JUST HOW dangerous is the new wave of nationalism in the West, and in the world more generally? In terms of relations between states, not so much—or at least no more dangerous than what came before. To draw attention to the enduring strength of nationalism in Western democracies is not to say that those nationalisms have not changed greatly over time. Thus, a key characteristic of nationalisms in the West today, compared to in the past, is that they are no longer focused on external aggression, the conquest of new territory or the recovery of “lost” territory. The National Front in France has no desire to conquer Belgium. Alternative für Deutschland, a new right-wing populist party in Germany, has no plan to fight Poland and Russia in order to recover Breslau and Königsberg.
On the contrary, the entire nationalist posture of these parties is a defensive one: to defend the existing French and German nations (or their ideas of what they are) against economic, social, cultural and above all demographic threats from within and without. A relentless emphasis on the (real or assumed) interests of ordinary citizens leads to strong opposition to EU and NATO expansion and to confrontation with Russia, a country which is (rightly) seen by them as posing no threat whatsoever to ordinary Frenchmen or Germans. On the contrary, it is the liberal-internationalist projects embodied in the EU and NATO that have created confrontation with Russia over the past decade.
In the case of the strain of American nationalism embodied in Trump, things are somewhat different: because of the vastly stronger element of militarism in the United States (not boiled out of the national consciousness by tens of millions of dead, as has been the case in Europe), and because America’s global position embroils it inexorably in a range of conflicts and disputes, whether or not they have anything to do with U.S. national interests.
The greatest threats from the new Western nationalisms are internal, not external: that they will exacerbate political and cultural divisions to the point that orderly government becomes impossible and countries begin to head towards civil strife or even war. This danger is especially great in the United States, for while America lacks Europe’s large Muslim minorities, other divisions concerning race and culture are even deeper. Moreover, the United States’ late-eighteenth-century, now apparently immutable, constitution vouchsafes immense powers of obstruction of government to the opposition, and also increasingly produces election results that are seen by much of the population as illegitimate.
TO BEGIN to think about how nationalism can become a positive force in U.S. and Western affairs, it is necessary to consider the complex historical relationship between nationalism and modernizing reform. Most parts of the world were forced by the expansion of Western capitalist power to try to play catch-up in terms of modernization; to do this quickly required the savage beating down of a host of social, economic, cultural and religious barriers to modernization.
In this struggle, nationalism was an essential ally of modernizing reform, because it was the only force that could create legitimacy for the reformist elites in the mass of the population (and in the military, necessary as the last modernizing argument against conservative resistance). Nationalism was at the heart of what Antonio Gramsci called the achievement of cultural hegemony by the bourgeois liberal elites in nineteenth-century Italy and elsewhere in Catholic Europe. Elsewhere in the world, too, nationalism was central to the success of modernizing elites wherever they did succeed, notably in Japan of the Meiji period and Turkey under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Once again, the failure of the Arab world and most of Africa to generate this kind of nationalism has been central to these regions’ failure to develop.
Like other parts of the world that previously had to reckon with Western-driven globalization, the West is now facing its own economic, social and cultural crisis produced by Asian-driven globalization. So far the return of nationalism in the West has been, above all, a reaction against these tendencies on the part of classes and groups endangered by them, and linked to attempts to maintain, as far as possible, the “moral economy” of Western states as they existed in the golden decades after the Second World War.
These efforts are understandable. But they are also, to a considerable extent, futile. Even if the spread of industry to Asia had not doomed the old Western industrial economies, then automation would have done so; and if automation didn’t, then climate change would sooner or later require fundamental economic change. There can be no return to the golden age of mass, well-paid industrial employment. If the strains of globalization and economic change are not to tear our societies apart—as they are very visibly beginning to do—then we need to introduce a range of radical reforms leading to a very new kind of society, with a vastly stronger emphasis on social solidarity and the virtues of austerity. In the United States, there is an increasingly obvious need to reform the Constitution, despite the sacred view of it held by much of the U.S. population. This will be a change so wrenching as to be entirely comparable to those required of traditional societies in the past faced by the need to modernize, and the only way to create national acceptance for such changes is through nationalism, and appeals to national solidarity and strengthening the nation.
The United States has done this once before, when faced by the utter transformation of American rural and small-town Protestant society by industrialization and mass immigration in the last decades of the nineteenth century. One intellectual and political response was precisely the “New Nationalism” of Herbert Croly, given political form by Theodore and, later, Franklin Roosevelt. At the heart of the New Nationalism were the imperatives of creating a stronger American nationalism (civic, but with strong cultural elements) to both assimilate and gain acceptance for the millions of new immigrants, and the need to create new policies of social solidarity and justice to mitigate the colossal inequalities and inequities thrown up by the Gilded Age. In this way, it helped to form the foundation for the New Deal. The New Nationalism aimed at solidarity across class, ethnicity and religion (and now needs to be extended across the races), but it was most emphatically not multicultural, and insisted on loyalty to the nation as a fundamental principle.
Such a unifying spirit most assuredly cannot be achieved either by Trump’s populist rodomontade or by the Democrats’ pandering to a disparate bunch of smaller and smaller identity groups, united only in their ostentatious, insulting and politically disastrous contempt for middle-class white society. No amount of Clintonesque rhetoric about America’s international role as the “indispensable nation” and leader of the free world is going to unite Americans, given these yawning gulfs at home. Indeed, for a considerable time to come, it seems that no Western political party is capable of this kind of approach; but—like the New Nationalism and Progressivism of the early twentieth century—such profound changes in political culture always take a long time to develop. The serious thought about what needs to happen should begin now.
Anatol Lieven is a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and a senior fellow at New America in Washington DC. He is the author, among other books, of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism.
This essay was published in the July/August 2017 print magazine under the headline “The New Nationalism.”