Nations are our creation

Craig Calhoun in conversation with Łukasz Pawłowski · 2 January 2018

“We need to recognize the importance of nations but insist nations are constructed. That means we have a choice about how we are going to continue with this process of construction”, claims the current president of the Berggruen Institute and a former Director of the London School of Economics and Political Science.


Łukasz Pawłowski: Is Donald Trump a nationalist?

Craig Calhoun: Donald Trump is clearly a nationalist in the sense of the policies he pursues and the rhetoric he adopts. He’s taking nationalist positions on international trade, on economic policy and security issues and international relations. The only qualification I’d make to that is that with this president it’s hard to distinguish what is his serious position and what is cynical manipulation. He’s doing and saying things which can be called nationalist but before becoming a president he was often internationalist in his statements and business focus. So we don’t know if nationalist comments represent his honest views or is he simply pandering to his constituency.

What does nationalism mean in this case?

The first thing nationalism means is putting the idea of the nation ahead of other ideas. He’s also racist but he has repeatedly said that the most important thing is the nation. When he’s trying to pursue tax policies, he pursues them by saying they are good for the whole nation. So instead of race, class, or religion nation is Trump’s primary focus.

The second thing nationalism means in this context is pursuing policies to advance one nation at the expense of others or in competition with others, not through cooperation. Trump often says he wants to “make America great again” but he wants to make America great through itself, not through a greater global cooperation and international institutions like the WTO or UN we helped to build.

During his speech at the United Nations Trump said clearly how he believes the world works. Every nation pursues its own interests and we can go along if only our interests do not collide. But when they do – well the president did not specify – but it looks like a war of all against all.

This is an accurate description of Trump’s view. It’s a job of a national leader to pursue the interest of their nation. Nobody denies that. The question is whether these interests have to be pursued separately or maybe in cooperation.

If you think about the nation in terms of the people in a nation and by sovereignty you mean popular sovereignty, then global cooperation may be seen as something in the interest of those people because it prevents war, or achieves greater prosperity. It’s not clear that a very strong idea of national sovereignty is the only way to achieve interests of the people in the nation. But a certain type of sovereignty is a value that some nationalist including Trump cherish in itself, independently of whether it’s good for the people.

Illustration by Joanna Witek

Who is allowed to define the “interests of the nation”?

This is a question about democracy. If there’s a popular sovereignty, then there’s a democratic process to determine the national will. If instead, you believe all the people must follow their leaders, that’s not a very democratic idea.

In political science, it’s called Bonapartism – after the idea of following Napoleon after the French revolution. In this case, the desire for the strong leader outweighs the desire for democracy. That’s a dangerous situation as the original Bonapartism itself revealed.

Who decides who can be a member of the nation? Recently there was an infamous march in Warsaw, during which racist slogans were displayed. One of the organizers, when interviewed, said he was a “racial separatist” and that in his view a black person cannot be a Pole. Donald Trump seems to believe that a Muslim cannot fully be an American because he supports a Senate candidate, Roy More, who once said that Muslims should not be allowed to serve in the Congress.

Part of nationalist ideology is to believe that there’s some clear answer to the question of who’s the member of the nation. A more moderate nationalism claims there are ways by which people become members of the nation. But the most extreme nationalists believe there’s only one kind of legitimate American or Pole. In these discussions, nationalism is often mixed with racism or religious identity. The opposite extreme, however, is also not a very tenable position.

What do you mean? That not being a nationalist is not a tenable position?

What I mean is that in our world, where citizenship still matters, nations matter even for the moderates. To say that we are all citizens of the world does not really solve the problem of who gets to vote for MPs in Poland. Who’s allowed to vote? We all depend on some elements of national thinking to answer questions of who is a citizen.

Moderates, however, usually do not deny there are differences within a given nation. They acknowledge regional differences, religious differences, gender differences. All of those are legitimate within a nation but we still need to decide what it is that makes one a legitimate citizen. And that’s why these questions are so politically contested because people want to change the rules. In Europe, the European Union pushes in one direction and the strong claim to sovereignty at all costs is partly a response to that. Partly it’s also a response to globalization.

From what can nationalism save us?

People know they are in fact dependent on a highly global economy. Most are not under the illusion that they could somehow stop the overall trade flows, but they want to have some power in relation to the global economy and so nationalism is a way of talking about that need. In its extreme forms, it involves a kind of illusion, that is possible to control much more at the level of the nation that is really possible in our globally connected world.

Some people are upset and frustrated with European or global order and to them, nationalists say – “Don’t worry, we can control that. If you just let us control the borders and if you just let us run the government, we can block the phenomena that give you a headache”. But unfortunately this may not work, and worse, it usually means blocking democracy.

Is it an either/or question – either nationalism or liberal democracy?

That is not a completely avoidable conundrum. The liberals and others who don’t like racist versions of nationalism can’t escape some way of nationalist thinking so long as we have individual nation states and we have to decide who belongs to which one. What they can do is think of being a member of a nation as a project, as a commitment to making it a better nation, instead of thinking of it as only an inheritance.

Most of the people we call extreme nationalists say that being Polish or American is only an inheritance – it’s based on who you are descended from and there’s nothing you can do about it. A more moderate and in my view a more sensible position is to claim the nation is what we want to make it. We should try to make a better nation. A nation that is more inclusive, a nation that stands for good policies in the world. It’s up to us to decide what our nation would be – whether it will be closed-minded or open, whether it will embrace migrants or be hostile to them.

Do you look to the past and define the identity of the nation in terms of descent, or do you look to the future and define the nation in terms of what can be made? That future orientation is the key alternative. We should not give up on the nation but be focused on the future, not the past.

Most of the people we call extreme nationalists say that being Polish or American is only an inheritance – it’s based on who you are descended from and there’s nothing you can do about it. A more moderate and in my view a more sensible position is to claim the nation is what we want to make it.

Craig Calhoun

What you said is part of an even broader discussion on whether nations are somehow “natural” or whether they are artificial constructs. Many nationalists seem to believe that a nation is a natural community dating back centuries if not millennia, whereas historical facts show clearly that they were created not so long ago.

Nations are not simply natural. Yes, nations can have a long history, but in the end, they are constructed, and not once for all. The history of making Poland or making the US continues. In the case of the US to take the “natural” view is even more paradoxical because this is a nation of immigrants. If there are any “natural” Americans it would have to be native Americans, Indians. No nationalist want to “give the country back” to Native Americans, so by true Americans they must mean that some immigrants were more legitimate than others.

People may try to draw a line and say that at some point we had a “correct culture” and what’s going on now is not acceptable. The story of making any given country is always an ongoing story but extreme nationalists either claim it’s not history, it’s nature, or they want to pick one period in history and say that’s when it was all correct. It’s a golden age ideology, a belief that everything was perfect at that point. In fact, historians who study those times usually disprove these idealistic views.

We need to recognize the importance of nations but insist nations are constructed. That means we have a choice about how we are going to continue with this process of construction.

Do we need to go on with nations? There are calls to create other forms of identity, either more local, or – for example in Europe – a broader, pan-European identity. Some people say this is utterly impossible because such community would be too big for people to really identify with. Another argument says that European identity – even if ever constructed – would be another type of nationalism just taken to another level.

Europeans have a choice. They can give up on the whole project of integration, decide to create a federation of different nations which cooperate closely or pursue a far-reaching integration in which even culture and education becomes integrated.

If you ask me if Europe could be a nation, it seems to me it can. Whether it’s a good idea, that is a different story. But it’s possible, in the same way it’s possible that China or the US could break up. I don’t think it’s going to happen but there’s no guarantee to the borders and the level of integration.

If we managed to create a closely integrated Europe would it be based on some form of European nationalism, or is it a way to transcend nationalism?

The agenda of building a strongly integrated Europe is still within the terms of nationalism – same sort of ideas on a larger scale. Just like France was put together from different principalities and duchies to create the country in its current form. There’s an ideological history of France which makes people believe they are all descendants of Asterix the Gaul. In fact, it’s not until 19th century that most French people spoke French. So what does it mean to be French? Does it mean speaking French? That’s a good candidate. Does it mean being Catholic? No, only sometimes. Does it mean having the same education system? That only dates from 1880’s.

To completely transcend nationalism and nation-states would take a completely different global system. It’s not something that could be done only in Europe. Europe could transcend old nationalisms and old national conflicts in a new structure. But to really transcend nationalism would mean to change the structure of economic and political life on the scale of the world. And that can happen – it’s not easy and very unlikely to happen while you or I are alive, but it could happen. If there’s one world-government and a strong structure of integration, maybe that will spell the end to nation-states. Or maybe it would be an empire with nations within it.

Is it possible to have a national identity without an enemy? Nations are not created around only positive characteristics of some people but also against somebody who is not part of the nation.

There’s no such thing as one nation by itself. It needs maybe not an enemy but at least a rival. Formation of national identity and the state always reflect relations with other countries. There’s no first nation. They become nations through relations with each other as well as through internal processes.

In the European case nationalism was partly created in the context of religious wars. The project of unifying Europe under one empire, probably a Habsburg empire, failed. Afterwards, it was possible to have Europe re-conceptualized not in terms of an empire but collection of nation-states.

Is there something like hard and light nationalism or good and bad nationalism? Can you make such a distinction?

You can, although it’s tricky. What defines some people that we call extreme nationalists is the fact they put nations before every other value. They might believe it’s justified to go to war if it’s in the name of the nation, it’s fine to violate human rights to block migrants from coming, etc. Extreme nationalists believe that no other value is even close to being as important as the nation. They can even take religious values and bend them to nationalism. That’s hard, and dark, and mostly bad.

The more moderate people claim that nations are important but there are other things that are also important, like respecting human rights, building a successful modern economy, having a democratic political system. They suggest our goal should be to combine these values. I agree. National solidarity is good, but it is not the only good.