Nationalism Good and Bad

Bruce Thornton, Reflecting on the willingness of people to fight for their own.

The last two weeks we have been inspired by the brave resistance of Ukraine’s people to the brutal violence of the Russian invaders. Outmanned and outgunned, the Ukrainians have continued to fight against overwhelming odds, even as the invaders answer their resistance with atrocities like the bombing of a maternity hospital in Mariupol.

The paradox is that both sides in this war are in part motivated by nationalist loyalties that the transnational “new world order” has proclaimed are quaint superstitions and folkways at best, and intolerant promulgators of xenophobia and violent aggression at worst. What the Russo-Ukrainian war shows is that patriotic nationalism, like pretty much everything we humans do, can be good or bad, depending on the intentions and purposes it serves.

The weakening of nationalism reflects the globalist ideology that slowly developed over the last two centuries. It reflects two developments that define modernity: secularism and the world-shrinking technologies that expanded global trade. For most of humanity, faith has been one of the foundations of national identity like language, history, culture, customs, and mores. But especially in the West, faith has been reduced to a private preference banished from the public square, rather than being part of the collective expression of national identity. It’s no coincidence that over time the decline of patriotism has paralleled the decline of faith.

The other development was new 19th-century technologies like the railroad, telegraph, and steamship, which created a global economy. International commerce brought the world’s peoples closer together and bound them by trade, creating a global economy which brought disparate national cultures together. The gradual growth of greater global trade and its managerial elite suggested that international cooperation and similar interests were more efficient and beneficial than the zero-sum national difference that frequently, like religion, fomented violent conflict. Similarly, transnational organizations, covenants, and treaties would turn force into a costlier and less effective means of adjudicating conflicting national interests than international diplomacy.

Especially after the rise of fascism and Nazism in the 20th century––which were blamed on nationalist loyalties rather than on the malignant novel ideologies that exploited them––nationalism fell out of favor, particularly to the global elites and supranational institutions of the “rules-based international order.” Nationalism became a malignant ghost from the past that the enlightened global elites scorned.

But this charge against nationalism leaves out the fact that most of the world’s peoples live and spend most of their lives not in an imagined “global community,” but in a particular place with particular languages and cultures that give them their particular identity.

Moreover, it ignores the critical role of the nation-state as the foundation of modern consensual government and political freedom. The nation-state allows large groups of people to create a solidarity that binds them together and gives them a common destiny. Without shared identity and values, this affection for their own way of life and for those who share it with them, people are left rootless and fragmented into niche identities, connected now only by consumerism, popular culture, and transient fads and fashions.

Finally, such a Balkanized society is vulnerable to its more cohesive rivals and enemies who do believe in something worth fighting, killing, and dying for. As the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut writes, “It is inhuman to define man by blood and soil but no less inhuman to leave him stumbling through life with the terrestrial foundations of his existence taken out from under him.” Those “foundations” are what make people willing to risk their lives on their behalf. After all, no one is going to die for the United Nations, the European Union, or the World Bank. But like Ukrainians today, they will fight and die for their homeland, the culture and customs that make them what and who they are.

The current crisis in Ukraine illustrates this paradox of nationalism. For decades Vladimir Putin has decried the mutilation of the Russian people that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. In his version of history, more than a 1000 years ago Ukraine and its capital Kyiv, occupying the territory of the ancient Rus, was the heartland of the Russian people, and hence the creators of the Russian peoples who shared a similar language and religion. But Ukraine was forcibly separated from Russia, first by the Bolsheviks, then by the “geopolitical catastrophe,” as Putin called it, of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, which made Ukraine a separate sovereign nation.

But to Putin, as he wrote in 20211, Russia and Ukraine are “the parts of essentially the same historical and spiritual space.” The loss of that unity, moreover, is the “result of deliberate efforts by those forces that have always sought to undermine our unity. The formula they apply has been known from time immemorial – divide and rule. There is nothing new here. Hence the attempts to play on the ‘national question’ and sow discord among people, the overarching goal being to divide and then to pit the parts of a single people against one another.”

The West, particularly the U.S., has been the agent of this division of the Russian people. Exhibit No. 1, in Putin’s view, is the incorporation into NATO of the Baltic nations, Poland, and other erstwhile Warsaw Pact nations, thus bringing Western militaries to Russia’s borderlands. The plan to bring Ukraine into NATO, now dropped to placate Putin, compounds this insult because Ukraine is an offspring of the original Mother Russia, the homeland exiled from its national sibling, as is Lithuania in Putin’s estimation.

Western critics have mocked Putin’s history as not only wrong, but a mere pretext for his aggression against Ukraine waged to expand his own power and gain access to Ukraine’s natural resources. But that’s beside the point. We should remember that humans are adept at sincerely having contradictory motives at the same time. When Cortez with a few soldiers mounted a pyramid in Tenochtitlan and risked his life by overturning the idols and cleansing the blood-stained altars, his belief in fighting idolatry in service to his Christianity was as sincere as his greed for gold was intense.

We don’t know if Putin really believes in his history and its justifications for his aggression, but about half of the Russian people support his policies based on them. In any case, whether true or false, sincere or a mere pretext, we must take it seriously, for it is an agent of action that is killing people and destroying their homes and cities, as well as endangering the economic interests and national security of the West.

So much for destructive nationalism. The courageous response of the Ukrainians illustrates genuine nationalism. They are fighting and dying because Ukraine is their homeland, the site of their history, culture, language, art, faith, mores, holidays––everything that makes them a particular people distinct from other peoples. It’s what patriotism is all about: dedication to one’s own people and the way of living that characterizes their nation.

Finally, the long denigration of the sort of patriotism and national loyalties we are cheering in Ukraine is dangerous, for it weakens the willingness of people to fight for their own. A recent poll asking Americans whether they too would stay and fight if an enemy invaded found that 55% said they would, which drops to 45% of men between the ages of 18 and 34. But when party affiliation is included, 60% of Republicans said they would, compared to 40% of Democrats who would not. These are troubling signs, suggesting that at least hypothetically, large numbers of people do not value their country and the freedoms that they enjoy.

But without a communal sense of our identity as citizens who share foundational political ideals like unalienable rights, freedom of speech and religion, and equality of all before the law, we are at risk of losing them. As historian Michael Burleigh asks,

Can any nation survive without a consensus on values that transcend special interests, and which are non-negotiable in the sense of “Here we stand”? Can a nation-state survive that is only a legal and political shell, or a “market state” for discrete ethnic or religious communities that share little by way of communal values other than the same currency? Can a society survive that is not the object of commitments to its core values or focus for the fundamental identities of all its members?

The answer is “ No.” The fracturing of our citizens into identities defined by superficial physical characteristics, and by a cultivated and reinforced sense of grievance based on historical offenses long gone, makes this answer more likely. Nor does the anti-nationalism of the supranational global elite offer any reason why we should love our country and fight for it. Indeed, watching so many of our national institutions like corporations, manufacturers, sports, and entertainment eagerly kowtowing to communist China––our self-proclaimed global rival which publicly announces its intention to replace us––for greater profits and market-shares, one gets the sense that loyalty to our country is not as important as the bottom line.

I hope I’m wrong, that at the moment of truth sure to come more of us will be willing to stand and fight like Ukrainians are today. But there aren’t many signs, other than cheering for far-away Ukrainians, that such an outcome is likely.

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