Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressing the Lithuanian parliament during the Russo-Ukrainian war. Image credit: Presidential Office of Ukraine
It may seem counter-intuitive, but current events suggest that nationalism can save liberalism.
As Ukrainians assert their nationhood against Russian attempts to erase it, and democracies backslide into malaise and even authoritarianism, the odd couple of nationalism and liberalism are working in tandem in Ukraine to rejuvenate each other.
Two unlike things—say, tin and copper—can combine to create something new and better than the sum of their parts. An imperfect marriage of liberalism and nationalism, a tug-of-war between two flawed partners, may bring out the best in each.
Consider what I will call the “yearning moment” of 2022. A feeling most often associated with love, to yearn is to feel as if we’re on the brink of something better than the circumstances with which we are presented. To yearn is to desire something that is far, far away. Maybe we reach out our hands to grasp it, led by a lack of contentment—a simmering, uneasy feeling that what we have isn’t enough to fill us up. That we have choices, but that these choices aren’t enough.
Of course, eras other than ours were full of yearning for a better tomorrow, too. But as a young university student profoundly moved by the determination of the Ukrainian people to resist Putin’s invasion of their homeland, I am interested in our era in particular—an era defined by liberalism, globalization, and now a war for the survival of liberalism in Eastern Europe—because it is the era that will continually shape my generation.
From the virtually infinite amount of agency offered by liberalism to the cultural commodification resulting from capitalism’s byproduct, globalization, the young people of my generation yearn for more than our era offers.
Negative forms of nationalism—rooted in an oppositional “us” vs. “them” mentality—have already appeared as an answer to this yearning feeling. Most notoriously, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine presents a form of militaristic nationalism that recalls historic injustice. But Ukraine shows us what nationalism can and should—be something inclusive, unifying, and unabashedly liberal.
Ukraine inspires my generation—and so can liberal democracy, when infused with civic nationalism.
In speaking of “liberalism” here, I have in mind American political theorist Judith Shklar’s definition of liberalism as a political and moral philosophy distinguished by giving humanity many choices. Shklar ties liberalism to agency, writing that “every adult should be able to make as many effective decisions without fear or favor about as many aspects of her or his life as is compatible with the like freedom of every other adult.”
The choices offered by liberalism can be empowering. Self-determination is a beautiful, important thing. Yet, infinite choice can be infinitely unsatisfying—overwhelming in its options, and chaotic in its outcomes. Liberalism’s lack of positive guidelines for living life leaves people in darkness, without a compelling structural lens through which to view meaning, life, and happiness.
In the 1990s a consensus arose among elites in the West that as capitalism spread across the globe, liberal values would spread too. But this “end of history” thesis was not quite right; illiberal systems blended with capitalism in countries like China, Singapore, and Russia.
The global spread of market societies lifted millions out of poverty—but also led to widening inequality within many countries. Those left behind understandably fought back. The post-2008 financial crash backlash against globalization—particularly vehement in Western liberal countries—comes to mind, as does the accompanying rise of illiberal democracies in formerly liberal places like Hungary and Poland.
The rapid, unequal consequences of globalization tend to leave people behind, leading people to cry out for recognition of themselves and their cultures. Globalization creates less culturally distinct nations, and liberalism has not sufficiently helped protect the distinctiveness of culture. From language to music to art, globalization threatens to commodify the very things that make national culture unique, particular, and meaningful.
Like globalization, liberalism lays claim to universality—but its insistent neutrality and its self-assurance make this claim less compelling. By assuming that liberalism is the best of all possible worlds, the particularity and nuance of human experience are lost.
The paradox of infinite choice is that it overwhelms us and bores us at the same time.
There is no contentment when your choices seem to be endless. In this haze, liberalism without nationalism offers more of a blindfold than a flashlight, adding to the claustrophobia of tainted choice that is the twenty-first century.
The example of Ukraine suggests that a liberal nationalism offers a way out.
The British sociologist Benedict Anderson famously defined the nation as an “imagined political community,” a community “both inherently limited and sovereign.” Nationalism is the expression of pride in one’s own imagined community. The nation is rich with meaning, inspiring passion where liberalism inspires neutrality. Nationalism gifts the world with shared values, goals, and art. A deeply emotional phenomenon, driven by the human desire to belong to a community and a greater cause, nationalism can bring out the best in humanity—and the worst.
When nationalism builds a sense of solidarity out of an invented history, it may divide rather than unite. Perhaps the best contemporary example of this duality within nationalism is the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Vladimir Putin is an extreme Russian nationalist who, in his own words, describes Russians and Ukrainians as “a single people.” By seeing Russians and Ukrainians as “a single people,” Putin disregards the deep linguistic, cultural, and historical differences between Russia and Ukraine.
Indeed, Putin’s own expansionist, imperialist Russkiy mir (the “Russian world”) ideology asserts Russian dominance over regions of Ukraine that contain Russian speakers, in order to create and defend a Russian civilizational identity. This ideology contradicts the traditional idea of the Westphalian system that has governed international interactions for decades.
The Westphalian system holds that nation-states retain sovereignty over their own territory, whereas Russkiy mir justifies ignoring these borders in favor of Russian imperialism. Putin’s idea of nationalism harkens back to an era in which autocracies and empires could expand with impunity. Illiberal leaders like him champion backward-looking nationalism that runs roughshod over the self-determination of other nation-states.
His nationalistic rhetoric—oriented towards a glorified, manufactured past—has caused thousands of deaths and has displaced millions of civilians.
In sharp contrast to Russia’s imperialist style of nationalism, Ukraine shows the power of a future-facing, liberal, civic nationalism. Civic nationalism is citizen-led, inclusive, and representative—in contrast to nationalism led by demagogues or militarists.
There are some Ukrainian nationalists who espouse militaristic, narrow, and discriminatory forms of nationalism, similar to Putin. Yet, these blood and soil nationalists are far fewer in number than civic Ukrainian nationalists, led by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Ukrainian nationalists emphasize their rich, multi-ethnic culture against Russian attempts to erase their national identity. Ukrainian leaders explicitly tie this identity to positive, inclusive values that articulate Ukraine’s shared future in Europe. Ukrainian identity has been continually shaped and defended for centuries—but the current war presents a particularly stark reminder that liberal nationalism does not exist in a vacuum.
Zelenskyy has appealed to the European Union, asking for his country to be given immediate accession to the bloc of mostly liberal European member-states. “Our goal is to be with all Europeans,” he said. Ukraine’s civic, liberal nationalism—defended against Russian militarism—inspired multiple Eastern European countries to appeal to the EU on Ukraine’s behalf. These states called for “Ukraine’s swift candidacy to the EU.”
Zelenskyy rejects Putin’s strongman style of leadership in favor of an honest, approachable style that unites rather than divides. He leads a country committed to its liberal institutions, infusing them with civically nationalist values. These values of diversity, openness, and inclusivity strengthen pride in Ukraine’s unique national story and moment.
This identity is not only expressed politically; it is also expressed through Ukrainian poetry, music, and sport. Ukrainian poet Ihor Kalynets describes his work as “the consciousness of a subjugated nation, that wants to have its own country, and not to be the manure that fertilizes Russia.” Over decades, his work has articulated the depth of Ukrainian nationhood, emphasizing its differences from Russia. Censored by Soviet occupiers in the twentieth century, his work explores the richness of Ukrainian culture.
Similarly, Violinist Vera Lytovchenko performs impromptu concerts while sheltering from the Russian militants bombing Kharkiv. She plays Ukrainian folk songs to remind her compatriots of the valuable national culture, for which they would sacrifice their lives. “My music can show that we are still human. We need not just food or water. We need our culture,” she said.
As long as the national culture is inclusive, anyone can contribute to it; inclusive nationalism touches everyone, and everyone can touch it, too. Indeed, Ukrainian nationalism is inclusive of people who bring different national experiences to the culture. For example, boxer Wladimir Klitschko lived in what is now Kazakhstan and the Czech Republic—but he is still firmly Ukrainian, and is currently fighting for Ukraine.
Tragically, it took a war to so starkly present the world with an example of the anchoring spirit of civic nationalism. However, it would be foolish not to seize the moment presented to us by the moral character of Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian civic nationalists. Civic nationalism gives people something to hold onto, an aspirational set of values that are both shared and individual, personal and communal, inclusive and unique.
In our yearning moment, nationalism can fill liberalism’s void—a void left by valueless chaos and unfulfilling choices. It is time to follow Ukraine’s lead and forge a civic nationalism that inspires everyone to find their stake, their anchor, within the sea of globalization.
Nationalism without liberalism is repressive. And liberalism by itself is no longer enough.
Sophie Boulter is an incoming graduate student at the University of Cambridge, studying Politics and International Studies.