Nationalism War Realism Peace

Nationalism Rises: Survival, the State, and War.

Nationalism shaped the Clausewitzian concept of “absolute war”: before nationalism had became a powerful ideology during the French Revolution, power wars were fought for limited objectives and with limited means.


Nationalism War Realism Peace


A growing number of authors have recently focused their attention over the role and political implications of nationalism in shaping the international system. Stephen Walt has warned about the perils of ignoring the “strongest force in the world” for scholars and policy-makers, while Sebastian Rosato has underlined the progressive renationalisation of the EU’s economic and foreign policy as a consequence of political fears and incompatible economic preferences on the part of its members. In addition, Christopher Hughes has discovered the resurgence of the so-called geopolitik nationalism in the Chinese political debate.

As commendably summarized by Van Evera (1994), nationalism may be conceived of as a political movement and ideology that pushes nations, namely groups of individuals with common ethnic ties and loyalty towards their own belonging community, to desire their own independent state.

John J. Mearsheimer in his Kissing Cousins: Nationalism and Realism, paper written for the Yale Workshop on International Relations last year, analyzed the interaction between nationalism and the realist theory of International Relations. According to Mearsheimer, nationalism and realism are two particularistic theories, both deeply different from liberalism and Marxism given their universalistic approach.

By this token, their particularistic perspective privileges two basic concepts, namely survival and the state, and both of them affect the role and the likelihood of war. In fact, states are the key actors in international politics given their nature as autonomous units and the most powerful political institution in the world.


For both nationalism and realism, survival is a core concept even if they deal with different realms. According to structural realism, states are obliged to pursue a certain degree of relative power because of the anarchical structure of the system, in which them have no guarantee to be secured from external attacks and preserve their security. Nationalism is related to survival in at least three fundamental aspects: preservation of the “nation” or a given community of people; protection and reproduction of a unique cultural identity; defence of sovereignty.

Firstly, according to Anderson (1991) the nation is defined as an imagined political community. “Imagined” because its fellow-members will never know or meet most of their peers; by imagining themselves as a particular community of people with strong bonds. This kind of identification as members of the same nation is “limited” and finite, given that even the greatest nation has boundaries. Finally, the nation is imagined as a “community”: Anderson defines it as a horizontal comradeship. From that, it follows that each nation is characterized by an exceptional history and culture that in turn can be perpetuated and handed down within a given community. As Gellner stated in 1983, it is nationalism that engenders nations. Indeed, the former is conceived of as the imposition of a particular totalizing culture on society through schools and academy. Van Evera underlines the role of such institutions, along with history and literature teaching, in determining national self-consciousness and chauvinist mythmaking, deemed as the hallmark of all nationalism.

Nationalism is not conceivable without the idea of popular sovereignty, given that the growth of the former is substantiated by the integration of the masses into a common political form: namely, the state as a unit (Kohn, 1944), considered as necessary and the guarantee of liberty for the national communities who inhabit it (Renan, 1939).

The state

The modern state system is the main product of the interaction between nationalism and political realism. In particular, nations push for obtaining the nation-state in order to ensure a satisfactory degree of protection and security. Aside from considerations of political nature, historically speaking the emergence of the nation-state, and the related ideology of modern nationalism, has been historically identified by E.H. Carr (1945) between the Napoleonic Wars and 1914, during which occurred the identification of the “nation” with the “people” and the rejection of its dynastic form. On these bases the French Revolution broke out and the modern state spread in Europe as a juristic and territorial concept. In addition, within the industrial society of the nineteenth century, the nation-state proved to be the most suitable institution for providing economic growth and efficiency, by homogenizing people’s level of literacy, technical competences and cultural knowledge through the modern national educational system.


Lastly, Mearsheimer underlines three main advantages that nationalism provides to increase the warfare ability of states: it allows them to set up large and powerful armies; its citizens guarantee a steady, constant and longstanding flow of resources even in military efforts; soldiers and military forces are not affected by the problem of desertion, given the strong ties of loyalty and solidarity with their own national community.

As a matter of fact, the levée en masse, introduced within the French Constitution as an emergency wartime measure in 1793, marked a turning point in the development of modern armies. As an agent of the national community, the rise of mass army saw the concurrent and definitive decline of mercenary forces, replaced by an extensive national conscription and financed through taxes extracted from the population itself. According to Paret (1993), between 1800 and 1815 Napoleon gathered over 2 million men. In effect, these large military bodies were created for national self-defence and they represented a successful practice soon imitated by other nation-states concerned with survival and sovereignty protection.

Nonetheless, a large army incapable of maintaining its size at war might be not so useful: for this reason a constant flow of resources was necessary, for instance to acquire and keep manpower, weapon and supplies working and efficient. Nationalism, in this case, plays a crucial role: the conviction to preserve sovereignty, independence and prestige of the national state, makes available the essential resources (general growth of population, commerce and wealth) for expanding and physically maintaining mass military forces.

A final advantage resulting from the relationship between nationalism and military power lies in the sense of solidarity and loyalty among soldiers and towards their own nation-state. As Haas pointed out in 1986, nationalism is “the convergence of territorial and political loyalty” irrespective of affiliation (kinship, profession, religion, economic interest, race) but centred upon the common historical and cultural identity of given national community’s members.

As a result, nationalism shaped the Clausewitzian concept of “absolute war”: before nationalism had became a powerful ideology during the French Revolution, great power wars were fought for limited objectives and with limited means, while its absoluteness emerged in Europe when nationalism “enlarged and motivated European armies” (Ferguson, 2002).

Might this first analysis be applied to contemporary “nationalistic” disputes, such as those concerning East Asia, in order to understand and forecast eventual developments? To what extent is it possible to frame the the so-called “Asian Nationalism at Sea” through the aforementioned analysis? A further step in this direction will be delivered in my next article.


Photo Credit: Durhamskywriter

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