bigoted. Their cosmopolitanism, which advocates open borders, free trade, and rampant outsourcing, brands nationalist sentiments as nativist xenophobia.
A new book by Israeli political philosopher Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism, makes the case for a renewed appreciation of the national state.
In Hazony’s view, the history of mankind since the invention of the state is the history of two competing principles of political order: nationalism, or the principle that the world should be divided up among a multiplicity of self-governing nations, and empire, which he defines as any order “whose purpose is to bring peace and prosperity by uniting mankind under a single political regime.”
While the national state also establishes justice and defends against foreign conquest, unlike the imperial state it is particularistic rather than universal and sustained by mutual loyalty among members of the nation.
Empires today include those based on “liberal imperialism,” embodied in the European Union and, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, in the American-led “new world order,” espoused by all American presidents since 1989, until the election of Trump.
Hazony agrees with Jan Zielonka, a professor of European politics at Oxford University, who in his study of empires and their “civilizing missions,” also asserts that the U.S. and the EU possess all the characteristics of empires, albeit in diverse forms.
The rise of globalism among Western elites in recent decades should be understood, according to Hazony, as the re-emergence of the ideology of an imperial ruling class that sees strong commitments to the nation as threats to the unity of the empire. The EU is now a utopian political project designed to produce a supranational entity.
Hazony maintains that liberal imperialism has replaced national self-determination as the ideal world order in the minds of Western elites. And it denigrates the particular traditions, beliefs, and loyalties that are the foundation of actual nations.
But if all versions of nationalism are going to be defined in a negative light, this will end up driving patriotic citizens into the arms of those right-wing nationalists so abhorred by the globalists.
We can already see the strains the EU is facing, with Hungary and Poland, especially, pushing back on its imperial ambitions to create a “greater Europe.”
After all, observes Bard College European history professor Sean McMeekin, in countries where memories of devastating invasions, civil wars and foreign occupations remain fresh, “firm national identities and secure frontiers are bulwarks against catastrophe.”
This is even more the case for Israel, a nation-state that came into being relatively late. Zionism has been defined as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people, and it has historically run the ideological gamut from civic and even socialist nationalism on the left to ethno-religious on the right.
Some Zionist are secular and even anti-clerical, while others are more religiously Orthodox and nationalistic, as exemplified by the current coalition ruling Israel.
The Israeli government today includes the right-wing nationalist Likud and Israel Our Home parties, both descendants of Revisionist Zionism; the religious-nationalist Jewish Home Party; and Shas and United Torah Judaism, both ultra-Orthodox groups.
Most recently, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, against the opposition of many on the Israeli left, passed a law proclaiming Israel the nation-state of the Jewish people. The prime minister enjoys good relations with nationalists in European countries, including the leaders of Hungary and Poland, and with the Trump administration in the U.S.
Having been a persecuted and reviled minority for some 2,000 years in Europe and the Middle East, few Jewish Israelis would relish giving up their hard-won country.
Henry Srebrnik is a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island.