I know it will be hard to read this post as anything other than a response to Britain's decision to leave the U.K. That decision certainly precipitated this. But it only provides an occasion to voice some thoughts about a set of ideas I've been considering for a long time—the past five years or so. And my thoughts, which are mainly about nationalism as a global force, are not mainly about the U.K. alone—nor do I think that nationalism was the only reason why one might have voted to leave. (It obviously wasn't, and I don't claim it was.)
In particular, I've been thinking about nationalism as a force in global politics and modern global history. My analysis is that of a cultural scholar, not a political scientist, and it may come as a surprise to some of you that I have been thinking a lot about this, because it's not high on the list of my obvious published interests. A lot of my ideas take the form of broad generalizations without hard data, and some feel so blindingly obvious that I worry I'm speaking in platitudes. But I haven't seen anyone concisely express what I see anywhere, so I hope that sketching these out here might be of some value.
What I've seen over the past few years is that nationalism is now indisputably one of the two or three most powerful global forces of our time—nationalism with a strong ethnic charge. I have seen writers and scholars comment about nationalism in countries or regions without pointing out the nearly self-evident: this is a worldwide trend.
Britain is at the top of everyone's minds right now, and the resurgence of an ethnic nationalism in the U.S., as manifested in the Trump campaign, is prominent. The Austrian presidency felt like another signal, as do the continued speeches of politicians not in power throughout Europe like Marine Le Pen. Immigration from north Africa and the Levant affects every country in Europe at the moment. But it has been less appreciated that this nationalism is on the rise throughout the world. Evan Osnos's book on China's past ten years, Age of Ambition, highlighted the extent to which China since the rise of President Xi has encouraged nationalist sentiments to consolidate its support: it has built a narrative of past national humiliation at the hands of Western countries that modern China must pay back; it directs suspicion outwards; it continues to assert territorial and military advantages over neighboring countries, especially at sea. Japan and South Korea both have strong identification between ethnicity and nation, with governments widely considered nationalistic, concerned with building self-defense capabilities and forced by unemployment crises to find blameable targets. The Prime Minister of India has been repeatedly described as a Hindu nationalist. Russia's government continues to prod nationalist fervor, most recently (and pettily, to Western eyes) by opposing the Pope's outreach to Orthodox patriarchs. Uhuru Kenyatta's government has been pushing to expel refugees from Kenya. Ethnic divisions continue to challenge the primacy of political borders in Turkey, Syria, and Iraq. There are more examples.
My knowledge of all this is a generalist's, not a specialist's. But it seems obvious to me that nationalism is one of the great forces in world history right now, and perhaps the greatest dynamic force (the others being religious extremism and the slow-moving effects of global climate change). It would take more time and space than I have here to parse each case properly. Consider this a conjecture for discussion.
I found myself worrying late last year, after spending much more time reading about China and South Korea, in the middle of the Trump campaign's rise to the nomination, that stupid nationalisms might be the death of us all, either in the long term or right away. I say "stupid nationalisms" not in the belief that all nationalisms are stupid—they aren't—but that the stupid kind might lead us sooner or later into war. One imagines a President Trump in office at the same time as a President Xi, both leaders stoking a enmity toward the other country—economic, racial, political—and fears what might happen if there were sufficient popular support in both countries for military action against the other, built on economic enmity and cultural distrust. In the longer term, we all pray that Britain's decision to leave the E.U. doesn't set the stage for a return to wars in Europe, whether in twenty or two hundred years' time.
These are not well-formulated thoughts, and I write them with the caution that I am speculating wildly. But I'm putting them out there in the belief that they highlight important work for people like me to be doing. At the end of the day, I don't believe that this is primarily or solely a problem of economics or politics, though both economics and politics are involved in solving it. It's a problem just as much of culture and ideas. I think it's nonsense to believe that the problems would all disappear if everyone had a good job and a pension. There are deep problems here about pluralism and toleration, the willingness to accept that a national project might encompass multiple cultures and that a culture might be fortified, not challenged, by an influx of cultural differences. And these problems—this distrust of any group, however assimilated or naturalized, within the nation-state on the basis of plausible difference of any sort—can and do take place in even the wealthiest countries with the lowest unemployment rates and the highest per capita GDPs. This is not a problem that better management alone can solve.
We need strong humanistic engagement. Work in the world of ideas does not move fast; it is not always clear how the ideas diffuse in. But if we don't do it, the front is lost. I see more clearly than ever the urgent need to be interrogating concepts like national pride and national apology. Why do we stake so much on these intangibles? What is a nation such that it can even have any pride to wound? Korea demands apology from Japan; Turkey refuses to apologize to Armenia—what is this abstraction that wields so much power with so little to be gained? Every nation worries that its moral stature will be compromised by apology, and yet nothing is more damaging to nations' moral stature than a refusal to apologize for obvious past wrongs. Why is it harder to morally shame nations than individuals?
I don't think that nationalism is a bad thing in itself. Nations have much to be legitimately proud of, particularly cultural achievements. My naïve dream is that humanists have a role in building a world where pride in a historically established, yet open and dynamically evolving culture displaces nationalisms of military superiority or ethnic purity. There is so much to be proud of beside the myth that one's country has always been right throughout history (what nation has? who really believes that any nation has?), its material prosperity, or its influence over other countries. You can be proud of traditions, of language, food, art; and you can proud of them without thinking they're somehow imperilled by the presence of other language, food, and art in your nation. Differences of belief, however strong, between subgroups shouldn't justify wholesale expulsion from the nation, especially when a subgroup obviously lacks the electoral means within a democracy to impose its way of life on others. We need better, or perhaps simply rearticulated, arguments for why this is the case.
A little over two hundred years after the Treaty of Paris, and a hundred years after the Battle of the Somme, nationalism has revealed itself to be not at all dead. I'm not sure that anyone at the end of the Second World War could have comprehended just how alive it would be, or how powerfully it would still be shaping the world seventy years on. It's hard not to feel that as the generation that lived through the wars dies off, we've started forgetting what the stakes are, and stopped dreaming internationalist—if not cosmopolitan—dreams. Along with the work that needs to be done by politicians and economists, as a humanist, it seems ever more important to be leading the way in using history and culture to point to a better, smarter, more peaceful and meaningful kind of cultural pride.