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Nationalism in International Relations Essay

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Updated: Apr 16th, 2020


While advancing the concerns of international relations, harnessing different perspectives of nationalism held by people who come from different nations is critical in fostering a long lasting peace in the international arena. Nationalism refers to the strong political ideology or creed that identifies certain groups of persons to particular nations. Nationalism can be introspected from two main theoretical paradigms: primordialist and modernist.

The primordialist paradigm “describes nationalism as a reflection of the ancient and perceived evolutionary tendency of humans to organise into distinct groups based on affinity of birth” (Ozkirimli 2010, p.11). In this perspective, a nation is described by geographical boundaries engulfing a group of people coming from single or multi-ethnic backgrounds who believe that they were born and brought up within the region.

Such people have the sovereign rights to protect the territorial integrity of the regions. Where such integrity is broken, different nations are split down into different smaller nations. The need to avoid splitting the nations underlines the relevance of advancement of international relations discourses to ensure that states remain united as single entities.

To accomplish this goal, international relations aims at appreciating affairs among states by singling out any possible cause of alarm in a bid to establish the measures to employ to curb the alarm. However, the discipline of international relations has gone a step beyond this goal to handle global welfare of nations and state conduct.

Modernists’ paradigm describes “nationalism as a recent phenomenon that requires the structural conditions of modern society in order to exist” (Malesevic 2006, p. 21). In this extent, nations may be interpreted as being limited by people who are bound by a single religious identity, identity groups, and or cultural hegemony (Brubaker 1996). It underlines the perception that people from different nations live together in a single state.

Within the state, all persons including the minority groups should be permitted to exercise and express their national identity. The goal is to prevent the emergence of conflict between persons having different interpretations of what it means to belong to particular states. This concern is central to the international relations as it aims at ensuring that nations remain stable.

Given this interplay of international relations and nationalism, this paper examines the view that nationalism has been and continues to be the most significant force in international relations. To achieve these concerns, the paper first considers the epistemology of international relations followed by the epistemology of nationalism. It will then show how nationalistic aims fit into the view being explored based on these two epistemologies.

Epistemology of International Relations in Relation to Nationalism

The term international relation is deployed to mean collective interactions existing between international communities. These communities include nations, individuals, and even states (Nau 2008). The discourses of international relations are advanced from two main theoretical paradigms: positivist and the post-positivist views.

The positivists’ theories attempt to look into the manner in which the relations between nations are shaped from the basis of analysing the effects of material forces in shaping the animosity between nations (Roskin & Nicholas 2009, p.41). Natural science methodologies are used to realise this endeavour.

The main features of the positivists include evaluation of mechanisms of state interactions, power balance, and even military sizes of different nations in an effort to show how they help some nations to exercise supremacy over other nations. Post-positivist paradigm argues that a social science world is impossible to study from value-free and objective approach.

In this extent, the post-positivist nullifies the perception and ideas that liberalism ideologies such as rational choice theory can exhaustively be used to explain international relations (Mingst & Arreguín 2010). The implication of this argument is that scientific methodologies are inadequate and or cannot be used altogether to provide an explanation of the social world. Therefore, international relations science is impossible.

Amid the opposing views of the two approaches into international relations, the two theoretical paradigms are instrumental in the discussion of the relationships between nations and or how the relationships are shaped up. From the positivists’ approach, while attempting to analyse how nationalism discourses are articulated to the international relations discourses, causal explanations of how, why, and who exercises power in a nation are crucial.

The explanations are offered by the positivist paradigm through its sub–theoretical facets such as neo-realism. To accomplish this goal, it is important to develop a clear understanding of constitutive interrogatives such as the constituent of power, its meaning, mechanism of its production, and even how it can be experienced (Nau 2008, p.57). These aspects are the main subjects of the positivist theoretical paradigm approach to international relations.

Arguably, nationalism is shaped by adherence to common values and norms, which are perceived as binding persons who live in a single state. Consequently, it is possible that national understanding and harmony between people belonging to one single nation would be impaired in case some people within a nation breach or violate the values and norms that are characteristic of people living within a specific nation.

In this context, the underlying principle for driving international understanding is seeking mechanisms of acting ethically towards one another by respecting other people’s values, beliefs, and culture.

However, “by considering ethics, post-positivist theories explicitly promote a normative approach to IR” (Roskin & Nicholas 2009, p.43) since they are an epistemological constituent of international relations. Therefore, IR discourses remain dependent on the perspectives of nationalism for them to attain the principal functions for which they are intended.

Epistemology of Nationalism in Relation to International Relations

In studying international relations, it is of paramount importance to establish social structures that characterise different people and which must be protected from being interfered with by other people in order to maintain international understanding.

This concern makes the modernist approach to nationalism crucial in that it “describes nationalism as a recent phenomenon that requires the structural conditions of modern society in order to exist” (Malesevic 2006, p.19). For instance, a structural condition such as religious affiliation may define nationalism of different groups of people. A good case example is where Islam is the religion of state in Iran, for instance.

In such a situation, Iranians would perceive their nationalism integrity as being interfered with when the practice of Islam is interfered with by persons from the rest of the nations in the world (Walter & Sen 2010: Warner & Buckley 2010). Such interference may result in breach of harmonious international relations between Iran and the interfering nations.

In the studies of international relations, looking at nationalism from the paradigm of primodialist is also important. From this paradigm, nationalism is principally a depiction of the perceived and ancient evolutionary ability of people to organise themselves into different groups that are peculiarly defined by their birth affinity (Motyl 2001, p.251).

People would tend to defend the geographical regions in which they perceive the whole society they associate with was born. Endeavouring to defend such regions from foreign intrusion for material gain or any other gain is an incredible catalyst for deterioration of international peace, which is one of the concerns of the discipline of international relations as indicated earlier.

Where states become divided into different parts in terms of the four basic components that define a state (citizenry, administration, land, and dominion) with one part supporting the foreign intruders while the other part resists the intruders, it is likely that the whole state would be split into different states along the disagreement lines.

Conception of people’s nationalism from the two theoretical approaches to nationalism is based on the universal acceptance of various levels of a group or individual levels that promote a common interest and national identity. The first level is defined by an inter-group level. In this level, “humans respond to competition or conflict by organising into groups to either attack other groups or defend their group from hostile groups” (Motyl 2001, p.18).

In the second level, the intra-group stage, different persons are able to acquire competitive lead via uniting to secure goods that can only be obtained through a combined exertion. Impairing or intervening in such cooperation raises the animosity between people within one nation because a nation would define the intra-group coming together to develop collectively.

In the last level, the individual level, “self-interested concerns over personal fitness by individuals either consciously or subconsciously motivate the creation of group formation as a means of security” (Motyl 2001, p.18). Attempts to dismantle the formed group necessitate the need to defend the group from being disintegrated.

Consequently, it sounds imperative to infer that nationalism cannot be separated from the international relation discourses since international relations as a subject handles the conducts and interests of different states around the globe other than addressing the issue of peace.

Nationalism in the Sphere of International Relations Discourses

Possession of strong ideologies of nationalism by citizens of a given nation creates a perception that people must protect what is theirs and or resist any external force attempting to alter the status quo. This case opens nationalism to criticism questions. Do adherence to the spirit of nationalism established within a given nation resort to hiking war risks among citizens, which may solicit for the splitting of states into smaller states?

If the response is yes, how and which perspective of nationalism possesses the highest probability of triggering conflicts between people within a nation? Scholars in the discipline of international relations have attempted to provide a response to this interrogative from different approaches.

Gretchen (2012) laments, “many scholars assume that nationalism is inherently aggressive without systematically exploring the relationship between nationalism and interstate war initiation” (p.825). The scholar further continues to posit that nationalism affiliations through nationalist movements form fertile grounds for the establishment of means that can promote clashes.

In this regard, nationalism campaigns subvert the endeavours of the international relations to enhance mutual international understanding between nations for peaceful coexistence of international communities. It accomplishes this mission by provoking ‘national enemies’ coupled with foreign allies who generate some strategic assumptions justifying conflicts among citizens within a given nation.

For instance, several wars that have been declared on the Islamic nations including Iran by the west and its allies have been predominantly instigated by continued perception of nationalism insisting on the needs of enacting their independency through empowering themselves militarily with weapons of mass destruction.

Indeed, when national enemies are provoked, “domestic interest groups that favour war permit the suppression of opposition groups, and promote nationalist bidding wars”” (Gretchen 2012, p.852). When this case happens, nationalism incredibly hikes the chances of initiation of conflicts among citizens in nations (Robert, Ross & Zhu 2008).

In the global arena, this situation is perhaps exemplified by the Iraq and Iran war in which the two nations fought over supremacy of their nations instigated by the nationalistic interest to control the Gulf region. Such individualistic interests undermine interdependence of nations as a fundamental principle on which the international relations discourse rests.

In fact, “current international system is characterised by growing interdependence, the mutual responsibility, and dependency on others” (Melenikov 2009, p.189).

Given that positive international relations are dependent on the nature of nationalism ideology adopted by people in a given state, and that international political and economic interaction are essential for enhancing the interdependency of nations, international cooperation remains a nightmare without harmonisation of nationalism and international relations.

Nationalism has been and continues to be the most significant force in international relations. Without appreciation of the elements that define people’s nationalism, it becomes enormously hard to prescribe a means of integrating different norms and values for people from different nations (Anderson 2003, p.37).

As discussed before in the previous sections, these norms and values classify people as belonging to a particular nation and hence are central to perceptions of nationalism. Breaching of these norms and values amounts to animosity between nations, which international relations endeavour to prevent (Ozkan 2012, p.198: Lowell 2012, Para. 2).

Consequently, the aspect of international relations cannot stand by its own without the force of nationalism. This position can best be explained by considering a case example in which states perceive their interests as being susceptible to threats due to foreign circumstances that define and influence people’s perceptions of nationalism capability.

These factors include diplomatic influence capability, economic influence, political, and military influence (Heywood 2000, p. 256). In this context, China is perhaps one of the outstanding nations, which may explain the dependency and impact of international relations on nationalism, and vice versa, based on evident strides it has been able to make in terms of its economy and governance.

In the recent past, China has experienced an incredible growth both socially and economically. Although this growth has benefited the Chinese people in terms of their perception of their national capacity to engage in bargains with the developed nations in terms of control of the world, other nations feel threatened.

For instance, Roy (2013) argues, “in the face of a rising China, the most fundamental concern of Asia pacific governments is how a stronger China affects their own security” (p.1). In the wake of such worries, it is arguable that strengthening nationalism of the Chinese people is an imminent threat to its neighbours.

Thus, it is likely that the nations that are feeling threatened will likely adopt strategic measures to ensure that the growth of China will not subvert their political and economic identities that are central to the construction of their nationalism.

The consequences of such strategies influence international relations negatively. Roy (2013) contented with this argument by maintaining, “while China could achieve a reasonable amount of security and prosperity playing within the current international rules, there is a reason to expect China to use its expanding economic, military, and diplomatic influence to press neighbouring governments to conform to its wishes on political issues” (p.1).

However, it is paramount to note that the accounts of China’s historical perception that its regional order is the destiny of the Asia pacific region imply that China perceives itself as the rightful regional leader (Beeson & Broome 2010).

Although there are international relations’ pragmatic forces, which restrain aggressive behaviour of China in a big way such as the practical geopolitical forces, an enormous nationalistic pressure compels China through its top leadership to pursue confrontational foreign policies.

Such policies have the capacity to compromise international understanding between China and its neighbours (Breslin 2011, p.186). This argument infers that nationalism has been and will continue to be the most significant force in international relations.

Revisiting the case of China and or how its evolved nationalism due to growing economic and political power shapes up the relationship between international relations and nationalism, the rise of China is critical.

The rise may come in handy in the determination of whether the state’s policies would amount to violation of international values and norms advocated for by the international community through the international relations peace accord (Rucki 2011, p.335).

Pursuing aggressively the perception of the current capability of China that is helping to reshape the nation’s nationalism would mean that China would deploy all alternatives within its disposal to ensure that it seizes control of the Asian pacific region. In turn, this strategy amounts to threatening the security situation of all other nations within the Asian pacific region.

However, the security of the regions will largely depend on the “willingness and ability of the region to stand up to China’s demands” (Roy 2013, p.2). Even though China adheres to the international peace, it is hard to rule out that its growth and the associated constructed perception of nationalism will not put other neighbouring nations into dilemma.

The consequence of this case in terms of reshaping the international relations between China and her neighbours can also not be underestimated. In this regard, the view that nationalism has been and continues to be the most significant force in international relation remains valid.


As a discipline, international relations study looks for mechanisms of enhancing national interests and state conducts besides ensuring that the global community lives in peace with one another without conflicts in terms of territory, politics, and governance amongst others that may split states into smaller states. For this to happen, political regimes within nations need to embrace the norms and values of people belonging to different nations.

This paper argues that these norms and values, which define the political, economic, and the culture of people characterise people’s nationalism.

Nationalism and international relations are related since the attempts to defend people’s identities that characterise their perceptions of nationalism may enhance or destroy international relations between states that are caught up in the stalemate of conflicts of interest in terms of protection and guarding of national interests.

In defence to this position, the paper presented examples such as the cases of Iran and China describing how the two states’ perceptions of nationalism may influence international relations with their neighbours and even the international community at large. Through this discussion, the paper has held that nationalism has been and continues to be the most significant force in international relations.


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