Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Elites Are Getting Nationalism All Wrong

| Apr. 27, 2022

Russia, the United States, and the European Union are each suffering from resulting disasters.

If a head of state or foreign minister asked for my advice—don't be alarmed; that's not likely to happen—I might start by saying: "Respect the power of nationalism." Why? Because as I look back over much of the past century and consider what's happening today, the failure to appreciate this phenomenon seems to have led numerous leaders (and their countries) into costly disasters. I’ve made this point before—in 20192011, and 2021—but recent events suggest a refresher course is in order.

What is nationalism? The answer has two parts. First, it starts by recognizing that the world is made up of social groups that share important cultural traits (a common language, history, ancestry, geographic origins, etc.), and over time, some of these groups have come to see themselves as constituting a unique entity: a nation. A nation's claims about its essential character need not be strictly accurate in either biological or historical terms. (Indeed, national narratives are usually distorted versions of the past.) What matters is that members of a nation genuinely believe that they are one.

Second, the doctrine of nationalism further asserts that every nation is entitled to govern itself and should not be ruled by outsiders. Relatedly, this view tends to make existing nations wary of those who do not belong to their group, including immigrants or refugees from other cultures who may be trying to enter and reside in their territory. To be sure, migration has been going on for millennia, many states contain several national groups, and assimilation can and does occur over time. Nonetheless, the presence of people who are not seen as part of the nation is often a hot-button issue and can be a powerful driver of conflict.

Now, consider how nationalism has derailed leaders who failed to appreciate its power.

Exhibit A, of course, is Russian President Vladimir Putin's failure to understand how Ukrainian nationalism may thwart his attempt to restore Russian influence in Ukraine through a swift and successful military campaign. Russia's war effort has been error-prone from the start, but the Ukrainians' fierce and unexpected resistance has been the most important obstacle in Russia's path. Putin and his associates forgot that nations are often willing to absorb huge losses and fight like tigers to resist foreign invaders, and that is precisely what the Ukrainians have done....

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Elites Are Getting Nationalism All Wrong.” Foreign Policy, April 27, 2022.

The Author

Stephen Walt