Thursday, April 14, 2022

Francis Fukuyama: Liberalism Needs Nationalism

Interesting essay at Foreign Affairs, free for now:

Liberalism is in peril. . . . Liberalism’s decline is evident in the growing strength of autocracies such as China and Russia, the erosion of liberal—or nominally liberal—institutions in countries such as Hungary and Turkey, and the backsliding of liberal democracies such as India and the United States.

In each of these cases, nationalism has powered the rise of illiberalism. Illiberal leaders, their parties, and their allies have harnessed nationalist rhetoric in seeking greater control of their societies. They denounce their opponents as out-of-touch elites, effete cosmopolitans, and globalists. They claim to be the authentic representatives of their country and its true guardians. Sometimes, illiberal politicians merely caricature their liberal counterparts as ineffectual and removed from the lives of the people they presume to represent. Often, however, they describe their liberal rivals not simply as political adversaries but as something more sinister: enemies of the people. . . .

Liberalism’s most important selling point remains the pragmatic one that has existed for centuries: its ability to manage diversity in pluralistic societies. Yet there is a limit to the kinds of diversity that liberal societies can handle. If enough people reject liberal principles themselves and seek to restrict the fundamental rights of others, or if citizens resort to violence to get their way, then liberalism alone cannot maintain political order. And if diverse societies move away from liberal principles and try to base their national identities on race, ethnicity, religion, or some other, different substantive vision of the good life, they invite a return to potentially bloody conflict. . . .

That is why it is all the more important for liberals not to give up on the idea of the nation. They should recognize that in truth, nothing makes the universalism of liberalism incompatible with a world of nation-states. National identity is malleable, and it can be shaped to reflect liberal aspirations and to instill a sense of community and purpose among a broad public.

For proof of the abiding importance of national identity, look no further than the trouble Russia has run into in attacking Ukraine. Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that Ukraine did not have an identity separate from that of Russia and that the country would collapse immediately once his invasion began. Instead, Ukraine has resisted Russia tenaciously precisely because its citizens are loyal to the idea of an independent, liberal democratic Ukraine and do not want to live in a corrupt dictatorship imposed from without. With their bravery, they have made clear that citizens are willing to die for liberal ideals, but only when those ideals are embedded in a country they can call their own.

As a practical matter, I think Fukuyama is right: attacks on the nation are just plain bad politics wherever you live. Most people want a national identity, and the response of Ukrainians to the attack on their nation shows the power of this idea. One thing many conservatives have in common is a belief that the world is a dangerous place, and that what is happening to Ukraine will happen to any nation that lets its guard down. Others are worried about civil war scenarios. The question, "Who will fight to defend me?" looms large for many people.

Fukuyama is looking at this problem as it concerns liberalism, but it can also exist on the conservative side; you see this in admirers of Vladimir Putin across Europe, and among white supremacists in the US. I believe the path forward for liberalism around the world is to emphasize that equal rights for all can make the nation stronger, that since we citizens are all in the same boat, we should work together to make it safer from enemies and better for citizens. There is no inherent reason why nationalism has to be authoritarian. There is also no reason why liberalism should be anti-nationalist in practical matters; after all, who is going to defend your individual rights if not the state? On whom do you rely for protection, if not your fellow citizens?


David said...

One issue is that nationalism and the nation-state need to be distinguished. Liberalism and the modern nation-state are virtually conjoined twins. Nationalism and liberalism go less well together. They can be wary partners, but rarely friends. From the liberal point of view, the problems with nationalism include its tendency to be an ideological mask for simple tough-guy-ism, and its ethnic sectarianism. The latter can be seen in various ways. Sectarian nationalism is prone toward overemotional mooning about lost provinces and ancestral martyrs, and thinking that the whole world can fall to ruin as long as the Nation gets its own back. Asked in about 1917 whether he had any regrets, Gavrilo Princip said no.

Nationalism can also be anti-pluralistic, the idea that all will be well once we're all Star-bellied Sneetches here, and there isn't an unstarred Sneetch in sight. In the Western Hemisphere, this anti-pluralism tends to be less about purity and exclusiveness and more about maintaining colonial racial hierarchies, often in more-or-less subtle but treasured ways. (Unstarred Sneetches can be around, and the smart ones can even go to university, but they better not complain if they have to spend freshman year reading Gomhog the Star-bellied Philosopher. Of course, a dispute over the freshman curriculum along these lines could reflect some illiberal nationalism on both sides, as well as many other things.)

David said...

It may be said further that nationalism should be wary of liberalism, because liberalism really doesn't care about much that nationalism wants, especially now that the old dynastic empires are gone. The one thing liberalism promises nationalism is international rules that respect their borders (well, it's supposed to; if Dick Cheney is in charge of the US, all bets are off), which is not always enough for nationalists who want to take back lost provinces. If a group of people live with civil, legal rights, reasonable comfort and security, meritocratic opportunity, and so on, liberalism is satisfied; it doesn't care whether they've lost a province or still feel unavenged for something that happened 20 yrs ago. Liberalism is more interested in teaching kids math than in teaching them to love the old glories. And if they're stuck living with people who speak a different language or follow a different religion or look different, liberalism likes that.

G. Verloren said...


Hear, hear!