The Bane of Nations: Nationalism in the Modern World

Feb 24, 2017

Michael Wallace, age 16, attends Wilton High School in the United States. An outdoorsman at heart, he enjoys hiking and skiing, but on most days he can be found debating American politics and international issues with his local debate team.

ESSAY TOPIC: Is nationalism an asset or hindrance in today's globalized world?

Throughout history, nation states rose to power and declined into anonymity on the strength or weakness of their national pride. Whether in the form of citizenship in Athens and Sparta, civitas in the Roman Empire, or modern nationalism in Bismarck's Prussia or Franklin Delano Roosevelt's United States, this pride once stimulated economic growth and incentivized geographic expansion. It tied citizens to a broader political entity, anointing them members of a sovereign nation, fiercely independent and deserving of international recognition.

But in recent years, the connections between formerly disparate and unrelated nations in trade, diplomacy, and cyberspace have eroded the power of nationalism. In today's globalized world, nation states—and perhaps even the international community itself—now stand to lose more than they would gain from the influence of nationalism. In today’s globalized world, nationalism exists as more of a hindrance to modern nations than an asset.

The concept of nationalism has changed nearly constantly across the ages, but for this discussion, I would prefer to define nationalism as the sense of pride and shared ideology which ties individuals to an ethnic group or nation state. In this sense, nationalism can be an often destructive sense of national superiority which persists through the ages, inspiring entire generations to unilaterally impose their political values and beliefs on others.

In this context, however, nationalism has no place in our modern, globalized society. Its continued presence only serves to weaken the nations that it once supported; again and again, we have seen it encourage conflict and strife, hindering the advancement of our society. Nationalism has almost torn modern Germany apart, for instance, as its citizens protest the influx of foreigners and refugees from the Middle East, the same nationalism that enabled Germany (then Prussia) to defeat France and Austria in the late nineteenth century. The modern world is far removed from the old world in which nationalism flourished: it is now one of constantly fluctuating populations, of interconnected races and ethnicities, and of rich cultural diversity. Until the Industrial Revolution, homogeneity prevailed in most cities, with little interaction between individuals of different geographic or cultural backgrounds. This uniformity made nationalism especially effective in years past, yet modern cosmopolitanism has all but erased any semblance of homogeneity from our cities and towns.

Today, a European Pole might rub shoulders with an Iraqi while walking in the streets of Shanghai, and in Los Angeles an Ecuadorian store owner might sell shirts to a Ghanaian customer. The traditional notion of nationalism simply cannot exist in this multicultural amalgamation. Business transactions and social interactions are only possible if individuals let go of their nationalistic tendencies and embrace globalism. But if we continue to place nationalism before globalism and to prioritize confrontation over cooperation, we risk inciting violence and undoing the advances of our society.

Nationalism’s influence allows for the rise of violent, extremist political groups, as evidenced by the growth of the German Nazi party in the humiliated Weimar Republic. But this occurrence was not a unique historical development. In the 1990s, the persistence of nationalism led to genocide and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and parts of other former Yugoslav republics, where leaders like Serbian Slobodan Milosevic and General Ratko Mladic used it to justify war crimes and crimes against humanity. Drunk with nationalism, their followers forcibly removed thousands of ethnic Bosnians from Serbian towns and murdered thousands more. With negative side effects such as these, nationalism can only continue to drag our society down from the peaks of its achievements.

We can look to Iraq for a contemporary example of nationalism’s impact on the stability of nations. Following the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, Iraq's government experienced fierce sectarianism and conflict between members of Iraq’s various ethnic groups. Nationalist factions like the Kurds in the northeast and ideological groups like the Sunni Arabs in the northwest and Shia Arabs in the south vied for political and social dominance. Their conflicts were far from peaceful—public beatings and extrajudicial killings rapidly became the norms. Of course, nationalism does have a tendency to hold some countries together, but it also has a far greater tendency to tear them apart. In Iraq and in the rest of the world, nationalism not only hinders nations—it can even destroy them.

Less radically, increased nationalism often leads to increased nativism, a trend which devastates global trade networks and hinders the economic development of all nations. In our modern, globalized world, trade between nations represents the lifeblood of the international community. Exports and imports bind countries to one another, fostering cooperation and encouraging peaceful rather than antagonistic interactions. But increased nationalism—and increased nativism—lend credence the misconception that nations can economically succeed independently of the international community. The simple truth is exactly the opposite: economic isolationism only serves to hinder the nations it purports to help, as in the case of the United States prior to World War I.

Diplomatically, economic cooperation on the global stage ensures that nations remain close to one another and that democracy—the usual byproduct of capitalism and free markets—stays secure in its role as the dominant political force around the world. During the Cold War, the European community banded together to form the European Economic Community and ultimately the European Union. Dissolving the nationalist sentiments which had engendered conflict during World War I and World War II, the European Union has contributed to developing a Europe that is more peaceful than ever before. Without the hindrance of nationalism, it seems, countries are more likely to cooperate, succeed, and thrive.

In bygone days, nationalism enabled nations to rise to unprecedented heights; in modern days, nationalism weighs down nations, dragging them into a pit of violence and economic decay. Nationalism in a globalized world can and will continue to exist, but its continued presence will only serve to hinder nations, causing unnecessary friction and hostility across the globe. As an international community, we must focus on peace and cooperation rather than competition and animosity; our greatest successes—economic, diplomatic, scientific, and otherwise—will be made possible when we work with rather than against one another. As Albert Einstein once argued, "nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind." And like the measles, nationalism will continue to plague mankind until we take actions to reduce its influence. No nation is independent of another, and the sooner we accept that fact, the sooner we will be able to thrive as an international community.

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