The Vastly Exaggerated News about Nationalism’s Demise

PARIS: "Patriotism," Samuel Johnson once wrote, "is the last refuge of a scoundrel." The recent spat between Britain and the European Union over "mad cows" is evidence that nationalism can still provide cover for a variety of petty interests. But behind this silly season row lies a deeper issue: the renewed vitality of nationalism around the world.

The nation state, born in 19th century Europe, is not prepared to be confined to the dustbin of history as the 21st century dawns. France started and stopped its Pacific ocean nuclear tests without consulting anyone. Across Europe, skepticism about the benefits of the EU are growing as nationalist pressures mount. Disappointment, indeed, is particularly great among new EU members, prominently Austria.German public opinion balks at renouncing the D-mark in favor of a European currency.

Europe, however, is not alone in feeling the hot breath of renewed nationalist sentiments. Everywhere "globalization" affects ideas, mores, and hence, needs. Subcontracting by manufacturers in the third world gives rise to populist cries that the only way to protect developed country jobs is by backtracking on commitments to free international trade.

Economic forces are not the only cause for revitalized nationalisms. Because the real powers that shape daily life so often appear to be beyond their influence, let alone control, citizens everywhere are moved to form, or re-form, smaller communities through which they hope to make their voices heard. This instinct was a primary motive for the disintegration of the USSR, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, as well as Chechen and Kurdish separatism, and the resurgence of regionalist and ethnic factions in the last Indian elections.