Nationalism and the Struggle in Ukraine
The 20th century left a bitter taste in the mouth about nationalism. But the Ukrainian-style nationalism on display today is not only compatible with, but strongly supportive of, liberal democracy.
Like so many other observers, I have marveled at Ukraine’s brave resistance to Russia’s brutal invasion and at the extraordinary popular backing it has received in the West. Everyone seems to grasp that a transformational change in Western public opinion has taken place that’s helped to alter the political landscape in many European countries and to strengthen the Atlantic Alliance. There is even reason to hope that the Ukraine crisis will lead to a renewed appreciation of democracy, not least by showing populations around the world how awful the autocratic alternative is.
One aspect of this shift in Western public opinion, however, has not received as much attention as I think it deserves—the remarkable degree to which sympathy and support for Ukraine have featured an embrace of the symbols of Ukrainian nationalism. People all over the world are displaying the blue and yellow colors of Ukraine, as well as its flag. The country’s national anthem has been played and applauded at New York’s Metropolitan Opera (ahead of a performance of Verdi’s Don Carlo), in front of the National Portrait Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square, and even in Salt Lake City, Utah, at an NBA game.
The enthusiasm for the Ukrainian cause—and for the country’s elected leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy—has gone viral. Time and again TV commentators have described as “inspiring” the patriotic fervor of the Ukrainians, above all their courageous willingness to risk their lives to defend their country. The outpouring of pro-Ukrainian sentiment has extended even to scholars and journalists who would not normally have been expected to look favorably upon nationalism.
As both a word and a concept, nationalism is susceptible to multiple interpretations. As the world learned all too well in the 20th century, nationalism can take horrific forms as well as benign ones. Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski used the term “malignant nationalism” to describe the kind that “asserts itself through belief in the natural superiority of one’s own tribe and in the hatred of others.” He distinguishes this from the “patriotic feelings” that give rise to “a preferential solidarity with one’s own nation, the attachment to national cultural heritage and language, and the desire to make one’s nation better off and more civilized.”
The latter is the species of nationalism that we are witnessing among Ukrainians. It stands at the opposite pole from the neo-Nazism that Vladimir Putin falsely claims is infecting the Ukrainian government of President Zelenskyy. Every day we are able to watch and listen to Ukrainians interviewed on various news channels, and it’s readily apparent that they are not motivated by hostility to other nationalities. Despite their justified anger at the invasion, they even voice surprisingly little ethnic hatred for the Russians who are bombing their cities (though that may change with the continuing revelations of Russian atrocities).
In 2018 Ukrainian voters elected a Jewish president, in a country where Jews constitute a tiny percentage of the population. There have been complaints that Ukrainian border guards, in the early days of helping to evacuate those fleeing the war, gave more favorable treatment to their native-born fellow citizens than to students from India and other countries. Responding to these concerns, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted that his government would “spare no effort to solve the problem.” (Foreign students, of course, were not required to stay to fight the invaders, as Ukrainian male citizens between the ages of eighteen and sixty are obliged to do.) Today’s Ukrainian nationalism is not driven by hostility along religious or ethnic or linguistic lines.
Ukrainians’ devotion to their country, though inseparable from the desire to protect their homes and cities, is also fueled by their attachment to freedom and democracy. The relationship between democracy and nationalism is complex. The universal principles that inform the liberal component of liberal democracy are sometimes in tension with the attachments to one’s own country that animate nationalism. But there is a clear congruity between nationalism and the key principles of democratic self-government—the sovereignty of the people, the equality of all citizens before the law, and government by consent of the governed.
In the modern world, democracy has flourished only in the nation-state. A democratic polity must be composed of citizens who agree to abide by the laws passed by themselves or their representatives. Every democratic country must distinguish between citizens and non-citizens—a distinction that is not so essential in other political orders such as empire. Therefore, democracies must have clear borders defining who belongs to the polity. The citizens share both the advantages and the burdens (such as taxes and military service) that come from being members of the association, and they reasonably expect that their political leaders will put the interests of citizens above those of outsiders. If their citizens do not begin with a long history of political independence and a strong national culture, new states try to create one—a process that had been maturing in the three decades of Ukraine’s independence, and that has been given new vigor by the resistance to Putin’s invasion.
Most scholars argue that nationalism first emerged in the era of the French Revolution. In its early manifestations, it tended to be allied with republicanism and thus hostile to aristocracy and the ancien régime. Later it took very different forms in different countries. In the first half of the 20th century, nationalism came to be associated with fascism, even as it continued to motivate democratic countries struggling against the Nazi domination of Europe. During the Cold War period, nationalism was frequently praised as a useful sentiment for countries seeking to throw off the yoke of Western colonialism. After the end of the Cold War, nationalism was seen as being responsible for the horrible ethnic cleansing and civil war that afflicted the former Yugoslavia. At the same time, however, nationalism was a key source of the civic awakenings that achieved the demise of the Soviet Union. As the Georgian political scientist Ghia Nodia put it, in the former USSR “all real democratic movements (save the one in Russia proper) were nationalist.”
Given the protean character of nationalism, it is difficult to generalize about it. There is no doubt, however, that the Ukrainian-style nationalism we see today is not only compatible with but strongly supportive of liberal democracy. To succeed, liberal democracies must enjoy the support and even devotion of their citizens, especially in times of crisis. While some prominent political scientists argue that democracy is bolstered by the global spread of “post-materialist values” (self-expression, autonomy, gender equality, environmentalism, and the like), the Ukrainians are demonstrating that it also requires another set of values—selflessness, a commitment to the common good, self-restraint, and courage. These old-fashioned virtues can be powerfully promoted by nationalism.
None of this is to deny the awful dangers that accompany nationalism’s more malignant forms. One such variety is Vladimir Putin’s nationalism. Putin is the heir to several of the many competing and conflicting strands of Russian nationalism—pan-Slavic, Soviet, and the neo-Eurasianism advocated by Alexander Dugin. But none of these strands, nor the amalgam of them that Putin seems to have fashioned, is benign or democratic: Putin’s nationalism has been employed to justify the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and the barbaric tactics that are being used to slaughter civilians.
Post-invasion, it is hard to find any voices in the West uttering a full-throated defense of Putin, though a few U.S. conservatives previously had applauded his defense of “traditional values.” Over the past few years, there has been increasing debate about nationalism on the American Right, spurred by the 2018 publication of The Virtue of Nationalism by Israeli political scientist Yoram Hazony. More recently Hazony has been instrumental in founding the national conservative movement and serves as the chairman of its parent organization, the Edmund Burke Foundation.
The national conservative website describes the group as “a movement of public figures, journalists, scholars, and students who understand that the past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation, to the principle of national independence, and to the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.” Their chief activity appears to be organizing major annual conferences. While they are almost all conservatives of one stripe or another, it is not clear what unites them, beyond a jaundiced view of what they call “globalism.”
I am sympathetic with the critique of globalism. I’ve argued elsewhere that while Americans look favorably upon international cooperation, they are rightly hostile to “approaches to global governance that evade or attempt to supersede their Constitutional order.” It is Americans’ deep attachment to constitutional democracy that is the source of their resistance to globalism. In the case of national conservatives, however, it is sometimes hard to tell how firmly they are committed to democracy. Their lionization of Hungary’s authoritarian and Putin-friendly prime minister Viktor Orbán, a featured speaker at their 2020 conference in Rome, certainly gives grounds for doubt.
The Russo-Ukrainian war will be a clarifying test for national conservatives. It will force them to decide which version of nationalism they want to embrace—the democratic nationalism of Volodymyr Zelenskyy or the malignant and aggressive nationalism of Vladimir Putin. While their critique of globalism and the European Union is not without merit, one hopes that national conservatives will come to realize that the real threat to America and to liberal democracy comes not from Brussels, but from Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, and their partners in the axis of autocracy.
Marc F. Plattner, a contributing editor of American Purpose, is the founding co-editor emeritus of the Journal of Democracy and a distinguished nonresident fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy’s International Forum for Democratic Studies. He is author of Democracy Without Borders? Global Challenges to Liberal Democracy (2008).
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