Yuval Noah Harari on ‘The Bright Side of Nationalism’, at the Central European University [Transcript]

16 min read

Transcript of Professor Yuval Noah Harari’s lecture about nationalism at the Central University in Budapest in May 2019.

Adapted from Yuval Noah Harari’s YouTube channel.

Hello everyone and thank you for welcoming me here. I would like to talk to you today about nationalism in the 21st century. The Central European University in Budapest is a perfect place to talk about this subject, since unfortunately this campus might be among the victims of what seems to be a growing nationalist wave sweeping Europe.

I also have a personal connection to this part of the world as two of my grandparents came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and almost their entire family was murdered during the last nationalist tsunami that swept over this area 75 years ago.

But in this talk, assuming that my audience is likely to be already worried of nationalism, I want to caution us not to go to the other extreme of viewing all forms of nationalism as inherently evil. I want to focus today on the bright side of nationalism. On its immense contribution to humanity. On its continuing importance in the 21st century.

Let’s begin by surveying the history of nationalism. Today’s nation-states are certainly not an eternal part of human biology or human psychology. They are a very recent development in human evolution. True, humans are social animals with group loyalty imprinted in our genes. But for millions of years, humans lived in small intimate communities, and not in large nation-states. Homo Erectus, Neanderthals, and even archaic Homo Sapiens lived in bands which numbered at most 100 or 200 individuals.

Only about 70 thousand years ago – which is a very short time in evolutionary terms – Homo Sapiens learned to use culture as a basis for large-scale cooperation, which is the key to our success as a species. We control this planet and not the Neanderthals or the chimpanzees or the elephants because we are the only mammals that can cooperate in very large numbers and do so flexibly changing the way that we cooperate over time.

If you put 10 thousand chimpanzees in a football stadium or in a market or in university, what you’ll get is complete chaos. If you put 10 thousand Homo Sapiens there, then, provided they share a culture you will get very orderly networks of cooperation. But creating such mass networks of cooperation was a slow and gradual affair. When small bands merged into the first sapiens tribes in East Africa about 70 thousand years ago, these tribes numbered just hundreds

of people, perhaps a few thousand people. Until the Agricultural Revolution of 10 thousand years ago, we don’t know of any larger human groups.

These ancient tribes that lived tens of thousands of years ago were very different from other nations. Nationalists sometimes imagine that nations are like tribes, but they are not. The ancient tribes had no system of administration, taxation, or welfare. They didn’t have standing armies or police. Most importantly, the ancient tribes were relatively intimate communities of friends and relatives and not imagined communities of strangers.

A tribe of say 3 thousand people was divided into a number of bands that cooperated sporadically. From time to time, they would hunt together or celebrate a festival together or join forces to fight against a common enemy. If you lived in such a tribe, perhaps 10% of the population were your immediate friends and relatives. The other 90% were connected to you by very short chains of acquaintance. One person was perhaps your cousin’s best friend, another person was the brother of your nephew’s wife. There were very few complete strangers in the tribe.

This stands in sharp contrast to a modern nation, where more than 99% of the population is comprised of complete strangers. For example my home country of Israel is a very small nation. It has just 8 million citizens but still, that’s a lot. I don’t know even 1% of these 8 million people. I don’t know 80 thousand people. Actually, I don’t even know 8 thousand people. 99.99% of the people who share my Israeli citizenship are complete strangers to me.

I may imagine them as my brothers and friends but this is just imagination. I never met most Israelis and I am very unlikely to eve rmeet most Israelis. They are not my cousin’s best friend, they are not my nephew’s wife.

The same goes for the territory. An ancient hunter-gatherer tribe roamed a territory of perhaps a few hundred square kilometers. If you lived in such a tribe, you knew intimately every path, every rock, every tree. In contrast, Israel has a territory of about 20 thousand square kilometers. Hungary has a territory of 93 thousand square kilometers. Russia has 17 million square kilometers.

Most Russians have never visited most of Russia. Even small Israel is mostly unfamiliar territory to most Israelis. If you drop me at a random place in the Negev desert or in the Galilee Mountains or even in suburban Tel Aviv, I would have no idea where I am. I don’t know the territory of my nation.

So people often equate modern nationalism with ancient tribalism, but this is a complete mistake. The amazing thing about modern nations is that they found ways to make people care about strangers they never met and to care about places they never visited. And this was mostly beyond the power of the ancient tribes. This is why in ancient times when tribes grew bigger and bigger, eventually the percentage of strangers was too high and the tribe split.

Australia for example was colonized about 40-50 thousand years ago. Perhaps by one tribe, perhaps by a few tribes. But when Europeans got there in the 18th century they didn’t encounter a single Australian nation, or a handful of Australian nations. They encountered hundreds of different and sometimes hostile tribes because they split overtime.

So one important lesson to remember is that nations aren’t tribes and nationalism isn’t tribalism. Some nationalists – because they want to make nationalism seem very ancient and very natural – they insist on blurring the difference between nations and tribes. But this is a mistake. Even if we accept the equation of nations with tribes, it doesn’t make nationalism an eternal and natural part of human biology. Because as noted earlier even tribes are at most about 70 thousand years old whereas humans are more than 2 million years old. So even tribalism, not to mention nationalism, is a late comer in human evolution.

Some nationalists go on to claim that the national sentiment is as ancient and natural as the mother-child bond. It’s very common to speak about the nation as a mother like in the phrase ‘Mother Russia’, but this is even more far-fetched. This is fantasy. The bond with entities like ‘Mother Russia’ is perhaps – let’s be very generous – 70 thousand years old. In contrast, the mother-child bond in mammals is at least 70 million years old. It long predates the emergence of the first humans.

To summarize what we’ve seen so far. For millions of years, humans lived in small bands numbering dozens of people. Then, for tens of thousands of years humans lived in tribes numbering thousands of people at most. Only after the agricultural revolution and after the invention of writing and money about five thousand years ago, do we begin to see the emergence of large kingdoms, empires, and nations.

Transforming different tribes into a single nation was never simple. Not in ancient times and not today. Because the main problem, as noted earlier, is that whereas ancient tribes were intimate communities of people who actually know one another, nations are communities of strangers.

Now, we need to be careful to distinguish strangers from foreigners. A foreigner is somebody who speaks a different language, looks different from me, has a different culture from me. In contrast, a stranger may speak my language, may look like me, may share my culture, but he or she is still a stranger because I never met them, and I don’t know them personally.

Large nations appeared when developments like agriculture, like writing, like better communication enabled the same culture to be shared by many strangers – by millions of strangers. This sometimes happened violently and sometimes voluntarily. But in any case, it was not enough for millions of strangers to share a culture in order to create a nation. Since nobody can have intimate relations with millions of people – in order to transform a culture into a nation – it was always necessary to somehow make people bond with strangers, care about strangers. This is the great project of nationalism. To make humans bond with strangers.

Now this great project involves two tasks. One task, easy, the other task, very difficult. The easy part of nationalism is to make people prefer people like me over foreigners. That’s easy because humans have been doing that for millions of years. Xenophobia is to a large extent unfortunately in our DNA. If I encounter two people who I’ve never met before, I don’t know them personally, so they are both strangers in this sense. But one person looks like me, speaks my language, and shares my culture. Whereas the other looks different and speaks a foreign language. Then I will almost always prefer the stranger who looks like me over the foreigner. That’s the easy part of nationalism.

But the much more important part of nationalism is not about hating foreigners. Because nationalism has a second and far more important and far more difficult component. That component is to sometimes prefer strangers over friends and relatives. For example, suppose I am a government official. Maybe in the interior ministry. And there is a job opening and I am interviewing people. To decide who gets the job I need to decide between two applicants. One applicant is a brilliant woman whom I have never met before. The other applicant is a rather mediocre person, but she happens to be my cousin. Now what should I do?

Millions of years of evolution are screaming inside my brain: “don’t be stupid, give the job to your cousin.” But nationalism tells me: “no, you should give the job to the brilliant stranger because a good Patriot places national interests ahead of family connections and the nation needs the best civil servants. Giving the job to your cousin would be corruption and a betrayal of the nation.”

Another example. Suppose two children are sick. One child is an unknown stranger living in a distant town I’ve never visited in my life. The other child is my own daughter. Now I earn about say two thousand euros a month and in emergencies I can spend maybe one thousand euros on healthcare. Again what should I do?

Evolution tells me that’s a no-brainer – it’s obvious: “take the one thousand euro and spend them on your daughter. Take her to the best private clinic and give her the best treatment available.” But again nationalism says no: “a good patriot of course takes care of his or her family, but all citizens are part of your family. So spend only 500 euros on your own daughter and pay the other 500 euros in taxes, which the government will use to finance public healthcare services to less fortunate children in distant parts of the country.” Again, evolution will tell me: “no way – cheat the government, evade somehow paying all your taxes.” And nationalism will reply and say that “this is corruption or in extreme cases this could be even treason.”

Over thousands of years, nationalism as well as other ideologies and religion have managed to somehow, to some extent, weaken our natural tendencies towards nepotism and tax evasion. And convinced us that at least in some cases we should put the interest of strangers, who are from our nation, before the interests of friends and family. Nationalism thus made us care about strangers and this has been one of the most positive developments in human history.

It’s a dangerous mistake to imagine that without nationalism we would all be living in some kind of liberal paradise. Much more likely we would be living in tribal chaos. In which nobody cares about anyone except his or her immediate friends and family. And in which it is impossible to build large-scale systems of healthcare, education, and security.

Even democracy can rarely function without at least some level of nationalism. What people often don’t understand about democratic elections is that democratic elections are a system to resolve disagreements between people who already agree on the basics. People who really care about one another and share some core values despite their disagreements. Elections work well, only in situations when I think that my political rivals are wrong and perhaps even stupid, but I don’t hate them and they don’t hate me.

When people hate one another and when society is divided into hostile tribes, then democracy is untenable. Because in such a situation, people feel that all means are legitimate to win the election, because if we lose our tribe is in danger. Whoever wins the election takes care only of their own tribe and whoever loses the election is unwilling to accept the verdict because what do I care about people who don’t care about me.

When a state lacks strong national feelings it can function as a dictatorship or it might descend into civil war. But it will find it increasingly difficult to function as a democracy. This is the situation today in countries like Congo, or Afghanistan, or South Sudan. It is no coincidence that democracies first evolved in countries like Britain and Denmark – which already prior to that had a fairly strong national sentiment. Even today, democracies find it hard to survive without the help of nationalism

Contrary to a common opinion, there is a strong and positive connection between nationalism and democracy. And contrary to another common opinion, the crisis that many democracies today find themselves in is the result – less of an upsurge of nationalism – it’s actually the result of the weakening of national ties. When nationalism is too strong it usually manifests itself through a lot of vicious conflicts between nations. As happened in Europe a century ago.

But today there are few such conflicts between nations. For example in Europe, most conflicts are within nations. Which indicates that nationalism of the right kind is actually quite weak. There is no lack of xenophobia in the world. Hating strangers, hating foreigners, that’s present for sure. But nationalism is not about hating foreigners. Nationalism is about loving your compatriots. And currently there is a global shortage of such love and there is a shortage of such love also in Europe in countries like Iraq and Syria and Yemen.

Internal hatreds and weak national sentiments have led to the complete disintegration of the state and to murderous civil wars. In countries like the United States, weakening national sentiments have led to growing rifts within society and to a winner-takes-all mentality. The hatred within American society today has reached such a level that many Americans hate their fellow citizens far more than they hate or fear the Chinese or the Russians or the Mexicans.

Many leaders today who present themselves as nationalists are in fact the exact opposite. Instead of strengthening national unity, they intentionally widen the rifts within society by using inflammatory language and divisive politics. And by depicting anybody who opposes them not as a legitimate rival, but rather as a dangerous traitor. This is true of the President of the United States. It’s true in my country in Israel, and it’s true in many other countries today around the world. When these kinds of leaders see a wound in the national body they don’t put a healing medicine on it. Rather they take their finger and start poking inside the wound to try, deliberately, to enlarge it and reopen it.

So, we see that nationalism is important, but it’s also fragile. Realizing both the importance and the fragility of nationalism is very relevant to many debates today. Especially perhaps the raging debate about immigration here in Hungary and Europe and many other parts of the world. Realizing that nationalism is important but fragile questions some of the arguments on both sides of this debate.

On the one hand, people who oppose immigration often imagine the nation as some kind of eternal entity that existed from time immemorial, and that should not be allowed to be polluted by foreigners or foreign influences. But this is pure fantasy. All nations existing today are relatively recent creations. There were no Austrians or Italians or Israelis five thousand years ago. Most present-day European nations are perhaps a thousand years old and some are much younger. All of them have been created by uniting people who previously were belonging to hostile and different tribes and ethnic groups. Modern Germans for example were created from the merger of Saxons and Prussians and Swabians and Bavarians – who not long ago wasted very little of love on one another.

During the 30-year war in the 17th century, Protestant Prussians and Catholic Bavarians treated each other with murderous hostility – even worse than what you see today, say between Shiites and Sunnis in Iraq. Otto Von Bismarck, the great unifier of Germany, allegedly remarked after reading Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ that the Bavarian is the missing link between the Austrian and the human. And of course by human he meant Prussian.

Moreover, although modern nation is the product of internal unification alone. No matter in which country you live, you would be living a very poor life if you limited yourself only to the products, inventions, and ideas of your own nation. Would you like to eat, all your life, only Hungarian food – never tasting foreign dishes like sushi or curry? What is Hungarian food anyway? Paprika, for example is certainly not Hungarian. Paprika originated in Mexico. It was the Indians in Mexico who domesticated it. It was brought to Europe only by the Spaniards in the 16th century and became a central part of Hungarian cuisine just two to three hundred years ago. So should patriotic Hungarians stop using paprika because this is a foreign intrusion into the authentic Hungarian cuisine?

Similarly, should Hungarians stop playing football just because it was invented by the English? Should they stop reading all foreign literature from Toy Story to Harry Potter and read only pure Hungarian text? If they do that they will have to give up the Bible also as it was written by these Middle Eastern people and brought here by immigrants from the Middle East. That’s really ridiculous.

On the other hand, the importance and fragility of nationalism also raises questions about the wisdom of trying to absorb too many immigrants, too quickly. People who favor immigration often discount the very real problems that mass immigration poses to the national unity of countries. Or else, they discount the dangers of undermining the national sentiment. Thus they often fail to appreciate the deep historical connection between nationalism and democracy. And the fact that in the absence of nationalism, democracy is constantly in danger of descending into tribalism.

So perhaps themost important thing to say about the immigration debate in Europe is that both sides have legitimate views. Those who favor immigration are wrong to depict their rivals as immoral racists, while those who oppose immigration are wrong to depict all their rivals as irrational traitors. This is not a battle between good and evil. It is an argument between two legitimate views that can and should be decided through the normal democratic procedures.

It would be wrong, I think, of any government to force mass immigration on an unwilling population. Immigrationis a long-term process, a difficult process. To succeed, you need the support of the local population. On the other hand it would be a equally wrong to destroy the democratic system in order to allegedly protect the purity of the country from immigrants. It is very alarming that in several European countries, and also in other places around the world, autocratic leaders are inflaming excessive fears of immigration in order to undermine the foundations of democracy.

Now I’ve spent quite a long time on the bright side of nationalism, but of course it would be wrong to completely ignore the dark side. When nationalism goes to extreme, it can certainly lead to war and to genocide. And it can foster dictatorial, and even fascist tendencies. Perhaps it would be good to explain in a few words what fascism is and how it is different from nationalism because too many people confuse the two, and think that any nationalist is a fascist or any sign of nationalism is a sign of fascism

So in brief – what nationalism tells me is that my nation is unique and I have special obligations towards my nation. In contrast, fascism tells me that my nation is supreme and that I have exclusive obligations towards it. According to fascism, my nation is the only important thing in the world and I shouldn’t care about anyone or anything except my nation. If I need to sacrifice my family for the nation, I should sacrifice my family. If I need to kill millions of people for the nation, I should kill millions of people. If I need to betray truth and betray beauty for the nation, I should have no hesitancy about doing that too.

For example – how does a fascist evaluate art? How does a fascist decide whether a movie is a good movie? It’s very simple, there is just one yardstick. If the movie serves the interest of the nation, it’s a good movie, If the movie doesn’t serve the interest of the nation, it’s a bad movie. Similarly, how does the fascist decide what to teach kids in history lessons in school? Again, there is only one yardstick. Not the truth, but the interests of the nation. You should teach kids whatever serves the interest of the nation, no matter what the truth is.

The horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust remind us of the terrible consequences of this way of thinking. But today, fascism and other extreme forms of nationalism are even more dangerous than what they were in the 1930s. Because today they might lead – not just to war and genocide. But they might also prevent humanity from dealing with three existential threats that can only be solved through global cooperation. These threats are nuclear war, climate change, and technological disruption.

These three threats threaten the survival and prosperity of all the nations and they cannot be dealt with by any single nation by itself. They cannot be dealt with just by waving flags and building walls on the border. You cannot build a wall against nuclear winter. You cannot build a wall against global warming. And no nation can regulate artificial intelligence and bioengineering by itself, because no government controls all the scientists and engineers in the world.

Consider for example conducting genetic engineering experiments on humans. Every country will say: “we don’t want to conduct such experiments, we are the good guys. But we cannot trust our rivals not to do it, so we must do it before them. We cannot allow ourselves to remain behind.” Similarly, consider developing autonomous weapon systems. Killer robots. Again, every country will say: “this is a very dangerous technology and it should be regulated carefully, but we don’t trust our rivals to regulate it so we must develop it first.”

If we allow such an AI arms race or a genetic arms race to develop it doesn’t matter who wins the arms race. The loser will be humanity. The only thing that can prevent such destructive arms races is not building walls between countries, but rather building trust between countries – which is not impossible. If today the Germans promised the French “trust us, we aren’t building killer robots in some secret laboratory under the Alps”, the French are likely to trust the Germans despite the terrible history of these two countries. We need to build this kind of trust globally. For the survival of humanity, we need to reach a point when Americans and Chinese can trust one another like the French and the Germans.

Similarly, we need to build a global safety net to protect all humans against the coming economic shocks that the AI revolution will unleash. Automation will create immense new wealth in high-tech hubs like Silicon Valley, and eastern China. While at the same time, the worst effects will be felt in developing countries, whose economies depend on cheap manual labor. There will be many more jobs for software engineers in San Francisco and Shanghai. But there will be fewer jobs for factory workers and truck drivers in Mexico and in Bangladesh.

Unless we find solutions, on a global level, to the disruptions caused by AI, entire countries could collapse. And the resulting chaos, violence, and waves of immigration will destabilize the entire world. So in order to survive and flourish in the 21st century, humankind needs better global cooperation. And nationalism need not prove an impossible barrier for such cooperation.

I know that some politicians, like the US president, argue that there is an inherent contradiction between nationalism and globalism. That we should reject globalism and choose nationalism.

But this is a mistake. Not because you need to choose globalism, but rather because there is no contradiction between nationalism and globalism. For nationalism isn’t about hating foreigners. Nationalism is about loving your compatriots and taking care of your compatriots. And in the 21st century, the only way to guarantee the safety and prosperity of your compatriots, is by cooperating with foreigners. So good nationalists should now be globalists.

Globalism doesn’t mean abandoning all national loyalties and traditions. It certainly doesn’t mean opening the border to unlimited immigration. I know that there is a conspiracy theory going around that globalists want to abolish all restrictions on immigration and flood Europe with tens of millions of foreigners. But this is complete nonsense. I happen to know quite a few globalists, and none of them want that.

Globalism in fact means two far more modest and far more reasonable things. First, globalism means a commitment to some global rules. These rules don’t deny the uniqueness of each nation, and the loyalty people should owe their nation. Rather, the global rules just regulate the relations between nations.

A good model to think about it is the world football Cup. The World Cup is a competition between nations. And people often show fierce loyalty to their national team. But at the same time the World Cup is also an amazing display of global harmony. France cannot play football against Croatia unless the French and the Croatians first agree on the same rules for the game. A thousand years ago it would have been absolutely impossible to bring the French, Croatians, Japanese, and Argentinians to play games together in Russia. Even if you could somehow get them there, they could never agree on the rules. But today we can do it. And that’s globalism in action. If you like the world football Cup, then you are a globalist.

The second principle of globalism is that sometimes it is necessary to prefer global interests over national interests. Not always, but sometimes. For example, again in the world football Cup, all national teams agree not to use forbidden drugs to enhance the performance of their athletes. Even if you can win the the cup by drugging your football players, you shouldn’t do it. Because if you do it, other nations will soon copy your example. The world football Cup will become a competition between biochemists and the sport will be ruined.

As in football, so also in economics. We should balance global and national interests. Even in a globalized world, the vast majority of the taxes you pay will still go to provide healthcare and education to people in your nation. But sometimes, nations will agree to slow down their economic growth, and the technological development, in order to prevent catastrophic climate change, and to prevent the spread of dangerous technologies.

Now it’s true that in the past humans never managed to create effective global cooperation. But humans can learn new tricks. Nations too, were once a very new trick. When five thousand years ago, some tribes united to form the first nations there were probably a lot of conservative people who said “this is impossible, undesirable, and unnatural to create a nation. We want to stay in tribes.” On the long way from small hunter-gatherer bands to global cooperation, nationalism is much closer to the global pole.

In the beginning, and for millions of years, we humans could cooperate effectively only with perhaps 80 friends and relatives. Thanks to nationalism now people can cooperate with 80 million or even 800 million strangers. The distance left until we can cooperate with 8 billion strangers is comparatively small. Now, this isn’t a call for the establishment of a global government, which is a dangerous and unrealistic vision. Rather, I think our goal should be global harmony without uniformity.

Like an orchestra in which every instrument is different but they all play in harmony. If all instruments are the same, there is uniformity, it’s lifeless. If each instrument is doing its own thing in complete disregard of the others, what you get is terrible noise. We need to find a balanced middle path.

So to conclude, my main message is that we don’t need to choose between nationalism and globalism because there is no contradiction between them. Without self-confident nations humankind is more likely to split into warring tribes than to establish global cooperation. On the other hand, without global cooperation, no nation can deal with the challenges of the 21st century.

What does all this mean in practice? It means that we need to give more weight to global problems and global interests within the existing framework of nation-states. When the next elections come along, and politicians are imploring you to vote for them. You need to ask these politicians four questions. If you are elected:

  1. What actions will you take to lessen the risks of nuclear war?
  2. What actions will you take to lessen the risks of climate change?
  3. What actions will you take to regulate disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence and bioengineering?
  4. And finally, how do you see the world of 2050? What is your worst-case scenario? And what is your vision for the best-case scenario?

If some politicians don’t understand these questions. Or, if they constantly talk about the past without being able to formulate a meaningful vision for the future, don’t vote for these politicians. Thank you

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