The upsides of nationalism?

I keep on meeting with various arguments to support varying degrees of nationalism. I personally am strongly opposed to it even in its most benign form. On one recent occasion of brushing up against the subject I was asked; “What is wrong with nationalism?” I answered;

I might be wrong in taking that rather harsh stand on the issue. Hence I ask you all;

Is there anything redeeming about nationalism and does it serve a constructive purpose in the world today?

NB I know that this debate has been had in many ways, but since I am encountering it in various ways in thread after thread currently, I think it worthwhile to bring it up again.

For the sake of staying out of quibbles as re semantics I include a little mini thread lexicon, courtesy of Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary:

If we have to accept the Merriam-Webster definition, then “exalting one nation above
all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations” is obviously problematical.

However I think most political nationalists would not accept that definition. They would argue that political nationalism is the view a nation (i.e. a group of people with a common language, history and culture) is a sound foundation for a stable state, and that the preservation of different nations is good for humanity as a whole (because cultural, linguistic and historical diversity is good) and nation-states help this. This version of nationalism does not involve a belief that the interests of one nation must be advanced at the expense of others, or that one nation ought to dominate others.

So much for staying out of quibbles over semantics!

Plus it’s fun. What would the World Cup be without nationalism? And in the Olympics…the ‘Miracle on Ice’ would have been lame without nationalism, as would the basketball controversy between the US and the USSR. Good times, Good times.

Of course, I have to point out, that the system that was in place BEFORE nationalism in Europe didn’t work out too well, either. Europe just has a long, bloody history. But it built character.

It’s the word “especially” that’s tricky, since the definition of nationalism then allows for just “loyalty and devotion to a nation”.

The OED has “Devotion to one’s nation; national aspiration; a policy of national independence,” which is broader and less biased, it seems to me.

I’d go along UDS.

Nationalism helps support “cultural diversity”, something widely seen as a good thing these days. An appreciation for one’s culture, one’s laws, one’s history. Also, it seems that nationalism helps preserve local diversity, as well. For example, foreign communities here in the US who’ve been for any amount of time are proud of their ethnic/cultural identity, as distinct, but part, of the larger American national identity. Their identity would be different if they were in a different nation.

Nationalism also helps to provide a certain checks and balances to extreme positions that governments take. People assume their national identity in international situations, and defend it against other national identities. Sometimes that comes to war, but quite a few useful dialogs come out of that…for example, trading business techniques…copycatting laws that seem to be working well in other countries…

No quibble in the way UDS. M-W affords us the possibility of taking the more benign definition ‘loyalty and devotion to a nation’ over what they (and I) understand as being the harsher and more common interpretation of the word.

Since I am not certain that you argued the potentially positive sides you posted or if you were merely pointing towards a possible argument; I will await that you do (if you do) or that someone agrees with you before posting a rebuttal.

Well you know, we replaced one system (many) that promoted separatism for another that did the same. The post WWII idea is to promote inclusive cultural diversity while undermining the dynamics that are exclusive and may serve as hard lines of separation between peoples, nationalism being the chief one.

Funnily enough Neurotik as re sports I am awkwardly positioned in as much as that I have to agree. I have no real home nation myself what with being a constant migrant who grew up all over the place with little if any emotional ties to my native Sweden, yet I root for the Blue and Yellow in most any sports event.


…and while I posted that someone did agree.

This is however one of the unique features of the United States of America. One that I hail and which makes me hold America in the highest of esteem. It is the one achievement that the Founding Fathers should be most proud of in my opinion.

In the same time we can see that some odd 200 years down the line, this inclusive spirit within America is also coupled with a small, but significant amount of distrust of the world at large and isolationist tendencies that are potentially hurtful to the US itself and its fellow nations. Unlike the inclusive spirit, which leans back on the principles of equality and human rights which the Founding Fathers revolutionized, these negative aspects lean back on the exclusive spirit of national integrity that they borrowed from Europe at the time.

Methinks you are confusing the idea of sovereign principles with nationalism, that aside I disagree. There is much to be said for opening up and cooperating rather than staunchly holding it to be ‘the view of our nation’. This of course requires consensus between the playing parties as to what rules to play by, that’s difficult and nationalism as a dogma does not promote the effort, rather hinders it.

We have many cases in point were we, the nations of the free world have agreed on the common rules that should prevail. In unity across national borders we work (with varying success) to enforce those common rules in parts of the world that break them. Iraq, the Balkans and Afghanistan being obvious cases in regards oppression. China, Taiwan and Russia being examples of copyright infringements and the like.

All these efforts are made with the cooperation of a multitude of nations with vastly different cultural mix, yet we agree on the principles.

In summary: The cultural diversity in the US is not a result of nationalism although the founding principles of the nation promotes them The parts of the founding principles that promote nationalism has the negative side effect of promoting isolationism and distrust. To fend for the principles of basic freedoms and rights in the world requires cooperation across the national borders, which nationalism does not promote.


Well, but before the growth of nationalism and the nation state, the big European ideal was towards univeralism. First, there was the Roman Empire, then the idea of a “Christian world”, and then the big “multi-ethnic” empires of Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria and Russia.

Granted, but there was that dismal period of Christian denomination as means for separatism in the 16th and early 17th, which led right to the nation-state. Then there was also the whole whacky thing with ‘who owns France?’ - which divided pretty much everyone in some direction. Your point is well made though, and in my view it is what grants the EU precedence. Creating a federal EU is not a revolution; it’s a return to order.

I might also say that although Bismarck did aim to quench the strife between the budding nation-states of the crumbling Holy Empire, as we know it had rather the reverse effect in the rest of Europe, why Germany before 1945 becomes a bad example of European universalism. And the Empire of GB was based on the idea of national supremacy so it hardly fits either. Austria-Hungary and the Holy Roman Empire are pretty good examples of universalism on the other hand. By 1914, all of that was gone though.


What are the upsides of having “loyalty and devotion to a nation”:

  • When people feel pride in a place where they live, they work to keep it the kind of place they can be proud of.

  • You do not live in a vacuum. What affects your neighbors affects you as well. ie the 911 attacks were not a New York or Washington DC problem. These events affect all Americans.

  • It makes the Olympics or World Cup soccer watchable.

I care for my family. I care for my friends. I care for my country. It’s all degrees of the same thing.

I wish I could care for all of humanity, but I’m well aware of the fact that the world doesn’t give a damn about me. So I’ll find a group of people who do care about me and stick with them. I wish I could be a “citizen of the world”, but I know that being on equal terms with everyone means you’re on special terms with no-one - which means there’s nobody watching your back. Universalism is the loneliest game in town.

So what’s nationalism good for? It keeps you alive. Like an army, you need it because other people have it.

Well, what Bismarck did was replace one kind of nationalism, be it Prussian, Bavarian, or Swabian, with a greater, German, nationalism. By that point, the nationalism genie was out of the bottle and couldn’t be put back in.

I’m also not entirely sure why you argue that nationalism leads to distrust and isolationism. Two of the biggest organizations for international cooperation, the League of Nations and the UN, both worked from a nationalist framework, and Woodrow Wilson, in his Fourteen Points, which he hoped would lead to peace and international cooperation, made, as one of his points, the need for “self determination of all peoples.” This desire is enshrined in the UN Convenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights of Human Rights.

As a side note, I don’t think the Reformation and wars of religion led right to the nation state, even though they, I think, helped pave the way, by getting rid of (in Northern Europe, at least) the Catholic Church as an international institution, and breaking the back of the Holy Roman Empire. The only place the wars of religion led directly to nationalism, I’d say, was in the Netherlands, but in that case, the Dutch defined their nationalism by their Calvinism. In most other cases, though, I don’t think it had that effect.

Another advantage of nationalism is that it recognizes that everyone practices it, even those who advocate internationalism.

Everyone has a preferential option for others who share a geographic and cultural commonality with them. Nationalists admit this, and are therefore less likely to be deceived by those who claim to hold all interests in common.

Patriotism is not generally the last refuge of a scoundrel, as Johnson famously claimed. In the 21st century, internationalism is at least as good an option.

There was debate that raged in Germany for a while recently regarding the pride in being Germany, the so called ‘Stolz-Deutsch Debate’. This is obviously a somewhat controversial and hard to deal with matter in these parts. Close to sixty years after the facts some people started saying that it was time to be able to be proud of being German again. The debate still simmers, however the Nobel Laureate author Gunther Grass, who is somewhat of a divinity in Germany got much of the intellectual elite that were jumping on that train to shut up when he expounded on his peeve regarding that debate in an interview in one of the major papers. He basically posited that it was absurd to be ‘proud’ of being German, not because there was anything wrong with being German, but simply because you can’t be proud of something you haven’t done (sorry, no link - can’t find the article online).

Anyway, he has a point IMO, we didn’t chose to be born as the nationality we have and pride in being born is a little absurd, gratefulness or dismay at the fact might be in place, but pride? Then an immigrant has more right to be proud since s/he has made the active choice to go somewhere and be something, which usually rhymes pretty badly with the idea that nationalists hold re nationality.

I would rather say that we should be proud of what we do as a nation today and not rest on our dry and brittle laurels of yesteryear. Nationalism often asks the question ‘Were we justified to do that?’ and then answers yes with some explanation relating to the inalienable right contained in being that nation. Instead I suggest you ask yourself the question; ‘can I be proud of my government and the actions it takes with my mandate today?’ If everyone did so the least it should do is make for some pretty interesting elections, and maybe, just maybe better nations on Earth.

I might not be the best person to address this what a close friends who was in the building when the planes hit and family in New York and all. Be that as it may I can say this much; that day of infamy affected us all worldwide, and especially in the Western World. That day we were all American. People here in Germany wept openly and the express of outrage and the feeling that it was an attack on ‘us’ was omnipresent, to me the whole free world seemed pretty much to cry out in despair and anger in unison.

Which of course I have already conceded. I should however note that this is a little ironic as an argument for nationalism, considering that Pierre de Coubertin’s idea when creating the Olympics was to channel otherwise potentially negative nationalistic feelings into something positive through the friendly competition of the world’s youth, nation to nation on the field.

I am not arguing against self-determination, which IMHO is not the same thing as nationalism. Self-determination is indeed an essential freedom within the political framework where we must inevitably exist, which is the state or nation. That it came out of nationalism does not mean we have to continue to be nationalists to embrace the principle.

The League of Nations and the UN sprang from the need of controlling nationalism and turning it into something positive, in a time when we were suffering quite badly from the negative effects of the same. I am not saying that nationalism cannot have positive aspects, just that it will inevitably lead to a negative backlash in some parts through its inherently exclusive nature, and that therefore I find it preferable to embrace universality. Note that this negates neither the need for self-determination nor the right to hold sovereign principles, which are two things that nationalism gave us and we should keep while we flush much of the rest out.

Re the side note: I did not intend to infer that the reformation led to the nations state per se. However, as you imply the Peace of Westphalia on the other hand more or less obliterated the Holy Roman Empire by constitutional changes that were so complex and incoherent that each principality and kingdom in the Empire had no choice but to adopt at least pragmatic independent self-governance. Add to that the wedge effect that the now legitimate protestant presence exerted on an Empire otherwise dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. Badaboom: the birth of petty nations and presto the concept of nationalism.

Which could just as well be turned around and said to be the seed that will germinate in unmotivated distrust. What’s so scary about internationalism and holding all interests in common? You seem to infer that this is dishonest?


I don’t know if you can seperate self determination from the idea of the nation-state. It’s not often done, at least, either in the past, or today, for that matter. (For example, calls for Palestinian self-determination inevitable resolve themselves in the call for a Palestinian state, calls for self-determination in East Timor led to the formation of an independent state, etc.)

Remember also, that nations aren’t always drawn on ethnic lines. The United States is a nation, and its ethnically diverse. However, in America, there’s a sense of commonality…a shared “Americanness”.

I have more points, but they’ll have to wait. Sorry about that.

And methinks you are giving short shrift to the idea of sovereign principles, which I believe most Americans hold dear.

Take, for instance, the Kyoto Treaty. In the final analysis, it may very well be that it would be in the United States’ best interests to follow all of its provisions in terms of reducing emissions, finding and using alternative energy sources, whatever. But under the American system, We the People of the United States, through our elected representatives, decide how, and when, and to what extent those goals are met. Decidedly NOT because of how some bureaucrats and diplomats meeting in Kyoto determined they will or should be.

Same thing with the International Court. If an American soldier is serving his country to protect and defend us, we wish to retain jurisdiction over how he is treated, in case something goes wrong. Say an Afghani wedding celebration is bombed, causing civilian deaths. We will investigate, and determine what should be the result. Was it a genuine error, or gross negligence, or deliberate homicide/terrorism? If we determine the bombing was the result of say, bad intelligence, but not deliberate malfeasance, why should we allow the soldiers/generals involved to be hauled off to face charges in the Hague or wherever because the Europeans or Arabs think differently? Signing up to such a treaty would in fact be a breach of our Constitution, I believe, which our leaders are all sworn to protect and defend.

NB This applies even if the International Court offers more protections than the U.S. Constitution, btw.

Really what it boils down to is two different systems or ways of looking at things. I certainly wouldn’t say that so called nationalism is better than internationalism, just a different view, so I guess I don’t understand why you (not you Sparc, but internationalists in general), are so quick to condemn nationalism.

If Americans were to do a cost-benefit analysis, what would be the benefits to Americans, of giving up one iota of sovereignty to meet international ideals?

Welcome to the debate milroyj.

Habits die hard I see.

Had you read the whole thread before you posted you might have found this tidbit in a subsequent post by me:

Had you also applied a modicum of English language skills while reading the post that you replied to you might have noted that I was actually arguing for sovereign principles.

Haven’t we been here before?


Sparc, I think you are getting ahead of yourself here. There are two problems with your premise.

First, your position appears to be that, because bad things have been done in the name of nationalism, nationalism is bad. Nonsense. Bad things have been done in the name of just about every -ism - regardless of whether the -ism is inherently good or bad. That’s just the way humans are, unfortunately - from Osama to the Crusades to Stalin to McCarthy to the Haymarket Riots.
The actions of bin Laden, for example, does not mean that Islam is inherently bad. Nor does the actions of Hitler or Mussolini mean nationalism is inherently bad.

Second, you assume that “universalism” would be good. You have no evidence of that. The Holy Roman Empire and the Austrian Empire were by no means shining paragons of virtue (one must note, BTW, that the HRE is a pretty bad example of universalism - it was a unified country for a miniscule part of its existence).
If universalism replaces nationalism, I would lay heavy odds that, at some point, some atrocity will be carried out in its name. That doesn’t mean universalism is bad - just some of the humans who will adhere to it.


First, can someone give me a definition of ‘universalism’?

Yesssss… but this road is a very slippery slope. What right do we have to be proud of anything? Certainlly not being clever or good looking or fit - those are all genetics and nurturing. So is whether you are a good person or not, if it comes down to it.

Can’t we do both? People like their nation even if they disagree with it at the present moment normally in the hope that it can be redeemed. Not being proud of the past sounds too much like throwing away history to me, which means that on the reverse side you’re never going to learn from your mistakes.

Sport and nationalism is a very strange thing- it is partly the great coming together at football games which convinces me that this can not be a totally bad thing.

Can you say a bit more about this, because I don’t understand where you’re making the distinction?

I personally believe self-determination is one of the strongest tools we have today for deciding what is right, and we should think very hard before abandoning it. In regards to the EU debate, it’s why I think a referendum there is essential on matters such as the Euro.

Which could just as well be turned around and said to be the seed that will germinate in unmotivated distrust. What’s so scary about internationalism and holding all interests in common? You seem to infer that this is dishonest?


Doesn’t Communism come under this category?

Alessan - very interesting post, which I find myself agreeing with in many ways. I’ve never quite considered it that way before.