In Defense of Liberal Nationalism

Eritrean Independence Fighters


The simple idea that every nation should have its own state, accompanied by the corollary that one ethnic or cultural group should not collectively rule over another, has been the most powerful political force of the past two hundred years. While particular nationalisms vary, this basic nationalist conception of an ideal world order has been remarkably unchanged for well over a century. "The world should be split into as many states as humanity is divided into nations," the Swiss international lawyer Johann Caspar Bluntschli wrote in 1870. "Each nation a state, each state a national being." When he wrote, nationalism as a considered doctrine, with its roots in the thought of Rousseau, Herder, Fichte and Mazzini, was already generations old. National sentiments, of course, long predated the doctrine, despite recent attempts to claim that national feelings are purely modern fabrications.

The nationalist ideal has survived one universalist assault after another: the Concert of Europe, which Metternich saw as a way of repressing anti-dynastic nationalism and republicanism; Hitler’s supranational racist imperialism; the doomed Soviet effort to replace national loyalties with commitment to socialist universalism. Even the failure of the European Community to become a genuine federal state was foreseeable long before the troubles afflicting the Maastricht treaty and the crisis of the European Monetary System. It seems unlikely that liberal universalism will succeed where illiberal universalisms failed, in attempting to transfer loyalties from nations to supranational entities.

Despite all the evidence of the enduring power of nationalist sentiment, many statesmen, scholars and opinion leaders continue to treat nationalism as an anachronistic or dangerous relic of a previous age. Translated into policy, this prejudice against national self-determination usually means supporting the efforts of regimes to suppress secessionist movements by national minorities. The widespread conviction that nationalist secession is in itself dangerous and regressive helps explain the vehemence with which many observers blamed Germany for its allegedly premature recognition of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, and the criticism directed

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