Since the French Revolution, nationalism—the idea that state borders should coincide with national communities—has constituted the core source of political legitimacy around the world. As nationalism spread from western Europe in the early nineteenth century, it became increasingly ethnic in nature. In places where the state and the nation did not match up, such as Germany, Italy, and most of eastern Europe, the nation tended to be defined in terms of ethnicity, which led to violent processes of unification or secession. At the beginning of the twentieth century, ethnic nationalism came to disrupt political borders even more, leading to the breakup of multiethnic empires, including the Habsburg, Ottoman, and Russian ones. By changing the size of Europe’s political units, this undermined the balance of power and contributed to two world wars.
But then came the liberal norms and institutions established in the wake of World War II. Principles such as territorial integrity and universal human rights and bodies such as the United Nations managed to reduce ethnonationalist conflict in most parts of the world. Today, large interstate wars and violent land grabs are almost entirely a thing of the past. The rate of ethnic civil war has fallen, too.
But now, ethnic nationalism is back with a vengeance. In 2016, British voters chose to leave the EU out of a belief that the postnational vision of that body undermined British sovereignty and threatened to overwhelm the United Kingdom with immigrants from Africa, the Middle East, and the less developed parts of Europe. Donald Trump won the White House that same year by tapping into fears that the United States was being invaded by Mexicans and Muslims. And in office, Trump has not only fanned the flames of ethnic nationalism; he has also denigrated and damaged the norms and institutions designed to save humankind from such forces.
Other leaders around the world have eagerly embraced their own versions of ethnic nationalism. Across Europe, right-wing populist parties that oppose the EU
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