How Nationalism Impacts International Relations
Nationalism is one of the most prominent political ideas worldwide. It has revolutionised the nature of state power, shifting from dynastic, theocratic and imperial polities to nation-states.
While there are varying interpretations of nationalism, the majority of research explores its impacts on international relations. Some studies use attitudinal surveys to understand national attachments, others look at the content of nationalism.
For many people, the word “nationalism” has a negative connotation, as it refers to political ideologies that promote an exclusionary love of one’s country at the expense of foreigners or those who aren’t believed to belong to the nation, often on racial and religious grounds. This can lead to prejudice and even hatred of other groups, resulting in xenophobia.
This prejudice and intolerance can lead to violent nationalism. Brubaker calls it a “pervasive threat.” However, the root concept of a nation is a practical one that structures perception and informs thought and behaviour. It is a culturally and socially constructed category, which can be open and tolerant or closed and intolerant. It can be based on race, religion, culture, history, language, or even music.
From Trump’s populism to Duterte’s fascism, nationalism is experiencing a global resurgence. With nationalism driving state behavior and international security dynamics, many worry that it will trigger a new wave of deadly conflict. This week’s feature explores different types of nationalism from around the world and how they present themselves.
In the field of IR, scholars are increasingly interested in the question if and when nationalist ideology affects politics on the international plane. However, much of this work focuses on the nationalist consolidation of the nation-state, not on how the Nation-State constructs and organises the international society (James Mayall 1990; 1999; 2013, 2015).
This focus results in an analytical blind spot that leaves out the role of political ideologies, including nationalism, in the constitution and organisation of the Society of States.
While neglected as a serious subject in the field of International Relations until the 1990s, scholars from diverse sub-disciplines now explore nationalism’s impact on various aspects of the contemporary international system, or Society of States. For instance, whereas before nationalism, wars were fought over imperial expansion or dynastic and theocratic dominance, now they are more frequently driven by concerns for national self-determination and ethno-political balance of power.
Regardless of its cultural or ethnic roots, all nationalism is political and therefore has implications for international relations. Specifically, the principle of sovereignty, which stipulates that only the people within a territory should govern it, is fundamental to a nation’s legitimacy. It also dictates that rulers should only care about the interests of the nation’s majority. It is this latter principle that makes it possible for a country to promote economic growth by engaging in state-led industrialisation.
While nationalism is arguably the most important structuring principle sustaining the contemporary international system and Society of States, it has rarely been explored in depth by scholars of International Relations. This has resulted in a tendency to treat nationalism as a peripheral threat, reflecting a general state-centrism of the field (Heiskanen 2019).
While some studies explore nationalism as a causal factor in particular events or in the process of democratisation, few have aimed at identifying its modalities and mechanisms. Tudor argues for further work that employs comparative historical research around the emergence of new nations to establish whether and how nationalism facilitates democracy, as well as experimental fieldwork with the aim of identifying when and how nationalist symbols matter for individual attitudes and behaviours.
Further, a more consistent conceptualisation of nationalism is required to address its multiple dimensions and diverse implications. This could involve building a typology of different nationalisms and their corresponding impact on international relations.
Although IR scholars have long viewed nationalism as a fundamental variable in contemporary politics, the discipline is surprisingly short on studies that test and explore its consequences. In part, this stems from a desire for simple synchronous causal assertions and a disengagement with specific social contexts, which can distort the study of nationalism (Hechter 2000; Mylonas 2012).
Scholars pursing a behavioural approach have made strides in measuring nationalist mobilisation, but still face substantial methodological challenges. Those that have attempted to measure nationalism’s impact on democracy have found mixed results. For example, Beissinger (2002) finds that strong ethnic nationalism facilitated the emergence of democracy by offering a solution to the boundary problem through its stipulation that only members of the national family should vote. But he also shows that nationalism erodes democracy when it nurtures intolerance against other groups.