The Corner

Politics & Policy

Nationalism and Nationism

A Trump supporter holds an American flag at a rally in Madison, Ala., February 2016. (Marvin Gentry/Reuters)

In response to God, Ancient Israel, and Nationalism

I am enjoying the widening gyre of my discussion with Rich a great deal. And I’m glad for Rich’s clarification below. But I have an empirical question. Rich writes:

In sum, I don’t think God ordained nationalism, but I do think nationalism created our system of independent, sovereign nation-states that has proven quite favorable to self-government, democracy, and peace — things that anti-nationalists support, so long as they don’t have to acknowledge nationalism’s contribution to them.

I want to be clear at the outset that I don’t necessarily think this is wrong, but I do wonder how we know this is right. Let’s take these one at a time.

According to Merriam-Webster, self-government means “government under the control and direction of the inhabitants of a political unit rather than by an outside authority.” Note how this definition doesn’t include the word democracy. I presume Rich agrees that self-government and democratic self-rule are different things because he lists democracy separately from self-government. As I think I mentioned in our discussion, Woodrow Wilson’s conception of “self-determination” — essentially the term for self-government at the time — wasn’t as democratic as the propaganda of the time, or the text books of today, suggest. Wilson believed that nations should be free to “choose” their own systems, even if the system they chose wasn’t democratic and wasn’t chosen democratically. This is a common view among many progressives and quite a few paleo-conservatives as well. It usually manifests itself in phrases like “Who are we to judge how other countries live?” or “Who are we to impose our values on other countries.” After all, Cuba and North Korea have “self-determination” but they don’t have democracy or the rule of law.

The relevance here is that self-government/self-determination is the goal of many anti-colonial movements of “national-liberation.” But not all national-liberation movements yield . . . liberty. Many of the nations that threw off the yoke of colonialism or alleged “Western hegemony” were very nationalistic, but they were also often very ugly dictatorships. For every India that moved in fits and starts toward democracy — thanks in part to the legacy of British colonialism — there were probably two or three that moved toward dictatorship. In other words, the line between nationalism and “self-government” to democracy is hardly a straight one.

Which brings me to democracy. I’m inclined to agree with Rich that some conception of a nation-state — what I call much to his apparent annoyance, “nationism”– is a necessary precondition for democracy. It is hardly sufficient. Democratic nationalism is merely a subset of the different kinds of nationalism. And that illustrates the crux of our disagreement. There is nothing internal to generic nationalism that produces democracy. Democracy — and the rule of law, natural rights etc. — are ideas that come from outside nationalism itself. And very often in human history they are at odds. Rich is right that the concept of the nation goes back, at least, to ancient Israel. But for most of the time between the creation of Israel and the birth of democracy, there were no democratic nations.

And then there is peace. This strikes me an empirical question that is maddeningly difficult to answer. Does the spread of nationalism spread peace? I honestly don’t know. In one sense there’s a lot of correlation. Steven Pinker has demonstrated that violence has declined over the last X number of years. And X can equal almost any number you want to plug in. So if your baseline is the period before the arrival of Israel, then you can draw a (jagged) line of decline of violence. But if you shrink the timeline to, say, the last couple thousand years, nation-states were a huge driver of large-scale violence. The Israelis were not exactly pacifists.

If you shrink the timeline even further to the last couple centuries, the picture is also mixed at best. Nationalist movements pretty much everywhere left a bloody trail behind them. It’s true that after World War II with the cementing of the current international order, nations found a kind of equilibrium, at least among the big players. But how much credit do we want to attribute to generic nationalism?

The Pax Romana was not a nationalist peace. You could argue that the Pax Americana was a kind of hybrid. As a nation we decided that it was in our self-interest to protect the international order. But it is precisely this international order that nationalists like Steve Bannon (but not Rich Lowry) are so hostile to. The so-called Pax Europa the EU crowd likes to boast about is really an extension of the Pax Americana, but it’s still worth noting that its success derives largely from quashing or productively channeling the nationalist ambitions of its members. Keeping Germany from acting too German (or at least too Prussian) is an important lesson of history.

Again, I am largely in favor of the Westphalian nation-state system, and as I have argued with Yoram Hazony and Rich alike, if all people mean by nationalism is the idea that the countries of the world should be considered sovereign entities (what I mean by “nationism”) then I don’t have too much of a quarrel. I would still argue that sometimes it is necessary for America to ignore the sovereignty of nations that wish us harm. Which is to say, sovereignty is a principle I respect, but it is not an iron law.

The point, in other words, is that I still think all of the wonderful things Rich lays at the feet of nationalism do not necessarily stem from nationalism, but from the ideas that channel nationalism in a productive and democratic direction.

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