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The Endurance of Nationalism: Ancient Roots and Modern Dilemmas

The Endurance of Nationalism: Ancient Roots and Modern Dilemmas by Aviel Roshwald. Cambridge University Press, 2006, 362 pp.

Nationalism, one of the strongest and most enduring ideological forces of the twentieth century, shows few signs of abating. Why is nationalism such a powerful force? What gives it such staying power? These questions and many more about this phenomenon haunt social scientists and policy makers alike. In The Endurance of Nationalism, Aviel Roshwald, a history professor at Georgetown University, focuses on what he calls the “paradoxical qualities” of nationalism to examine its enduring attraction. These paradoxical qualities offer an identity for people who incorporate the “personal and the political, the individual and the collective” (p. 295). Roshwald also notes that nationalism endures because it “helps fulfill primordial human needs for a sense of connection and belonging” (p. 297) and argues for it as a “source of emotional sustenance” (p. 301). Thus, nationalist rhetoric promises a sense of security in times of change. These paradoxes, the author admits, create problems for analyzing or defining nationalism but explain its seductive appeal.

Roshwald’s examination proceeds through a series of thematic chapters that focus on different aspects of nationalism from around the world, drawing on a wide range of historical examples. Unlike writers who see nationalism as strictly a modern phenomenon, Roshwald begins by examining nationalism in antiquity to support his assertion that national identification has a long legacy in human history. At the same time, he does not believe that the ancient and modern notions of nationalism are identical. As he points out, modern nationalism extends the idea of community and identity to a broader audience than would have been possible in antiquity, creating modern entities that are, according to another scholar of the topic, in large part, “imagined communities”

Leaping from ancient Jewish and Greek polities to the modern day, Roshwald spends most of the book examining enduring themes used to create the idea of a “nation.” For many readers, these sections will be difficult to read, as the author uses several different examples to make his point about how nationality is manufactured. These themes include using links to a more glorious, prosperous or heroic era to create support for actions in the present. He also examines the ways in which national identity is formed through the use of a traumatic event or highlighted through a sense of violation from past aggression. Another common premise is the idea of being a “chosen” group with a special mission in the world, an idea that has resonated across a surprisingly large number of polities.

In citing a range of examples across time and cultures, Roshwald slights the linkage between the rise of nationalism in the modern era, with the growth of popular sovereignty, democratic politics, and the concomitant need for legitimacy by a government. The United States was the first country to grapple with creating these changes in politics and did so through civic nationalism—that we are bound together by our allegiance to a common set of ideas set out in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. In other parts of the world, the government’s right to rule (or to legitimacy) shifted from heredity rule to popular rule accompanied by ethnic and territorial solidarity. That is, “we” are a people of a certain ethnicity and “we” are entitled to rule this land.

From these differing conceptions, Americans are often at a disadvantage in dealing with the topic of nationalism. The typical American conceptions of “nation,” “nationality,” and “national movement” fit uneasily alongside seemingly approximate situations in other countries. In fact, the American concept of the “nation” proves quite exceptional. Almost a century ago, Woodrow Wilson left the Versailles Peace Conference lamenting that his Fourteen Points did not realistically address the ethnonational realities on the European continent. This trend is repeated to the present day in a number of areas from Eastern Europe to Iraq. To compensate for this lack of “national” understanding, studying national movements and nationalism within other lands and throughout history promises to pay dividends in developing better national security policies.

Roshwald’s study of nationalism helps to highlight the enduring tensions between integration and the continued existence of nation-based particularism. For readers who are unfamiliar with nationalism and the academic theories that have been developed about the topic in recent years, however, this book will be a difficult slog. While the writing and the examples are clear, the concepts are dense and probably foreign to many. For those who do persevere, they will gain a better understanding of nationalism. While the author never proves his assertion about the “primordial” nature of nationalism, his study does make clear that this phenomenon has ancient roots, which has something to do with its seduction, even if the specifics are unclear. While the author believes that this enduring nature is important to rehabilitating nationalism as a positive force, most of his work focuses on how national symbols and ideas can be manipulated, usually in negative ways, making it easier to see how nationalism can be twisted and used for other ends. Nationalism can be used as a destructive force when political leaders make the choice to “resolve” these tensions that are inherently unsolvable through violence. Despite the author’s belief in the benefits of nationalism, the weight of historical evidence indicates that we have not yet seen the day when this force will not be used for ill.

Thomas E. Griffith, PhD

Burke VA

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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