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READ: Transnationalism and the Revival of Nationalism

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

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By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. How does national belonging and the world of nation-states complicate international sports competitions? Consider examples like Taiwan and Kosovo.
  2. Why did international and transnational ideas surge in the second half of the twentieth century?
  3. How has nationalism helped with postwar reconciliation in Rwanda?
  4. In the age of the nation-state, how has racially defined nationalism reemerged?
  5. How do definitions of national identity exclude some people from cultural and political communities and resources?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. How do national identities shape your daily world, and the people and things you interact with?
  2. Are there transnational identities that shape the way you think about yourself and your daily interactions?
  3. What do you think the future of nationalism is? Will it continue to surge in the face of global challenges like climate change and pandemics, or will international and transnational solutions to these problems prevail? 
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Transnationalism and the Revival of Nationalism

Photo of the Refugee Olympic Team during the Opening Ceremony of the 2016 Olympics. The refugees wave flags bearing the Olympic rings.
By Andalusia Knoll Soloff and Trevor R. Getz
Is nationalism still relevant in the world today? Does it serve to unite or divide people? These are questions that are meaningful for many groups around the world.

A world of nation-states

Since the eighteenth century, the rise of the nation-state has remained one of the big stories of our world's communities. In our increasingly globalized world, billions of people across the globe use the same social networks and listen to the same hit songs, wear the same style jeans and play the same videogames. Yet almost everybody is still a citizen of a nation-state, and national identity still draws people. In fact, it may be on the rise.
Just think about sports—it's an interesting way to observe nationalism and the role of the nation-state. The biggest sporting events in the world—the Olympics and the Football (Soccer) World Cup—pit the teams of the different nation-states against each other in pursuit of medals and national pride. Some scholars believe that sporting competitions like these demonstrate how important belonging to a group is for humans. If this kind of belonging is just part of being human, then national identities and nationalism may be here to stay.
However, sports also provide evidence that the concept of a nation-state is not so simple. For example, the United Nations recognizes 195 sovereign nation-states, and the FIFA World Cup only allows those 195 to show their flags, even though 211 teams can participate in the qualifying games. Some of these flag-free teams represent communities that aren't fully recognized nation-states, like Kosovo (claimed by Serbia) and Taiwan (claimed by China).
Then there is the Olympics. Since 1992, the Olympic committee has permitted stateless people to compete in the games representing the Olympic flag. When Brazil hosted the games, in 2016, the first ever Refugee Olympic Team competed. Composed of 10 athletes, they had fled war-torn countries including Syria and Democratic Republic of Congo.
Photo of a crowd of Portuguese national soccer team fans. Most of the fans are wearing red and green, the same colors as the nation’s flag.
Supporters of the Portuguese national football team displaying their national pride. By Raimond Spekking, CC BY-SA 4.0.
What does it really mean to have a nation-state? Why are some countries only partially recognized? How do people support their nation-state by playing sports under their flag? These questions begin our investigation into the world's nations today.


After the extreme violence of the First and Second World Wars, nationalism was regarded by many as the mentality that led to so much fighting. The world-renowned Jewish scientist Albert Einstein who fled Aryan nationalism and the rise of Nazism in Germany said, "Nationalism is an infantile thing. It is the measles of mankind." After 1945, there was a growth in internationalism, the idea that the nation-states of the world must cooperate and work together in order to solve the world's most difficult problems. At the same time, economic globalization was becoming a powerful factor in the way people related to each other. With products made in one country sold in another, and the world's economies becoming increasingly interwoven, nationalism just seemed less important than it had before.
In recent years, some scholars of globalization have argued that we are in an era of "transnationalism." Just as economics has become global, transnationalism is the idea that identity is now a global idea as well. The internet and social media connect people across countries and allow them to maintain personal identities independent of their national identities. Another important example of transnationalism is the diaspora: groups of people, usually migrants, who share a culture but live in different places, all far from their homeland. Diasporas enable people to maintain cultural support structures that help them to adjust to new places and to pass on their cultures to their children.
The largest diaspora, by nation-state of origin, is from India. Almost 16 million Indians live abroad, and that's just counting recent migrants who still have Indian citizenship! They have relocated to many parts of the world, with the largest groups being in the Arabian peninsula (about 6 million across four countries), the United States (around 2 million) and Great Britain (almost a million). Millions more people of Indian descent have already become citizens in these and other places.
Photo of an Indian Diaspora event from 2014 in which a large group of Indian people are shown socializing at the London Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Large posters promoting business, innovation, and technology can be seen in the background.
An Indian Diaspora event at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in London, 2014. By Foreign and Commonwealth Office, CC BY 2.0.

The resurgence of nationalism

But not everybody thinks nationalism is a bad thing, or even that it is disappearing. For example, Gustavo de las Casas, a Foreign Relations scholar, believes that nationalism can be a good thing when it unites members of a nation-state to work together towards a common good—this, he points out, prevents government corruption which in turn promotes economic prosperity.
One place where nationalism is seen to promote a common good is Rwanda. Following the genocide that resulted from that nation's internal conflict in 1994, Rwanda's new government promoted an idea called Ndi umunyarwanda, or "everyone is Rwandan". This initiative was brought forth as an attempt to promote reconciliation between two communities—Hutu and Tutsi—and to help prevent a future genocide. As part of this program, the government has forbidden people to speak about their ethnic identity and has promoted a set of values that all Rwandans should share, at least according to the government. The program uses newspapers and radio to promote inclusive nationalism in schools and communities.
The Ndi umunyarwanda program has its critics, however. Some argue that it emphasizes obedience to the government and discourages open discussion of the violent and difficult past. They argue that the open debate is more important than the benefits of nationalism. Others believe that the program favors Tutsi over Hutu, despite claiming to be inclusive. Certainly, it demonstrates how difficult it is for anyone to balance individual, community, and national identity!

Nationalism based on race rather than state

Some of the examples of rising nationalism around the world are ethnic nationalism—nationalism based on shared race or ethnicity, rather than on belonging to the same nation-state.start superscript, 1, end superscript The most prominent example, probably, is the resurgence of white nationalism.
From August 11th to 12th 2017, the city of Charlottesville, Virginia became a battleground between white supremacists who said they wanted to create a "homeland for white people" versus activists who defended racial diversity. During the rally, known as "Unite the Right," participants marched with Confederate flags as a reference to when slavery was legal, and carried tiki torches as a reference to the torches that the Ku Klux Klan used throughout history to wage terror on African American communities. At the height of the protests, a white supremacist supporter drove through the counter protesters, murdering civil rights activist Heather Heyer.
Ironically, modern white nationalism is deeply transnational. squared The movement was born on the internet, and has connected white nationalists across the globe. For example, many Charlottesville protestors took inspiration from the Golden Dawn Movement, a white supremacist political party in Greece that has grown in numbers. Other white supremacist parties in Europe include Germany's Alternative for Germany (AfD) and Austria's Freedom Party (FPO). One thing many of these groups share is resentment towards refugees and immigrants. In Europe, these are mainly refugees who fled Syria and war-torn African countries. In the United States, they are mostly migrants from Central America and Mexico.
Photo of white nationalists bearing Confederate and Nazi flags on a street in Charlottesville, Virginia.
White nationalists in Charlottesville, August 11, 2017. By Anthony Crider, CC BY 2.0.

Citizens of no nation

One of the consequences of nationalism is that it often brings attention to people who live in a country but are not permitted to be citizens. Usually, these are people who are denied citizenship because they do not belong to the dominant ethnic group. Today there are more than 12 million people across the globe that are considered stateless, as they are not citizens of any country. How many is 12 million? Well, there are currently 78 countries that have fewer people than that as their total population, Greece and Austria among them.
Anyone born in the United States is automatically a citizen—it's a system called birthright citizenship. The Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees this right, but some leaders and members of the public have argued that it should be eliminated. Birthright citizenship occurs within only 39 other countries. In Europe and the majority of countries around the world, citizenship is only granted to newborns who have at least one parent who is a citizen of the country.
When a person is born in a country that will not give them citizenship, their access to basic rights is often lost. Without a nationality and a passport as proof, they face barriers including access to public education, medical care, the right to open a bank account, have a job, buy a house, or even get married. They also are denied freedom of movement because without a passport they can't travel out of the country where they were born.
In Europe, one of the groups that has been denied citizenship and basic rights are the Romani or Roma people, many of whom fled the Balkans in the 1990s during the nationalist war which pitted Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian people against each other.cubed While many Roma people lost their documentation during the war, others never had citizenship. Due to structural racism, their children are unable to gain citizenship in any European state.
Sometimes, groups within a country actually have only limited citizenship rights. One of the clearest examples of limited citizenship is the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine. Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip have Israeli passports but are not afforded the same rights as Israeli citizens and instead live under military occupation. A wall, a series of checkpoints, and segregated highways control their access to enter Israel or travel from one of the Palestinian territories to the other. In 2018, Israel passed a new law declaring the country the "nation-state for the Jewish people" in which "The exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel is unique to the Jewish People." This leaves the Palestinians, who have no state of their own, in a precarious position as outsiders in the country in which they live. Another group that thinks of itself as a people but has no state of its own is the Kurds, 35 million of whom live as minority populations divided among Iraq, Turkey, Iran, and Syria.

Further discussion

So what does the playing field look like now? Are we in an increasingly transnational world where our identities as members of a nation-state are becoming less important? Or have citizenship and "root-for-my-team-only" nationalism become more important than ever? What kind of world would you like to see? These are decisions that will likely shape your life experiences, and therefore they are worth thinking about.
Author bios:
Andalusia Knoll Soloff is a multimedia journalist based in Mexico City whose work has been published by Al Jazeera,Teen Vogue, Democracy Now!, VICE News, BBC, NBC, The Intercept, and Latino USA, among other outlets. Her reporting focuses on human resilience and dignity in the face of disappearances, state violence, land struggles and gender-based murders in Latin America. Knoll Soloff is the author of the graphic novel Alive You Took Them, about the 43 missing Ayotzinapa students.
Trevor Getz is Professor of African History at San Francisco State University. He has written eleven books on African and world history, including Abina and the Important Men. He is also the author of A Primer for Teaching African History, which explores questions about how we should teach the history of Africa in high school and university classes.

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