6.6.4.3 Aggressive Nationalism

(This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3 book contents.  An archived copy of this page is held at http://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/6643.htm)

Aggressive nationalism is a different phenomenon from the desire of a cultural group for self-determination, which was referred to earlier as ethnic nationalism (6.6.3.3).  Rather than a desire to form a new small country, it is an assertion of the importance and superiority of an existing country.  It is usually accompanied by rhetoric that disparages other countries, as reported in the Washington Post article Trump derides protections for immigrants from ‘shithole’ countries, and it can also involve belittling minority cultural groups within its own borders – as described in an article entitled Make America hate again, for example.  National politicians might be tempted to stimulate it, as a useful distraction from domestic problems – despite the adverse foreign-policy implications examined later in this chapter (6.7.7.1).

It is necessary to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism, to avoid confusion.  Patriotism – loving one’s country – is usually considered to be a virtue.  It doesn’t have to be competitive, in the sense of asserting superiority over other countries or being aggressive towards them.  One can love one’s country because one has a sense of belonging to it, a preference for living there rather than anywhere else, a wish to live at peace with one’s neighbours and a desire for the country to prosper.

One might criticise aspects of the way in which one’s country is governed without being unpatriotic: it is absurd to suggest that anywhere is perfect.  It is equally absurd to think that co-operating with other countries for mutual benefit is unpatriotic – even if that sometimes means yielding to their demands.

Uncritical patriotism – which would suggest that one’s government is always right – is dangerous.  Politicians are human, and they can make mistakes; and they are more likely to err if they think that they are beyond criticism.  Even during a war, when unswerving loyalty is essential, it can be healthy to voice some criticisms.

If uncritical patriotism is combined with an assertion of superiority over other countries, and a desire to exclude foreigners, it becomes chauvinistic.  This form of aggressive nationalism falls within the first category defined in the article on Nationalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on the subject.

It seems that people pursue this approach because it makes them feel good in the short term, even though it may come at an economic cost and has a destabilising effect on international relations.  In recent times this type reaffirmation of cultural identity has been termed ‘alt right’, as described earlier (6.2.4.6).  An Economist article in December 2017, Whither Nationalism?, listed examples of its recent rise:

“The Alternative for Germany has won 94 seats in the Bundestag.  Marine Le Pen of the National Front won a third of the vote in France’s presidential election.  In Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic nationalists have taken power, just as they did in Poland.  In post-referendum Britain they have “taken back control”, or at least pretended to.  Turkey is militant, Japan is shedding its pacifism, India is toying with Hindu supremacy, China dreams of glory and Russia is belligerent”.

In their anxiety to assert their national superiority, these countries are in danger of recreating the conditions which led to two world wars in the 20th century.  As discussed next, the formation of the European Union (6.6.5) and the United Nations (6.6.6) were attempts to lay this sort of nationalism to rest, but their power to do so seems to be waning.

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