Nationalism Goes to War

Ukrainian soldiers adjust a national flag atop an armored personnel carrier. (Photo by Anatolii Stepanov/AFP/Getty Images.)

Is Ukraine’s war of self-defense against Russia an example of good nationalism? David Brooks, Paul Pillar, Michael Barone and many others think so. They herald the warm moral glow of Ukraine’s heroic stand as a beacon of a new, friendly kind of nationalism, rooted in love for one’s country and a willingness to defend it—entirely separate from the bad, dangerous, ethno-chauvinist kind of nationalism.

If this be nationalism, count me in, and let us make the most of it. But let me note, just as a matter of history, most people have called this patriotism. Take George Orwell: “By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.” Relevant to the Ukrainian war of self-defense, Orwell wrote that, “patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally.” 

Many people today use the terms nationalism and patriotism interchangeably, especially whenever the word nation is present. Because the Ukrainians are defending their nation, it must be nationalism. Many people are keen to defend national sovereignty (against the supposed encroachments of globalists or multinational corporations), and thus endorse nationalism.

Orwell specifically warned against equating patriotism and nationalism, and with good reason. He demanded exact definitions and precise usage. And he knew that the word nationalism had a history resonant with meaning. We cannot unilaterally wish that definition away by using it to mean something different from what it has meant for decades.

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