Nationalism May Have Led to Two World Wars but It Can Be a Force for Good

By Tudor, Maya | The Scotsman, November 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Nationalism May Have Led to Two World Wars but It Can Be a Force for Good


Tudor, Maya, The Scotsman


A cross the globe, we are witnessing a rising tide of nationalism that marginalises minorities. From Xi to Modi to Trump, the world's most populous countries have embraced leaders that purport to represent the interests of their ethnic or religious majorities first and foremost. Observers rightly worry this rising fervour of nationalism has the potential to undermine checks on executive power and minority rights, both essential features of a healthy democracy.

A healthy scepticism of such 'majoritarian' nationalism may be warranted, but this should not lead us to reject all forms of nationalism as undesirable. In Europe particularly, mistrust of nationalism runs deep, tainted by its association with two bloody world wars. Historically, nationalism has been used to motivate withdrawal from international cooperation, aggression, war and genocide. But so too has it underpinned vibrant movements for colonial independence, the construction of generous welfare states that provide for their citizens and a feeling of solidarity that is crucial to individual identity in the modern world. As countries and regions diversify, the sense of community that nationalism can foster may be more important than ever. It is for this reason that we should seek to emphasise and celebrate inclusive forms of nationalism.

A brief detour into definitions of nationalism is in order: all nations are "imagined communities". Imagined because even among the world's smallest nations, nationals will never meet all their conationals face to face. Though most nations have some objective markers such as a common language or clear geographic border, many nations miss one or some of these attributes.

At its founding, the United States could be argued to have had none. Yet nations are still communities because they engender common feelings of identity. Irrespective of whether a national identity is ultimately fictive in origin, nationalism is a political force that has proven powerful enough to cohere millions of individuals together and generate bonds of obligation such as paying taxes or giving national service.

It is because nationalism is powerful and deployable towards good or ill that we ought to make clearer distinctions between its beneficial and baleful forms.

Some would argue that inclusive nationalism is an oxymoron because all nations are exclusive projects with respect to who they are not. The Scots and Welsh define themselves partly by the fact they are not English; the Canadians define themselves partly by the fact they are not Americans, Pakistanis partly by the fact they are not Indians. This is widely accepted as legitimate. Moreover, there is good evidence that communities with strong bonds of solidarity are better able to provide public goods such as education and health.

But nations can be hierarchical with respect to their citizens. Such citizenship hierarchies are established when fixed features of identity are adopted as a defining feature of the nation. Once relatively fixed features of identity - typically race, ethnicity or religion - are adopted as central to the definition of the nation, citizens without those fixed features are by definition relegated to second-class citizenship. In both 19th century Germany and 20th century Malaysia, for example, a combination of religion and ethnicity was central to defining the nation. Consequently, in both of these nations in times of profound economic or political crisis, citizens without those ethnic features were more readily denied political rights than in countries characterised by more inclusive forms of identity. …

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