Ukraine and the power of nationalism
Ukrainians’ inspired defense of their country against Russian aggression is one of the most vivid displays in recent times of strong nationalism. That defense and the sentiments and loyalty that have sustained it have demolished Vladimir Putin’s assertion that Ukraine is not a real nation but only a Soviet-manufactured entity.
What the Ukrainians are demonstrating can be viewed in the context of a larger pattern of nationalism shaping internal as well as international politics across much of the globe. The roots of nationalism are very old and include the consolidation of the European nation-state in the 17th century and the concept of mass commitment to the nation-state that came out of the French Revolution. Nationalism emerged more recently and clearly as a dominant way of people thinking about their identities and loyalties once the obscuring effects of supranational empires (of which the Soviet Union was one of the last) and the supranational conflict known as the Cold War went away.
Nationalism in other nations has important implications for the United States, but it is important to distinguish two different types of ideologies that have borne labels that include the word nationalism.
One type is often called ethno-nationalism or some other name that incorporates an ethnic, racial, or religious identity that is the focus of the ideology. This type is not based on the nation-state or patriotic adherence to a nation-state. It instead typically asserts a superior position for a demographic group within a nation-state. In that respect it is exclusive rather than inclusive. Sometimes its adherents reach beyond international borders to make common cause with those having comparable ideas about exclusion, which is true of some nativists today.
Examples of this type include the “Hindu nationalism” of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party in India, the Israeli ideology that claims a superior position for a specific ethnic and religious group, various far-right political parties in today’s Europe, and ethnically-based extremism in the United States that sometimes claims the title “nationalist.”
Ethno-nationalism poses numerous problems, including to peace and security.
Internationally, it has underlain wars where ethnic and religious patterns of habitation do not correspond with state boundaries, as in the Balkans and Caucasus. Internally, it leads to such violence as between Hindus and Muslims in India, between Jews and Arabs in Palestine, and individual carnage at the hands of white supremacists in the United States.
Although ethno-nationalism is no stranger to Ukraine, the nationalism that Ukrainians are displaying today in resisting Russian aggression is a much different type. It is loyalty to the entire nation-state rather than any one demographic group within it. It is inclusive rather than exclusive. In Ukraine, it is proving more powerful than what could have been a more exclusive variety based on language or ethnicity. In disproving one of the mistaken assumptions Putin evidently made before launching the war, even most Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the eastern part of the country have rallied to the Ukrainian national cause.
The type of nationalism that Ukrainians are displaying need not be a problem for peace and security. Strong pride in, and attachment to, a nation-state is consistent with preservation of an international order based on the nation-state and respect for territorial integrity. Nationalist-minded Ukrainians may be stubborn enough about restoring their own territorial integrity to make a peace settlement more elusive than it might otherwise be, but their nationalism does not motivate them to invade another country. The alternative to nationalism based on the nation-state is empire, which is what Putin is trying to recreate.
In shaping its foreign policy, the United States needs to respect nationalism — genuine, Ukrainian-style nationalism based on the nation-state. When the United States in the past has failed to show that kind of respect and understanding, it has gotten in trouble, as in Vietnam and Iraq.
A restrained foreign policy that incorporates such respect can avoid such trouble. The performance in the current war of Ukrainian forces, highly motivated to defend their country, against a numerically superior Russian military ought to be taken as revalidation of this lesson.
It would be nice if the more inclusive variety of nationalism could everywhere displace destabilizing ethno-nationalism and its variants, but that is too much to hope for. Even in Ukraine, which has long been troubled by linguistic and other internal divisions that at times has given its external policies a split personality, it took a brutal foreign invasion to inspire the degree of national unity and patriotism it displays today. The curse of ethno-nationalism is not about to go away in most of the world. The United States should criticize it as appropriate and certainly not actively support it.