By Lachlan Alexander

Today, many people believe that Nationalism is making a comeback.  They point to the growing strength of nationalist parties such as Front National, the popularity of Donald Trump and the harsh immigration policies of Sweden or Australia.

But this article offers a counter-narrative.  When the facts are examined closely, nationalism is not as strong as most of us believe – especially when analyzed in a historical context.  But first, let’s start with a definition.

Orwell defined nationalism as “a habit of identifying oneself with a single nation… and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism…is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation.”  This article takes Orwell’s definition to test the strength of nationalism today.

When Orwell wrote Notes on Nationalism in 1945, the world was divided on nationalist lines. It was the time that the English Empire looped the world. Orwell himself had been a policeman in Myanmar and was always uncomfortable with his country’s presence as a colonial force. Nazism had come and gone and the Soviet Union’s Red Army was growing in strength and size. Churchill declared within a year of the war ending that “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” The Cold War had begun.

International expansion, domestic purging and paranoia were the policy manifestations of nationalism.  McCarthy and Edgar Hoover tried to cleanse America of communists. Eisenhower feared the “falling domino principle” in Asia. Later, Reagan frightened us with talk of Evil Empires. Bush said there was an “axis of evil.” The world was fractured. Nations were defined along lines of intolerance, ideology and politics. “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists,” Bush asserted.

Then it changed.

By 2005, Gallup polls revealed that over half the population believed Bush mislead them about WMD in Iraq. Support for an expansionist US foreign policy waned. The Occupy Movement and the Arab Spring came and went, threatening change but never fully achieving it. Black Lives Matter is growing from a grassroots movement into a powerful national force. Citizens made their points. Leaders listened.

Bush was out and Obama arrived. He was elected as a candidate for change and to end America’s wars.  Obama admits that he has been polarizing, but by nearly any metric he has been as transformative as possible. Some foreign policy changes include the Nuclear Deal, the restart with Russia, the non-enforcement of the “red-line” in Syria and rapprochement with Cuba and Myanmar, to name a few.  The common thread with these changes is a focus on tolerance and not necessarily national interest. But nationalism is not only dying in the States.

Outside of America, the response to the Syrian refugee crisis has been mixed. Hungary has built a 13-metre high fence topped with razor wire and used tear gas on migrants. Even Denmark, known as a bastion of progressive values, introduced harsh laws designed to dissuade migrants from coming to Denmark. Switzerland enforces similar laws.

However, some countries are responding less nationalistically. Germany’s centre-right Social Democrats welcomed with open arms an unprecedented 800,000 Syrian refugees.  Australia’s conservative party took 12,000.  David Cameron will welcome 20,000 refugees to the UK.  The new liberal Prime Minister of Canada and former French teacher, Justin Trudeau, took 35,000 – many of whom have already settled.

Source: Reuters

Source: Reuters

In the United Kingdom, the Labour Party members have elected Jeremy Corbyn.  Orwell’s definition cannot be applied to Corbyn, who vocally opposed the 2003 Iraq invasion, was an early proponent of engagement with Sinn Féin in the 1980s and allegedly supported Hamas. Recently, he has argued for Trident, the UK’s nuclear program, to be heavily reduced in power. This would weaken the UK’s national security interest against a growing Russian threat in the Arctic.  

Moreover, any association with a terrorist group like Hamas would have historically killed a Western politician’s campaign. But Britons, especially Labour Party members, welcome it. In the Labour leadership elections last year, Corbyn received 60% of the vote. A YouGov/The Times poll, taken in late March 2016, had Corbyn winning the next federal election by a point.

Corbyn has an equivalent in Bernie Sanders. Sanders offers an increasingly legitimate alternative to Hillary Clinton. Though Clinton is clear favourite for the nomination, Sanders’ campaign has received much traction, surprising many.

It’s useful to consider why Sanders has seen success.  His philosophy is simple: promote good-old-fashioned progressive values. Earlier this year Sanders tweeted: “Let’s better understand social and economic justice, tolerance, respect for all people and the environment.” This humane approach has kept his campaign alive long after the pundits thought it would die. His values are similar to a lot of Scandinavian and Western European countries, all of which do not fit Orwell’s definition of nationalist.   Last year, for example, Sweden was taking up to 10,000 refugees a week and now has a bigger share of foreign-born residents than America.

Now let’s look at a government notorious for its unfaltering nationalism and ravenous anti-Americanism: Iran.  Iran has just done the undoable.  In July 2015 it accepted a nuclear deal with their archenemy, America, and its allies. The deal is like poison to the country’s nationalist roots and also to its security branch, the Revolutionary Guard.

The Revolutionary Guard was created in the wake of the 1979 revolution. Its objective is to uphold an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islamic principles. It is intolerant of alternative views, especially liberal democracy and trade. It has an internal security focus, responsible for crushing local dissident groups. It also has an external security focus, funding proxy groups like Hezbollah and developing long range ballistic missiles. The Guard would have, had the deal not been penned, been in charge of a nuclear program.

The deal wasn’t made using military might this time. The drive was generated largely from beneath the political infrastructure. Seven in ten Iranians approve of the nuclear deal. The interests of economic development have taken precedence over nationalist spirit. The country’s increasingly liberal university system will continue to be an engine for tolerance and limiting nationalism in the coming years.

What about the rise of the right-wing nationalist parties across Europe?  Do they not symbolize a surge in nationalism?

Right now readers will point out the increase in nationalist parties in France, the UK, Germany, Netherlands and Switzerland. Without doubt, these groups are nationalists in the Orwellian sense. They insight violence, encourage intolerance and promote their nation’s interest at the expense of others’.

But most of these parties only hold limited power in their parliaments.  Take, for example, United Kingdom Independence Party or UKIP, which made a splash last election, polling very well before the election. But in the end it won just 1 seat out of the 624 in which it ran a candidate.

The same goes for the much maligned Donald Trump. Like him or loathe him, Trump is a force for good democracy. We might detest his policies, his manipulation of language, his racist taunts. But he represents a large segment of disaffected Americans. Trump is an entrepreneur and opportunist. He provides an outlet for the country’s accumulated anger.  Yes, Trump does seek to secure more power and more prestige, but for himself, not the United States. Orwell’s definition cannot be applied.

Ultimately, the popular notion that nationalism is resurgent and poses serious consequences for liberal democracy does not stand up against the evidence at this time. Major shifts in US foreign policy, the Nuclear Deal, large immigration flows, the popularity of Corbyn and Sanders, all demonstrate that nationalism – defined by Orwell as pursuing national interest – is not as prevalent as we are lead to believe.  In fact, viewed from a historical perspective, the world is less nationalist than it has been.
Moreover, we should never lose sight of the fact that these nationalist parties have a democratic right to exist. The very fact that we can read and hear a plurality of opinions must be celebrated and encouraged. It’s testament to the tolerance we have fostered.