Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Elites Are Getting Nationalism All Wrong

Russia, the United States, and the European Union are each suffering from resulting disasters.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Russian President Vladimir Putin stands in front of Russian and U.S. flags at a G-20 summit in 2019 amid rising nationalism in both countries.
Russian President Vladimir Putin stands in front of Russian and U.S. flags at a G-20 summit in 2019 amid rising nationalism in both countries.
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting during the G-20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28, 2019. BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images

If a head of state or foreign minister asked for my advice—don’t be alarmed; that’s not likely to happen—I might start by saying: “Respect the power of nationalism.” Why? Because as I look back over much of the past century and consider what’s happening today, the failure to appreciate this phenomenon seems to have led numerous leaders (and their countries) into costly disasters. I’ve made this point before—in 2019, 2011, and 2021—but recent events suggest a refresher course is in order.

What is nationalism? The answer has two parts. First, it starts by recognizing that the world is made up of social groups that share important cultural traits (a common language, history, ancestry, geographic origins, etc.), and over time, some of these groups have come to see themselves as constituting a unique entity: a nation. A nation’s claims about its essential character need not be strictly accurate in either biological or historical terms. (Indeed, national narratives are usually distorted versions of the past.) What matters is that members of a nation genuinely believe that they are one.

Second, the doctrine of nationalism further asserts that every nation is entitled to govern itself and should not be ruled by outsiders. Relatedly, this view tends to make existing nations wary of those who do not belong to their group, including immigrants or refugees from other cultures who may be trying to enter and reside in their territory. To be sure, migration has been going on for millennia, many states contain several national groups, and assimilation can and does occur over time. Nonetheless, the presence of people who are not seen as part of the nation is often a hot-button issue and can be a powerful driver of conflict.

If a head of state or foreign minister asked for my advice—don’t be alarmed; that’s not likely to happen—I might start by saying: “Respect the power of nationalism.” Why? Because as I look back over much of the past century and consider what’s happening today, the failure to appreciate this phenomenon seems to have led numerous leaders (and their countries) into costly disasters. I’ve made this point before—in 2019, 2011, and 2021—but recent events suggest a refresher course is in order.

What is nationalism? The answer has two parts. First, it starts by recognizing that the world is made up of social groups that share important cultural traits (a common language, history, ancestry, geographic origins, etc.), and over time, some of these groups have come to see themselves as constituting a unique entity: a nation. A nation’s claims about its essential character need not be strictly accurate in either biological or historical terms. (Indeed, national narratives are usually distorted versions of the past.) What matters is that members of a nation genuinely believe that they are one.

Second, the doctrine of nationalism further asserts that every nation is entitled to govern itself and should not be ruled by outsiders. Relatedly, this view tends to make existing nations wary of those who do not belong to their group, including immigrants or refugees from other cultures who may be trying to enter and reside in their territory. To be sure, migration has been going on for millennia, many states contain several national groups, and assimilation can and does occur over time. Nonetheless, the presence of people who are not seen as part of the nation is often a hot-button issue and can be a powerful driver of conflict.

Now, consider how nationalism has derailed leaders who failed to appreciate its power.

Exhibit A, of course, is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s failure to understand how Ukrainian nationalism may thwart his attempt to restore Russian influence in Ukraine through a swift and successful military campaign. Russia’s war effort has been error-prone from the start, but the Ukrainians’ fierce and unexpected resistance has been the most important obstacle in Russia’s path. Putin and his associates forgot that nations are often willing to absorb huge losses and fight like tigers to resist foreign invaders, and that is precisely what the Ukrainians have done.

But Putin is hardly the only world leader to blunder in this way. For much of the 20th century, European rulers of vast colonial empires waged long, costly, and ultimately unsuccessful campaigns to keep restive nations inside their imperial sway. These efforts failed nearly everywhere—in Ireland, India, Indochina, most of the Middle East, and much of Africa—and at a frightful human cost. Japan’s efforts to conquer and establish a sphere of influence in China after 1931 was equally unsuccessful.

When it comes to grasping the meaning of nationalism, the United States hasn’t done much better. Although U.S. diplomat George Kennan and other U.S. officials recognized that nationalism was more powerful than communism and fears of a “communist monolith” were overblown, most U.S. officials continued to worry that left-wing movements would sacrifice their own national interests and do Moscow’s bidding for ideological reasons. During the Vietnam War, a similar blindness to the power of nationalism led U.S. leaders to underestimate the price North Vietnam was willing to pay to reunify the country. Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union came to grief when it invaded Afghanistan in 1979 because it failed to realize how fiercely the Afghans would fight to repel a foreign occupier.

Sadly, U.S. leaders didn’t learn very much from these experiences. After Sept. 11, 2001, the George W. Bush administration convinced itself that it would be easy to topple the existing regime and replace it with a shiny new democracy because it assumed Iraqis and Afghans were yearning to be free and would greet U.S. soldiers as liberators. What the administration got instead was stubborn and ultimately successful resistance from a local population that did not want to take orders from an occupying army or embrace Western values and institutions.

The failure to appreciate the power of nationalism is not confined to wars and occupations. The European Union was created in part to transcend national attachments, foster a shared European identity, and mitigate the competitive pressures that have led to repeated and ruinous European wars. One can argue that the EU has had pacifying effects (though I would argue other factors are more important), but national identities remain an enduring part of Europe’s political landscape and continue to confound elite expectations.

For starters, the structure of the EU itself privileges national governments that are loath to cede too much authority to Brussels. Among other things, this explains why the EU’s repeated efforts to develop a “common foreign and security policy” have been largely stillborn. More importantly, each nation’s first response whenever a crisis occurs is not to turn to Brussels but to their own elected officials. Unity was conspicuously lacking during the eurozone crisis in 2008 and during the COVID-19 pandemic; instead, it was every country for itself.

Furthermore, a failure to appreciate the enduring appeal of nationalism helps us understand why so many observers underestimated the risk of Brexit or the unexpected emergence of hard-line nationalist parties. Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s Fidesz party have triumphed by appealing first and foremost to each country’s sense of nationalism in ways that are directly at odds with the EU’s liberal values.

Last but by no means least, the unlikely political career of former U.S. President Donald Trump owes much to his ability to market himself as an ardent American nationalist and to contrast himself with the supposedly decadent globalist elites who he accused of selling the United States down the river. His political platform and public persona put nostalgic nationalism front and center, whether in the slogan “Make America Great Again,” his mantra of “America First,” or his open hostility to (non-white) immigrants. Anyone who is still baffled by Trump’s political appeal must begin by recognizing that he has tapped the power of nationalism more effectively than anyone else in contemporary U.S. politics.

Given the abundant evidence of nationalism’s enduring importance, why do so many smart leaders underestimate it? I’m not sure, but one of nationalism’s central features may be part of the problem, akin to a bug in software. Not only do nations see themselves as unique and special, but they also tend to see themselves as superior to others and therefore destined to triumph if a conflict was to arise. This blind spot makes it harder to recognize that another nation might be its equal (or, god forbid, superior). It was hard for some Americans to understand how the Viet Cong or the Taliban could possibly defeat them, and it seems to have been hard for Putin to recognize that the Ukrainians he regarded as inferior could and would stand up to a Russian invasion.

Elites may also discount the power of nationalism if they spend their lives in a transnational, cosmopolitan bubble. If you go to the World Economic Forum conference held in Davos, Switzerland, every year; do business deals all over the world; hang out with like-minded people from lots of different countries; and are as comfortable living abroad as you are in your native country, it’s easy to lose sight of how people outside your social circle retain powerful attachments to places, local institutions, and their own sense of belonging to a nation. Liberalism’s emphasis on the individual and his/her/their individual rights is another blind spot, insofar as it directs our gaze away from the social bonds and commitments to group survival that many groups view as more important than individual freedom.

So if some political leader came to me for advice or wanted to know what I thought about some foreign-policy maneuver they were contemplating, I’d ask them if they took nationalism into account, and I’d remind them of what happens when major powers ignore it. And I’d paraphrase Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky: You may not be interested in nationalism, but it is still interested in you.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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