The Dangers of Western Nationalism Misplaced Cultural Relativism

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Nationalism is an ideology and social movement that has been a formative process of the international community. The spread of nationalism is a result of the transformation of the international relations system over the past two centuries, and is now the moral basis of states and of the international relations system. Exclusionary nationalism, the assertion of solely the best interest of each acting state, is on the rise globally (UNESCO 2018, 3). Through an analysis of Contract vs. Charity by Nancy Fraser and Lisa Gordon, and Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson, the dangers of nationalism are explored, and it is asserted that Western nationalist ideologies deter the ability to put cultural relativism into practice in international politics. As suggested by Hobbesian theory, harmony within and between states can be achieved at the cost of enforced integration, which emphasizes commonalities, as opposed to differences.

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In the article Imagined Communities, author Benedict Anderson discusses the cultural, political and technological environments that resulted in the rise of nationalism. Anderson suggests that because of these cultural roots, the ideology should be examined historically. His analysis proposes that nationalism should be more closely aligned with religion as opposed to politics, as it has cultural roots in religious decline and territorialization’ (Anderson 1991, 225). This includes the de-authorization of monarchies, and a shift in temporal philosophy (Anderson 1991, 225). Nationalism is considered to be an imagined political community [that is] both inherently limited and sovereign (Anderson 1991, 225). It is imagined’ because large populations cannot all know one another, limited’ because a community has finite boundariesno nation encompasses all of humankind, sovereign’ because it came into being during enlightenment, and considered a community’ because all citizens are seen as equals (Anderson 1991, 225).

Anderson goes on to explore the attachment that is imposed by nationalism, and it’s dangers. Nationalism is described as having roots in fear and hatred of the Other and as having affinities with racism (Anderson 1991, 229). This ethnocentrism can be seen today, as linguistic evolution has also facilitated new manifestations of imagined communities’. This can be seen in the conception of the terminologies of lesser developed’ vs. developed’ countries. This categorical system is determined based on the degree of traditionally Western’ state characteristics, such as level of democracy, degree of military power, level of economic prosperity etc. These attributes are not only associated with power’ as a result, but have also become a bases of comparison for determining the value and status of a state. The weight of the words derives only in part from their solemn meaning (Anderson 1991, 230). This classification causes these lesser developed’ countries to be overrepresented and outweigh non-Western countries within the international political decision-making process, and also reinforces cultural imperialist ties. Four of the five countries with absolute veto power in the Untied Nations are developed countriesChina, France, the U.S., and the U.K.

There are also new manners of communication within this century that serve to challenge the notion of nationalism being both imagined’ and limited’. Technological advances have created new global communication systems, as there is a new means of extending imagination’ beyond the borders of our country. There are of course countless benefits for these innovative advancements, however they also contribute to the shifting international political landscape and encourage the rise of Western nationalism in the international community. The validation of these dangers can be seen from the stunning victory of President Trump in the 2016 Election. The use of polarized news coverage and social media manipulation were direct causes for the rapid rise of nationalist views within the American community, and ultimately resulted in isolationism and xenophobia. As Hobbes suggests, there can be no peace without subjugation (1651).

        The basic buildings blocks of the state system are sovereignty and social contracts. Hobbes’ Social Contract Theory’ (1651) suggests that states need to renounce particular freedoms in order to secure and sustain citizenship. According to Hobbes, humanity’s inherent State of Nature’ is competition driven by self-interest. Therefore, without an absolutist power to counteract these inclinations, the result would be constant chaos (Hobbes 1651). This transfer of power becomes the commonwealth (Hobbes 1651). An all-powerful sovereignty is needed in order to enforce the commonwealth, as laws of nature go against humanity’s natural passions (Hobbes 1651). Contradicting opinions exist in large groups, thus peace can only be found through the submission to a sovereignty that relinquishes individual rights and ideas (Hobbes 1651). An all-powerful sovereign is needed to hold together divergences. However, according to Hobbesian theory, the sovereign authority would also be bound to the same agreement of the Nature of Humanity. If the State of Human Nature is driven by desires of self-interest, then this authority would also be subjugated to the abuse of their own power. Hobbes addresses the danger that is implemented by the Other, but not the danger that is faced from the authority that is set up to protect the state and it’s citizens.

These dangers of an absolutist authority, and the implications that absolutism can have, can be seen in recent affiliations of nationalism. Citizenship at the global level has become divided and alienated because of the recent rise of exclusionary nationalism. Cultural absolutism of Western cultures is being enforced onto Other nations, such as in Nancy Fraser and Lisa Gordon’s theory on the contract’ vs. charity’ dichotomy.

In the article Contract vs. Charity, Fraser and Gordon emphasize the dangers of the American nationalist mentality, and how this should be reconciled. The contract’ vs. charity’ dichotomy impedes social citizenship’an expression used to convey the idea that in a welfare state citizenship includes an entitlement to social provision and bring such social provision within the aura of dignity surrounding citizenship’ and rights’, (Fraser and Gordon 1998, 113). This is to mean that citizens should be recipients of rights, and not simply given charity. Fraser and Gordon suggest that social citizenship is not possible, because people can only legitimately earn a living through contractual interactions, and because of the stigma that is imposed on the receivers of charity (Fraser and Gordon 1998, 113). As a result, the idea of communal responsibility in the U.S., and abroad has deteriorated. U.S. political culture thus combines a richly elaborated discourse of civil citizenship’ with a near-total silence about social citizenship’, (Fraser and Gordon 1998, 114). The same can be said of the international community, this being one example of Western nationalism deterring cultural relativism. No decent welfare policy can emerge without a vision of honorable entitlement for those who require help, (Fraser and Gordon 1998, 115).

This notion of contract’ being more legitimate can be attributed to western cultural imperialism, and it being a democratic capitalist society. These ideologies are only more legitimate based on cultural context. Just as the idea of contract’ being more legitimate can be attributed to Western cultural imperialism, the same can be said of democratic, capitalist societies being superpowers. When capitalist, democratic institutions are seen as superior and its ideologies are imposed onto other nations, the question then becomes: democratic for whom? Standard conceptions of social citizenship are pervaded by androcentrism and ethnocentrism (Fraser and Gordon 1998, 115). As a result, this dichotomy of Western cultural imperialism vs. Other makes it difficult to put cultural relativism into practice. The cultural placement of contract and charity as opposing mechanisms, and the implication that contract is superior to communalism, negatively impacts the ability to exercise cultural relativity when regarding conflicts in other countries. The U.S. cannot impartially engage in international affairs without policy decisions being wavered by ethnocentrism. There is a fundamental lack of understanding and empathy within foreign policy.

The rise of nationalist perspectives has lasting implications for the international community. Hobbes’ Social Contract Theory’ asserts that an authoritative power is needed in order to counteract humanity’s blindness of its place in the state in relation to the global level (1651). The fundamental reason for our frequent failure to make the right kinds of policy choices in the world today stems from our continued refusal to see the planetary social system as a whole (Miller 1998, 14). However, there are still the dangers of an authoritative power at the international level that need to be considered. Fraser and Gordon’s dichotomy of contract’ vs. charity’ is only one instance of how Western nationalist imperialism deters the ability to put cultural relativism into practice in international politics. Thus, it is necessary to reimagine civil citizenship in a more solidaristic form that insists that there can be no democratic citizenship without social rights  (Fraser and Gordon 1998, 126). Perhaps a pluralistic, multi-ethnic, multi-religious state emerging from the Hobbesian tradition would be ideal, where pluralism is not cultivated but instead ethical universalism is fostered, and where diversity is not celebrated as strength to be exalted. It has become our differences that divide us.

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The Dangers of Western Nationalism Misplaced Cultural Relativism. (2020, Mar 23). Retrieved January 28, 2023 , from
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