Nationalism carries the unspoken assumption that each person should worry about their compatriots over the rest of the world. Liam Glen argues for a more universalistic outlook.
As is common under the Trump administration, nationalism is in the news. The president’s claim that a quartet of Democratic congresswomen “hate our Country” has revived Vietnam-era “love it or leave it” rhetoric.
The controversial comments were inopportune for the National Conservatism Conference taking place in Washington. It was a meeting of right-wing pundits and intellectuals seeking to update traditional conservative ideals of free markets and Christian values into more Trumpian ones of national identity and sovereignty.
Missouri Senator Josh Hawley’s keynote address trashed ideas of global citizenship, like those advocated by philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum. According to Hawley, America is run by a “cosmopolitan elite” whose “primary loyalty is to the global community.”
Most criticism of Hawley remark’s focus on how his wording mirrored anti-Semitic tropes. Most responses to his ideas focus on how his specific policies would not benefit America as much as he claims they would. But few are willing to address the core of Hawley’s ideas, the conflict between global and national identity.
I will risk touching the third rail. I can see nothing wrong with what Nussbaum advocated, nor any virtue in identifying more closely with one’s countrymen than with the rest of humanity.
The Nationalist Consensus
While the use of “nationalist” as a label is controversial in America, nationalist ideas are so mainstream that they usually go unspoken. You will never see a politician take a stance against the world being divided into sovereign nation-states.
As a consequence of this world order, the country always comes first. Americans, for instance, do not like their tax dollars going to foreign aid. Reasons for this are numerous (there is certainly a discussion to be had about the efficacy of the foreign aid system), but the crux of it is the idea that the American government ought to look after its citizens rather than the rest of the world.
Some of this is just self-interest. Politicians of any stripe are expected to focus on their own constituents first and foremost. But there is also a strong moral component.
When Senator Hawley quoted MIT professor Leo Marx as saying, “the planet would be a better place to live if more people gave their primary allegiance to the community of human beings in the entire world,” he intended it as an exposé of liberal academia’s moral turpitude.
When Donald Trump defined a globalist as “a person who wants the globe to do well, frankly not caring about our country so much” during 2018 rally, the crowd booed in disgust.
Tribalism is a natural human instinct. We all have a sense of pride and identity in our home towns, our favorite sports teams, or our internet subcultures. But tribal loyalty to our nation is something of an entirely different level. We are expected to go above and beyond for our country, without ever asking why.
I do not necessarily oppose practical arguments for nationalism, nor am I against a healthy feeling of patriotism. What I hope to tackle, however, is the idea that it is a moral imperative to put one’s nation first.
Nationalism obviously contrasts with universalistic conceptions of morality. Thus, one might say that it is more individualistic, representing the connection between a person and their community. But this does not hold up.
A person has a natural attachment to their family, friends, and neighbors. But nationalism also makes them care about places that they have never been and people they have never met, their only connection being that they live in the same country.
Or, as writer Ursula K. Le Guin put it in her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, “I know people, I know towns, farms, hills and rivers and rocks, I know how the sun at sunset in autumn falls on the side of a certain plowland in the hills; but what is the sense of giving a boundary to all of that, of giving a name and ceasing to love where the name ceases to apply?”
Nationalism rests on what political scientist Benedict Anderson called “imagined communities.” While there is nothing concrete binding the country together, it is still expected that the needs of the individual are subordinate to the needs of the nation, yet the needs of the nation are more important than the needs of humanity as a whole. It is a hybrid morality, one where the individual should but selfless but the group should be selfish.
Again, there is nothing wrong with identifying closely with a particular group. But it is hard to justify why national identity is so important that it inherently trumps all others.
This is especially true when identities overlap. Many British nationalists who want to reassert their sovereignty by leaving the European Union take great offense at Scottish nationalists who want to reassert their own sovereignty by leaving the United Kingdom. One man’s sectionalist is another man’s patriot.
People will go great lengths for their country. When ultranationalists armed with sticks and rocks tried to storm the Greek parliament because it offended them that the government made a deal with Macedonia, which has the same name as a region of Greece, it seemed utterly ridiculous to the rest of the world. But they believed that they were simply fulfilling their moral duty by putting the abstract idea of the nation above all else.
Needless to say, absolute loyalty to the nation can also lead to much darker places if there is no sense of universal morality to constrain it. If nothing else, it is hard to identify a logical reason that a humanity-first worldview is somehow less justified or moral than a nation-first one.
A Globalist Outlook
Even if one does decide to swear loyalty to entire world, though, the next course of action is not obvious. There are plenty of contradictory ideas for what is best for humanity.
Closer international cooperation seems logical, but that does not mean that one must always mindless support globalism. There are valid criticisms of supranational organizations like the United Nations and European Union as being too bureaucratic and unrepresentative of the average person.
Anti-colonial independence movements are often brought up as a positive example of nationalism. While internationalism may be generally desirable, it is also undeniable that it is better for humanity to be divided and free than united and oppressed.
Despite Senator Hawley’s claims, internationalism does not always mean free trade and other policies championed by the political and business elite. There even exists an “alterglobalization” movement that supports international connectedness but believes that the current regime of economic globalization does not work in humanity’s best interests.
My goal here is not to advocate for any specific policy, but for a different moral outlook. I do not expect a mindset of global citizenship to take root in the immediate future. Even if it does, I would not expect immediate changes.
Yet, I also do not think it would be such a bad thing to start looking beyond the borders of our imagined communities and search for solutions that benefit all of humanity.