Nationalism is a sociopolitical ideology that defines the solidarity, history, and destiny of a human population based on a nation or national origin. Nationalism is either the consequence or the basis for establishing nation-states throughout the world, usually distinguished by borders confining a nation to a certain territory or homeland. Today, most of the world’s population lives in nation-states, which have a national identity typified by a common language, a flag, and other national emblems. However, because of the diversity of many nations, various social movements (e.g., Black Nationalism) use the term nationalism to distinguish their cultural identity from the dominant national identity of the nation in which they live.

Origins and Historical Development

Nationalists, historians, and political theorists debate whether nations created nationalism or nationalism created nations. Most staunch nationalists contend that preexisting nations, dating back thousands of years, provide a foundation for every human to fit within a world category that has a unique identity. In contrast, modernist theorists argue that local and religious loyalties were the dominant ideological influences until only about 200 years ago when European states endeavored to modernize their societies and establish a basis for armies and taxation. Most theorists agree that nationalism is based on a powerful ideology that is rooted in real, imagined, and invented memories of conflict, a homeland, traditions, mythology, and customs.

Non-Eurocentric accounts of the origins of nationalism are scant in the literature. Most theories of nationalism indicate that the European nation-states marked the beginnings of nationalism. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, nationalist movements advanced throughout European societies. Some of the movements were formed in opposition to monarchies and religious empires, whereas others sought to unify fragmented territories into larger nations. The movements generally opposed autocratic regimes and royal families. Nationalist movements also sought to define their territory and competed for borders. By the late 19th century, most of Europe was organized into nations. However, the nations spawned from the American Revolution, the South American independence struggles, and the Haitian Revolution predate most European nationalist movements.

Because of modernization and colonialism, by the early 20th century, nationalism was essential to the survival of most of the human populace. Populations with local loyalties were dominated by vast armies representing large nations. Some colonized populations successfully adapted a national identity in order to defeat tyrant nations (e.g., India’s nationalist struggle to end British rule). Other populations (e.g., Native Americans and Australian aborigines) who never, or only recently, claimed a national identity were ruled, displaced, and oppressed by organized nations for centuries.

Nationalism also became linked to racial divisions, as many nations began to use race, or ethnic origin, to enlighten their national identity. By the beginning of the 20th century, race became the basis for most nations— an ideology that posed challenges for multiethnic nations. In the United States, President Woodrow Wilson influenced the worldview on nations through his “Fourteen Points,” which challenged the legitimacy of multiethnic empires, such as the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In addition, Wilson’s domestic policies fueled Black and White nationalist separatist movements in the United States. The Ku Klux Klan’s primary propaganda tool, the film The Birth of the Nation, opens with a quote from Wilson hailing the Klan as “a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern Country.” Black Nationalism, largely influenced by Marcus Garvey, also originated during this period, as a result of the United States’s open bigotry and what many African Americans perceived as the betrayal of the Republican Party.

Abroad, nationalism based on racist extremism emerged during the period between World War I and World War II. State leaders such as Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini used extreme versions of nationalism such as fascism and Nazism, which held that race and national identity superseded individual rights. After gross human rights violations, including the Holocaust, fascism and Nazism lost popular support after World War II, but they remain the dominant ideology of modern White supremacists and other White nationalist organizations worldwide.

By the mid-20th century the largest wave of nationalism came from African colonies achieving independence. Many native Africans found it necessary to adopt the language and borders drafted by their European colonists in order to build the national identity necessary to fight for independence. After violent and peaceful anticolonialist movements succeeded, Africa transformed from a collection of European colonies to a continent of nation-states. However, borders drafted by European explorers encompassed many very distinct languages, cultural identities, and localized loyalties to ruling “tribes.” Many tribal wars were amplified by European and Western powers arming factions that supported their economic interests. Pan-Africanist movements, such as the African National Congress, are Africa’s most successful nationalist movements in unifying large numbers of native Africans for the purpose of creating a viable African state.

Nationalism within Nations

Amplified nationalism usually emerges during international competitions, such as the Olympics, when people worldwide don their nations’ emblems and cheer for national heroes. Elevated nationalism is also usually necessary for a nation’s government to launch a far-reaching agenda. Arguably, the high levels of nationalism that took place in the United States after 9/11 softened opposition to the subsequent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and stimulated new domestic surveillance methods.

Today, because most nation-states are firmly established, nationalism is more commonly used to describe various social and political movements within nations that seek to define and unify a group with social, economic, or ethnic traits that are distinctive enough to distinguish it from others within the same nation. Within nations, nationalist movements have sought to strengthen national unity, especially during times of crisis (e.g., flag campaigns after the attack on the World Trade Center in 2001); reject foreign influences and limit immigration, sometimes motivated by cultural conservatism and xenophobia; and affirm the distinct identity, culture, and struggles of a marginalized population (e.g., Black Power movements in the United States).

Nationalist movements within nations almost inherently attract controversy. In the past, nationalism in national politics has often emerged as a pretext to war. In some extreme cases, nationalism has promoted ethnic cleansing and genocide, such as in Nazi Germany, the Balkans, and Rwanda. Secession is a less extreme but still controversial consequence of nationalism and includes both successful and unsuccessful attempts to completely withdraw from a nation and create a new nation. Secession often leads to civil wars, such as those experienced in the United States and Sudan.

In contrast, many empowerment organizations that promote social, political, and economic equality through social reform and tactical resistance consider themselves nationalists. Many such nationalist movements are not seeking to secede or overthrow the government of their nation. However, they are often heavily scrutinized and covertly targeted by national governments. In the United States, for example, during the 1960s, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) targeted Black civil rights organizations, Puerto Rican nationalists, Native American organizations, and the New Left/antiwar movements through COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program). Post-Watergate congressional hearings revealed that the FBI opened more than 500,000 files on more than 1 million Americans during the COINTELPRO era to investigate subversion and dissent. Some believe that overzealous nationalism promoted by the government, such as the former House Committee on Un-American Activities, leave nations vulnerable to the type of abuse in power experienced during COINTELPRO.

Criticisms and Critiques

The scope and complexion of nationalism has changed throughout the centuries. Originally, nationalists sought to create nations. Today, nationalists strive primarily to redefine nations and assert national identity. Nationalism—and the geopolitical mandate that all nations be organized into separate states— dominates world culture. National governments and nationalist movements within nations are often in conflict with governments promoting a national identity. The recent emergence of multinational agendas (e.g., the European Union) and globalism have added to the complexity of nationalism as a political force.

Far-reaching claims, divisiveness, militarism, radical agendas, and cultural conservatism have led to widespread criticisms and critiques of nationalism. Liberals and pacifists argue that nationalism traditionally leads to intolerance and causes conflict and war between world populations. Liberal ideology generally de-emphasizes national identity and focuses on individual liberties. By contrast, many groups who are not liberal in the traditional sense (e.g., the Nation of Islam and Puerto Rican independence movements) combat national governments with nationalism. Antiracists campaign against nationalist attitudes that promote chauvinism and xenophobia, but they do not necessarily challenge the existence of nation-states. Most liberals and antiracists are usually neutral toward, or supportive of, nationalist organizations that form in opposition to unjust national policies.

While most antinationalists target negative attitudes, such as xenophobia, and consequences, such as war, of nationalism, some ideologies challenge the legitimacy of nation-states. Marxist revolutionaries have called for a world revolution to end nation-states and engender a global state unrestricted by borders. Cosmopolitanism also supports a world state but de-emphasizes common struggles or resistance to power among the majority social class. By contrast, cosmopolitanists promote cooperation among nations through international laws. Many nationalists and antiglobalists are suspicious of cosmopolitan ideas.

Implications for Counseling

Nationalism can invoke strong emotions that can weaken one’s ability to be impartial, a quality most believe is essential for counseling. Some nationalists are genuinely motivated by their desire to improve conditions for a marginalized group. Other nationalists have extremist views that are influenced by bigotry. On a macro level, state-sponsored nationalism may have the intended or unintended effect of promoting cultural conservatism and reducing general acceptance of foreign citizens.

Therefore, while striving to understand the impact of nationalism on their clientele, counselors must recognize their own thoughts and biases regarding nationalism and how nationalism may influence their subjective worldview. Like the world’s populace, the vast majority of counselors live in a nation-state dominated by a national agenda, usually promoted by the government. At various times, particularly during times of national crisis, a counselor’s allegiance to, or dissonance with, his or her government’s agenda may lead to close-mindedness, conflict, and confusion. Overall, counselors working within nations or with people influenced by nationalism must be both open-minded and sensitive to the needs of marginalized populations and keenly aware of paranoia, xenophobia, political cults, and other thought problems associated with extreme nationalism.


  1. Bellier, I., & Wilson, T. M. (2000). An anthropology of the European Union: Building, imagining and experiencing the new Europe. Oxford, UK: Berg.
  2. Blackstock, N. (1976). COINTELPRO: The FBI’s secret war on political freedom. New York: Vintage Books.
  3. Cheah, P., & Robbins, B. (Eds.). (1998). Cosmopolitics: Thinking and feeling beyond the nation. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  4. Lawrence, P. (2005). Nationalism: History and theory. Harlow, UK: Pearson Education.
  5. Maddox, G. (1993). African nationalism and revolution. New York: Garland.
  6. May, S., Modood, T., & Squires, J. (2004). Ethnicity, nationalism, and minority rights. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  7. Moses, W. J. (1978). The golden age of Black nationalism, 1850-1925. Hamden, CT: Archon Books.

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