The emergence of nations, groups of people who recognize each other as sharing a common identity, with a focus on a homeland (Baylis & Smith 2001: 358), has come to exercise a central position in modern political thought. Nationalism, a very highly emotional and unpredictable phenomenon, derived from the nation’s power and rests on the recognition that freedom is the enforceable right of all peoples and, as such, national societies, therefore, are of right entitled to determine their own directions and purposes (Romulo 1964: 22).
In this essay I will argue that nationalism is important to international relations because it presents opportunities for new forms of political identity and structures in a world potentially less divided according to nationality (Spencer ; Wollman 2002: 181). I will support this argument by showing the impact nationalism has had in the world since the end of the Cold War, providing a background on the theory of international relations, addressing the implications for international order and the United Nations (UN), and the role of nationalism in an increasingly globalized world.
There are two commonly accepted extremes in nationalism. Civic nationalism is when a nation is a voluntary association of individuals. In other words, a state is formed to bind a nation together. Civic nationalism maintains that the nation should be composed of all those who subscribe to the nation’s political creed (Ignatieff 1994: 3-4). The term civic is used because it envisions the nation as a community of equal rights and shared political practices. Canada or the United States of America (US) are both examples of nations that chose to create a state to bind them together. The other form of nationalism is ethnic nationalism.
Ethnic nationalism is when objective features of its social life like language, culture, and tradition determine a nation. As defined by Jenkins and Sofos, it is first and foremost a community of common descent where rather than having free associations based on residence, they are historically entities based on ancestry (1996: 15). The nation precedes the state; you cannot choose to be a part of the nation but are raised in it, thus both definitions of nationalism do describe certain instances of nationalism. The reason for two different definitions is that there are different sources of nationalistic pride.
Nationalism grew in some nations when they came together to fight colonization. Several nations in Africa were created to oppose the colonization of their land by British and German imperialists. This was an example of ethnic nationalism. These people shared a common culture and did not want lose it by way of assimilation into an imperial empire (Source Year: #). The problem with forming boundaries and defining who falls on one side and who on the other is still at the heart of the theory, but is important to discuss because nationalism is a predominantly spatial and territorial conception (Smith 1991: 9).
It is important to outline the theory of international relations in order to discuss the impact of nationalist theory and practice on international politics since 1945. Modern political thought has been characterized between two schools that differ in their concepts of man’s nature, society and politics. (Morgenthau 1993:3). Mainstream study of international relations in the post-World War II period emphasized conflict and systemic analysis. Realism is pessimistic about moral progress and possibilities (Gilpin 1974: 290).
The realist theory parsimoniously explains international relations as a self-help system in which states struggle to survive or improve their status by balancing the military and economic power of the other actors. Many realists believe that bipolar orders are more stable and peaceful than multipolar systems in which the actors more frequently shift alliances (Risse-Kappen 1990: Vol46). Few would argue with the claim that states are made up of individuals and groups with diverse interests that are manifest in political competition.
However, it is not clear why this insight necessarily challenges realism. Realists know that states are not really unitary actors. Conversely, the liberal view has an ‘inside-out’ approach to international relations, where the exogenous behaviour of states can be explained by examining their endogenous political and economic dispositions (Burchill ; Linklater 1996: 29). A liberal interpretation of the Cold War and its end is so much at odds with the realist view that it seems as if the two groups are living in different worlds.