In This Review

Liberal Nationalism
Liberal Nationalism
By Vael Tamir
Princeton University Press, 1993, 194 pp.
The Wrath of Nations: Civilization and the Fury of Nationalism
The Wrath of Nations: Civilization and the Fury of Nationalism
By William Pfaff
Simon & Schuster, 1993, 244 pp.

These two books are significant additions to the rather meager corpus of books on nationalism. Like other books in this category, they raise more questions than they answer. Both, but especially The Wrath of Nations, abound in the sort of propositions that university examiners like to put between quotation marks and follow with the minatory instruction, "Discuss." Many are well worth discussing, and I propose to discuss them here, beginning with some of Pfaff's.

William Pfaff is a well-known and respected commentator on international affairs. The Wrath of Nations is far-ranging in space and time, abounding in miscellaneous information, briskly written, always stimulating, sometimes shrewd and penetrating, sometimes brashly didactic, and sometimes sweeping in its generalizations. This combination will attract many readers to the book.

Near the opening of his book, Pfaff sweeps aside the idea that nationalism is "a primordial historical phenomenon" and goes on to put forward his own view: "Nationalism is a phenomenon of the European nineteenth century. It is a political consequence of the literary-intellectual movement called Romanticism, a Central European reaction to the universalizing, and therefore disorienting, ideas of the eighteenth century French Enlightenment."


This is very mixed up. Even in its narrowest sense-as an intellectual position-nationalism antedates the nineteenth century. It is a product of the late French Enlightenment, although it came to include "a Central European reaction . . . to the French Enlightenment." At the very outset of the French Revolution the Abbé Sieyès, an archetypal figure of the late French Enlightenment, gives us in his seminal 1789 manifesto, What is the Third Estate? the basic doctrine of nationalist absolutism: "The nation exists before all, it is the origin of everything. Its will is always legal, it is the law itself." The worst excesses of nationalism, from the Revolutionary Terror to the Third Reich, are encapsulated in those two coldly dogmatic sentences in which the protagonist of the French Revolution establishes the fateful and explosive conjunction between the emotional force of nationalism and the totalitarian potential of Rousseau's General Will.

Pfaff's belief in the nineteenth-century origins of nationalism is so strange as to verge on the willfully obtuse. What reader of John O'Gaunt's speech in Shakespeare's Richard II, which was written in the last decade of the sixteenth century, can fail to hear the distinctive, authentic note of exalted nationalist passion? But in the second decade of the same century in another country, nationalist passion had already made itself heard, unmistakably, one might have thought, in the 26th (and last) chapter of Machiavelli's The Prince, entitled "An Exhortation to Liberate Italy from the Barbarians." In the previous century-in a third country-we have the towering figure of Joan of Arc. How can anyone contemplating the life and work of Joan classify nationalism as a nineteenth-century phenomenon? Jules Michelet and George Bernard Shaw would not have agreed on much, but at least they knew a nationalist when they saw one and had no doubt about placing Joan in that category.

Shaw saw Joan as a nationalist prototype, but in this perception he was mistaken. The fusion of religion and nationalism attained an unusual-perhaps unique-intensity in Joan but is a very ancient phenomenon. It can be found in abundance in the Hebrew Bible, known to Christians as the Old Testament; the idea of a "chosen people" in a promised land has been immensely infectious and influential in the history of Christendom. Early Christians, beginning with Jesus himself, tried to get the land out of the picture, but later Christians brought the chosen-people idea down to earth again with a vengeance. By the seventh century A.D. the process of what might be called the nationalization of Christianity was already well advanced. A Frankish document of that period asserts, as if referring to a well-known fact or gospel truth, that "Christ loved the Franks." From the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and Reformation, chosen peoples popped up all over the place, and the land which each inhabited was always uniquely holy: "Writers of the following nations explicitly refer to their people as chosen and to their land as promised: England, France, Germany, Spain, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, Ireland and especially and insistently the United States, for both blacks and whites took up this theme." It happens that both Pfaff and Tamir add other nations to this list of the chosen. Tamir quotes the above passage and comments: "Other nations such as Israel, Iran and Egypt could be added to the list."

More surprisingly, Pfaff obliges me by providing a strikingly important and early example-earlier indeed than any Christian instance of mine-of a fusion of religion and nationalism: "The sixth-century origins of Islam lie in a reaction in Arabia against foreign interference, that of Abyssinia, Persia, and Byzantium, during the period prior to Mohammed's birth in 570. It was a patriotic as well as a religious movement, advocating, as an Edwardian scholar says, 'Arabia for the Arabians.' "

What could be more characteristically nationalist than the idea of "Arabia for the Arabians"? But then what becomes of the idea of nationalism as a nineteenth-century invention? Fortunately Pfaff has the sense not to let himself be bound by the narrow (and unhistorical) definition he unwisely adopted at the beginning of the book. Toward the end, he implicitly throws that definition to the winds, returning to the "primordial" dimension which he had earlier explicitly rejected:

I have used the word nationalism in this book in its widest sense, and also in several senses. I have done so because what is called nationalism is an expression of the primordial attachments of an individual to a group, possessing both positive and destructive powers, and this is a phenomenon which existed long before the group to which such passionate loyalty was attached became the modern nation-state. . . . The nationalist has his heart in his work. . . . He acts from the roots of being, of human society, from a given earth and clan-primordial attachments.


Nationalism certainly did not begin in the nineteenth century, or even the eighteenth. But something very important did happen to nationalism in the late eighteenth century, in what was then the most important country in the world: France. That something was the separation of nationalism from religion. This was such a striking novelty that it gave some observers-then and now-the illusion that nationalism was a new creation, whereas it was something very old in reality, branching out in a new way.

For centuries, French nationalists had been happy with their Most Christian Kings, and their status as Eldest Daughter of the Church. Since the fifteenth century, France's patron saint, Joan of Arc, resembled a goddess in the minds of French nationalists. But by the late 18th century French intellectuals in general and French nationalists in particular turned away from the Church. The role of the Enlightenment in all this has long been recognized. As far as all the upper levels of society were concerned, Voltaire had made religion look ridiculous, and the French dread of ever being associated with le ridicule is proverbial. But the reasons for the alienation of French nationalists from the Church have received less consideration. French nationalists, by the 1760s, hated the Church because they associated it with defeat in war. In the Seven Years War (1756-1763) France, allied with Catholic Austria, had been decisively defeated by Protestant Prussia, allied with Protestant England. The Catholic monarchy and its Catholic ally had allowed the French nation to be humiliated. The detested alliance and the associated humiliation were incarnated in the person of the foreign Queen: the hated Austrian, Marie Antoinette. Well before the French Revolution, French nationalists promoted the expulsion of the Jesuits from France as an act of liberation from Catholic internationalism. French nationalism had advanced from "chosen people" to "deified nation" and held out that example to others. The French Revolution begins with a declaration of cosmic nationalist absolutism: see the Sieyès passage quoted earlier.

The supreme example of the "deified nation" in history is Nazi Germany. William Pfaff would not agree with me on this. For him, as for several other writers, Nazism was not a nationalist movement; it only sounded like one. He writes: "While Nazism exploited national sentiment and the resentments of the 'national movement' in Weimar Germany, making dramatic use of a theater and rhetoric of nationalism, it was fundamentally an internationalist ideology based on racialist theory."

This is a good example of distortion through the exaltation of theory over practice, and through conceptual compartmentalization of emotional forces which were in practice inseparable. You cannot legitimately find that Nazism is something "fundamentally" distinct from the sentiments and resentments of the main body of Nazis and of their supporters. Nazism was a product of the deeply humiliated nationalism of a major military power. Hitler did not just "exploit" that feeling; he passionately shared it and was its voice. Nor can racism and nationalism be separated in the Nazi culture. That culture was basically Völkisch, and the adjective means both nationalist and racist; the two were felt to be the same thing. If you were not racist and anti-Semitic, you did not count as a German nationalist.

German nationalist-racists did, as Pfaff points out, accept the existence of other Aryan peoples, and had places for them in their vision of a postwar world. But these were subordinate places. There were Aryans and there were top Aryans. Germans who thought in Aryan terms never had any doubt about who the top Aryans were. The Nazis in their halcyon days had a song that everyone knows about:

Today, Germany belongs to us.

Tomorrow, the whole world.

I do not think that when the Nazis sang that song they meant by "us" a pan-Aryan assemblage in which Germans shared power with Scandinavians and other peoples of approved genetic lineages. I think that, when the German Nazis said "us," they meant themselves. That is what people usually do mean when they say "us."

Triumphalist nationalism usually moves in a penumbra of pseudo-internationalism. In the nineteenth century, the expansion of British and French national power was known as imperialism (then a term with mainly approving connotations). The French Revolutionaries called their own expansion and exploitation of other countries "fraternity." Nazi "pan-Aryanism" was of a similar order: nationalism was at the heart of all.


Pfaff not only dismisses (initially) the idea of nationalism as "a primordial historical phenomenon," he also denies it the status of an ideology. This denial will confuse his readers, as what he is talking about in the passage I first quoted is clearly an ideological phenomenon. Yet Pfaff says immediately after that passage: "Nationalism is not an ideology because it has no universality. It is impossible to be a nationalist as such, only a German or Croatian or American nationalist."

In reality, though nationalists of competing countries fight each other, there is a nationalist ideology which has universal appeal. Ideological nationalism was a product, not of the nineteenth century, but of the late eighteenth. It took at first the form of cultural nationalism, and it had a far-reaching appeal indeed. Its founder was Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1833). Herder's writings may in fact be seen, as Pfaff puts it, as "a Central European reaction to the universalizing, and therefore disorienting, ideas of the eighteenth century French Enlightenment." Those writings can also be seen as an expression of German nationalist resentment of French cultural hegemony then prevalent among the ruling classes throughout Europe. Concerning the French language, Herder advised his contemporaries: "Spit out that green slime of the Seine!" Apart from his opinions regarding French primacy in the linguistic and cultural fields, Herder was not himself a xenophobe. His ideas caught on in other lands, especially among subject peoples, in Eastern Europe and in Italy. The growth of cultural nationalism in those countries provided a basis for political nationalism in these and other places and did much to undermine the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Although Herder himself was not, explicitly at least, a political nationalist and was antimilitarist, more militant generations of German nationalists, beginning with Fichte, looked back on him with veneration.

Since Herder's time, due to his direct and indirect inspiration, there has been something like an international of nationalists, strongest among suppressed nationalisms, but not confined to them. Irish nationalists for example were inspired in turn by the nationalists of France, of Italy, of Greece, of Poland, of the Boers, and of the Central Powers of the First World War-"the gallant allies in Europe" of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

In general, nationalists of various descriptions had sometimes to ally against a common enemy, as in the Anti-Comintern Pact of the 1930s. But there is also a kind of camaraderie, or freemasonry, even among rival nationalists. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for example, German, French, English and American nationalists could agree-in periods of détente and in suitable social contexts-on a number of propositions: exaltation of the martial virtues, social Darwinism, contempt for rootless cosmopolitanism, and a common, often obsessive anti-Semitism. In general (and again, pace Pfaff) racism was a bond in this period between nationalists of rival nations. Simone Weil said that racism at its heyday was "a romantic variety of nationalism." "A scientistic extension of romantic nationalism" might perhaps be a more precise description, but Weil was basically right in stressing the connection-which Pfaff seeks to deny-between nationalism and racism. I shall come back to that. But the main point in the present context is that while nationalists were at variance as to which nation deserved to be top Aryan and accepted, even with relish, that this had to be fought out, they were of one mind on the superiority of Aryans in general in the great chain of being. All that was really in dispute, ideologically speaking, was the place à table-which of the Aryan peoples would have precedence over the others within a world whose nature was to be dominated by Aryans in general, an order to be sorted out among themselves through war.

That was the way it was in terms of nationalist-racist ideology for at least three quarters of a century, from 1870 to 1945. The vocabulary of that period is utterly outmoded; the term "Aryan"-the acme of political correctitude during that time-has become unspeakable and therefore incomprehensible. But any value system has a longer life span than its vocabulary; so it is with nationalism.

Pfaff is, I believe, mistaken about nationalism-as-ideology. But he is more profoundly mistaken in initially assigning such a late origin to the phenomenon of nationalism and in dismissing it as "a primordial historical phenomenon." Nationalism-as-ideology is indeed no older than Herder. But nationalism-as-ideology, though more influential and important than Pfaff supposes, is far less important than nationalism as a complex of emotions, and this complex is ancient, as indeed Pfaff himself elsewhere partly acknowledges.


The Wrath of Nations and Liberal Nationalism are not in as sharp contrast with one another as their titles might seem to imply. Both agree that nationalism, at moderate levels of intensity, is a needful form of social bonding, and that nationalism in itself should not be treated-as do Karl Popper and others-as an enemy of humanity. The enemy is manic xenophobic nationalism, most manifest today in pre-Enlightenment forms, combining nationalism and religious bigotry, as in the former Yugoslavia and now potentially in Russia.

Tamir, unlike Pfaff, writes out of a specific predicament. She is a senior lecturer in philosophy at Tel Aviv University and a founding member of the Israeli organization, Peace Now. That is to say that she is a citizen of a state that is a product of Jewish nationalism, which was in turn a reaction to, and refuge from, European racist nationalism. Within the state that is a product of Jewish nationalism, she is bent on curbing tendencies toward excess within Jewish nationalism. She is concerned to show that nationalism need not be aggressive or xenophobic. She does demonstrate this, but she also knows that nationalism has often assumed those negative forms, is doing so now in various parts of the world, and has done so frequently in Jewish-Arab relations on both sides. The conclusion of her book is guardedly optimistic:

It seems rather clear that nationalism will simply not go away, and the question that remains open is whether its guise will be some form of virulent ethnocentrism or a sober vision, guided by respect for liberal values.

I am sure that Yael Tamir and her friends will have regarded the Arafat-Rabin agreement as a victory for "sober vision," etc., and up to a point it is, although I do not find it easy to believe that Yasser Arafat is "guided by respect for liberal values." Tamir believes that Jewish and Palestinian nationalisms can live peacefully on land they both claim. Perhaps eventually. But too much should not be made of the recent agreement on that score. That was not an agreement between moderate Jewish and moderate Palestinian nationalism. It was an agreement between a moderate Jewish-nationalist government and an opportunistic section of the Palestinian nationalist leadership. How many Palestinian nationals will follow the opportunist lead, and for how long, remains to be seen.

In the early part of this essay I stressed the antiquity, the "primordial" character, of nationalism. I was making the point that something so deeply rooted in human nature "will not simply go away." Unlike Tamir, however, I think it will remain with us in its undesirable manifestations as well as in the more "sober" forms.


The question that will most preoccupy readers of Foreign Affairs is: how should the more "sober" deal with the more "excited" forms of nationalism? There is no general positive prescription here: choices depend on circumstances, and choosers will always be divided in their interpretation of the circumstances. Yet there is one negative proposition that can be offered with some confidence. There is no "new world order" within the capacity of the West that will have the effect of eliminating nationalist violence and related ethnic evils from every part of the world. T.V. audiences feel that there should be such an order, applicable to those parts of the world they see on the box. As Douglas Hurd has recently indicated, the results of the spasmodic efforts of Western politicians to appear to be responding to the expectations of T.V. audiences have not been particularly impressive.

William Pfaff would not agree. He favors the "go anywhere, do anything" approach of President Kennedy's inaugural-the approach that gave us the Vietnam War. But he is much more gung-ho than Kennedy. He even has a plan for cleaning up Africa through the U.N.:

The immediate future of Africa, including that of a majority-ruled South Africa, is bleak, and it would be better if the international community would reimpose a form of paternalist neocolonialism in most of Africa, unpalatable as that may seem. The mechanism of the international mandate, employed by the League of Nations after the first World War, might be revived. However, the mandated power today would have to be the U.N. itself, rather than one or several outside powers, as in the past, since the latter almost certainly would prove as unacceptable to governments asked to accept the mandate as to the people made the subject of it.

Pfaff does not advert to the fact, but an experiment on similar lines to what he advocates for Africa generally is currently being conducted in the Horn of Africa, with results not conducive to emulation on a continental scale. In Somalia, U.S. troops under the U.N. flag have been fighting a war with one Somalian clan and (at the time of writing) have yet to win that war. How would they fare if they were to take on all the nationalisms and subnationalisms of Africa?

So confident an internationalist as Pfaff is naturally scornful of the West for its failure to stop war in the former Yugoslavia. But military intervention to bring about a political solution there would not work for reasons that are rooted in human nature. They have to do with the relative weights, in human nature and consequently in international affairs, of altruism and nationalism. The strength of nationalism is that it is something for which people are prepared to kill and die in large numbers, as Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims are now doing-and as, at an even more primordial level, warlike Somalian clansmen are doing. On the other hand, very few people are prepared to die for an altruistic project where no national interests are clearly involved.

Military intervention in the former Yugoslavia would be such a project. It would pit fiercely motivated local nationalists against external forces which were much less strongly motivated. The nationalists would accept heavy casualties, as they are now doing. Neither the forces intervening, nor their families, nor the countries providing these forces, would accept such casualties. The outcome is absolutely predictable: after however short or long a stay, the altruistic interveners would be withdrawn, leaving the nationalists in possession. Nothing would have been achieved by the intervention, except the prolongation and exacerbation of the civil war, and the loss of Western lives in a wholly futile exercise.

Comparisons with the Second World War and Desert Storm are inept. In both these conflicts Western national interests were threatened and national feelings of Western peoples were aroused. In the first case, the galloping expansion of a great military power threatened every other nation. In the second, Iraq's annexation of Kuwait challenged the existing international order and posed a direct threat to Western interests, through the attempt by a dictator to effect a monopoly of Arab oil, on which so much of the Western economy depends. So in both cases, ordinary soldiers could understand what they were fighting for.

The United Nations can be useful if it is resorted to with discrimination. At present, it is being overworked, overextended and underfunded. Neither through the U.N. nor in any other way can the West solve all the world's problems or create harmony among competing nationalisms. The United States, in particular, would be better employed in solving the problems of its own cities, instead of trying or pretending to grapple with the problems of the whole world in the flickering light of the transient emotions of television audiences.

As I prepare this essay for publication in early October, there are signs of growing recognition of this order of priorities.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now