Good for Emmanuel Macron. On a weekend heavy with remembrance, when raw sentiment would do, the French president threw some light on one of the modern world’s big problems.
Hosting a ceremony Sunday that marked the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, Macron focused on the war’s ruinous nationalism, contrasting it with an idealistic patriotism that he declared to be the exact opposite. Nationalism, he said, is a “selfishness of nations only looking after their own interests.”
The remarks came only days after two other anniversaries that are a reminder of the power of national sentiment – for evil or for good: the Kristallnacht pogrom of 1938 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, freighted as the latter was with German reunification and the impending freedom of many nations from Soviet domination. Macron’s words seemed to be aimed especially at two practitioners of a modern-day nationalism who were present Sunday: Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Trump, who during a campaign rally in Texas a couple of weeks ago declared himself to be a nationalist.
Trump probably hasn’t thought much about what that means. His comment was almost certainly just another MAGA moment – another way of saying “America first.” But others of considerably more depth who witnessed the carnage of 20th century Europe have thought about it long and hard, and ended up with a view more subtle than a politician’s bright rhetorical lines.
One was Isaiah Berlin, among the century’s most prominent political philosophers. You can read Berlin’s famous 1972 essay on the subject here. Berlin notes that German philosophers argued that nationalism is a natural expression of a human need to belong. In its most basic form, it expresses a distinct culture and way of life — and there is nothing wrong with it. Put an idealistic spin on it, and perhaps this is akin to what Macron calls patriotism.
Here is another way to look at it: Reihan Salam, executive editor of the conservative National Review, cites the work of another political theorist, William McNeill, who argued that nationalism has been a way to overcome ethnic caste structure within societies. Instead of tearing at each other, people coalesce around a common identity.
Perhaps that’s so. In any case, according to this view, if you tried to eliminate national sentiment, you’d be trying to reshape human nature. That, too, was tried in the 20th century; communist theory replaced nationalism with class consciousness.
In 1991, the year the Soviet Union ceased to exist and Yugoslavia started coming apart, Berlin declared in this interview that “nationalism is not resurgent; it never died. Neither did racism. They are the most powerful movements in the world today.”
The problem is that the benign nationalism imagined by German romantics isn’t static; in Germany, clearly, it metastasized. Claims of exclusivity become beliefs in superiority; a belief in superiority can easily become a justification for aggression. Political leaders see a handy tool. Historian Robert Zaretsky cites a “slow accumulation of real or imagined injuries and insults that, when economic, political, and cultural factors converge, snaps back with sudden and sharp violence” – which Berlin compared to a bent twig snapping back (come to think of it, that collection of injuries and insults sounds like a summary of a Trump speech).
Macron sees a lot of twigs snapping back right now: Russian twigs and American twigs, British twigs and German twigs, Hungarian twigs and Polish twigs, to name a few.
And it doesn’t mean that he has a clear solution. There isn’t one.
Many people feel migration somehow threatens their culture. Another reason is the disruptive influence of technology. Berlin didn’t have much good to say about Karl Marx, but did credit him with pointing out the transformative power of technology – a trend that still is accelerating and making the world smaller. Yuval Noah Hariri worries that technology has the power to create a discontented “useless class” of people.
More than 50 years ago, as Richard Nixon was formulating his appeal to the “silent majority,” Zaretsky points out that Berlin already had noted middle American hostility toward coastal elites – another trend that continues.
Berlin thought it possible to maintain a benign form of nationalism. But it’s not clear how. It took two world wars and the Holocaust to persuade Europe to focus on political integration and a common currency. Even then, the memory is fading. On Veterans Day, it’s worth recalling that America has frequently (but not always) exhibited an idealistic impulse that has benefited others, and itself.
We’re not really in danger of recreating World War I. But this makes arguing about whether it’s unpatriotic to take a knee for the national anthem seem trite, doesn’t it?
If some form of nationalism is a fact of life — and if civil conflict, economic dislocation and climate change mean that migration will continue — it would be wise to stop demonizing people fleeing violence and poverty, and craft an actual immigration policy balancing self-interest and compassion.
If technology threatens millions of livelihoods, can we look for better ways to level corporate power and workers’ rights? Can Washington promote U.S. interests – and the broader good – without resorting to threats, tariffs or weapons? Perhaps that’s getting close to a useful definition of patriotism.