The Dangers of Nationalism

Defining Nationalism

It is often difficult to define nationalism and maintain a rational discourse detached from emotive rhetoric. Finding adequate and agreed definitions has often been a problem in the study of nations and nationalism (Hechter 2002:5) However, nationalism as a term, is generally inferred to mean "an ideological movement for the attainment and maintenance of autonomy, unity and identity of a human population, some of whose members conceive it to constitute an actual or potential 'nation'. (Smith 1995)

Smith in turn, defines a nation as a "named human population sharing an historic territory, common myths and memories, a mass, public culture, a single economy and common rights and duties for all members." (1995)

This paper does not seek to source the origins of nationalism, but merely to trace its more recent history to give a background on how the nationalism movement has evolved to where it is today


Defining imperialism can also arouse emotive debate. Johnson (2004:28) points out that while imperialism is hard to define, it can be easy to recognise. He claims that "the simplest definition of imperialism is the domination and exploitation of weaker states by stronger ones." (Johnson 2004:28)

Yet, many argue that without colonisation, this definition cannot be considered true imperialism (Johnson 2004:29). Indeed, the United States has had a long-standing urge to find euphemisms to disguise their version of imperialism, preferring to use the softer term "expansionism". (Johnson 2004:29)

Cain and Hopkins define imperialism as not so much taking a specific economic, cultural or political form "but that it involves an incursion, or an attempted incursion, into the sovereignty of another state" (1993:42-43).

Johnson asserts that imperialism creates racism. (2004:29) He quotes David Abernathy's observation "It was but a short mental leap for people superior in power to infer that they were superior in intellect, morality, and civilization as well. The superiority complex served as a rationalization for colonial rule and, by reducing qualms over the rightness of dominating other people was empowering in it's own right" (2004:29)

The 2003 pre-emptive war in Iraq was unique in American military history. Described as bellicose but not militaristic, Americans were willing to fight if attacked "but not committed to the permanent celebration and projection of military power and values." (Lieven 2004:168). However, since the beginning of the Cold War, the United States appears to have been on a quest to spread democracy to all areas of the world. The belief that a democratic western form of government is superior could, in itself, be seen as a western form of colonialism or as Paris coins the phrase a "mission civilisatrice" (civilising mission). (Paris 2002:18)

At this point one must consider whether the US is, in fact a colonist. Colonialism is considered to be "the extension of a nation's sovereignty over territory and people outside its own boundaries, often to facilitate economic domination over their resources, labor, and often markets." (Wikipedia:2005)

Based on those observations, it would be difficult to argue that the United States is not an empire. In fact, with cultural dominance through entertainment and media combined with an immense and powerful military, the United States may be the most influential empire that the world has ever known.

The Life Cycle of Empires

History has recorded a number of empires, some lasting only decades and others for centuries. Yet one consistency is that all empires end.

One hundred years ago, Lenin argued that imperialism was the monopoly stage of capitalism to a higher system. While free competition was the basic feature of capitalism, and of commodity production generally, monopoly was the opposite of free competition. (Lenin:1916)

He argued that the exploitation of native populations that accompanied imperial conquest would result in a final revolution that would bring down the capitalist structure and replace it with a communist one. (Sparknotes:2005)

Lenin's observations offer a sense of déjà vu and of history repeating itself. His argument is equally applicable in the 21st century. The global economy of the 21st century centres around fewer massive corporations and rather than an equal distribution of equity, rich countries have crippled Third World countries ensuring they will never be able to challenge the imperial powers. (Johnson 2004:261) In fact, globalisation has made many countries, such as those in Africa worse off. (Itano:2003) How long before those countries or an oppositional force rise up against the single superpower of the United States?

British Imperialism

Until the early 20th century, Britain's overseas expansion and imperialism policy had spread to India, Africa, The Ottoman Empire, Persia, China, North and South America and Australia. Imperialism was argued by Lenin to be the last stage of capitalism. (Lenin 1916)

By 1921, British Imperialism was at its peak. The empire held jurisdiction over 500 - 600 million people, roughly a quarter of the worlds population, and covered nearly 35% of the world's total land area. (Wikipedia 2005)

Although Britain emerged as the victor in World War I, it had done so at the expense of a heavy financial and human toll. Debt accumulation, a decrease in Britain's share of world trade, the up-ending of capital markets, and manpower deficiencies of staffing posts in far away colonies coupled with rising nationalist sentiment in territories meant that the costs of maintaining the empire were unable to be sustained. (Wikipedia 2005)

The changing economic situation in the world and a rise of anti-colonial movements in territories led to the gradual disbanding of the British Empire leading up to and beyond World War II. Nearly all of Britain's colonies had become independent by the late 1960's.

Nationalism in Europe

Nationalism spread through Europe in the 19th Century and has dominated the European political landscape ever since. Often nationalism took an anti-monarchical stance but in other cases it was fostered by conservative monarchical regimes. (Wikipedia 2005)

After the First World War, Germany lost most of its territories to France and Belgium and was required to pay reparations for the war. Military conditions set by the Treaty of Versailles were seen as not only motivated by a fear of future German aggression, but also as France taking revenge for the losses it had suffered. (

"The economic problems that the payments brought, and German resentment at their imposition, are cited by some as one of the causes of the end of the Weimar Republic and the dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, which eventually led to the outbreak of World War II." (Wikipedia 2005:Versailles)

Between the first and second world wars, state nationalism began to take hold in Germany. State nationalism is defined as the stage when nationalistic feelings are so strong that they often get priority over universal rights and liberties. (Wikipedia 2005) The success of the state often contrasts and conflicts with the principles of a democratic society (Wikipedia 2005)

For example, when Hitler was unable to secure a majority for his NSDAP, he called for new elections. One week before the elections, a fire in the Reichstag building broke out. Hitler was quick to paint the propaganda of a terrorist or communist uprising and he convinced President Hindenburg to sign an Emergency Decree for the Protection of the People and the State. This decree repealed the basic rights of the Weimar Constitution. The subsequent election failed to gain Hitler the votes he required and he formed a majority government with the German National People's Party. Hitler then succeeded in passing a law that gave his government full legislative power. A centralised totalitarian state was established, no longer based on the rule of law. (Wikipedia History of Germany 2005:Online)

Nazism was quick to take advantage of the nationalism movement. A proud people humiliated by defeat in the Great War, Germans believed that they were superior to other nations. They longed for a reunification of all people of German origin. Nazis endorsed the idea of integration of all people of Germanic origin. Von Mises discusses the perception of German nationalism in his 1944 paper:

"It is therefore obvious that the German nation is predestined for hegemony. God, fate, and history chose the Germans when they endowed them with their great qualities…….God has sent to his chosen people their saviors, the Hohenzollerns. They have revived the genuine Teutonic spirit, the spirit of Prussia…..They will establish the German imperium mundi. It is every German's duty to support them to the extent of his own ability; thus he serves his own best interests. Every doctrine by which Germany's foes attempt to weaken the German soul and hinder it in accomplishing its task must be radically weeded out." (Von Mises 1944:Online)


Religious nationalism is where the state derives political legitimacy as a consequence of shared religion. Generally, religious nationalism is viewed as a form of ethnic nationalism. (Wikipedia - Religious Nationalism 2005:Online)

Zionism is a political movement that maintains that the Jewish people constitute a nation and are entitled to a homeland. After the fall of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, the Zionist movement sought to establish a homeland in the location of the Ancient Kingdom of Israel. The Zionist position is that they arrived in Palestine to reclaim their homeland and bought up land to build a community there but were met with violent opposition from Palestinian Arabs stemming from anti-Semitism. (Cactus48 - Truth 2000:Online) This somewhat distorted historical perspective continues to be taught to this day.

Up until the late 19th century, Jews and Arabs lived in Palestine in relative harmony. In 1948, at the time Israel declared itself a state, Jews legitimately owned about 6% of the land of Palestine. However, there have been many claims of people fleeing from their villages in fear of their lives or properties taken by force and with little or no compensation. (Cactus48 2000:Online)

The Balfour Declaration of 1917 was yet another example of the arrogance of colonialism made by a British power about a non-British territory. Despite a promise to the Arabs of the former Ottoman colonies of independence in reward for supporting the Allies, the British acted in flagrant disregard of the rights of the indigenous Palestinians. As Balfour wrote in 1919:

"In Palestine we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country…..The four great powers are committed to Zionism and Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land." (Cactus 48 - The Origin 2000:Online)

While it claims to be a democracy, the present day situation is Israel and the denial of basic voting rights to the Palestinians is far from democratic. In 1989 the Israel High Court decided that any political party advocating full equality between Arab and Jew could be barred from fielding candidates in an election. This ensured that Israel is the state of the Jews and not of Arabs. (Finkelstein 1995)

The Rise of Nationalism in modern day United States

Until World War II, the United States was relatively isolationist on foreign policy. After winning independence from Britain in the 18th century, the country opposed imperialism and preferred to lead by example as the "Good Neighbour", resisting armed intervention, and remaining relatively neutral in world conflicts unless they were attacked. (Roosevelt 1936)

Subsequent to World War II, and the humiliating and surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, the United States swore to never be taken by surprise again. Believing that they could no longer remain sequestered from world affairs, foreign policy shifted from isolationism to that of internationalism. The Truman Doctrine envisioned a United States that would support "free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures." (Truman 1947)

The spread of communism across Europe during the late 1940's was, rightly or wrongly, portrayed as the new threat to the freedom that the American people had fought so hard to retain. In 1949, Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed that subversives who sought to undermine the nation had infiltrated the government and it's values. (PSU n.d:Online) By the early 1950's the culture of consumerism was becoming well entrenched in American families; the post-war baby boom era had begun and Americans were focussed on working, providing and raising their families. One would imagine that they had little time or desire to look beyond their own immediate community as long as they could trust their government to protect them from external threats that may seek to undermine their security. By focussing on the smaller marginalised groups that shared little characteristics or similarity to mainstream America, the everyday person was unlikely to be affected. The subversives could be portrayed as an alien group, belonging outside the community and it's collective values. Paranoia became rife and acquiescence was easy to obtain.

The pendulum swung away from conservatism during the 1960's and 1970's as liberals focussed on civil rights, an increasing body count from the disastrous Vietnam War, the secretive and eventually shamed Nixon administration and the sexual revolution. However, it was the advent of AIDS, disintegrating family values, skyrocketing divorce rates, increased urban violent crime, the fall of Communism and subsequent destabilisation of central Europe during the 1980's and 1990's, that had Americans longing for a return to old traditional Christian based values.

Capitalism and globalisation was becoming synonymous with democracy. A corporatised media with fewer players and increasing influence in politics began to lobby and lend support to the neo-conservative faction of Republicanism which relied heavily on campaign funding. American corporations with multi-national bases sought greater influence from the US government into supporting international governments and regimes that would remain friendly to US corporate interests. Less affluent countries could begin to wonder whether they were being looted by new "colonialists". Conflict intervention appears selective, usually with underlying financial motives.

Another major issue of international discord was the United States' unwavering support of Israel. When pressed on the Palestinian issue, Truman explained the motivation that continues to underpin US policy on Israel and the Middle East, "I'm sorry, gentlemen, but I have to answer to hundreds of thousands who are anxious for the success of Zionism: I do not have hundreds of thousands of Arabs among my constituents." (Gonsalves 2000:Online)

The dangers of Nationalism and Imperialism today

Perhaps the most disturbing concern in modern times is the destructive potential of a nation that has developed a strong ethos of both nationalism and imperialism. The United States, as the world's single superpower, remains unopposed militarily or culturally and risks creating a "super race" where one group can dominate all those outside of their borders. Ironically, it was the exploitative domination of British Imperialism that the United States fought so hard to escape from and to assert it's own right to independence.

The structure of the European Union was intended to unite Europe and create a new super power that combined the strength of 25 member nations and would unite them with a common currency and trading portal.

Churchill felt the need for a combined union as far back as 1945 and proposed a United States of Europe in a speech in Zurich.

"The structure of a United States of Europe, if well and truly built, will be such as to make the material single state less important. Small nations will count as much as large ones and gain their honour by their contribution to the common cause." (Churchill 1945:Online)

Having faced incredible loss and suffering in WWI and WWII and a realisation of the problems caused by the nationalist and imperialistic of European countries, one would think the lessons were too recent for Europeans to forget the dangers and pitfalls of excesses.

The structure of the European Union has formulated over the past few years yet even today the Union's perpetuity is threatened by the nationalism of the member nations themselves. France's recent rejection of the EU constitution, and Sweden's and Britain's refusal to completely adopt the euro as their main currency already indicates flaws in the fabric of the new Union.

Additionally, is the US itself about to fall prey to the same excesses of nationalism they fought so hard against in WW2?

There are many parallels that can be drawn from Germany pre World War II to the political situation in the United States today. On Sept 11 2001 the US was attacked and had two of its symbols of financial might destroyed. Much as the Reichstag fire was signified as the catalyst for the German people into uniting to stand against a feared, but somewhat obscure, ideological enemy of the state. The World Trade Centre attack provoked the Bush administration and ultimately many Americans into adopting a "with us or against us" attitude to the rest of the world. In the months following September 11, the United States saw a massive increase in nationalism as evidenced by the huge increase of flag sales, and residences displaying flags on their homes, cars, work places or anywhere they could. (Morrison nd:Online)

Claiming the need to protect itself from terrorism, the US government enabled new laws, including the PATRIOT Act that the American Civil Liberties Union asserts is unconstitutional. (ACLU n.d:Online)

Many protest that The Patriot Act allows the government far too much power to monitor the movements and reading material of its people and gives unprecedented powers to investigative agencies. (Johnson 2003:Online)

In 2003, the US proclaimed the right to pre-emptive action to protect its interest at home as well as abroad. Acquiescence of a compliant and terrified population was easy to acquire; Lieven notes how many Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was directly involved in the 9/11 attacks and this legitimised the war to being an act of self defence (2004:25). Even in March 2004, 57% of respondents in an NBC poll still believed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. (Lieven 2004:25)


While the definitions of Nationalism and Imperialism may be difficult to precisely pin down, the broad definitions appear to fit into the current United States international policy. Additionally, the Bush administration seems to offer with an almost fervent Christian influence, one that may arguably border on fanatical or extremist. An ethos that blends globalisation, nationalism, imperialism, militarism and religious fundamentalism runs the risk of repeating the past mistakes of pre-war Germany and Imperial Britain. Consistent with a totalitarian Germany of the 1930's the confidence and support of the people was gained by filling them with insecurity and fear of an external attack or dominance.

The European Union has the opportunity to grow strong enough to perhaps counter and balance the massive reach of the United States and bring the country back to an equilibrium. However, it appears that the European Union is suffering unity difficulties of its own and may not be sustainable. Some of this may also stem to the individualistic sense of nationalism within each country and a fear of losing their own cultural or ethnic autonomy.

The United States crossed a dangerous line by invading Iraq, however the citizens have been convinced that a Middle East invasion was necessary to thwart the war on terror.

Whether the United States can sustain its empire remains to be seen. What is interesting, however is that prior to September 11, any militarism by the United States appeared to be small enough to be countered by American cultural imperialism which dominated clothing, appliances, visual media and entertainment. The increased militarism of the US bodes poorly for future stability and peace and will likely become a protracted, bloody occupation that may eventually lead to its downfall.

Perhaps it is best summed up by Saletan (2004):

"In some countries, the commander in chief builds a propaganda apparatus that equates him with the military and the nation. If you object that he's making bad decisions and disserving the national interest, you're accused of weakening the nation, undermining its security, sabotaging the commander in chief, and serving a foreign." (2004:Online)

For the good of the US people and hopefully, the world, this era of mistrust and tyranny will end using the very methods that the American people originally fought for to guarantee their freedom, with Democracy.

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