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Letter from Rome: Nationalism is here to stay

Dear friends of Istituto Acton,

Last December, I offered you the confessions of a chastened globalist, but in this Lenten season I realize my penance is not yet complete.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to take part in three rather diverse gatherings, all of which dealt in some way with the hot topic of nationalism, despite the fact that most of the world’s great and good are against it. For better or worse, nationalism is here to stay so we might as well take it seriously.

The first was with the European Students for Liberty in Prague. Virtually all the keynote speakers were very concerned if not alarmed by the threats nationalism poses to individual liberty and civic peace. Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump were the main targets of libertarian opprobrium, but serious thinkers such as Hegel, Schmitt, Heidegger and Renan were also singled out for attention.  

The speakers equated nationalism with an increasingly powerful, centralized State that would wage wars, restrict trade, censor and imprison free-thinkers, and spy on its people. Yet most of the students seemed quite confident that progress, however defined, will continue. Perhaps such optimism is simply natural to the young.

The second was a meeting with officials of Iraq’s Ministry of Religious Affairs at the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. The Ministry has three endowments (waqf), one for the majority Shia Muslim population, another for the Sunni, and a third for Christians, Yazidis and Sabaeans. Such endowments are apparently allowed under Islamic law. The representative of Kurdish regional government to Italy was also present, even though she identified her country as Kurdistan and spoke in Italian rather than Arabic.

Very little united the Iraqis other than their condemnation of the terrorists of ISIS as religious ideologues. No blame there; they simply knew their audience. No one explained why people joined ISIS, let alone who should stop them or how. The President of the Pontifical Council, veteran Vatican diplomat Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, blamed the current troubles in Iraq on the 2003 American-led invasion, implying that Saddam Hussein had kept the peace with his iron fist. Iraqi Christians told me Saddam did indeed protect them from sectarian violence but in no way did they consider him benevolent.

The stated purpose of the conference was to discuss Christian and Muslim perspectives on truth, justice, love and liberty. All the Catholic participants prepared remarks on Church teaching that were distributed in the conference materials. None of the Muslim remarks were made available, and we didn’t know who our counterparts were until they addressed us at the meeting. The Iraqi presentations were not substantial and seemed to have been mostly handwritten as notes. There was more exchange of views among the Catholics than between the religions.

The one exchange I had with Muslims concerned the difference between absolute and relative understandings of justice. I learned that Shiites are allowed to dissemble in order to save themselves from Sunnis, but not vice versa, due to the former being the minority in most Muslim countries. I assume both are allowed to lie to non-Muslims. I told them the highest form of Christian witness is to die rather than renounce the faith, which they took to be lacking in prudence and common sense.

The conference participants had a brief audience with Pope Francis, who stressed the values of unity and diversity, telling us we are all brothers and sisters, like the different fingers of a hand. His metaphors force me to ask whether we actually do believe in the same Father and just what “palm” holds us together. Quite evidently the Iraqis identify themselves more by religion and tribes than their common citizenship. I had the distinct impression that the Christians, Iraqi and non-, cared more for the future of the country as a whole, even though many have been forced to leave. The unanswered question: Does Iraq truly exist as a nation or a people?

 The third and final event on nationalism was one we held at the Pontifical Lateran University. It was very much a discussion among friends, i.e. supporters of free-market economics, but with an underlying disagreement about the nation-state and what Trump advisor Steve Bannon calls “economic nationalism.

On one side were pro-globalization speakers Philip Booth and Carlo Lottieri defending the small-c catholic or universal good of international trade. On the other was Benjamin Harnwell who, in addition to describing Bannon’s thought and the multitude of bipartisan failures that led to it over the last 30 years, attacked the notion of central banking as such. Both sides would have agreed that the wisdom of the people as expressed in the marketplace is greater than that of governing elites.

Italian journalist Aldo Maria Valli criticized the fiscal irresponsibility of the nation-state, of which there is more than ample evidence. Msgr. Martin Schlag took a more balanced approach in explicating Catholic social teaching as a developing tradition that tries to include the marginalized and the poor into larger networks of solidarity and exchange.

All three of these meetings presented different critiques of nationalism: one for the threats to individual liberty, another as a purely formal or abstract notion, and the third for its detrimental effect on the poor, immigrants and foreigners. All of these have much merit, especially from Catholic and free-market perspectives. All of them, however, neglect thinking about politics as a common endeavor that may actually guarantee the goods of liberty, loyalty and wealth for certain population or people while opening the way to cooperation among nations. As unpopular as it is, politics may be the only way for us to create the necessary conditions that would allow us to enjoy these and many other goods.

My contribution to the Iraqi meeting was on the traditional Catholic understanding of justice in its three forms, the commutative, distributive and general or legal. Our Muslim counterparts certainly look to God as the Creator but also the Legislator who governs all of existence. Similarly and perhaps without fully realizing it, the libertarian critique of nationalism is not limited to restrictions on liberty but also about justice or how people should live together, i.e. in peace and trading with each other. Libertarians are not as selfish as they sometimes claim to be. 

To a very basic degree, economics takes care of itself; people produce and consume on their own without being told to do so, in order to survive. But people also come together to form communities on their own. They worship God or gods on their own. They also disagree and fight about territory and religion on their own. Underlying all of human life and its many activities is a concern for justice and claims about the best way of life.

Live and let live is the liberal/libertarian answer to the question of how we ought to organize politically, but it does not go nearly far enough. The greatest thinkers, from Plato and Aristotle to Augustine and Thomas Aquinas to Hobbes and Locke to Rousseau and Nietzsche and all who have come after them, hold politics to be fundamentally more important than economics because it conditions how we think about justice.

Nationalism is an important issue today because we realize that the vast amounts of wealth provided by economic globalization is insufficient in at least two ways: It does not necessarily result in better human beings or in the common good however we think of our community (ethnic, religious, political or global). The first concern is connected to virtue in general, the second to justice in particular. We are being forced to re-consider some old questions.

The modern world has provided us with many benefits, including the political form of the nation-state. Compared to alternatives such as the city-state or the empire, the nation has the advantage of providing people with both the freedom of self-determination and the solidarity of belonging to something larger than one’s own group or identity. At its best, nationalism leads to cosmopolitism. It is worth re-reading the words of Pope John Paul II, speaking to the United Nations in 1995:

This tension between the particular and the universal can be considered immanent in human beings. By virtue of sharing in the same human nature, people automatically feel that they are members of one great family, as is in fact the case. But as a result of the concrete historical conditioning of this same nature, they are necessarily bound in a more intense way to particular human groups, beginning with the family and going on to the various groups to which they belong and up to the whole of their ethnic and cultural group, which is called, not by accident, a "nation", from the Latin word "nasci": "to be born". This term, enriched with another one, "patria" (fatherland/motherland), evokes the reality of the family. The human condition thus finds itself between these two poles — universality and particularity — with a vital tension between them; an inevitable tension, but singularly fruitful if they are lived in a calm and balanced way.    

Those last words say it all not just about politics but about life and its many challenges. Indeed, there is something spiritual about the nation or a people; it more than a conglomeration of interests, as Renan says. As defenders of freedom, we need to take these challenges more seriously not only as individuals but together. Who “we” are is what the resurgent nationalism is all about and we ignore it at our peril.

KJ Signature



Kishore Jayabalan

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