Incessant “antifascist” propaganda from Moscow, baseless claims of attacks against Russians in Ukraine, incitement of Russian-speakers in eastern Ukraine, Russian troops without insignia seizing official buildings in Crimea, a stage-managed illegal plebiscite there and then its annexation by Russia, assurances from President Vladimir Putin that he has no further territorial designs in Europe (though, alas, he may be forced to intervene elsewhere to protect ethnic Russians)—yes, it all has the disturbing ring of the 1930s.
Isn’t this where nationalism leads—to fascism and war?
That is a common interpretation of Europe’s recent crises. It is also, coincidentally, Mr. Putin’s interpretation of events in Ukraine, which he blames on neo-fascist followers of the nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, who was murdered by the KGB in 1959. But this view is really too simple by half.
Nationalists are certainly implicated in the Ukraine crisis, but more as victims than perpetrators. The crisis began as an attempt by Moscow to rescue its stillborn concept of a Eurasian Economic Union by forcing Ukraine to join it and to reject associate membership in the European Union.
Mr. Putin, who isn’t a nationalist (see below) but the ruler of a shaky multinational empire hostile to nationalism, sparked off the crisis by closing Russia’s borders to Ukraine’s agricultural exports. He did so to compel a reluctant President Viktor Yanukovych to abandon the more popular EU option.
The Ukrainian government, encouraged by Mr. Putin, unified the assorted democrats, nationalists and activists of the left and the right who protested this move by firing indiscriminately on them. Mr. Yanukovych’s power crumbled almost visibly; he fled; and a new Ukrainian government that includes nationalists took over.
Nationalism was thus one impulse in this general movement. Others were love of freedom, desire for a more democratic system, economic hopes for greater prosperity through ties to Western Europe and simple human decency. The Ukrainians inspired by these aims have just sustained an (inevitable) defeat in Crimea, but they still govern most of Ukraine, which is now escaping from Moscow’s post-Soviet institutions. While that remains the case, Mr. Putin has suffered a reverse overall.
If Ukrainian nationalists have been reactive, even victimized, in this crisis, what about Mr. Putin himself? His actions have certainly been objectionable—ruthless, aggressive, deceitful, illegal, repressive, subversive. But to describe them as “nationalist” is to reduce the concept of nationalism to a politics of aggressive self-assertion. There is no reason to suppose that nations and nation-states are more prone to indulge in such folly than are federations, empires or states founded on nonnational principles.
Mr. Putin has indeed acted ruthlessly of late, but he has done so in the service of what he sees as clear state or even personal interests, not from a commitment to Russian peoplehood.
The history of the 1930s is instructive for making the necessary distinctions here. World War II began as the result of a conspiracy by Hitler and Stalin—the Nazi-Soviet Pact—to invade Poland and divide Eastern Europe and the Baltic states between them. Nazi Germany was a state built upon the ideology of racial nationalism (which places race above nationhood), the Soviet Union upon the ideology of proletarian internationalism (which rejects nationalism entirely). Both acted far more brutally and unrestrainedly than any conventional nation-state of the period.
Besides, today’s Russian Federation is itself not a nation-state but an empire. Mr. Putin’s conduct of the crisis, in addition to being aggressive, might best be described as imperialist or neo-imperialist, not nationalist. We should not illegitimately associate the nation-state with crimes that aren’t uniquely nationalist and may even be less likely to be committed by stable nation-states.
This matters because nationalism is an increasingly necessary word that is too often misused as a term of abuse. Nationalisms and nationalist movements are popping up all over Europe. These can take very different forms: left, right and ambivalent. Some are straightforward secessionist movements, like the nationalist parties in Scotland and Catalonia, striving to establish new states rooted in historic nations. Others are movements resisting further integration of their existing nation-states into the European Community, such as the True Finns party in Finland and the U.K. Independence Party in Britain.
Still others want to protect the nation and its distinctive political spirit (the National Front in France), or the welfare state (the Danish People’s Party in Denmark) or “liberal values” (the Party of Freedom led by Geert Wilders in Holland) that each feels is threatened by mass immigration. Even the mercifully cautious Germans have the Alternative for Germany party, which, though not avowedly nationalist, emits a distinctively postwar German anti-Euro economic nationalism—and should probably be renamed the Alliance of Patriotic Bankers.
Most of these parties, which didn’t exist 20 years ago, are now represnted in Europe’s parliaments. They are expected to do well in May’s elections. They probably won’t win power or enter government, but they force mainstream parties to deal with such issues as the loss of national sovereignty.
In the eyes of Europe’s various political and cultural establishments—what the British call the Great and the Good—none of this should be happening. It is akin to water running uphill. For several decades now, we have heard from these precincts that the nation-state is on its way out, losing power upward to supranational institutions and downward to organized minority groups. Behind their hands, the critics of resurgent nationalism murmur that it is nothing but xenophobia, authoritarianism or even fascism, in folkloric drag. They see Europe’s rising nationalist parties as the preserve of bitter losers or those in the grip of nostalgia.
Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, expressed this view perfectly in 2010 when he announced for the umpteenth time that the nation-state was dead, adding: “The biggest enemy of Europe today is fear; fear leads to egoism, egoism leads to nationalism, and nationalism leads to war.”
This pronouncement didn’t foresee Mr. Putin’s recent actions. But it illustrates nicely how Europe’s political elites see events like the Ukraine crisis in the distorting mirror of anti-nationalism. This view persuades them to consider nationalism a threat, but a dying one. And it is, quite simply, wrong on both counts.
A practical refutation of this view lies in the fact that there are more nation-states in the world today than ever before. They have multiplied since 1945 in two great leaps forward: the decolonization period of the 1950s and 1960s, and the years following the dissolution of communism in 1989 and 1991. Some of these nations gained their independence, alas, by war and revolution—Zimbabwe, Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo. Others did so by peaceful negotiation. Most former British colonies and Soviet republics took this route, but the most significant example of it is the “velvet divorce” that produced successful Czech and Slovak states.
This upsurge of nationhood might be dismissed as a detour on the high road to global governance if the establishment view of nationalism weren’t so absurdly crude. It elides vital distinctions and treats all forms of national loyalty as if they were the most aggressive and exclusivist type. In reality, the full spectrum of nationalist loyalties runs roughly as follows: from Nazism, which is totalitarian racial nationalism; to fascism, which is authoritarian and aggressive nationalism; to ethnic nationalism, which is exclusivist, treating ethnic minorities as second-class citizens (if that); to civic nationalism, which opens full citizenship to all born in the national territory in return for their loyalty to the nation and its institutions; and finally, to patriotism, which is that same national loyalty plus simple love of country—its scenery, its sights and sounds, its characteristic architecture, its songs and poems, its people, its wonderful familiarity.
Here, for instance, is George Orwell, perhaps the most famous critic of nationalism, upon returning to southern England from Spain: “Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wildflowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen—all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England.”
England has changed since then, of course; men no longer wear bowler hats. But it would be as absurd to condemn such a tender patriotism as likely to lead to fascism as it would be to abstain from all interest in sex on the grounds that it might lead to promiscuity. Ordinary people, attached to reality as they must be to survive, feel exactly that sense of absurdity when they hear statements like Mr. Van Rompuy’s.
But that hasn’t hitherto affected their political behavior. Why have they suddenly begun thinking and voting in line with such sentiments?
One obvious reason is that all the ideological rivals to patriotism have been largely discredited. Orwell pointed out that those who abandoned patriotism generally adopted a more virulent ideological substitute. In our day, the most obvious rival ideologies are Europeanism in Europe and multiculturalism in the U.S., both of which seek to weaken national patriotism to change the political character of their societies.
But neither of these creeds has yet become more than a niche loyalty, even though they enjoy lavish official support and the sympathy of those government officials, international bureaucrats, NGO executives, “denationalized” corporate managers and academics ambitious to be the vanguard of the new or transformed nation. Old-fashioned patriotism survives, perhaps weakened by such defections, but not seriously challenged. It remains in the shadows until tempted into the open by a 9/11, or an anniversary of D-Day or the funeral of a Margaret Thatcher. It is then suddenly recognized as the sentiment of most of the nation.
Until recently, those voters for whom patriotism and the national interest were determining issues found comfortable homes in parties of both the left and the right. But that has gradually ceased to be true.
As parties of the left swapped their working-class identity for that of middle-class liberalism, they began to think patriotism vulgar, cheap and xenophobic. At the same time, mainstream parties of the right drifted unthinkingly into a posture that treated nationalist and socially conservative voters as somewhat embarrassing elderly relatives whose views could be safely ignored. Party leaders reasoned that their atavistic voters had nowhere else to go.
The result can be seen most dramatically in Britain, where the U.K. Independence Party, having secured its base among traditional middle-class Tories, is now harvesting new votes from patriotic blue-collar Laborites. But one can see similar outcomes throughout Europe.
Another factor in this resurgence is a change of intellectual fashion toward bigness. Fewer people in all classes are still confident that the future belongs to the big battalions. They have noticed that smaller states are likely to be richer, easier to manage and closer to the people than larger states. As the Economist magazine pointed out a few years ago: “Of the 10 countries with populations of over 100 [million], only the U.S. and Japan are prosperous.”
These economic facts remove an important obstacle to secession. And if there ever was a link between prosperity and bigness, it has been dissolved by free trade and globalization, which ensure that the size of a nation need no longer coincide with the size of the market open to it. At the same time, a government can shrink to the size that its citizens find most convenient to control.
The U.S. is the exception to these rules—it is both large and prosperous—because its federalism distributes power to states and localities, where it can be better controlled. Switzerland is another example. Europe might imitate America’s success if it were to model itself on Switzerland and distribute power downward. But the opposite is happening—in both Europe and America.
A final brief argument is perhaps the strongest: Nation-states are an almost necessary basis for democracy. A common language and culture, a common allegiance to national institutions, a common sense of destiny, all within a defined territory, with equal rights for all citizens—these seem to be the conditions that enable people with different opinions and interests to accept political defeat and the passage of laws to which they strongly object. There are a few exceptions to this rule—India, Switzerland—but many more confirmations of it.
None of these many considerations justify supporting nationalism as a universal principle of statehood. There is no such principle. States rooted in ideas as different as popular consent and the dynastic principle have been handed down to us by history. Wholesale reconstruction of them is utopian and nearly always fails. The best we can hope for is to improve them by piecemeal reform along the grain of their history.
But trying to abolish or replace the nation-state is almost certain to produce more evils than it deters. The lesson of recent history is that nationalism is here to stay—and that secure, stable and satisfied nation-states are likely to want friendship with neighboring countries rather than their conquest. Wise political leaders anxious for peace will concentrate on shaping their people’s nationalism into an amiable patriotism rather than on submerging it in a new sovereignty and driving it toward its darker manifestations.
Mr. O’Sullivan is director of the Danube Institute in Budapest and a senior fellow of the National Review Institute in New York.