Nationalism and globalisation – What’s the connection?


In a world of economic and financial flows growing ever more interconnected across the world and state borders, societies are brought into increasingly close contact. The division of labour is globalised, furthered by the development of new transport, production and communication technology. With the establishment of the European Union, this interconnection was institutionalised on a supranational scale, implicating no longer just economic cooperation, but increasingly assuming influence on the individual member states’ socio-cultural policies. Simultaneously, various nationalist movements demand the affirmation of state control in the hands of a “national population” – be it within existing states, as with the Alternative für Deutschland (“Alternative for Germany”, AfD) and newly re-elected Czech president Miloš Zeman, or by campaigns for new states like the Catalan and Kurdish independence movements.

Within this dispute, declining and increasing demand for a state that corresponds to “the nation” is central. However, the concept of “the nation” itself lacks unequivocal definition. Therefore, this essay will provide a short survey of the divergent approaches to “the nation” as presented by Ernest Gellner, Anthony Smith, and Benedict Anderson. Building on this theoretical groundwork, it will examine the relation between globalisation and nationalism with regard to its historical, that is, colonial origin; the implementation of authorities beyond the level of individual states on an inter-national scale; and the increase in migration and improvement in communication technology.

When examining manifestations of nationalism, it is important to bear in mind that the concept itself is as disputed as its relation to “the nation”. According to Ernest Gellner, for example, nationalism is “the striving to make culture and polity congruent, to endow culture with its own political root” in order to establish “nations where they did not previously exist” (Gellner, 1983). Gellner therefore conceives of nationalism as the politicisation of a cultural group resulting in its self-identification as a nation. Anthony Smith, however, reverses this relation. For him, “the nationalist drive is to unify the citizen community in its national territory around a set of shared symbols, myths and memories and fuse if with an identifiable culture community” (Smith, 1995): for him, it is the strive to political self-institution, yet the nation is built around a cultural core, an “ethnie” (Smith, 1986), and uses nationalism as a tool rather than being constructed through nationalism. Yet another approach is employed by Benedict Anderson, for whom “nation-ness, as well as nationalism, are cultural artefacts of a particular kind” (Anderson, 1983). He considers the nation to be “an imagined political community”. The constitutive imagination is facilitated through the shared belief in the existence of the community’s members without having to actually know them – made possible only through communication via a shared language and media. The belief in the existence of the community and the sharing of similarities between its members is, in the eyes of Anderson, sufficient and decisive for establishing it.

Despite the disagreement of all three authors over the nature of nations and nationalisms, some key elements are common to their accounts: all three authors see the nation as built on shared cultural tenets; they all see the nation as a potential basis for the legitimisation of states as their political units; for all of them, the interaction and communication of the nation’s members is essential. On this groundwork, the impact of globalisation and the resulting shifts in nationalist sentiments will be examined. For this purpose, the term “nation” will be used as meaning a group sharing cultural self-identification. “Nationalism” will refer to such a group seeking to establish itself as a political authority. Notably, the term “cultural group” lacks clear definition, as attempting to define the “border” of cultures is a precarious undertaking. 

To examine the relationship between globalisation and nationalism requires not only to investigate the meaning of globalisation today, but also its historical origin. Conceiving of globalisation as the internationalisation of economic, financial, technological, cultural, and migrational flows (Appadurai, 1990), European colonisation movements can be considered a decisive moment in the intensification of these flows. With the expansion of European states’ trade relations and, later, the imposition of political rule over the colonised communities, European structural-political concepts were imposed on the colonised. The European states required the adoption of the “nation-state” by the colonised groups to establish political institutions accepted by the colonial powers. For them, the “nation-state” denoted the identity of cultural and political boundaries (Gellner, 1983) as their central legitimising principle. Seeing how such institutions of the colonised were imposed on them in territories conquered by the colonial powers, it was not the colonised themselves who could define whom to include in the “nation”; instead, borders drawn by the colonising powers defined who had to agree on a “national identity”. Consequently, Pratha Chatterjee points out that “non-European colonial countries have no historical alternative but to try to approximate the given attributes of modernity” (Chatterjee, 1986). She thus stresses the hegemonic position of colonial powers even after the achievement of formal independence by the former colonies: through their economic and military supremacy over the colonised, they acquired the capacities of dictating a system of international states based on the “nations” inhabiting them. Additionally, in their “need to have local collaborators” (Pandian, 1993), colonial authorities employed local, culturally established elites such as the Indian brahmins for the implementation of national ideas. This distorted established social relations by giving the power of creating a “nation” to a selected few, excluding the majority of the colonised population from the nation-building process. Approximating existing cultural structures to European conceptions of a “state” as the dominant political unit representing the “nation”, the colonial powers thus spread nationalism as the legitimising political concept through the process of political-economic globalisation.

For any account of nationalism on a global scale, therefore, it is vital to not consider nationalism and the basing of states on “nations” as universal, natural concepts. Instead, they are “not an authentic product of any of the non-European civilisations [but] a European export to the rest of the world” (Chatterjee, 1986). It must therefore be fundamental for investigating nationalist movements that nationalism itself in its form originating from Europe only spread as the result of a historical interplay of economic and political power relation. In this context, it is further important to note that Anderson, Gellner, and Smith, all grew up in Europe or the United States of America; their theories of nationalism are therefore infused with the conception of Western-based nationalism as a universal concept that may vary only in its specific form. An account of communities in the “pristine non” (Ferguson, 1990), that is, prior to European colonial influence, could provide an impression of whether “nations” are inherent to humanity – yet in a global, nation-based system of states, such a study of large-scale communities is no longer possible. With reference to the relation between globalisation and nationalism, then, globalisation in its colonial form was key to the spreading of nationalist movements and the idea of “the nation” as legitimising states.

Another form of structural political globalisation followed the Second World War: the spreading of universal Human Rights and liberal democracy – promoted by the United Nations, decisively shaped by, again, European and North American states. Asserting the freedom of speech, thought, and assembly, alongside the right to “the free development of [one’s] personality” and the prohibition of “arbitrary interference with [one’s] privacy” (UNO, 1948), the individual was established as the basic unit of international social life. This movement coincided with and provided support for the growing demand for freedom from outside rule manifested in decolonisation movements. Individualism and self-determination were, therefore, consolidated as the guiding principle of political legitimacy: states were to not interfere with individuals’ interests, nor infringe on the rights of cultural groups under their control. This shift in social authority towards the individual, that is, below the level of the national state, was accompanied by a shift of authority towards institutions above the state-level such as the European Union, United Nations. These institutions formalised the fact that, in a deeply interconnected global economy, “the nation-state is no longer free to conduct its external relations as it desires” (Smith, 1995).

This embedding into international relations, exposing the state to political-economic influences beyond its immediate control, has had marked impacts on the position of nationalism in public debate. Across the European Union, that is, in states that are directly affected by legislation of organs external to themselves, outspokenly nationalist parties and candidates have gained considerable electoral support – Miloš Zeman in the Czech Republic, the “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD), the French Front National. This rise of nationalist sentiment across Europe is in line with Gellner’s assumption that living in a political unit in which “the rulers […] belong to a nation other than that of the majority of the ruled […] constitutes a quite outstandingly intolerable breach of political propriety” (Gellner, 1983). A similar sentiment is shared by US-American president Donald Trump claiming to “bring our jobs back to our country” (O’Brian, 2017), and the rhetoric employed by Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte refusing to abide by US-American political pressure (Steinmetz, 2017). In terms of increasingly complex and interdependent international economic and political relations, then, globalisation has strengthened nationalism by infringing on the nationalist claim to political self-determination.

At the same time, however, the growing importance of supranational bodies has contributed to eroding nationalism. The European Union does not only remove certain political areas from state control. It also provides “a unifying common identity” and “common ground” between nation-state populations (Agirday, Phalet, & Van Houtte, 2016). Based on the communal control of economic, social, and cultural relations, it provides a means of identification beyond the individual “shared ancestral myths, histories and cultures” (Smith, The Ethnic Origin of Naitons, 1986); indeed, the EU and the UN both built upon the shared history of World Wars and grave Human Rights violations. However, they do not justify themselves exclusive through this common past; instead, they aspire a “common destiny” (Yural-Davis, 1997) – the building of a world on the foundation of Human Rights and justice. While not attempting to construct a new nation, supranational bodies thus transfer nationalism-resembling allegiances and tenets towards a body explicitly not defined by a specific nation. However, following Anderson’s claim of the nation being constituted by the “imagined” connection between its members, this can be considered a re-interpretation of nationalist processes rather than their erosion. Individual states’ citizens no longer define themselves solely via their state nationality, but also appeal to a higher-scale identity. Such allegiances to supra-national authorities can further serve to enforce pluralist interests by involving authorities with control over the individual state in its domestic affairs as in the case of racist nationalism (Malcolm X, 1964). It is the strengthening of liberal identity rights against the state that can be assumed to have allowed for the upholding of such varying identities in different socio-political relations (Schmitt, 1932).

For the formation of said varying identities beyond the national-historically established “myths, histories, and cultures” (Smith, 1986), the expansion of national communities across the globe – the physical globalisation of communities through migration – and the impact of modern communication technology is central. However, both migration and communication can just as well increase as erode nationalist sentiments. Their closely connected influence therefore needs distinct examination.

Central to all the concepts of “the nation” outlined above is the connecting function of cultural tenets. Benedict Anderson’s, however, is the one to most clearly stress the importance of how cultural conventions are transformed into a community: through media, especially newspapers and novels, that establish generic frameworks for individuals to fit themselves into and identify with others through “homogenous, empty time” (Anderson, 1983). Anderson assumes them to provide the idea of being connected on a level beyond physical and temporal simultaneity. Today, it is not the intermediaries of print media that sustain connections “across space and time”, but rather social media and instant messenger-services that serve this function. They allow communication both between members of a cultural community and with those external to it.

For such communication beyond communities, the spread of English as an increasingly globalised language has made platforms such as Twitter viable means for communicating independent of geographical location and largely of national background. In this context it is important to bear in mind that the global establishment of English is, again, a result of historical political processes, once more pointing out the importance of past events for the present. As means of direct communication and information transmission, such social platforms constitute a way of relating across national borders – national, in this case meaning both of the national-political state and the national-cultural community. The 2017 Women’s marches express this potential: originating from a social media post, they spread not only across the USA, but among other countries, too (Alcindor & Hartocollis, 2017). Similarly, US-American president Trump’s social media presence continuously draws international public attention. This outlines how direct communication across national borders can erode nationalist sentiments by constructing the “imagined community” on a scale exceeding that of previously established groups using “the new modes of communication” (Smith, 1986).

However, unmediated communication can have a strengthening influence on nationalism, too. By allowing for immediate, direct contact regardless of geographical location, the fact that cultural communities and relations “have become globalised” (Appadurai, 1990), can be compensated: the strain exercised on a common consciousness through geographical distance can be compensated. “It is now easier than ever for diasporic communities to keep communicating within the boundaries of the collectivities and thus to reproduce them” (Yural-Davis, 1997). Simplified communication can thus amplify national sentiments among “much smaller social and political groups and ethnic and linguistic communities” (Smith, 1995) by making it easier for groups to create an identity of themselves as distinct from others. The Kurdish movement for independence is an example for such a movement transcending national borders: despite their global dispersion, they maintain a political-ideological identity. Similarly, Cameroonian students in Germany, while becoming part of their current residence’s community, retain strong ties to their families and local communities. What can, according to Anderson, strengthen communities of national states, can therefore also be “turned against the national state” (Smith, Nations and Nationalism in Global Era, 1995) as a means of either asserting a divergent community’s nationalist interests within a state’s territory, providing support to such a community on an international scale, or retaining plural identities rather than adopting that of the state an individual lives in.

The preceding account of how communication impacts nationalist sentiments points towards the importance of the global movement of individuals, extending communities geographically and changing the structure of those communities immigrated into. In the European Union, for example, freedom of movement has furthered exchange, bringing individuals of different national allegiances into contact. This increased support for such inter-national exchange (European Commission, 2017), expanding the scale of the “imagined community” by promoting the appeal to superordinate values as a “unifying common identity” (Agirday, Phalet, & Van Houtte, 2016). However, as shown above, especially in modern times the “overriding allegiance” of national states can be retained even after immigrating into a community (Smith, 1990).

Additionally, both immigration into and emigration out of an existing culture leads to a “fracturing of the homogeneity and purity of a national identity” (Smith, 1995) for, according to Gellner, that national state fails to incorporate “all the nationals and yet also [includes] some non-naitonals” (Gellner, 1983). Again, the AfD, Front National, and Czech president Zeman provide examples for just such a sentiment: they object immigration into the national community, instead demanding a re-nationalisation of the state. An even more elaborate example for how both the appeal to a supra-national set of ideals, shared by various national groups, and nationalist ideas is provided by the Identitarian Movement, a group with branches in various European states. The group pursues the declared aim of “preserving our ethnocultural identity […] as common consensus and fundamental right” (Identitarian Movement, n.d.). They act on a supranational scale, co-operating all across Europe – both via communication and the physical attendance of rallies. Social media and an internet presence are used to uphold this community without intermediary media. The key ideal these efforts are directed at is a “pan-European” “ethnocultural identity” threatened by “illegal immigration”. This threat can only be countered by “a clear measure of reversion of migration flows” (Identitarian Movement, n.d.). This example therefore indicates how ideas and communications themselves can be supra-nationalised to fight off threats to a national community. It thus indicates the intricate interconnection of national and supra-national identities.

The preceding investigation of how globalisation impacts nationalist movements provides an ambivalent result. It shows that, fundamentally, globalisation in the form of colonial expansion by European states forced colonised communities to adopt the nationalist model as a means of integrating themselves in to the global system established by the colonial powers – strengthening the standing of nationalism as a legitimising principle on a global scale. Furthermore, it indicates that the globalisation of political values, leading to the increasing political-economic dependence on other states, can erode nationalism as communities increasingly identify with values not considered specific to their own community – and can give rise to a backlash by the respective communities as they attempt to re-nationalise control over the state representing them. This was shown to be especially important in combination with both the increasing ability to communicate on a world-wide scale, allowing for the expansion and deepening of communal sentiments, and the continuous mixing of cultural communities through immigration, which can facilitate exchange as well as segregation. Building on these findings of how globalisation and nationalism are intrinsically connected, it would be valuable to investigate the feedback that nationalism gives to globalisation, that is, how nationalist movement impact the progressing of globalisation.

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