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Nationalism in dispute

After decades of being marginalized and vilified, nationalism is back in fashion. Its demonization was largely promoted and spread by the two great ideological exponents of global geopolitics during the post-second world war period. First, those who preached the liberal ideology, led by the United States, promoting universal democratic values and markets without borders. Second, from the Marxist views, led by the Soviet Union, from which the construction of  worldwide socialism was sought. Both currents fought nationalism, considering it archaic, elitist, protectionist, statist or fascist.

The great ideological adversaries of ‘nationalism’ are today in crisis, as is the idea of ‘globalization. This opens the door to the return of national cultural perspectives, in some cases packaged within civilizational dimensions. The objective is to group together societies or communities beyond a national territorial space, in order to support projects of geopolitical expansion. It is not that they do not want to be global, their problem is that today they lack the strength to be so.

In this context, there is an attempt at reconstruction from below, projecting itself transnationally into ‘civilizing’ spaces. A recent example was the attempt to build a new ‘Islamic state’ within the framework of a kind of Arab-Muslim civilization. Another is the reconstruction of Russia in a national (and geopolitical) Eurasian dimension. The self-identification of China as a ‘civilized state’ is also interesting. These are projects that seek to go beyond the Western format of the Westphalian nation-state, something somewhat announced during the 1990s by Samuel Huntington.

there is an attempt at reconstruction from below, projecting itself transnationally into ‘civilizing’ spaces

There is a tendency to simplify nationalism as a fascist and ‘populist’ phenomenon, which today is linked to the so-called alt-right in the United States. The United States’ global hegemony is weakened and its power seeks to recompose its domination under a new model. On the one hand, rebuilding a national American dimension in the so-called ‘America first’. On the other, by connecting it to a projection on a global scale called ‘Judeo-Christian civilization’. But nationalism is not the monopoly of the great powers and can and should also be a tool for geopolitical thinking and development from the periphery.

Dimensions of nationalism

Nationalism’ should not be seen as ‘one-dimensional’. It exists in spaces of ‘national states’, as well as in regional or global projections that can be called ‘macro-national’ or ‘fifth frontier’ spaces. Nationalist sentiment can be used to foster rivalries, as well as to promote joint efforts, valuing the well-being of the compatriot as his or her own. Hence, states, and especially great powers, seek to expand their sphere of power over other spaces. It is an effective way to generate bonds of solidarity and national community that allow for the exercise of forms of ‘soft power’ or cultural hegemony.

None of the economic powers, since the emergence of the capitalist system, has reached supremacy without protectionist measures justified by nationalist and civilizing approaches.

Another aspect to highlight is the connection between nationalism and the economy. Traditionally, Marxism has criticized its lack of ‘solidarity’ with respect to ‘social class without borders’ perspectives. And from the ‘liberal’ it has been opposed to homo economicus and the ‘rationality’ of an ‘optimal’ balance of market forces. However, this demonization of nationalism has not been constant over time. None of the economic powers, since the emergence of the capitalist system, has reached supremacy without protectionist measures justified by nationalist and civilizing approaches.

Nationalism has been, and is, vital for developing countries to generate solidarity ties that facilitate the internal integration of a state within the framework of a social and industrial development project. One way of compensating for peripheral limitations is through ‘regional integration’, whose long-term success depends on the construction of a ‘fifth frontier’ nationalism.

Finally, the ideological dimension of nationalism is not a ‘right-wing’ or ‘left-wing’ phenomenon, as it is to be found in the ‘imagination’ of all modern nation-states. We see it in the invocation of the ‘American dream’, in the European visions of civilizational supremacy, in the Red Army fighting for the ‘great motherland’. Nationalism is an effective instrument that appeals to deep feelings, moves the masses, confronts, and also unites. Everything depends on the use that is made of it.

Our (Latin) American thing

America has had nations (and nation-states) of different dimensions since before colonization. Since the arrival of the Europeans, national ideas were regenerated and the connection between national ideas and global projection emerged. Perhaps the most powerful in this sense was the national and global Catholic identity. With independence there was a new process of imagination and reconnection. New nation-states emerged and the United States was able to create a successful project of economic development and unity. In the case of Latin America, what Felipe Herrera called the “fragmented nation” was built, which sought to compensate for geopolitical limitations with new supra-national ties of regional integration.

Initially, the United States tried to project its national dimension in a fifth American border, creating Panamericanism. But during the 20th century this project lost priority to the project of American global hegemony. Currently, the return to ‘America first’ is not a continental American project. The question is whether the United States can dispense with that ambition, taking into account its loss of geopolitical supremacy and the growing rivalry of foreign powers, to act in its most internal sphere of power; the American continent.

The old American nationalism is not enough to generate support and solidarity, even at the national level. If the process of global multipolarity continues and its loss of global power is accentuated, the return of the United States to seek a new regional cohesion cannot be ruled out. The old Pan-American path of the 19th century could be a way forward, if ‘America first’ referred to the continent. For now, this is not the case, the line of ‘America first’ has been chosen, not the construction of an American community.

In Latin America, the decline of its regional integration projects is taking place at the same time that multiple crises are emerging; economic, pandemic and global confrontations between the United States and China. In the face of these common challenges it is vital to conceive of a national development project connected to regional and global dimensions. But the success of a supranational regional project is linked to an ‘imagined community’, a ‘fifth frontier’ national dimension. The fact that Latin America lost the Directorate of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) is due fundamentally to a lack of vision about the role of the bank and above all of the region with respect to itself. This lack of vision contrasts sharply with the ideas of the first president of the IDB, the Chilean Felipe Herrera, who saw the bank as “more than a bank. For him, the IDB was an “integration bank” and an instrument for the development of the Latin American “continental people” in the construction of a common state.

*Translation from Spanish by Emmanuel Guerisoli

Photo by Gage Skidmore at / CC BY-SA


Otros artículos del autor

Historiador económico y profesor titular en Estudios Latinoamericanos en el Instituto Nórdico de Estudios Latinoamericanos de la Universidad de Estocolmo. Investiga en temas de geopolítica y desarrollo.


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