Nationalism: The Byproduct of the Nation-State

David Roselle‘s third post in our Emerging Fellows program concerns the changing face of the nation-state. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members. 

How do nations produce a society that will develop a shared sense of identity around a fictive narrative of citizenship? This is, and has been, the challenge for the nation-state. Leaders of nation-states deploy nation-building strategies to create unity by spreading nationalist consciousness to form a social order. This may mean relying on linguistic tools like symbols, mottos, or anthems to create an identity for the nation. These tools are reinforced through both the mundane of daily life — schools, newspapers, pop culture — and through the extreme of war and hardships.

Nation-building is challenging, however, in postcolonial nation-states or countries with high-ethnic fractionalization. High-ethnic fractionalization means a nation-state’s demographics are comprised of societies with different ethnicities, languages or religions. This is true for many, postcolonial nations in Africa (Tanzania .953, DRC .933) and Southeast Asia (Indonesia .766) whose borders were drawn without regard to local knowledge. Denmark (.128) and South Korea (.004), on the other hand, have low level of fractionalization. The quoted numbers speak to the probability that two people picked at random will not share the same ethnicity. For example, a score of .953 implies a 95.3% likelihood that two, random, Tanzanians will not share the same ethnicity – Tanzania has over 120 distinct ethnicities.

Nationalism forms as a byproduct of the nation-state’s architecture. The modern ideology has become an effective vehicle for nation-building. Scholars identify two forms of nationalism: liberal (or civic) nationalism in which collective bonds are formed through shared values of non-xenophobic tolerance and liberty; and ethnic nationalism in which collective bonds are formed through shared ethnicity, language and territory. One bond is by choice (liberal) while the other is congenital (ethnic).

Understanding these two forms of nationalism is essential to make sense of current and future geopolitics. France and the United States are credited with forming the modern, liberal nation-state through their revolutions against monarchies centuries ago. However, in this last presidential election, both countries experienced a strong pull towards ethnic nationalism where it nearly won out in France – with National Front Marine Le Pen’s de-demonization campaign to soften her father’s nationalist ideology – and where it did win in the United States. President Donald Trump used the slogan “Make America Great Again,” to activate ethnic-nationalist populism to appeal to the majority despite the US’ high-ethnic fractionalization. President Trump ostensibly sought to undermine liberal nationalism by uniting anti-globalist, ethnic nationalists to scapegoat the “other”, which has subsequently ostracized Muslims, African-Americans and Central American immigrants.

The future of the nation-state must reconcile with nationalism while understanding the nature of mass migration and globalization. While certain nation-states thrive, many do not. Syria, Yemen and Nicaragua continue to see their populations disperse across boundaries for survival. This large-scale migration caused by religious wars, political corruption and organized crime triggers the defensiveness in nationalist thinking to reject and assign migrants as ‘others’.

As globalization matures, we must wonder how strengthening transnational, economic network flows between global, urban centers will trigger nationalist reactions as new relationships transcend citizenship. Moreover, nation-states must anticipate for the latent disruption posed by climate migration. This leaves unanswered: how will nationalism react to the next surge of human flow?

© David Roselle 2018