Writing of the essay under this topic is quite a challenge for me. After all, as someone who was born in Serbia during the Yugoslav Wars, who was educated on stories about crimes during the World War II, and someone who is witnessing right wing re-emergence in Europe, my ideas on nationalism are clear. There is not much (if there is anything) good to be said about it. I define myself in opposition to nationalist ideologies. Among young people it is almost an insult if you call them nationalists. Even those among them who in fact are nationalists will deny it. From this point of view it is very hard to imagine that the story of nationalism may be multi-faced and not always and exclusively negative one. Yet I will do exactly this.
In order to be able to say anything positive about nationalism I will first and foremost move the centre of my attention away from my dear old continent. As much as I may unintentionally and by default be Eurocentric, Central Europe and Balkans really do not give me much content to say anything good about nationalism. There is just way to much destruction, violent separation and xenophobic sentiment related to it.
For this reason I will move the centre of my attention to the Global South and our old friends from the Non-Aligned World. Once I take a look at nationalism in this context image is becoming a bit more complicated. In fact, I may even find clear historical examples in which nationalism in the Global South played constructive and progressive role in overall historical development.
Let me start my argument with the epochal change which happened with the initiation of the process of decolonization. This is the process of the beginning of emancipation of millions of people who were in the best case unrepresented and treated unequally in the high days of colonialism. These injustices lead to the resistance and fight for emancipation, and wait for it-for nothing less but national liberation. It is hard to imagine liberation of millions of people of the Indian subcontinent without developed sense of shared national identity. Indeed, this secular national identity was the driving force in the fight for decolonization. And man was it a fight! One only has to recall brave Algerians or Egyptians in early decades after the end of World War II. National sentiment, while in principle problematic, was something that held large numbers of people together and focused on common goal. It gave them determination and strength. It also made them motivated to establish societal institutions of modern state such as national universities, libraries or institutes.
Once we are already mentioning the Middle East let us consider the second situation in which nationalism may in practice play positive role in the preservation of regional stability and peace. One is to think that if there was more national solidarity and stronger national identity in countries such as Syria, Lebanon or Iraq the strength of sectarian violence would have been much weaker. Indeed, this sectarian division is the fertile ground used by terrorist organizations in order to initiate and sustain their regional and international activities. If instead of being members of certain denomination or sect citizens were primarily Syrians or Iraqi there would be much less ground for them to fight in brutal internal civil wars.
The third situation in which nationalism may play positive role is in the response to certain negative aspects of globalization. Nationalism may help in preservation of local and regional particularities and in that way uniformity may be avoided. As we know, while having a lot of advantages, uniformity possesses certain number of serious risks. If one is faced with very similar leader it is easier to standardize economic outputs and create monopolies in the course of it. In the similar way, it is much easier to establish political hegemony and even autocracy over the very similar population than it is if population is differentiated. If global population is divided in different nations those nations will have different goals and interests and this will prevent creation of global hegemony (at least it will make it less probable by increasing the need for compromise). Compromise is certainly useful road to achieve many positive governance outcomes including moderation, mutual understanding and the development of democratic institutions. All of this may be supported by simple fact that society is diverse and this diversity will be preserved partially due to the nationalist ideas.
All of this is not to deny that there is a lot of troubles with nationalism. After all this entire essay is till only contextual, conditional and case specific defence of nationalism. In principle it is an bad idea simply for the reason that on the most elementary level it still includes division on us and them which is always potentially problematic. Yet, even and context specific and conditional defence of nationalism is still providing us with insight about potential instrumentalization of the concept. It is showing us how nationalism can be used in order to establish support for emancipation and independence. It can be used to strengthen public support for institution building. In religiously heterogeneous countries it may help in bridging of sectarian differences… This is showing us that topic is more complex than may be expected at first.
As this is written at the last moment (one is wondering if “In defence of last-moment deadlines” may have been my preferred topic) this idea is not completely developed. For someone from the Balkans and Central Europe nationalism is and remains very controversial and dangerous idea. Still, as always, mental experiment may be useful if we at least want to put some efforts in understanding of others. Nationalism in my place and nationalism in Global South are not the necessarily the same ideas and in this globalized world I need to be aware of it. If not for other reason than to be able to cooperate with people who may have honest and honourable intentions which I may miss to recognize if I apply only my context specific judgment of nationalism.