Liberal Nationalism

multiculturalism and internationalism

Liberal nationalism can be understood by applying liberal ideas of individualism to the nation. Liberal nationalists see nations as entities with their own rights; if individuals are entitled to determine their own destiny, so are nations. The ideal form of government for liberal nationalists is the nation-state, which is seen as the only legitimate basis for the political rule - the ideal political community. A state gives nations a meaningful and autonomous existence whereby they can fulfil their national ambitions. Liberalism was founded on a defence of individual freedom, traditionally expressed in the language of rights. Nationalists believed nations to be-sover­eign entities, entitled to liberty, and also possessing rights, the most important being the right of self-determination. Liberal nationalism is therefore a liber­ating force in two senses. First, it opposes all forms of foreign domination and oppression, whether by multinational empires or colonial powers. Second, it stands for the ideal of self-government, reflected in practice in a belief in consti­tutionalism and representation

Liberal nationalism dates back to the French Revolution and embodies many of its values. Its ideas spread quickly through much of Europe and were expressed most clearly by Giuseppe Mazzini . They also influenced the remarkable exploits of Simon Bolivar, who led the Latin American independ­ence movement in the early nineteenth century and expelled the Spanish from much of Hispanic America. US President Woodrow Wilson's 'Fourteen Points', proposed as the basis for the reconstruction of Europe after World War I, were also based on liberal nationalist principles. Moreover, many twentieth-century anti-colonial leaders were inspired by liberal ideas, as in the case of Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925), one of the leaders of China's 1911 Revolution, and Jawaharlal Nehru (1889-1964) , the first prime minister of India.

The ideas of liberal nationalism were clearly shaped by Rousseau's defence of popular sovereignty, expressed in particular in the notion of the 'general will'


For liberal nationalists, nationhood is inclusive and open. This is based on a civic understanding of nationhood - being committed and loyal to the nation's values is the primary requirement for membership, so anyone who identifies passionately with the values of a nation should be permitted to join it. This form of nationalism is also progressive - society is forward-looking, seeking to advance and improve to make itself better and fairer.

In the 18th century, the Enlightenment gave rise to the idea that the nation-state was the ultimate expression of rationalism; people of the same nation should rule themselves in their own state, For liberals, there is an intrinsic link between nationhood and statehood, so they seek the ideal

of a world of independent nation-states. Liberals associate nationalism with freeing nations from colonial enslavement and creating democratic nation-states.

Liberals also believe that independent nation-states will co-operate with each other for mutual benefit, and that economics can play a key role in helping to create a stable and peaceful world order. Free trade between nations plays an important role in creating a culture of interdependency. The liberal ideal is a world of independent nation-states co-operating with each other economically, creating a level of interdependence that would reduce the possibility of conflict, as countries who trade with each other and are mutually interdependent will always seek peaceful ways of resolving areas of disagreement.

When the European Union was set up in the 1950s, it was not primarily for economic purposes. The fundamental purpose of the EU was to promote greater social, political and economic harmony among the nations of Western Europe, as nations whose economies are interdependent are less likely to engage in conflict. For liberal nationalists, this is the ultimate expression of rationalism -reason dominating irrationalism and discussion triumphing over waging war.

However, in the same way that liberals fear that a few powerful individuals may harm weaker ones if there is no rule of law enforced by a state so liberal nationalists have been concerned that more powerful nation-states may try to dominate less powerful ones. Liberals have come to accept that supranational institutions may be necessary to 'police' the international political world. This idea was the motivation behind the creation of the League of Nations and the United Nations. Liberals also support the idea of collective security as practised by NATO.

Liberals also believe that the principle of balance or natural harmony applies to the nations of the world, not just to individuals within society. The achievement of national self-determination is a means of establishing a peaceful and stable international order. Wilson believed that World War I had been caused by an 'old order', dominated by autocratic and militaristic empires. Democratic nation-states, on the other hand, would respect the national sovereignty of their neighbours and have no incentive to wage war or subjugate others. For a liberal, nationalism does not divide nations from one another, promoting distrust, rivalry and possibly war. Rather, it is a force that is capable of promoting both unity within each nation and brotherhood among all nations on the basis of mutual respect for national rights and characteristics. At heart, liberalism looks beyond the nation to the ideas of cosmopolitanism and internationalism.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) called `perpetual peace'. Liberals have generally proposed two means of preventing wars. The first is national interdependence, aimed at promoting mutual understanding and cooperation. This is why liberals have traditionally supported the policy of free trade: economic interdependence means that the material costs of international conflict are so great that warfare becomes virtually unthinkable. One of the arguments used in favour of the European project- EEC and EU is the preservation of peace in Europe. For liberals war make no sense is it involves fighting your customers or suppliers- you could calling this rational internationalism.

Second, Liberals have proposed that national ambition should be checked by the construction of international organisa­tions capable of bringing order to an otherwise lawless international scene. This explains Woodrow Wilson's support for the League of Nations, set up in 1919, and the far wider support for its successor, the United Nations, founded by the San Francisco Conference of 1945. Liberals have looked to these bodies to establish a law-governed state system to make possible the peaceful resolution of international conflicts. This is a vison of the world organised by international laws, rules , treaties and interdependence- not 'America First' or any nation 'first'. It forms the basis of the 'idealist' school of international relations. However, realist critics of liberal nationalism suggest that its ideas are naïve, romantic and overly optimistic about human being's capacity to be rational and good natured.