The most successful military alliance for preserving peace in Europe is now facing its most daunting challenge yet.
Are you married? Do you love your spouse? Do you think your spouse is better than all the other spouses? Is that why you love her?
If you answered yes to the first two questions and no to the second two, congratulations. You’ve just defined what healthy nationalism looks like on a personal level. People love their country because it is theirs, not because they think it better than all the other countries.
Ukraine’s defence against Russian invasion has been an object lesson in what goes by the name of “patriotism” or “civic nationalism.” People in places who have been shamed by self-described betters for their love of country have drawn sustenance from the ease with which Volodymyr Zelenskyy has modelled the right kind of love.
Perhaps it’s easier to say things like “Слава Україні; Героям слава” in a language other than English (“Glory to Ukraine; to heroes, the glory”). One would have to go back many years to reach a time when expressing similar sentiments locally didn’t draw sniggers. Not for nothing is it pointed out that Britons—when we do fly the flag—often hang it upside down, which, I’m told, is a distress signal. Ukraine’s cheerful and distinctive flag has, of late, had similar treatment from well-meaning supporters.
Without pretending that all nationalism is an unalloyed blessing, stout Ukrainian defiance has also reminded us of the difference between good and bad sorts. In this, it’s important to remember nationalism wasn’t invented in the 18th century—that’s a Marxist conceit. What was invented in the 18th century was the idea of national modesty. You were only supposed to do it for you and yours, not to me and mine as well. Russia, meanwhile, has handily modelled the bad sort: invading someone else’s country, something we (rightly) call imperialism. If you didn’t know the difference, now you do.
Countries with an imperial past—Russia is not alone here—have problems with the modesty of nationalism. Hungary—despite a population of only 10 million—has recent and extensive memories of calling the shots. This explains the divergence of Viktor Orbán’s form of national populism from that in Poland, Slovakia, and Czechia when it comes to Ukraine policy. In banning NATO arms shipments across its border with Ukraine, Hungary has become the odd Visegrád country out, leaving the UK in charge of operations via Poland and Slovakia. Polish national populists have expressed outrage at Orbán’s refusal to condemn Russian atrocities outside Kyiv: “When Orbán says that he cannot see what happened in Bucha, he must be advised to see an eye doctor,” Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s Deputy PM, thundered last week.
Mind you, Italy and Germany had their imperial pasts thrashed out of them, perhaps too soundly. Germany’s idiotic, appeasing energy policies have roots not only in environmentalism but also the country’s fear of its own past. As a result, post-WWII, Germany hasn’t gone from terrifying to peaceful, but from terrifying to embarrassing. That said, Italians are in a unique position to observe that once you’ve conquered the world, you should relax. “Russians say they must invade Ukraine because it used to belong to them,” one Italian friend quipped. “Excuse me, but that means Italy has to invade the rest of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.”
Britain also has memories of being a Great Power, and in some ways still is, but it was broken—with an enforced realisation of its loss of influence and status—by the humiliation of Suez. Maybe Ukraine is Russia’s Suez Crisis, because there’s an awful lot of “lost an Empire and failed to find a role” going on right now. Worse, Putin’s much-vaunted Русский мир (Russkiy Mir, “Russian Peace” or “Russian World”) never gave its colonial subjects much in the way of things worth having.
Although unfashionable these days, it is possible to assign grades of moral turpitude to colonial powers. It was rather better to be conquered by Romans or British than by Russians or Ottomans. The Russian World provided no Westminster system, no common law, no Roman law, no norms of good governance. Yes, great literature and music count for something, but the British and Romans had these as well. Even by imperialism’s low standards, Russia’s behaviour towards its colonial possessions was horrendous, especially given its Panslavist claims to provide “protection” for fellow Slavs.
You can’t call in loans unless the other party borrowed something in the first place.
This abusive trait was made many times worse during Soviet communism because Marxism was always avowedly international in orientation. No amount of Stalin wittering on about “socialism in one country” prevented multiple determined attempts to export communism to places where it wasn’t wanted. Those people struggling to draw a distinction between nationalism and imperialism often come from internationalist intellectual traditions notoriously careless of sovereignty; of these, Marxism is the worst.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has given the lie not only to Putin’s belief that Kyiv would fall in days while the country collapsed in a fortnight, but also to the claim—often made by the anti-liberal, pro-Putin right—that liberalism makes people vulnerable to outsiders who still possess vigour and self-belief. On this point, it’s probably wise to remember that patriotism and civic nationalism have taken many different forms across time, and it’s a mistake to think societies best at evincing them must be moral in a Christian or Muslim sense.
The Roman Empire that fell in the late fifth century had been Christian for more than 150 years. It was sexually restrained, not decadent. It no longer crucified people and had banned gladiatorial shows. It had developed an elaborate charitable sector and ended the lending of money at interest. The old myth that Rome fell because it ate too much, drank too much, and had too many orgies is exactly that—a myth.
The Roman Empire at its height, however, was sexually deranged, and a reminder to be careful of running down the military capability of states with armies full of homosexuals, women in high places, public and kinky religious parades, and something quite close to an “it is forbidden to forbid” sexual culture. Rome in the first and second centuries AD had temple prostitution, low total fertility rates (thanks to promiscuous use of abortion and the fact that childhood vaccines had not yet been invented), and one entire priesthood made up of transwomen. It was also intensely mercantile, preferring to conquer and trade rather than conquer and kill.
Christians and Muslims alike tell comforting stories about how their austere sexual morality and hardy patriarchy will provide a basis for battlefield dominance. Similar claims have long infected Partido Putinistas on the right. This simply isn’t guaranteed and, worse, tempts its adherents into endorsing the bad sort of nationalism: we love our country because it is better than all the others.
There is, however, one constant in all this. Patriotism, if pressed, requires sacrifice. It cannot be hollow and chest-beating. When the Roman poet Horace wrote dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, he was drawing water from the same well as Gustav Holst when the latter set the following to music:
I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,
Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;
The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best.