Not so long ago, the established wisdom was that the nation-state was on its way out as we moved, at least in the West, toward a borderless world. Political arrangements like the European Union were seen as harbingers of an inescapable future: a type of global political order which resembled something like the foedus pacificum or “league of peace” outlined in Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Essay (1795). This “federation,” Kant famously proclaimed, would “extend gradually over all states and thus lead to perpetual peace.”
Such prognostications have come to look rather dated. Since 2016, it has become evident that millions of people are not content to be herded, sheep-like, by intellectuals, techno-utopians, and supranational bureaucrats down the path of global governance. Their discontent is being expressed through a renewed emphasis upon the nation and an associated stress on nation-state sovereignty.
National sovereignty means something quite specific. It indicates that a country no longer understands itself as primarily constituted by, for instance, loyalty to a dynasty such as the Habsburg Empire whose authority crossed ethnic, cultural, and religious boundaries. Instead the idea of the nation-state underscores that those who belong to a given sovereign entity regard themselves as united by certain cultural characteristics common to a particular nation. Sometimes this involves ties of ethnicity and language. But it can also involve a shared history or adherence to an inherited set of ideas upon which a sovereign nation-state is founded. The United States exemplifies the latter.
But does the renewed prominence of nation-states and national sovereignty imply a resurgence of those forms of nationalism that, in some commentators’ eyes, have facilitated serious evils since the nation-state began dominating international relations from the 19th century onward? In his new book, Le nation contre le nationalisme (2018), the French political scientist Gil Delannoi suggests that this need not be the case. On the contrary, he argues, the idea of the nation—properly-understood—can actually inhibit such trends. Delannoi also maintains that nation-states can protect people from the machinations of those anxious to replace attachment to country with some decidedly abstract ideas that can lead to severe curtailments of freedom.
It’s no coincidence that some of the best thinking about the nation and nationalism has come from French scholars over the past 10 years. In many ways, France was one of the first countries to understand itself as a nation-state. Even before the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which formalized into international law the principle that each nation enjoyed exclusive sovereignty within its borders, there is considerable evidence of French royal officials conceptualizing France in nation-state terms rather than in a purely dynastic fashion.
With its emphasis on liberté, égalité, fraternité, the French Revolution certainly promoted ideas considered to have both transnational significance and, as Edmund Burke observed, a somewhat abstract character. At the same time, the Revolutionaries underscored the importance of le peuple française. In the 19th century, this commitment to the French nation—la patrie—and the gradual spread of what we today would call nationalist sentiment transcended the deep divide between the heirs of the ancién regime and those of the Revolution. Royalists and Jacobins were at odds about most things, but the importance of patriotism and the need to defend la nation wasn’t one of them.
In more recent times, several factors have caused some French thinkers, mainly of a conservative disposition, to reexamine concepts like nation and nationality and what they mean in an era of economic globalization and rising nationalist feelings. Such developments include growing frustration with the European unification project across the French political spectrum, and the presence of an estimated 8.4 million Muslims in France, some of whom live existences largely separate from the rest of the French nation.
Having written at length on questions of national identity and nationalism for almost 20 years, Delannoi, who teaches political philosophy at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (also known as “Sciences Po”) is well-equipped to address this subject. One of his book’s most illuminating sections is its careful clarification of the varied meanings and historical associations attached to words like “nation” and “nationalism.”
Delannoi illustrates, for instance, that there are different types of nationalism which themselves are expressed in a plethora of ways. Most manifestations of patriotism, he writes, have nothing to do with the type of racialist ideology that was central to National Socialism. He devotes several pages to illustrating that, strictly speaking, Nazism was not about nationalism or German nationality, being more accurately defined as “un impérial-racisme.”
Nationalism, Delannoi points out, has always manifested itself across the political spectrum. Contemporary classical liberals are often perceived as wary of, if not hostile to, nationalism or strong expressions of patriotic feeling. Throughout 19th century continental Europe, however, liberalism went hand-in-hand with nationalist sentiment. Both liberal and nationalist movements opposed those traditionalist forms of conservatism that prioritized the ties of monarchy and pre-modern social hierarchies over the nation. To that extent, liberalism and nationalism were often part of the same movement agitating for greater freedom.
In some cases, liberals understood their efforts to expand free trade as part of a process of accelerating the establishment of new nation-states. Germany’s appearance as a sovereign nation-state, for instance, wasn’t just enthusiastically supported by German liberals; it had been prefigured by Prussian liberals successfully establishing a German customs union.
Throughout the 1830s, what was called the Zollverein resulted in the removal of trade barriers between approximately 26 independent German states, with the notable exception of the Habsburg Empire’s German-speaking territories. It wasn’t by accident that the Zollverein’s boundaries mirrored those of the future unitary German nation-state that was founded in 1871. On the other side of the world, the desire to abolish tariffs between the six self-governing British colonies of the Australian continent helped bring about the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. Free trade and nation-states, it seems, need not be at odds.
Similar complexities become apparent when you reflect on what constitutes a nation. Delannoi notes that any given nation has political and cultural dimensions. The latter has often proved more important than the former. Poland may have disappeared from the map of Europe in 1795 following its third partition by Prussia, the Habsburg Empire and Tsarist Russia. Nevertheless the Polish nation maintained a distinct cultural identity that survived the extinction of its political sovereignty as a country.
Here it’s worth recalling that the very process of creating independent nation-states was often integral to the liberation of groups of people from empires that embodied particular forms of injustice. The reestablishment of the national sovereignty of countries like Lithuania, Georgia, and Estonia following the Soviet Union’s demise involved their freedom from a form of Russian oppression: something that had been rationalized by the prevailing transnational Marxist-Leninist ideology.
Then there are those cases in which a nation-state’s formation has enabled a people sharing common ethnic, cultural, and historical bonds to protect themselves from prejudice and subjugation by others. The proclamation of the State of Israel in 1948 was a concrete response to the scattering of the Jewish people over the centuries, their subsequent persecution, and the attempted destruction of European Jewry during World War II. If a Kurdish nation-state is ever created and formally recognized by other sovereign powers, it would realize an analogous end.
Nations and Liberty
How then does Delannoi understand the nation as a bulwark against those variants of nationalism that have contributed to war and conflict? The key to understanding this is Delannoi’s view of the nation as a potential and historical locus of democratic freedom.
Delannoi begins his discussion of these variants by noting that the widespread insistence that the nation-state is somehow doomed to extinction is more a matter of ad nauseam repetition by scholars than attention to facts. To underscore his point, he lists a number of the mantras typically employed—that nationalism necessarily leads to war, that all nationalisms contain the germ of racism, that the West’s decline is due to nationalism, etc.—and shows how disputable such statements are. Is it always the case, for example, that love of one’s nation translates into hatred of other countries and contempt for foreigners?
Why, the author asks, do many intellectuals and supranational officials endlessly repeat these themes, despite all the evidence to the contrary? And if the nation-state’s decline is so inevitable, Delannoi wonders why it is that enthusiasts of supranational entities and a borderless world relentlessly employ measures that they believe will accelerate the process. Could it be that nation-states actually protect ordinary people from the utopian schemes of intellectuals—and from the ceaseless calls by unelected supranational bureaucrats for more power to be concentrated in their hands?
Paradoxically, it’s the essentially undemocratic (in the sense of unrepresentative and unaccountable) character of supranational institutions that Delannoi believes often facilitates destructive forms of nationalism. Such organizations seem addicted to trying to impose ideologies like multiculturalism upon nation-states, the purpose being to marginalize and empty out national traditions or, worse, stigmatize them in the name of “inclusion-diversity-respect-tolerance.”
That’s hardly surprising. After all, if supranational forms of sovereignty are to be real, they can’t tolerate the ongoing existence of national sovereignty. But societies and individuals react very negatively when informed by Brussels-based technocrats and NGOs that their attachment to being, say, Dutch or British or having pride in the particular civilizational contributions of France and Spain is offensive, insensitive, or somehow disrespects other cultures or dishonors migrants.
One heartening message of this book is that nothing is inevitable. That very much includes globalization. “La globalisation économique n’est pas irréversible,” Delannoi writes. Historically speaking, that’s correct. The first period of economic globalization, which traces back to the 19th century—and to which John Maynard Keynes refers almost wistfully in Chapter Two of his Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919)—came to a shuddering halt in August 1914. To open a nation to international flows of capital, trade, and labor is always a matter of choice for governments. As the contemporary case of mainland China shows, nations can be very selective in what they choose to accept and reject. Embracing some degree of economic freedom, it turns out, need not facilitate greater political freedom.
All this highlights the need to appreciate the nation-state’s saliency at a time when many are prone to view international affairs through an iron cage of nationalist sentiment versus globalist aspirations. The choices of nation-states and the existence of nations, Gil Delannoi shows us, remain as relevant as ever, and they are only likely to become more important, Eurocrat protestations to the contrary. To pretend otherwise is to indulge geopolitical fantasies.