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How Ukraine showcases the best of nationalism

One of the great political certainties of the last few decades has been that nationalism, in general, is a bad and distasteful ideology. How often, for example, have we heard Brexit (widely assumed to be bad, in the Irish media) described as “English nationalism”? Donald Trump, of course, is an America First Nationalist. Here at home, there are a great many people (including, for the avoidance of doubt, me) who are suspicious of Sinn Fein’s brand of Irish nationalism. The European Union, as a project, has largely been about trying to replace nationalism in Europe with a common European identity.

Which brings us to an interesting paradox of the present: What we are seeing in Ukraine is, of course, Ukrainian nationalism writ large. It is the very best of nationalism: A people united in a common spirit to protect their lands and their homes and their people against a more powerful aggressor. It is the spirit of nationalism which is driving young people, and old people, and middle-aged people to pick up AK47s, and prepare to kill, if necessary, Russian soldiers encroaching on their homeland.

It is the kind of nationalism which Vladimir Putin does not seem to have realised still existed outside of his own borders. In recent weeks he has said things like “Ukraine is not a legitimate country”, or that it is not a real country at all, but a rightful part of mother Russia. He seems to have genuinely believed that, at least in parts of Ukraine, his soldiers would be treated as liberators.

Those of us who like to think of ourselves as sophisticated post-nationalist types have much to ponder, from events in Ukraine. Those events teach us much about the spirit that ties nations together, and how shared identities are often bonded by the blood of conflict. To those of us who have grown up in the post cold-war era, this is all slightly alien: To us, the world is much the same, wherever you go. There are always politicians, there is always a McDonalds, there is always a bank and a way to stay in touch with home. In some respects, national boundaries feel quaint in the modern world.

This is how globalists think: the idea of petty squabbles over borders and sovereignty often feel absurd, in a world where you can buy a house in Perth or Peru with almost the same ease as you can buy one in Portlaoise. The big issues, after all, are global: Climate Change. Coronavirus. Poverty. Nationalism often feels, to globalists, like an obstacle to solving the world’s problems, on the basis that it makes people smaller, and more insular, and too focused on the local over the global.

It is not coincidental that this ideology has exploded in the wake of a very, very, long peace. There has not been a hot war like this one fought on western soil since the end of world war two. Until last Thursday, we had lived through the longest continuous period of piece in the west since the fall of the Roman Empire. The logical conclusion was that the new ideology – globalism – had stopped wars, where the old ideology – nationalism – had caused them.

This is, for example, the default claim of the EU, which will often state that it credits itself with the peace in Europe since 1945, though it seems to this writer illogical to imagine that but for Brussels, France and Germany would be at each other’s teeth with tanks and missiles. Nevertheless, that is the claim.

What the past couple of years have shown us, though, is that nationalism is not dead, and, by and large, that we should be glad it is not. Nationalism binds people together in a way that the EU or the UN simply cannot. People are willing to die for Ukraine: a country, which, if we are honest, is not significantly different from any one of a hundred others. The centre of Kviv could be any capital city: It shares many branded stores with London and Dublin, and Paris, and Berlin. And yet, and yet, there are young men and women prepared to stand in front of tanks to save it.

That is nationalism. We have seen it in action elsewhere, too: For good or ill, the covid pandemic and the response to it was a nationalist response, almost everywhere. People were willing to make sacrifices in huge numbers for the good of the collective.

That, at the end of the day, is what nationalism is: The willingness to give yourself and your life for the country you call home, and feel part of, even though there is not really any cold or rational reason to do so. It is a sense of belonging to something greater than yourself, and wanting to achieve things together, as a people, rather than just as a person.

Like any ideology, nationalism run rampant is destructive: After all, Putin, too, is a nationalist, trying to make Russia great. But the people opposing him are not doing so for the west. They are opposing him for Ukraine – for their country. How many of them would be fighting this war for the EU, or for the UN?

Not a great many, you suspect.


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