21 March 1986 - 23 March 1986

Nationalism in Modern Politics: Cement or Corrosive

Chair: Mr Brian Urquhart MBE

Just before Easter, on the weekend 21-23 March, the Foundation tackled a subject which was less specific, more general and therefore perhaps more difficult than the usual run of subjects. The title was ’Nationalism in modern politics: cement or corrosive?' The idea for the conference was originally put forward by a group of lecturers at the London School of Economics. They were inclined to want an academic gathering, but Ditchley needed a more practical, policy-oriented approach. In the end there was heavy representation from the academic world round the table, but the focus was on current international affairs rather than on history. Nationalism forms part of every international problem which is discussed at Ditchley. The task on this occasion was to see if it could be isolated as a subject in itself and fruitfully analysed.

The chair was taken by Mr Brian Urquhart, who had retired a month or so earlier from his post as Under-Secretary General for Political Affairs at the United Nations Organisation. His forty years at the centre of the UN's activities had equipped him with the most varied experience possible of the flux of nationalisms in the world, but even he approached the task of analysing it with some hesitation. The number of US participants was low - only seven crossed the Atlantic on this occasion - but it was of high quality. The spread of countries represented was relatively wide - Canada, Germany, Japan, Sweden, Mexico, Yugoslavia and Israel and experts on Middle Eastern, Latin American and Asian affairs from the US and Britain. Somewhat more participants than usual had to leave early for one reason or another, so that a conference which was not large numerically finished up by being unusually small. This was a pity. But the quality of the participants compensated for the fall in numbers.

A question of definition arose at the outset. What is nationalism? It was rapidly accepted that it could take many forms and could generate both good and evil things. It had its roots in national and ethnic consciousness. As a major political factor in the world it dated back some two hundred years to the time of the French Revolution, blending from then onwards with older loyalties such as patriotism. Its rise was closely linked with the growth of democracy, with the eclipse of the old, isolated, uncultured peasantry, and the access increasingly enjoyed by the broad masses of people to the high culture of their societies. It was a political force and the forms it took were shaped by political leaders for their own purposes; but once roused it tended to have a momentum of its own and political leaders could not control it with precision.

Nationalism began in the 19th century as a European phenomenon and its great achievements were the creation of the German and Italian nation states. Its great disasters in Europe were the two world wars. With the collapse of the European empires, nationalism had spread to other continents as a means of trying to bind together the populations of new countries which were ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse, often divided by religion, and whose frontiers had been arbitrarily determined by the accidents of colonial expansion. In many cases this cementing process was now slowly succeeding, aided by the general acceptance under the UN Charter that frontiers should not be changed by force. But nationalism was simultaneously working as a corrosive as minority races and divided ethnic groups demanded their ’rights', with fissiparous consequences. Forms of parliamentary government and decentralisation offered the best hope of withstanding the corroding effects and helping the cementing ones. But there was no adequate international machinery for coping with the frictions between newly-formed and growing nation states. The western European countries had now, belatedly, found a way of overcoming their national rivalries, and east-west tension across Europe was being managed to some extent; but, having allowed its own nationalisms to explode in war in the past, Europe was not very well qualified to preach to younger nationalists elsewhere.

There were admonitions from participants with a deep sense of history to remember that the nation-state had had only a brief existence and would not necessarily endure as the dominant state form. The technological and economic pressures in the world now tended to favour more international forms. Human loyalties were diverse and subject to evolution and would not necessarily be focussed indefinitely on the nation. The complexity of the racial, linguistic and religious mixes in other continents (and even in parts of Europe, e.g. the Balkans) was such that a simple national cement might be found not to be the answer to the problems of the new countries there. Many of the participants, especially those from newer countries, drew attention to the greater importance of economic development and prosperity as a social cement.

There was a good deal of discussion of the links between nationalism and the use of force. Nationalism fed on its myths and in many cases flourished by having enemies. But, as with other aspects of the subject, it became clear that it was impossible to generalise. Both defeat and victory were capable of nourishing nationalism: it depended on the political consequences of both, on the extent to which political capital could be made out of the consequences of an event or situation.

The comparative discussion of specific cases (that most homogeneous society Japan, China, "Soviet man", Germany, the Arabs, Israel, the Latin American states, the immigrant society of the United States) was in many ways the most interesting feature of the conference. Some of that should come out in the full report of the conference. For all those present it was very much a mind-clearing experience, leaving them not so much with new wisdom about nationalism itself as with new insights on the combinations of forces which are at work in the world as a whole and in the regions and countries which they particularly study.

This Note reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference.  No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Conference Chairman: Mr Brian Urquhart MBE
Scholar in Residence, The Ford Foundation, New York; Member, the Advisory Council, the American Ditchley Foundation


The Rt Hon the Lord Beloff Kt FBA FRHist FRSA

Life Peer (Conservative); Professor Emeritus of Government and Public Administration, Oxford University, and Emeritus Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford
Dr David Butler
Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford
Dr Raymond Carr FBA
Warden and Fellow, St Antony’s College, Oxford
Professor Ernest Gellner FBA
William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology, Cambridge University; Professorial Fellow, King’s College, Cambridge; Member, Council, Economic and Social Research Council; Co-Editor, Government and Opposition (Journal)
Mr Peter Jenkins
Political Columnist, The Sunday Times
Mr James Mayall
Department of International Relations, London School of Economics
Sir Anthony Meyer MP
(Conservative), Clwyd North West; Chairman, Franco-British Parliamentary Relations Committee
Mr Edward Mortimer
Freelance Writer; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford; a Member, Programmes Committee, the Ditchley Foundation
Sir Anthony Parsons GCMG MVO MC
Research Fellow, University of Exeter; Board Member, British Council
Sir Alfred Sherman
Leader Writer, The Daily Telegraph; Public Affairs Adviser
Dr Anthony Smith
Reader in Sociology, London School of Economics
Dr John Stone
Reader, Department of Social Administration, Goldsmiths’ College, University of London; Associate Fellow, St Antony’s College, Oxford; Chief Editor, Ethnic and Racial Studies; Vice President, ISA Research Committee on Ethnic, Racial and Minority Relations
Mr Christopher Tugendhat
Chairman of the Council, The Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House; Chairman Designate, Civil Aviation Authority; a Governor and Member of the Council of Management, the Ditchley Foundation
Mr David Watt
Joint Editor, Political Quarterly; a Governor and Member of the Programmes Committee of the Ditchley Foundation
Mr Robert Worcester
Chairman and Managing Director, Market & Opinion Research International (MORI); Consultant to The Times, Sunday Times and The Economist;  Member, Programmes Committee of the Ditchley Foundation

The Hon Stephen Lewis

Ambassador and Permanent Representative, Canadian Mission to the United Nations; Fellow, Ryerson Polytechnical Institute, Toronto

Dr Peter Alter

Deputy Director, German Historical Institute, London; Senior Lecturer in History, University of Cologne
Herr Thomas Kielinger
Editor-in-Chief, Rheinischer Merkur, Bonn
Professor Dr Michael Stürmer
Institut für Geschichte, University of Erlangen

Professor Sammy Smooha

Associate Professor of Sociology, and Chairman, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Haifa; Director of the Arabs in Israel Section, The Jewish-Arab Center, University of Haifa

Professor Takatoshi Imada

Associate Professor of Sociology, Center for Humanities and Social Science, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Tokyo; Member, Executive Committee, Study Group on Comparative Public Opinion, IPSA

Dr Jorge Casta
Senior Associate, Mexico, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC; Political Correspondent, PROCESO, Le Monde Diplomatique, and Radio Canada

HE Mr Anders Thunborg

Ambassador, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Stockholm

Professor Fouad Ajami

Director, Middle East Studies, School of Advanced International Studies, the Johns Hopkins University; Foreign Affairs Columnist, The New York Times
Professor Walker Connor
John R Reitemeyer Professor of Political Science, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut
Professor Joseph Nye Jr
Professor of Government, Kennedy School, Harvard University; Member, Trilateral Commission, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Dr Thomas Ragle
Director, Salzburg Seminar, Salzburg, Austria; President Emeritus, Marlboro College, Vermont;
Professor Riordan Roett
Professor of Political Science and Director of Latin American Studies Program, The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Washington, DC; Political Risk Consultant, Chase Manhattan Bank; Founding Member, International Economic Analysis Inc; Member, Council on Foreign Relations
Professor Elspeth Rostow
Stiles Professor of American Studies, and Professor, LBJ School of Public Affairs and Department of Government, University of Texas
Professor Robert Scalapino
Robson Research Professor of Government, Political Science Department, and Director, Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California at Berkeley; Editor, Asian Studies; Member, Board of Directors, Council on Foreign Relations
Professor Arthur Schlesinger Jr
Albert Schweitzer Professor of the Humanities, City University of New York

Dr Branislav Vukovic

Assistant Director, Administration for International Cooperation, Belgrade; Research Fellow, Institute for Political Studies; Member, Commission for International Relations of the SAW