The elites of Russia, Europe and the United States are still wrong about nationalism

If a head of state or foreign minister asks me for advice, don’t worry; this is unlikely to happen – I could start by saying: “Respect the power of nationalism”. Why? Because if I look back over much of the past century and consider what is happening today, failure to appreciate this phenomenon seems to have led many leaders (and their countries) to costly disasters. I’ve made this point before – in 2019, 2011 and 2021 – but recent events suggest a refresher course is in order.

What is Nationalism? The answer has two parts. First, it begins by recognizing that the world is made up of social groups that share important cultural traits (a common language, history, ancestry, geographic origins, etc.), and over time some of these groups came to see themselves as constituting a single entity: a nation. A nation’s claims about its essential character need not be strictly accurate in biological or historical terms. (Indeed, national narratives are usually distorted versions of the past.) What matters is that the members of a nation sincerely believe that they are one.

Second, the doctrine of nationalism further asserts that every nation has the right to govern itself and should not be ruled by outsiders. Along the same lines, this view tends to make existing nations suspicious of those outside their group, including immigrants or refugees from other cultures who might try to enter and reside in their territory. Certainly, migration has been going on for millennia, many states contain multiple national groups, and assimilation can and does happen over time. Nevertheless, the presence of people who are not considered part of the nation is often a burning issue and can be a powerful driver of conflict.

If a head of state or foreign minister asks me for advice, don’t worry; this is unlikely to happen – I could start by saying: “Respect the power of nationalism”. Why? Because if I look back over much of the past century and consider what is happening today, failure to appreciate this phenomenon seems to have led many leaders (and their countries) to costly disasters. I’ve made this point before – in 2019, 2011 and 2021 – but recent events suggest a refresher course is in order.

What is Nationalism? The answer has two parts. First, it begins by recognizing that the world is made up of social groups that share important cultural traits (a common language, history, ancestry, geographic origins, etc.), and over time some of these groups came to see themselves as constituting a single entity: a nation. A nation’s claims about its essential character need not be strictly accurate in biological or historical terms. (Indeed, national narratives are usually distorted versions of the past.) What matters is that the members of a nation sincerely believe that they are one.

Second, the doctrine of nationalism further asserts that every nation has the right to govern itself and should not be ruled by outsiders. Along the same lines, this view tends to make existing nations suspicious of those outside their group, including immigrants or refugees from other cultures who might try to enter and reside in their territory. Certainly, migration has been going on for millennia, many states contain multiple national groups, and assimilation can and does happen over time. Nevertheless, the presence of people who are not considered part of the nation is often a burning issue and can be a powerful driver of conflict.

Now consider how nationalism derailed leaders who did not appreciate its power.

Exhibit A, of course, is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s failure to understand how Ukrainian nationalism can thwart his attempt to restore Russian influence in Ukraine through a swift and successful military campaign. Russia’s war effort was flawed from the start, but fierce and unexpected Ukrainian resistance was the biggest obstacle in Russia’s way. Putin and his associates forgot that nations are often ready to absorb huge losses and fight like tigers to resist foreign invaders, and that is precisely what the Ukrainians did.

But Putin is not the only world leader to blunder in this way. For much of the 20th century, European rulers of vast colonial empires waged long, costly, and ultimately unsuccessful campaigns to keep restless nations under their imperial grip. These efforts have failed almost everywhere – in Ireland, India, Indochina, much of the Middle East and much of Africa – and at a terrible human cost. Japanese efforts to conquer and establish a sphere of influence in China after 1931 also failed.

When it comes to capturing the meaning of nationalism, the United States has not done much better. Although US diplomat George Kennan and other US officials acknowledged that nationalism was more powerful than communism and that fears of a “communist monolith” were exaggerated, most US officials continued to fear that the movements of the left do not sacrifice their own national interests and do Moscow’s bidding. ideological reasons. During the Vietnam War, a similar blindness to the power of nationalism led American leaders to underestimate the price North Vietnam was willing to pay to reunite the country. Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union failed when it invaded Afghanistan in 1979 because it did not realize how hard Afghans would fight to repel a foreign occupier.

Unfortunately, American leaders have not learned much from these experiences. After September 11, 2001, the George W. Bush administration convinced itself that it would be easy to overthrow the existing regime and replace it with a shiny new democracy because it assumed that Iraqis and Afghans aspired to be free and would welcome American soldiers as liberators. Instead, the administration won stubborn and ultimately successful resistance from a local population that did not want to take orders from an occupying army or embrace Western values ​​and institutions.

Failure to appreciate the power of nationalism is not limited to wars and occupations. The European Union was created in part to transcend national attachments, foster a shared European identity, and ease the competitive pressures that have led to repeated and ruinous European wars. Arguably, the EU has had peacemaking effects (although I would say other factors are more important), but national identities remain an enduring part of the European political landscape and continue to confuse elite expectations.

For starters, the structure of the EU itself privileges national governments that are loath to cede too much authority to Brussels. This explains, among other things, why the EU’s repeated efforts to develop a “common foreign and security policy” are largely stillborn. More importantly, every nation’s first response in a crisis is not to turn to Brussels but to its own elected officials. Unity was clearly lacking during the Eurozone crisis in 2008 and during the COVID-19 pandemic; instead, it was each country for itself.

Moreover, not appreciating the enduring appeal of nationalism helps us understand why so many observers have underestimated the risk of Brexit or the unexpected emergence of hardline nationalist parties. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party have triumphed by appealing above all to each country’s sense of nationalism in a way that is directly at odds with the liberal values ​​of the country. EU.

Last but not least, former US President Donald Trump’s unlikely political career owes much to his ability to present himself as an ardent American nationalist and oppose the supposedly decadent globalist elites he accuses of selling out the United States to the decline. river. His political platform and public persona bring nostalgic nationalism to the fore, whether in the slogan “Make America Great Again”, his mantra “America First” or his open hostility towards (non-white) immigrants. Anyone still baffled by Trump’s political appeal must begin by acknowledging that he has harnessed the power of nationalism more effectively than anyone else in contemporary American politics.

Given the abundant evidence for the enduring importance of nationalism, why do so many smart leaders underestimate it? I’m not sure, but one of the central characteristics of nationalism may be part of the problem, similar to a bug in software. Not only do nations see themselves as unique and special, but they also tend to see themselves as superior to others and therefore destined to triumph in the event of conflict. This blind spot makes it harder to recognize that another nation might be its equal (or, God forbid, superior). It was difficult for some Americans to understand how the Viet Cong or the Taliban could possibly defeat them, and it seems to have been difficult for Putin to recognize that Ukrainians whom he considered inferior could and would resist a Russian invasion.

Elites can also ignore the power of nationalism if they spend their lives in a transnational, cosmopolitan bubble. If you go to the World Economic Forum conference held in Davos, Switzerland every year; do business anywhere in the world; spending time with like-minded people from many different countries; and you’re as comfortable living abroad as you are in your home country, it’s easy to lose sight of how people outside your social circle retain powerful attachments to places. , local institutions and their own sense of nationhood. Liberalism’s emphasis on the individual and his or her individual rights is another blind spot, insofar as it diverts our gaze from the social ties and commitments to group survival that many groups regard as more important than individual liberty.

So if a political leader came to me for advice or wanted to know what I thought of a foreign policy move he was considering, I would ask him if he was considering nationalism, and I would remind him what happens when great powers ignore it. And I would paraphrase the Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky: You may not be interested in nationalism, but it is still interested in you.