Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

Nationalism Is Underrated by Intellectuals

| Aug. 03, 2021

From enjoying the Olympics to defeating COVID-19, a small dose of collective pride can go a long way towards success.

Like most of you, I suspect, I've spent the past couple of weeks focused on two events. The first is the Olympics; the second is the rapidly rising number of COVID-19 cases fueled by the delta variant and especially the reluctance or refusal of millions of Americans to get vaccinated. The combination of these two concerns got me thinking about nationalism.

First, the Tokyo Games. The modern Olympics was originally intended to be a collaborative celebration that transcended nationalism, with amateur athletes from around the world coming together to compete on the athletic field rather than the battlefield. A nice idea, perhaps, but it became just another arena of national competition almost immediately as different countries sought to win medals to demonstrate the superiority of their political and social orders. Not surprisingly, governments competed to host the Games and used that role to burnish their international image as well.

Nationalism now runs rampant throughout the entire proceeding. Televised coverage is relentlessly jingoistic (at least in the United States), and every broadcast repeats the latest medal count as if this was a revealing indicator of national merit. However much we may be entertained by individual feats of prowess or by plucky underdog stories (like Fiji's gold medal in rugby and Ahmed Hafnaoui of Tunisia's victory in the 400 meter freestyle), I'll bet most viewers are mostly rooting for their own fellow citizens.

I'm no exception. I know; I'm supposed to be a hard-nosed realist who understands the broader currents of global politics and should be at least partly immune to this sort of reflexive patriotism. Why should I care if U.S. athletes are best at beach volleyball, 3-on-3 basketball, the pole vault, or street skateboarding? I don't know any of these people personally, and I have no idea which of the various athletes competing in the Games are admirable individuals and which are jerks. Shouldn't I just applaud whoever turns out to be the best or cheer for the individual whose backstory is most inspiring? With certain exceptions, however, I can't help rooting for the U.S. team, not just because they tend to get the most hype from the TV commentators I watch. I find myself feeling disappointed if they don't win, and I suspect I'm not alone here.

Such is the power of nationalism. Nationalism is the idea that humans form distinct tribes based on a common language, culture, ethnicity, and self-awareness, and such groups ought to be able to govern themselves. It is both an immensely powerful and somewhat mysterious idea: Why do humans feel a sense of attachment or kinship toward millions of people they've never met simply because they are part of the same nation? Even more remarkably, why do individuals make sacrifices—and, in some circumstances, risk their own lives—for this "imagined community" of strangers? To repeat: Why am I rooting for athletes I don't even know, knowing full well I would probably root against them if they happened to be wearing a different uniform?...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“Nationalism Is Underrated by Intellectuals.” Foreign Policy, August 3, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt