The “threat” of nationalism seems ubiquitous. Described mostly in pejorative terms, the ideology is now synonymous with xenophobia, populism, authoritarianism, and illiberalism. Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron blamed excessive nationalism for stoking the fires of World War I, and warned that “old demons” threatened a return to “chaos and death.”
Given such rhetoric, it is easy to assume that nationalism, in all its forms, should be relegated to the dustbin of history. Even intellectuals have lost the ability to hold a nuanced debate about nationalism’s virtues as well as its vices. But a recent book by the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari offers an opportunity to correct this imbalance.
In 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, Harari poses an important question: Can nationalism address the problems of a globalised world, “or is it an escapist indulgence that may doom humankind and the entire biosphere to disaster?” Harari’s answer is not surprising; by framing his discussion with a litany of ecological, nuclear, and technological challenges, he concludes that nationalism will only lead to conflict and disaster.
And yet Harari’s analysis is biased toward global concerns. Dirty air crosses national borders, nuclear war would affect the entire planet, and artificial intelligence is changing people’s lives around the world. But there is another way to think about nationalism: in the context of challenges that must be addressed at local and national levels – such as economic inequality, political instability, social schisms, and weak governance. If Harari had started with a more parochial list of problems, his verdict on nationalism could have been very different.
The economist Thomas Piketty has observed that the nation-state facilitated the development of the “social state”: the system of services that strengthens equality and improves quality of life. For anyone who considers social, economic, and political challenges to be in urgent need of remedy – as I do – it makes sense that national sentiment would be revived to secure social cohesion in the service of a “social state.”
But even if we accept Harari’s list, his conclusions are still hasty. For example, while it would be tempting for a leader confronting ecological or nuclear disaster to devote less attention to domestic social issues, effective global cooperation depends on strong individual states. This is especially true now, when the effectiveness of global institutions has never been in greater doubt.
Harari is obviously correct on one point: no country can face down global challenges alone. But it would be wrong to conclude that individual states are redundant. The fact that countries are not powerful enough to make a global difference is not proof that there are other political entities that can replace them.
To be fair, Harari does acknowledge nationalism’s role in governance. For example, he writes that it would be a mistake to assume that a world devoid of nationalism would automatically be peaceful and liberal. On the contrary, such a world would probably descend into “tribal chaos.” Comparing stable and successful democracies like Sweden, Germany and Switzerland, which “enjoy a strong sense of nationality,” to “countries lacking robust national bonds,” including Afghanistan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Harari comes to the conclusion that nationalism is a necessary component of political stability. One can thus conclude that it is too dangerous to let go of nationalism.
Like any political ideology, nationalism has many faces, some uglier than others. Brute anti-globalism is a prime example. Countries that embrace this brand of nationalism stir unnecessary conflict and undermine the possibility of cross-national collaboration. But other forms of nationalism that better balance the local and the global are beneficial and worthy of affirmation. Not only can nationalism help fortify well-functioning states; it can also serve as a tool to foster solidarity in government efforts to address localised social challenges, fight social and economic inequalities, and take care of social groups that have been left behind. As such it is better not to abandon nationalism, but rather to channel its beneficent features to recreate the social state.
Of course, critics are right to denounce chauvinism and hate. But to reject nationalism tout court is facile. It is up to intellectuals to recognise this and frame the arguments that can help governments strike the right balance between national, regional, and global commitments.