Although it is sometimes argued that the modern nation-state system took root in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, it was not until the 20th century that formal empires vanished from global politics. Accordingly, since the French Revolution, many national liberation movements have sought to build a state by seceding from a formal empire and later form an already constituted nation-state.
The development of the first revolutionary form of nationalism is associated with the French Revolution and the wave of social movements associated with the Déclaration des droits de l’homme, the overthrow of absolutist regimes in Europe, and the secession of states from the metropolis of a European empire in the New World, such as the United States and Saint-Domingue (present-day Haiti). Nationalism therefore emerged in a world of agrarian empires, and during this phase it was closely associated with a movement of democratization and abolition of the absolutist and patrimonial state.
A second important wave of nationalist movements is associated with the period of intense revolutionary turmoil known as the Spring of the People in 1848. During this period, many liberal and socialist movements demanded constitutional reforms against the structure of power of absolutist regimes and empires. Many sought to secede from an existing empire. Many of these social forces were crushed by conservative policy. The period between 1860 and 1900 is often associated with a wave of nationalist revolutions from above. The period was strongly influenced by a new conception of the nation often rooted in the romanticism and organicism of the “people”. This period saw the consolidation and unification of the state of Germany under the leadership of Prussia and the formation of the state of Italy. In both cases, a larger territorial and political unit emerged from the unification of smaller principalities. The period between 1917 and 1923 saw the fragmentation of old agrarian empires: the Habsburg Empire and the Ottoman Empire. According to historian Eric Hobsbawm, this period saw a logic of balkanisation, that is, a pure application of a Gellnerian logic of political morselling according to ethnocultural boundaries.
Following the First World War, two important world leaders, Vladimir Lenin and Woodrow Wilson, recognized the right of nations to self-determination. This was also the context that led to the institutionalization of an international organization known as the League of Nations. Although Lenin and Wilson agreed in principle with the norm of the right of nations to self-determination, global politics between the two world wars remained far from a world of nation-states. Many European powers maintained protectorates and colonies until the 1960s. Canada, for instance, did not have a foreign policy completely independent from the British Empire before the 1930s. During the Second World War, many colonies fought the war on the side of their European metropolis. Some scholars argue that the experience of war was an important stimulus for the channeling of anti-imperial sentiment and national liberation movements during the middle of the twentieth century (Eckert, 2016). The 1960s was an important decade for national liberation struggles in the Global South but also for nationalist movements in North America, in Quebec and Acadia for instance. This was a global context in which the United Kingdom and France were both losing global influence, while the Cold War divisions between two major spheres of influence, American and Soviet, were settling in.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War between 1989 and 1991 led to another wave of state formation in Eastern Europe. Although this wave was welcomed with optimism among liberal scholars who celebrated the global hegemony of the rule of law, it did not take long for ethno-national conflicts to reappear in former Yugoslavia.
It took a long time for the state to become the dominant political unit of global politics. Yet, even today, despite the collapse of formal empires, there are still many political conflicts along national lines. Some nationalist movements in multinational states are seeking a greater decentralisation of power or a greater recognition of their national autonomy. In other instances, state-seeking nationalists are asking for political secession from a larger nation-state from which they feel politically alienated.
Since 2016, we have been seeing a new wave of nationalist movements: national populists (Eatwell, 2018). They are surging in a different world characterized by Brexit, the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the election of Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. These movements are often labelled as national populist and are associated with a current period of right-wing authoritarianism. An important feature of these movements is that they are not interested in the creation of a new state. They mobilize their followers along two axes. Along a vertical axis, they mobilize the so-called “people” against the so-called “elites”; while along a horizontal axis they mobilize the “nation” against foreigners or an internal “threat”. National populist mobilizations therefore seek to create new hierarchies of belonging, where the so-called people of the heartland are presented as more legitimate than others. In many places where national populists gain traction, they can rely on an alliance with ethno-religious political forces; it could be the evangelical movements behind Trump and Bolsonaro, the Catholics supporting the Polish or French far right, the Hindus supporting Modi, or the Christian Orthodox behind Putin.
The Swedish political scientist Catarina Kinnvall further underlines the analogy between nationalism and religion. Nowadays, she suggests, nationalism and religion “are more likely than other identity constructions to provide answers to those in need, [they] supply particularly powerful stories and beliefs because of their ability to convey a picture of security, stability, and simple answers. They do this by being portrayed as resting on solid ground, as being true, thus creating a sense that the world really is what it appears to be” (Kinnvall, 2004, p. 742). They are, in other words, the most convincing “identity-signifier” in modern societies (ibid.). Not only can the nation be seen through such theories as the holder of the modern political membership giving access to diverse rights and opportunities, it can also be understood as a factor of ontological security as much as religion (ibid., p. 746). By providing an “abstract identity […] one identity that answers the need for securitized subjectivity [and] its very long history, this monolithic entity [of the nation] becomes a stabilizing anchor in an otherwise chaotic and changing world, linking the past and the present to future action” (ibid., pp. 758-759).