A common way of understanding the changes rocking politics around the world today is as a conflict between nationalists and internationalists, a.k.a. "global elites." That is certainly how the nationalists prefer to frame things. They claim to be standing up for their historic nations against an ideology of globalism and a class of rapacious international financiers, busy-bodying supra-national bureaucrats, and billionaire do-gooders threatening to enslave or destroy them.
But the national interest — even as understood by the nationalists themselves — is often quite distinct from what nationalist sentiment demands. And as it becomes clearer and clearer how those nationalists are themselves being played as pieces in a larger game, states may start to wise up to the risks of throwing in with the "nationalist international" that may (or may not) be slouching towards Bethlehem to be born.
Consider, as an example, the widening row between Greece and Russia.
Among EU and NATO members, Greece has long been the most friendly to Russia's perspective in foreign affairs. It's not just that Athens is united with Moscow by historic religious ties; it's also that Greece has chafed for years under the austerity imposed by the European Central Bank. The current Greek government has ample reason to want to play Moscow against Brussels and Berlin, and has demonstrated it by refusing to join other EU countries in sanctioning Russia for its intervention in Ukraine and its sponsorship of assassinations on British soil.
But now Greece has expelled two Russian diplomats and banned two others from entering the country, accusing them of fomenting violence against the recent agreement with Greece's northern neighbor to change the name of that country to the Republic of North Macedonia.
If that sounds like a funny thing for Russia — or even Greece — to care about, it isn't if you are attuned to nationalist sentiments. Athens demanded the name change because Greece has a province of its own called Macedonia, and wanted to ensure that its neighbor harbored no irredentist claims to that territory. Skopje had long objected that it was no business of anybody else's what their country was called; indeed, under the previous government, it actively stoked Greek fears. But NATO and the EU refused to advance the small Balkan republic for membership until the dispute was resolved, and this ultimately provided the necessary incentive for compromise and conciliation.
The prospect of further NATO expansion in the Balkans is precisely what drew Moscow, however, to recalcitrant nationalists on both sides of the border. In North Macedonia specifically, Russia has nurtured a "United Macedonia" party seemingly tailor-made to make peace with Greece impossible. Russia has also cozied up to right-wing Greek nationalists, potentially threatening the current government despite its prior support for Moscow's line. Athens is braced for further consequences in the wake of the expulsions.
Greece's national interests are best served by peaceful relations with its neighbors. But those peaceful relations are themselves underwritten by transnational structures that put them in the crosshairs of conflicting powers.
Now consider, as another example, the parlous state of Brexit negotiations.
Brexit was sold as a necessary step to reclaiming British sovereignty, a rebuke to a distant European bureaucracy that would never take British interests as seriously as the British would themselves. While the short-term economic consequences of leaving are growing downright alarming — largely because Britain turns out to have no leverage to negotiate a favorable departure arrangement — nationalists might still claim that in the fullness of time sovereignty will be vindicated. And anyway, man does not live by bread alone.
But there's one area where it's already plain that Brexit and the national interest, at least as nationalists understand it, are diametrically opposed, and that's with respect to the situation in Northern Ireland. So long as Britain remains in the European Union, there is effectively no border between the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom. But if Britain leaves the EU there will need to be a border somewhere. But where?
Theresa May's government has understandably rejected out of hand the idea of putting the border between the two main British Isles, as that would formally separate Northern Ireland from the rest of Great Britain. But the EU has equally understandably rejected the idea of erecting an entirely new bureaucracy to handle the customs implications of an open border in Ireland; if the EU was insufficiently sensitive to British concerns when Britain remained a member, why would they be more sensitive to facilitate their leaving?
But if Britain winds up with a hard border with Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement that has kept the peace for the past 20 years could be imperiled. While a return of violence seems hard to imagine now, it's not beyond the realm of possibility. And even without a return of the Troubles, a botched Brexit leading to political paralysis over Northern Ireland could spur Scottish nationalism.
Membership in the EU undoubtedly impinged on British sovereignty, perhaps in ways worth paying a stiff price to remedy. But in seeking to regain its sovereignty, Britain has put its own territorial integrity and inter-communal peace at risk — precisely the things that those who truly care about the British nation should care most about.
And of course Russia was active in supporting the Brexit campaign as well.
My point is not to join those painting Russia as a diabolical villain with a mysterious ability to mesmerize Western peoples into colossal folly. Russia is just doing what's in its own national interest, and its efforts only find purchase where national sentiments and anxieties have already been stoked by real factors.
Rather, my point is that it is past time for opponents of a narrow-minded nationalism to use language that speaks to those sentiments, if in a less-sentimental fashion, and to call the nationalists on their romanticism, self-aggrandizement, and corrupt infatuation with being part of something beyond the national interest — and often in direct conflict with it.