Nationalism has come to be associated with attempts by majority ethnic groups to exclude and persecute minorities. Not only is this detestable, it is quite clearly an abuse of the term: an attempt to appropriate for one component of a society, a designation which by definition must include the whole. In effect, exclusionary nationalism asserts ‘we constitute the nation, so you are not part of it’.
While the response of the left has been understandable, in condemning nationalism, it has inadvertently ceded what is potentially the most potent means of building social cohesion. Without a sense of shared identity a modern society would struggle to maintain the levels of cooperation and generosity that have made Europe so remarkable. In a democracy, that shared identity cannot be political: the essence of democracy is division between opposing groups. It cannot be religious: a modern society will encompass those with an infinite variety of beliefs. If it is as vague as ‘shared values’ it will have little traction: are the values of the typical Dane much different from those of the typical Canadian or Australian? Yet if Danes were asked to provide fiscal assistance to Australians I doubt they would be remotely as generous as they are to fellow Danes.
It is shared national identity, not shared values, that predisposes people to generosity and cooperation. If shared identity is to be sustained in Europe, let alone built in the many societies that currently suffer from the lack of it, there is little alternative: all the people living in Denmark need to share a common pride in being Danish. This is inclusive nationalism: it has been promoted, with great success, in Scotland by the Scottish Nationalist Party. It is, indeed, the only realistic basis for a sense of shared identity available to all the people living in a country. In denigrating nationalism per se, as opposed to its misappropriation, the left has thrown away something that is vital to its goals.
Inclusive nationalism is admittedly incompatible with the ideal of a common global humanity. This is the benchmark of both technocratic utilitarian universalism and the romantic end of European youth. I do not wish to denigrate this ambition: a sense of common global humanity is what I have spent my life working for – what else was The Bottom Billion but such an appeal? But it is nothing more than a distant ambition: Utilitarian universalists are about as rare as Quakers.
Currently, the realistic alternative to inclusive nationalism is not a common global humanity. Without inclusive nationalism, two forms of identity are likely to predominate. Some societies will develop the viral, exclusionary, form of nationalism. This is the prospect feared by the European establishment. In other societies identities will become more individualized. These societies will come to consist of alienated atomized libertarians who disparage government. Such societies, privileging individual rights over shared responsibilities, will also be unattractive. Inclusive nationalism would not be perfect: it would not persuade Germans to be generous to Greeks. But it would be better than either of these scenarios. It could persuade the Greeks to be more generous to each other, which would be a considerable improvement.
While inclusive nationalism is a realistic and attractive strategy within Europe, it is far more important for the fragile post-conflict societies which have become an acute global problem. In the 1990s, drunk on triumphalism, the USA radically oversold multiparty elections as the universal solution to governance. Trapped by its own rhetoric, it has stuck with a losing formula: Iraq, Afghanistan, DRC, Myanmar, Egypt, Ukraine, CAR, whatever the context, elections have been the precondition for international legitimacy. In doing so, America misunderstood its own success.
Quite evidently, its own electoral competition has not been particularly conducive to good governance: in some respects it is an embarrassment. The true American genius has been to forge a shared identity among a population of exceptional variety: in other words, it has built inclusive nationalism. American insistence upon multiparty competition regardless of context has had the inadvertent consequence that societies which lacked a sense of shared identity have been unable to build one. Parties inevitably organized along the lines of identities and their rhetoric of abuse reinforced these identities. Inclusive nationalism needs different political institutions. The great national-builders, such as Nyerere in Tanzania, Sukarno in Indonesia, and Lee in Singapore, relied instead upon inclusive national parties.
Inclusive nationalism is a political agenda that neither the left nor the right is capable of espousing. The left lacks the will to nationalism; the right lacks the will to inclusion. But it is an ideal agenda for the political centre.