James P. Micciche is an Active Component U.S. Army Civil Affairs Officer with deployment and service experience in the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan, Europe, and Indo-Pacific.  He is currently a Master’s candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Title:  Assessment of the Threat of Nationalism to the State Power of Democracies in the Information Age

Date Originally Written:  April 9, 2019.

Date Originally Published:  May 20, 2019.

Summary:  Historically, both scholars and political leaders have viewed nationalism as an advantageous construct that enhanced a state’s ability to both act and exert power within the international system.  Contrary to historic precedence, nationalism now represents a potential threat to the ability of modern democracies to project and exercise power due to demographic trends, globalized economies, and the information age. 

Text:  At its very core a nation is a collection of individuals who have come together through common interest, culture, or history, ceding a part of their rights and power to representatives through social compact, to purse safety and survival against the unknown of anarchy.  Therefore, a nation is its population, and its population is one measure of its overall power relative to other nations.  Academics and policy makers alike have long viewed nationalism as a mechanism that provides states an advantage in galvanizing domestic support to achieve international objectives, increasing comparative power, and reducing the potential impediment of domestic factors within a two-level game.  Globalization, the dawn of the information age, and transitioning demographics have fundamentally reversed the effects of nationalism on state power with the concept now representing a potential threat to both domestic stability and relative power of modern democracies. 

Looking beyond the material facets of population such as size, demographic trends, and geographic distribution, Hans Morgenthau identifies both “National Character” and “National Morale” as key elements of a nation’s ability to exert power. Morgenthau explains the relationship between population and power as “Whenever deep dissensions tear a people apart, the popular support that can be mustered for a foreign policy will always be precarious and will be actually small if the success or failure of the foreign policy has a direct bearing upon the issue of domestic struggle[1].  Historically, scholars have highlighted the role nationalism played in the creation and early expansion of the modern state system as European peoples began uniting under common identities and cultures and states utilized nationalism to solidify domestic support endowing them greater autonomy and power to act within the international system[2].  As globalization and the international movement of labor has made western nations ethnically more diverse, nationalism no longer functions as the traditional instrument of state power that was prevalent in periods where relatively homogenous states were the international norm.  

Key to understanding nationalism and the reversal of its role in state power is how it not only differs from the concept of patriotism but that the two constructs are incompatible within the modern paradigm of many industrialized nations that contain ever-growing heterogeneous populations.  Walker Connor described patriotism as “an emotional attachment to one’s state or country and its political institutions” and nationalism as “an attachment to ones people[3].”  A contemporary manifestation of this concept was the rise of Scottish Nationalism during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum that was in direct opposition to the greater state of the United Kingdom (patriotism) leading to the prospective loss of British power.  Furthermore, the term nationalism both conceptually and operationally requires a preceding adjective that describes a specific subset of individuals within a given population that have common cause, history, or heritage and are often not restricted to national descriptors. Historically these commonalities have occurred along ethnic or religious variations such as white, Hindu, Arab, Jewish, or black in which individuals within an in-group have assembled to pursue specific interests and agendas regardless of the state(s) in which they reside, with many such groups wishing to create nations from existing powers, such as Québécois or the Scots.  

The idea that industrialized nations in 2019 remain relatively homogenous constructs is a long outdated model that perpetuates the fallacy that nationalism is a productive tool for democratic states.  The average proportion of foreign-born individuals living in a given European country is 11.3% of the total population, Germany a major economic power and key NATO ally exceeds 15%[4].   Similar trends remain constant in the U.S., Canada, and Australia that have long histories of immigrant populations and as of 2015 14% of the U.S. population was foreign-born[5].    Furthermore, projections forecast that by 2045 white Americans will encompass less than 50% of the total population due to a combination of immigration, interracial marriages, and higher minority birth rates[6].  The aforementioned transitions are byproducts of a modern globalized economy as fertility rates within Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nations have dropped below replacement thresholds of 2.1[7] the demand for labor remains.

One of the central components of the information age is metadata. As individuals navigate the World Wide Web, build social networks, and participate in e-commerce their personal attributes and trends transform into storable data. Data has become both a form of currency and a material asset that state actors can weaponize to conduct influence or propaganda operations against individuals or groups whose network positions amplifies effects.   Such actors can easily target the myriad of extra-national identities present within a given nation in attempts to mobilize one group against another or even against the state itself causing domestic instability and potential loss of state power within the international system.  Russian digital information operations have recently expanded from the former Soviet space to the U.S. and European Union and regularly target vulnerable or disenfranchised populations to provoke domestic chaos and weakening governance as a means to advance Russian strategic objectives[8].

As long as western democracies continue to become more diverse, a trend that is unalterable for at least the next quarter century, nationalism will remain a tangible threat, as malign actors will continue to subvert nationalist movements to achieve their own strategic objectives.  This threat is only intensified by the accessibility of information and the ease of engaging groups and individuals in the information age.  Nationalism in various forms is on the rise throughout western democracies and often stems from unaddressed grievances, economic misfortunes, or perceived loss of power that leads to consolidation of in-groups and the targeting of outgroup.  It remains justifiable for various individuals to want equal rights and provisions under the rule of law, and ensuring that systems are in place to protect the rights of both the masses from the individual (tyranny) but also the individual from the masses (mob rule) has become paramount for maintaining both state power and domestic stability.  It falls on citizens and policy makers alike within democracies to promote national identities that facilitate patriotism and integration and assimilation of various cultures into the populace rather than segregation and outgrouping that creates divisions that rival states will exploit. 


[1] Morgenthau, H., & Thompson, K. (1948). Politics Among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace-6th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.

[2] Mearsheimer, J. J. (2011). Kissing Cousins: Nationalism and Realism. Yale Workshop on International Relations, vol. 5.

[3] Connor, W. (1993). Beyond Reason: The Nature of The Ethnonational Bond. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 373 – 389.

[4] Connor, P., & Krogstad, J. (2016, June 15). Immigrant share of population jumps in some European countries. Retrieved April 7, 2019, from Pew Research Center: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/06/15/immigrant-share-of-population-jumps-in-some-european-countries/

[5] Pew Resarch Center. (2015). Modern Immigration Wave Brings 59 Million to U.S. Driving Population Growth and Change Through 2065. Washington DC: Pew Rsearch Center.

[6] Frey, W. H. (2018, March 14). The US will become ‘minority white’ in 2045, Census projects. Retrieved April 8, 2019, from The Brookings Institution : https://www.brookings.edu/blog/the-avenue/2018/03/14/the-us-will-become-minority-white-in-2045-census-projects/

[7] World Bank. (2019). Fertility Rate, Total (Births per Women). Retrieved April 9, 2019, from The World Bank Group: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.TFRT.IN

[8] Klein, H. (2018, September 25). Information Warfare and Information Perspectives: Russian and U.S. Perspectives.Retrieved April 6, 2019, from Columbia SIPA Journal of International Affairs:https://jia.sipa.columbia.edu/information-warfare-and-information-perspectives-russian-and-us-perspectives