The idea of a nation-state, of a collective ethnicity coalescing behind one government, solidified in Europe in the 19th century after the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon Bonaparte’s French conquest of the continent caused enemies, in the interest of self-preservation, to unite behind their common language, common culture, and common enemy. After Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, the previously fractured geographic areas known as Germany and Italy coalesced in 56 years to form strong, powerful nation-states—nation-states that participated in both World Wars.
To be clear, nationalism is different from patriotism. A patriot loves his country, either because it is his home or because he has adopted the values and culture of it. A nationalist believes in his heart that his country—and by extension, its values, people, technology—is superior to all others. Nationalism sparked both World Wars.
When Woodrow Wilson introduced the concept of self-determination to the world in 1919, he was merely advocating the inevitable result of the formation of the nation-state – that each ethnic group should determine its own government. This has led to many atrocities in Myanmar, the former Yugoslavia, and throughout Africa.
The recent events of Scotland, Brexit and Catalonia, as well as the civil war in Ukraine, the movement of Iraqi’s Kurds, and Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen are extensions of neo-nationalism. Scotland’s vote to leave the United Kingdom in 2014 in order to have its own government and independent economy anticipated the entire United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union (EU). Scotland has had its own heritage for centuries—the south had been invaded by both Romans and Saxons, but the north had retained its independent Pict roots.
But the case of Brexit is more complex. The influx of refugees and the economic troubles of Spain and Greece in the EU turned the country against pan-Europeanism. The problems of the Spanish, Greeks and Syrians did not have to be the problems of the British. In the same vein, the rise of Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen are forebodings of a wider political and economic climate where global commitments and promises become foolish in the eyes of self-interest. Marine Le Pen was the runner-up for the most recent French presidential elections. She ran for the National Front Party on the platform, similar to the supporters of Brexit, of stronger borders and independence from the EU. Donald Trump has also failed to live up to America’s decades-old commitment to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as well as to sign on to the Paris climate accords.
In Catalonia (the northeastern region of Spain containing Barcelona), the government defied Madrid’s constitutional prohibition on secession and held a referendum in order to distance itself from the rest of the nation, which is economically weaker. Less than half of all Catalonians agreed to secession, so the vote failed. But Spain’s liberal use of police force in the matter may have weakened the central government’s case. Iraqi Kurds, suffering from legitimate oppression due to their distinct Christian heritage, have also held a referendum. Despite this referendum overwhelming success (well over half of all Kurds), the Iraqi government refuses to accept the results in order to maintain the unity of the country in the face of ISIS. North of Iraq, Russia’s excitement of ethnic differences within the Ukraine resulted in the de facto annexation of eastern, more ethnically Russian Ukraine to Russia.
Nationalism has been the plague of the modern world. While I must concede that the loss of industrial and manufacturing jobs in America, to touch on one effect of the march of time, have hit many families hard—mine as well, as the son of two factory workers—the progress of history demands that economic power shifts to the most innovating and open nation. The loss of jobs to China in the 21st century was precipitated by the loss of labor to America in the 19th century. It must happen and no single group of people is entitled. The inevitable degradation in value of other peoples that nationalism demands is toxic not only to international relations, but also to economies. It does not mean that I believe the Kurds, Catalonians, Scots, or eastern Ukrainians should stay within their respective polities if there are legitimate grievances between these groups and their governments, but the results are potentially harmful. Protectionism cripples the international exchange of goods (and how many of us can actually survive without our Chinese-made electronics and clothes?) and secession turns domestic issues to potentially international conflicts. A separate Kurd nation and Catalonia would likely precipitate war.
We must stick to globalism. The byproduct of globalism is a greater understanding between cultures and perspectives, one that is sorely needed in the modern world.