Role of Nationalism in 21st Century: A Critical Analysis

Nationalism is a dynamic concept that has evolved with the passage of history and adopted according to the changing conditions it confronted. It refers to the ideology that membership of a particular nation confers people with political identity, leading to the demand for self-determination. 


Two main types of it include ethnic nationalism which is based on ethnicity and civic nationalism which talks about adhering to traditional liberal values such as equality, rights, and freedoms. It can be either state strengthening or state subverting in nature.


Just upon the end of the 20th Century, the world saw a dramatic chain of events that altered the world order in numerous ways. After several decades of superpower competition, Cold War came to an end, plunging the world from bipolarity to unipolarity and leading to the creation of several nation-states in the process. This shift led to a rise in state-subverting nationalism. Moreover, the rise of digitalism and the internet fostered global connectedness and other deregulations of previously government-held aspects provided new prospects for the rise of nationalism. 


In the subsequent years, ethnic nationalism arose in the territories of the former USSR and Yugoslavia. In order to counter this, new states’ formation took place on ethnic lines rather than simple demarcations which led to concerns about minority rights in the newly established states, consequently leading to ethnonational violence in many parts of the world. However, this increase in ethnic nationalism also prompted foreign interventions involving Inter-Governmental Organizations such as the UN, military alliances such as NATO, individual states, and NGOs. No interventions of this sort were seen during the cold war because it was thought to be contradicting the principle of state sovereignty however they became the norm in the offset of the 21st century. However, most of them were for reasons other than the protection of ethnic minorities and hence they also led to the development of more nationalism.


After the initial phase of the emergence of new states from the erstwhile Soviet Union, the international community reacted at state-subverting ethnic nationalism in order to prevent state break-up. However, nationalism also adapted to the changing world and started to focus more on cultural recognition rather than political independence. The interventions in the current century that come as a result of violent conflicts are most often justified in universalist terms while in the World Wars, minority rights were the main reasons and the principle of state sovereignty blocked any intervention. 


Another phenomenon that resurfaced in the 21st century was the rise of populist leaders inspired by radical ideas of cultural nationalism. Donald Trump rose to power with a clear white-supremacist voter base in the US, promising to “Make America Great Again”. While on the other hand, Narendra Modi from the ultra-nationalist BJP was elected in India with his entire campaign based on his beliefs of Hindu nationalism and turning India into a “Hindu Rashtra”. 


In both these cases, a radical variant of nationalism was seen taking the reins while appeasing their voter base and subverting other ethnicities. Moreover, the issue of Kurdistan still remains in limbo and is expected to remain in the same manner as a state-forming nationalism for them is at the same time state-subverting for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey.


Therefore, it can be said that Nationalism is here to stay as an important part of domestic as well as global politics. Though it will keep evolving and adapting according to different situations and circumstances, it is here to stay in the 21st century similar to the way it has been there in the earlier eras.

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Saadain Gardezi

Written by Saadain Gardezi

Saadain Gardezi is a Editor & Director Research at Global Affairs. He is a graduate in the field of Strategic Studies, from National Defence University Islamabad. He tweets at @saadain.gardezi & can be reached at

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