“The war in Ukraine is not only a military event; it’s an intellectual event. The Ukrainians are winning not only because of the superiority of their troops. They are winning because they are fighting for a superior idea — an idea that inspires Ukrainians to fight so doggedly, an idea that inspires people across the West to stand behind Ukraine and back it to the hilt.
That idea is actually two ideas jammed together. The first is liberalism, which promotes democracy, individual dignity, a rule-based international order.
The second idea is nationalism. Volodymyr Zelensky is a nationalist. He is fighting not just for democracy but also for Ukraine — Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian land, the Ukrainian people and tongue. The symbol of this war is the Ukrainian flag, a nationalist symbol.
There are many people who assume that liberalism and nationalism are opposites. Liberalism, in their mind, is modern and progressive. It’s about freedom of choice, diversity and individual autonomy. Nationalism, meanwhile, is primordial, xenophobic, tribal, aggressive and exclusionary.
Modern countries, by this thinking, should try to tamp down nationalist passions and embrace the universal brotherhood of all humankind. As John Lennon famously sang, “Imagine there’s no countries/ It isn’t hard to do/ Nothing to kill or die for/ And no religion too.”
Those people are not all wrong. Nationalism has a lot of blood on its hands. But it has become clear that there are two kinds of nationalism: the illiberal nationalism of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, and the liberal nationalism of Zelensky. The former nationalism is backward-looking, xenophobic and authoritarian. The latter nationalism is forward-looking, inclusive and builds a society around the rule of law, not the personal power of the maximum leader. It’s become clear that if it is to survive, liberalism needs to rest on a bed of this kind of nationalism.
Nationalism provides people with a fervent sense of belonging. Countries don’t hold together because citizens make a cold assessment that it’s in their self-interest to do so. Countries are held together by shared loves for a particular way of life, a particular culture, a particular land. These loves have to be stirred in the heart before they can be analyzed by the brain.”