earth

In a recent lecture on the war in the Ukraine, John Mearsheimer, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, noted that “nationalism” is the strongest ideology in the world today.

Having lived through the Cold War era, anything having to do with Russia, formerly the major part of the Soviet Union, was framed in the ideological context of “the struggle of the Free World/Democracies against Communist dictatorship,” etc. Yet, on reflection, I realized that with the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 Russia reverted to a capitalist state even if now headed by an authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin. Thus, Mearsheimer’s identification of nationalism as a key factor behind Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was not as surprising as it initially seemed.

Mearsheimer’s insight led to a new line of enquiry on my part, for I wanted to understand just what role nationalism has played, and is playing, in shaping the world we live in.

As a first step in investigating this issue let us make sure we all know what the term “nationalism” refers to. According to Merriam-Webster, nationalism is: “Loyalty and devotion to a nation, especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one’s nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.”

Building on this definition, the Encyclopedia Britannica adds that “nationalism is an ideology based on the premise that the individual’s loyalty and devotion to the nation-state surpasses other individual or group interests.” Further, “Nationalism is a modern movement. Throughout history people have been attached to their native soil, to the traditions of their parents, and to established territorial authorities, but it was not until the end of the 18th century that nationalism began to be a generally recognized sentiment molding public and private life and one of the great, if not the greatest, single determining factors of modern history.”

If I have any criticism of the above definitions it is that they don’t go back far enough in time since anthropologists tell us we homo sapiens have been on this planet for at least 200,000 years if not longer. As hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were unable to live independently and thus formed bands, the simplest form of human society. A band generally consisted of a small kin group with a maximum size of 30 to 50 people.

In time, these bands joined together to form tribes composed of clans based on shared blood lineage. Inevitably, the tribal languages that developed identified one’s own tribe and its members as “humans” and “special” while other tribal people’s were inferior “others” and potential “enemies.” Fellow tribal members deserved to be treated ethically, i.e. stealing, cheating, etc. were forbidden, while for members of other tribes “anything goes.”

While these attitudes may not have become hardwired into the DNA of we modern humans, we can certainly see the traces of these attitudes in the practice of slavery of the ‘other’, serfdom of ‘inferiors’, and organized warfare. These practices all came about following the time when we humans were said to have become “civilized” some 10,000+ years ago. The question is, how much has our past tribal-rooted nature changed since we human beings came into possession of the power to destroy both the ‘enemy’ and ourselves in an instant?

While, as noted above, “nationalism” is a relatively new phenomenon, I suggest its roots lie in hundreds of thousands of years of human history. Recognizing this gives some indication of just what we are up against when we seek to change the nature of human interactions, especially between nations, or better said, “large tribes.”

If can certainly be argued that aside from the great injustices many of our past ancestors were subjected to, great progress has been made in attempting to create a more just society, a fairer and more equitable world. But is there sufficient time to continue this struggle given that the twin human-created calamities of nuclear warfare and climate change threaten the very habitability of the planet that our species has long called home, in fact, the only home we have?

If I were asked this question, my honest answer is that “I don’t know.” Anyone, of whatever nationality, gender, ethnic group or religion who attempts to work in an era of nation states for the benefit of all human beings will inevitably be called and treated as “unpatriotic” at best and “traitor” at worse, especially in times of war. Those who advocate transcendence of the state to become citizens of planet earth, may very well face incarceration or even death at the hands of those who cling to the benefits and privileges they receive from the state as presently constituted.

Yet, if the human species is to survive, let alone thrive, do we have a choice? As a theoretical construct, it is possible to imagine a time will come when nations, if only for their own survival, will be willing to work constructively and peacefully with other states. Yet, can we honestly imagine a world in which “national interests” are curtailed for the sake of the greater good of all?

No doubt it is important, at least in the interim, to reorganize and strengthen international organizations like the United Nations. Yet, we should recognize we cannot look to them for the ultimate solutions to the many problems humanity faces today. This is because nations by their very nature are inevitably and irrevocably stuck in the realm of collective selfishness, i.e. in the realm of “my country first.”

This is not to deny that ‘enlightened self-interest’ is possible nor that the pursuit of ‘win-win’ situations isn’t far better than naked self-interest. Nevertheless, because nations, like tribes, are far more concerned with their own well-being rather than that of other nations, we must work for the creation of organizations like “United Humanity” or even more inclusively, “United Citizens of Planet Earth,” always seeking to promote and protect the wellbeing of all without limitation, favor or distinction.

Whereas this may well seem no more than a utopian dream, it is also becoming clearer by the day that as Martin Luther King, Jr. so presciently realized, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” More recently, on 18 July 2022, UN Secretary General António Guterres told the ministers of forty countries meeting to discuss the climate crisis: “We have a choice. Collective action or collective suicide.”

Thus, even at the level of individual self-interest, it is clear that collaboration by all, for the benefit of all, is the only way humanity has a chance of surviving on this rapidly warming planet of limited resources, still living under the ever present danger of nuclear war and the possible extinction of the human species. While the emergence of the nation state, and accompanying nationalism, may have played a constructive role in terms of superseding the narrow confines of the tribe, it, too, has now become part of the problem, not part of the solution. It is time to move on (or face the consequences – the end of our species).

Brian Victoria, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies


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