The 21st century resembles the 19th in many respects, not least because we are witnessing the forceful return to the world stage of liberal nationalism. As non-liberal states such as Russia and China prosecute geographic claims along their peripheries, a supposedly post-national liberal empire increasingly rallies to national flags. Meanwhile, nationalist forces seek a new legitimacy by presenting themselves as the hard-nosed defenders of liberalism’s burning frontiers.
This is a surprising turn. Liberals and nationalists usually see themselves locked in a titanic struggle — against each other. Each blames the other for the troubles racking the West. Put liberal and nationalist thinkers in a room, and the result would be scarcely more edifying than a “Springer” episode. Yet the episode would finally follow the reconciliation script: Liberalism and nationalism used to be yoked together, and they appear poised to patch up the marriage.
In theory, liberalism and nationalism are irreconcilable. Liberalism places the individual on a high pedestal, seeking to preserve and expand his autonomy, over and against the unchosen claims of family and tradition, tribe and nation. Plus, national borders hinder the free movement of goods, labor, and capital, essential to liberal economics. Nationalism would harden the very boundaries that liberal theory would sweep away.
Insofar as it rises to the level of a coherent “theory,” nationalism treats liberalism as an unfriendly force (at best). Yoram Hazony, the Israeli founder of the national-conservative movement, considers liberalism to be far more than a mere set of procedures for organizing government. Rather, he argues, liberalism is a “system of dogmas.” Wherever it spreads, liberal dogma dissolves “traditional” structures, above all, national cohesion and nation-states.
History is a different matter. In practice, liberalism and nationalism arose in tandem, beginning in the late 18th century and throughout the 19th. Rights-based citizenship made it necessary to delineate who counts as a citizen, and who doesn’t, and the answer more often than not came down to ethnic and linguistic groupings; the frenzy for sifting rights-bearers from those to be excluded would soon take on a racial aspect, complete with bogus “scientific” classifications.
There was an economic dimension to this. To translate their growing commercial might into political power, the bourgeoisie went on a rampage of border-drawing, with the aim of toppling an older order dominated by multinational empires and underpinned by the moral authority of a universal church. As the socialist economic historian Karl Polanyi noted, the history of the 19th century is in many ways the story of that old order trying desperately to contain liberalism and nationalism, which the emperors and religious leaders of the era viewed as twin revolutionary ideologies; so much for nationalism’s “traditional” pedigree.
The old world failed to sustain itself. The crises of liberal economies and the growing virulence of nationalism combined to trigger two cataclysmic world wars in the first half of the 20th century. The marriage of liberalism and nationalism lay in ruins by 1945. Afterward, liberals set about creating an integrated order that eroded national sovereignty in favor of transnational institutions and expert rule, presided over by a liberal superpower.
As is often the case, liberal ideology evolved to accommodate material reality. Gone was 19th-century liberalism’s defense of the nation as the “sacred community” that framed liberal rights. In its place, leading theorists proposed a cosmopolitan liberalism, in which the empire of rights was to span the whole globe. In practice, this meant the liberal capitalist was free to do business everywhere, with Western power razing any local structures that might resist, whether through structural adjustment programs, endless NGO hectoring, or drone warfare.
Yet cosmopolitan liberalism struggled to solve the problem of size and political attachment. As the French political thinker Pierre Manent has long argued, humanity-at-large is too large to inspire loyalty, the individual liberal subject too small and selfish.
Theory aside, liberalism’s alienation from nations and nationalism caused more immediate headaches. The specific political form championed by postwar liberals was liberal democracy. Yet as even a liberal writer like Yascha Mounk concedes, the liberal half of that equation has frequently been at loggerheads with the democratic half, embodied in the national demos. Cultural and sexual liberation and economic marketization often entail dislocation, particularly for the West’s native working classes. Neither program is always popular. Postwar liberals have been all too willing to bulldoze ballot-box opposition to get their way — whether to legalize same-sex marriage in the United States, enforce austerity against Southern Europe, or punish voters in Eastern Europe for picking the wrong leaders. In doing so, liberals usually speak of “defending democracy,” but what they usually mean is defending liberalism.
In 2015-16, these contradictions exploded in a populist backlash on both sides of the Atlantic. Trumpism, Brexit, Central and Eastern Europe’s populist tide, and the eclipse of traditional center-left parties by harder-left movements — all were variations on the same phenomenon. The popular rupture was mirrored at the elite level, moreover, as a segment of the establishment learned to cater to the discontent, animated in part by genuine sentiment and in part by the usual material motives: Witness the GOP’s Trump-Never Trump cleavage or, yes, Hazony’s trans-Atlantic nat-con movement. A fractured elite — in this case, torn between nationalist and liberal commitments — is far more perilous to any regime than a divided populous.
Then Vladimir Putin launched his invasion. A calamity for the Ukrainian people, the war also offered a gleaming opportunity for elite ideological reconciliation in the West. As stunning as scenes of tanks rolling across Europe’s borders were, something still more astonishing took place in the halls of Western power, and on Twitter, where elites talk to each other: Liberalism and nationalism embraced for the first time since their estrangement in 1945.
European liberals unfurled Ukrainian flags, real and digital, and hailed national sovereignty as a sacred and inviolable principle. Centrist parties in Germany and elsewhere — which a few years earlier had upended Europe’s border-enforcement mechanisms to welcome more than a million newcomers from the Middle East and North Africa — rediscovered the value of hard borders. Brussels mandarins and center-left columnists who for decades had denigrated nationalism as a relic of barbarous days made peace with even the uglier strands of Ukrainian nationalism; the Azov Battalion went from being described as a white-nationalist terrorist organization to a mere “unit” of the Ukrainian National Guard. Carl Bildt tweeted a painting showing noble Ukrainian knights fending off Russian orcs.
For the Washington-Brussels establishment, this new nationalistic tub-thumping holds the promise of rechanneling long-brewing popular discontent toward a (real) external enemy, and of justifying liberal austerity measures, including curbs on working-class energy consumption, on nationalistic grounds.
The nationalist counter-establishment, meanwhile, relishes an invitation to the establishment table. Poland’s conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party is outflanking its most ardent liberal critics in support for EU expansion — that is to say, bolstering of the same transnational body whose diktats it usually gripes about. Sweden’s far-right Sweden Democrats have won a strange new respect by excluding Ukrainians from their otherwise-hard-line asylum stance. Across Central and Eastern Europe, populist governments have threatened to criminally punish expressions of support for Russia.
At the intellectual level, Hazony’s latest nat-con gathering in Brussels became a megaphone for the Poles’ ultra-hawkish stance on the war, while his co-founder Chris Demuth published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal advocating escalation against Russia and China (on nationalist rather than liberal grounds, of course). And while some American nationalists remain skeptical of escalation over Ukraine, they are nearly unanimous on the need to escalate against the other rival empire, China.
To be clear, the jingoism and hawkism of the new nationalists in Warsaw, Stockholm, Washington, and elsewhere is sincere — that’s why they’re nationalists, after all. Nevertheless, it remains the case that the war is also objectively creating a convergence between their movement and the aims and interests of the transnational liberal institutions they claim to despise.
The new marriage might be a mere matter of temporary convenience, or one of those politically divided marriages in which either the love or the politics isn’t real. Even so, if history is any guide, liberalism and nationalism may yet find ways to accommodate each other for a good while. At its most dangerous, this accommodation could multiply the worst aspects of each: Western chauvinism and liberal messianic universalism, just when a rising Eastern counter-bloc has had it with both.