Building a better nationalism

Professor Yael (Yuli) Tamir is the President of Shenkar College in Israel and an adjunct professor at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford. She is the author of the sixth in a series of articles in Foreign Affairs that deal with nationalism. (The fifth deals with the biological foundation of the “tribal mind” and explores “the biology of us and them.”) Professor Tamir’s thesis is that nationalism can be healthy and that a healthy nationalism can be revived.

For most political thinkers and elites in the developed West,” Professor Tamir writes, “nationalism is a dangerous, divisive, illiberal impulse that should be treated with skepticism or even outright disdain. Yes, nationalism helped give rise to the modern state system, served as a liberating force in anticolonial independence struggles, and fueled anti-Soviet sentiment during the Cold War. But surely, the thinking went, nationalism was a phase that the rich democracies of the world had outgrown—and in those places where it still thrived, it posed more problems than solutions … [but, she says, today] … many elite assumptions about politics have come under assault, including those about nationalism. A small but increasingly vocal group of American and European thinkers have begun to mount defenses of nationalism—some modest, others more full-throated. One of the most enthusiastic advocates is Yoram Hazony, an Israeli philosopher and political theorist. His latest book, The Virtue of Nationalism, [my link added] has brought him to prominence in some American conservative political circles. In it, he presents a spirited defense of nationalism and the nation-state. Although he does not ignore nationalism’s flaws, he rightly contends that Western intellectuals have been too quick to dismiss it and that the topic deserves a more balanced and nuanced analysis than what the academy has offered in recent years.

But, she says, and this seems, to me, to be especially relevant as we watch the UK ties itself into almost unbearably painful knots as it tries to grapple with the notions of being a ‘British‘ sovereign nation and, simultaneously, enjoying the prosperity that comes with being part of Europe: “Hazony, however, goes beyond merely defending nationalism. He also launches a fierce attack on contemporary liberalism and its political manifestations, particularly the EU and the American-led “globalist” world order that emerged in the wake of the Cold War, both of which Hazony derides as “imperialist projects.” Nationalism, he complains, has been unfairly blamed for encouraging hatred and bigotry, even though “liberal-imperialist political ideals have become among the most powerful agents fomenting intolerance and hate in the Western world today.” Juxtaposing nationalism and liberal imperialism, Hazony accuses liberals of trying to impose a uniform set of values on nation-states, aiming to displace the authentic, “particular” views and beliefs held in those places.” One can understand, I think, why many people saw “the American-led “globalist” world order that emerged in the wake of the Cold War” as being imperialistic … George W Bush, the Iraq War, the Project for the New America Century and all that.

But, Professor Tamir says, “In reality, few liberals endeavor to establish global governance or oppress illiberal communities and cultures. Rather, they seek a world order of international institutions, multilateral cooperation, free markets, free trade, and the free movement of people … [thus] … Hazony’s insistence that this agenda represents an imperialist assault on nations ignores the fact that liberal and nationalist values often interact. More precisely, modern liberalism arose from national political frameworks. The modern nation-state Hazony is so eager to defend is, in fact, a product of the marriage of liberal democratic and nationalist values. The fact that liberalism and nationalism don’t tend to advertise their theoretical interdependence should not prevent one from acknowledging their commonalities and understanding their inherent bonds.” The contrast is that Yoram Hazony is a rather old fashioned liberal (21st century conservative) nationalist while Yuli Tamir is a more modern, progressive-liberal nationalist. Both are looking for an acceptable, healthy expression of nationalism in the modern age.  Dr Tamir is something of a liberal-internationalist while Dr Haznoy, as she describes him, anyway, is liberal-nationalist who, she says, “confuses (or purposely conflates) the liberal belief in moral universalism and internationalism with a desire to erect political empires.

To Dr Tamir, all empires are bad, whether they are based on spreading democracy and capitalism, imposing a religious belief, or are a manifestation of local (e.g. Anglo-French) rivalries. Dr Hazony, on the other hand, looks for a more pure, local, (Zionist?) nationalism that can be free of foreign, imperial influence. In that, they both seem to me to be expressing pretty long-held Canadian views. Most Canadians want to enjoy the benefits that first Britain and now America brought to us because they each dominated the globe and imposed e.g. free(er) trade on a reluctant world, but, like the British, we want to have our cake and eat it too: they want to enjoy the benefits of the EU’s protectionist trade empire while, at the same time, not feeling dominated by it.

Professor Tamir writes that “In reality, the nation-state has no serious institutional competitors. International organizations are weak and ineffective; international corporations are powerful and effective but have no desire to spend their energy on governing. The [apparent, to some] strugglebetween noble nationalists and hate-filled imperialists is largely a fantasy. What does exist is a tension between nationalism and neoliberal globalism. Nationalism, in this context, is a theory not just about self-rule but also about the right (and perhaps the duty) of states to intervene in the market in order to defend their citizens and control the malignant effects of hyperglobalism: bringing jobs back home, supporting domestic production, limiting immigration, and raising tariffs. Such policies collide with liberal beliefs in the primacy of free trade and the free movement of people. The real debate between nationalists and globalists is less about identity than about economics.” The one view, wanting to “defend their citizens and control the malignant effects of hyperglobalism: bringing jobs back home, supporting domestic production, limiting immigration, and raising tariffs,” is a very Trumpian view which suggests that e.g. free(er) trade is, somehow, “malignant.”

Critics accuse these newly minted nationalists of racism and nativism and of grounding their appeals in fears of the other,” Yuli Tamir writes, and she says that  “One can certainly find ample evidence of bigotry among those now aligning themselves with nationalist sentiment. Witness, for example, the open embrace of anti-Muslim rhetoric by the far-right UK Independence Party; the new wave of anti-Semitism among French nationalists; and the rebirth of “blood and soil” nationalism in the United States, where white nationalist groups have combined populist grievances with racist and anti-Semitic appeals … [but, she says, and I agree, fully, that] … not all nationalists are bigots. Many simply feel ill served by globetrotting, cosmopolitan elites who have more in common with elites elsewhere than with their fellow citizens. People hunger for leaders and policymakers committed to serving and protecting their own, giving preference and offering better opportunities to the neediest among them rather than the neediest elsewhere. This is what many American voters hear when Trump cries, “America first!” and it makes them feel safe.

Professor Tamir says, and, again, I agree, that “the main struggle in today’s international politics is not between nationalists and imperialists but between different approaches to balancing national interests with the demands of a globalized economy. When liberals indiscriminately attack all forms of nationalism, they fuel an unnecessary ideological struggle—one that they are currently losing. If liberalism is to regain power, it needs to develop its own form of nationalism, one that reassures citizens that their leaders work for them and put their well-being first.

Then, in conclusion, and channelling Stephen Harper’s views and my own, Professor Tamir says that “For too long, the least well-off citizens of powerful states have paid the price of globalism. Their demand that leaders protect their interests is just and timely. One need not embrace Trump’s crude, zero-sum worldview to believe that the wealth of nations should be produced and distributed as part of a relatively narrow social contract among particular individuals. Liberals should not promote national egoism but support policies that will help make their fellow citizens feel connected and committed to a worthy and meaningful community. Liberalism and nationalism are not mutually exclusive; they can and should go hand in hand.

I believe that, in about 1950, Canada developed a healthy nationalism, but it didn’t survive into the 1970s. It was replaced by an unreasonable dream of a socialist nirvana in which Canadians could live off the fat of the land while America, a country the socialists despised, did all the heavy lifting required to make a liberal and global order work for us all.

A healthy nationalism is tough enough for any country, even homogeneous ones like, say, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands or Sweden to develop and maintain. Canada, after 1763 was and remains a heterogeneous state, and Lord Durham was an optimist … there are more than just two nations warring in its bosom. It would be difficult enough to maintain a healthy nationalism in Canada without the parochial, inwards, backwards looking nationalism that has been prevalent in Québec since the late 1960s but we must add to that the growing, frustrated nationalism of the various indigenous groups: the First Nations, the (more recently arrived and ethnoculturally distinct) Inuit and the Métis. To make matters more complex what we can still call English Canada is changing, very rapidly, as immigration, from Asia, in particular, modifies the look and feel of that larger, already diverse and dominant community. But, beneath it all there is a Canadian national culture: loose, complex and difficult to pin down, but, despite its tensions, apparently different enough from American, Australian, Belgian and British national cultures to make us identifiable in the world. The question is can we maintain it and then enhance it and restore it to robust good health?

I think we can recapture the healthy nationalism that we once had … but, first, we must recapture our self-respect as a nation and act, at home and abroad, like the rich, sophisticated, liberal-democratic, middle power that we are.

2 thoughts on “Building a better nationalism

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