If words could sue for slander, this word, “nationalism” would have a rock solid case in what we might term a reverse-class-action suit. Because an entire class of people has maligned it viciously and has made a misleading attempt to turn it into a slur. They’ve used it almost like that other debate-ending term, “racism” which actually has a fundamentally pernicious connotation.
But nationalism, understood, promoted, and implemented properly, is nothing like racism.
First and foremost, nationalism, in and of itself, has nothing to do with race. The term “nationalism” in the United States of America is most assuredly not a short form of the term “white nationalism” I often see people implying that it is. See our article on that subject. In fact, it is quite the opposite of that terribly shallow mindset in many important ways.
To be sure, ethnically based nationalism does exist in parts of the world where the indigenous people have lived in a relatively steady state for many hundreds or even thousands of years. Just ask the Japanese or Chinese or Thai or Persians or many others about their historical and current general cultural mindset about their nation, culture, and ethnicity. In some of these places, it is difficult to nearly impossible for a foreigner to even gain citizenship. And, to be clear, this is not a “bad” thing. It is a natural feature of a set of people and a specific culture that has been living in the same place for a very long time.
But ethnic nationalism is specifically excluded from being a valid feature of nationalism in the United States of America. This is as implicit in our founding principles as it is inherent in the development of our national history.
The United States is, by nature of the entirety of its history and the means of the settlement of its territory and the development of its culture, inherently multi-ethnic and even multi-cultural. Vast areas are very proudly so. There is a distinct Latin American (which itself means a mixture of Spanish and Native American) influence in even the major place names all across the Southwest of the United States. Some early settlements had concentrations of Germans or Dutch or English or Poles or immigrants from other nations. Certainly the descendents of Black slaves are as much a part of the United States as anyone. And then there’s the large number of nations of the indigenous peoples, which, in themselves had numerous different cultures.
Are there racists in our nation? Has there been an enormous amount of ethnically base strife? Of course there are. And of course there has been. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a valid feature of what we should claim as our nation’s character or what honest, sincere people mean when they use the term, “nationalism.”
People fight over invalid goals and principles and superficial appearances all the time. We should encourage them to stop it, not legitimize their idiocy by acknowledging it as part of the nature of our nation.
Next, nationalism is not jingoism, nor is it militarism.
The phrase, “My Country, Right or Wrong!” may seem like a jingoist war cry. And I suppose it may be used as such. But those who say that are not using the complete phrase. They are leaving out an important prefix on the original, which was:
“Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong!”
It’s a conditional statement. It is not an unqualified call to arms for the nation to go out and conquer the world. It is first a call for introspection and self-analysis to make sure that the actions of our nation are in the right. And that is followed by an expression of love for and fellowship among the citizens of the country. Military action in our “intercourse with foreign nations” is sometimes required. But it must be done in the context of a valid cause.
The above quoted statement was, in fact, made by a military officer, but certainly not as a promotion of undue interventionism in other nations. It was said by United States Navy Captain Stephan Decatur as a toast to the United States after his successful quelling of acts of piracy on the High Seas and the subsequent signing of a peace treaty with Algeria.
Nationalists who are unqualified jingoists are really hypocrites. Because, if nationalism for any given nation is to have any self-consistent meaning, it must promote worldwide the universal principle of nationalism, which means the principle that sovereign nations have the right to govern themselves and to be treated with respect as individual agents of their own self-interest among the world’s community of sovereign nations.
It is, in fact, in the best interest of all nations for other nations to be successful. Prosperous and productive nations tend to be peaceful nations. They do not need to violate the borders of other nations to satisfy their need for resources. There is seldom anything to fear from a nation who is prosperous, productive, and whose people are self-satisfied.
Which brings us to the next item:
Nationalism is not isolationism.
A proper nationalist regards each nation as a sovereign agent of its own and its citizens’ self-interest, with equal rights in terms of international transactions among the separate nations of the world.
This does not necessitate isolationism at all.
It promotes freedom of trade among the nations of the world in just the same way as the concept of a free market economy promotes the idea and activity of voluntary transactions among individuals and between individuals and those voluntary collectives of individuals that we call “companies.”
In fact, ideally, nationalism, consistent with the principles of free market capitalism, recognizes the free exchange of goods, services, and, especially ideas, among the nations of the world to be the best solution for our international tensions and problems. And ideally, it does so in the place of and, where it is possible, to the exclusion of military interventionism.
Ideally, nationalism is civic nationalism. And, in the United States of America, nationalism that is consistent with our founding principles of the rights of individuals, is, by definition, civic nationalism.
Civic nationalism requires two fundamental things in order to function effectively and to be an actual expression of the collective organization of its citizens:
First, it requires the recognition of certain basic rights of individual citizens. These rights must include the right of freedom from government suppression of thought and expression, including religion and all manner of philosophy, science, and other ideas and feelings.
And second, it requires that the government be organized as a democratic republic so that its laws and actions can effectively be the expression of the thoughts and desires of the citizens.
In that broad framework, all kinds of differences in culture, ethnicity, religion, heritage, and other characteristics of citizens is allowed, with the caveat that they not interfere with the fundamental civic order of the nation. (For example, a person or family may subscribe to whatever philosophy or practice whatever religion they wish as long as it does not violate the basic rights that are guaranteed to any citizens, including each other.)
What nationalism explicitly is not is “globalism.”
Or, more specifically, it is not any form of global effort to create a hierarchical command structure that would have authority over sovereign nations or that would promote nations unduly interfering in the affairs, and most especially the internal affairs, of other sovereign nations (in effect, any interference that was not immediately required for their own national defense.)
Note that “globalism” is not the same as “globalization.” The globalization of the world’s economy and communication systems is an inevitable byproduct of worldwide relatively free markets for trade, travel, and exchange of ideas. The term “globalism” is more applicable to the desire to install a command or control structure into international relations by powerful nations asserting control over others or through the use of international organizations such as the United Nations.
Some people claim that “the age of nations is past.” Some even claim that we must end the age of nations in order for humanity to survive. This was a sentiment that arose after the first world war and during the collectivist efforts of the League of Nations and seemed to be justified by the increasing violence of world warfare. It led to the creation of the United Nations in 1945 at the end of World War II.
The problem with it is twofold:
An international body such as the U.N. without authority over the sovereign nations of the world cannot be effective. But such an international body with authority over the affairs of nations would be a disaster in terms of both human rights within nations and matters concerning conflicts between nations.
Just look at the so-called “Human Rights Council” of the current United Nations that is made up of 47 nations that are supposedly responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the world. Now, I know that the United States still has issues regarding civil rights. But imagine countries where women are not yet even allowed to drive being on a “council” to determine the rights of citizens within other nations.
Now I know that some people say that nations like Saudi Arabia get a seat on such a council so that they can learn from others. But the only way to avoid that turning into a disaster if they are not given any power and if other nations are not given any real power over them. And alternatively, if nobody is given any power, what does one nation supposedly learn from one lone representative from their government (or even a small committee) sitting in a New York office building? Their general populace learns far more from exchanging ideas through economic trade or even communication over the internet. The government-appointed representatives of an oppressive nation are not going to take a message of reform back to the citizens or subjects of that nation.
And then there’s the idea of “nation building.” Generically, it means establishing a national identity for the people of a region. But the term got popularized during the Clinton administration during the United States military intervention into Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, and elsewhere.
The United States’ military actions in these areas were not a result of U.S. “nationalism.” The United States had very limited national interest in any of these places. These actions are very specifically a feature of a globalist mentality. And they were completely consistent with the “regime change” ambitions of the Bush administration a decade later.
The act of “installing democracy” in a country by the use of outside military force is a feature of globalism – not nationalism.
With the myriad of conflicting interests between the member states of the United Nations, there cannot be a unified consensus that can be counted upon to be just and honorable and free from corruption or prejudice in a concentration of power within that body. So the leaders with such a globalist interventionist mentality are left to rely on the military of powerful nations to do their work.
In terms of a globalist promotion of human rights, the world will be ready for it when a Catholic or a Jew or an atheist can stand on a street corner in Mecca, publicly announcing his or her philosophy to the neighborhood, and when bookstores in Pyongyang and Tehran allow such freedom and diversity of thought that they can sell copies of the Holy Bible next to the works of Ayn Rand, Salman Rushdie and Karl Marx. Until that happens, the nations of the world cannot be trusted to promote even tolerance of each other let alone the just causes of human rights. But, when that happens, we will no longer need a global hierarchical authority to enforce it. So looking for some sort of global authority over sovereign nations for the promotion of human rights is useless either way.
In the meantime, the world is best organized by sovereign nations each protecting their own national interest and their citizens advancing their own claims on human rights while the nations and the people and commercial entities within them engage in respectful trade of goods and services and ideas.
Social evolution is a slow process. It must be allowed to grow organically, from grass roots movements within each nation.
As an illustration of the proper sentiment of nationalism, I will conclude here with a couple excerpts from a speech from a political figure who is loved by many and who everyone else loves to hate. Whether you agree with him personally and whether or not you believe that he even subscribes to his own declared ideals, he (or perhaps his speechwriter) said it well. (We should let the ideas speak for themselves, regardless of the reader’s opinion of the speechmaker, who, for the purpose of this essay shall remain nameless):
We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government. But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation. This is the beautiful vision of this institution, and this is foundation for cooperation and success.
Strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect.
Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny. And strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God.
And later in the same speech:
In foreign affairs, we are renewing this founding principle of sovereignty. Our government’s first duty is to its people, to our citizens — to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights, and to defend their values.
As President of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.
All responsible leaders have an obligation to serve their own citizens, and the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.
But making a better life for our people also requires us to work together in close harmony and unity to create a more safe and peaceful future for all people.