A hundred years is a generous span of time for the world to be able to look back in humility and learn lessons from its bloodied history. The centenary of the First World War hosted by France this month brought together the leaders of nations to stand shoulder to shoulder and reflect upon what they can do to make the people they lead learn to live with each other, within and outside their borders. France’s President Emmanuel Macron made a clarion call to his brethren on paying heed to the growing brand of nationalism that is sweeping the globe. Macron’s reminder is timely. As the world is rocked by the forces let loose by political and religious extremism, triggering an unprecedented displacement of people due to ethnic wars, strife and violence, there has never been a more urgent need to rescue the values of liberalism and secularism from the threat of marginalisation.
Everlasting peace for the club of nations may arguably be a chimera, but the latter half of the 20th century did provide enough proof that if world leaders wish, they can create a world order based on the principles of development and dignity for all people, which is the closest we can get to a realistic experience of global peace.
The two World Wars, and the horrors of devastation, death, violence and unmatched cruelty of man towards man they brought, are unforgettable lessons in how strident nationalism can bring doom to mankind. Remembering these lessons, however, cannot be attempted while attending the classroom of nationalism — a concept fraught with biases.
Nationalism can be a cohesive force when it courts secular beliefs in its pursuit of development. Some experts term this ‘civic nationalism’. In other words, when the larger vision for national good is not a pure distillation of race and ethnic superiority, but is formulated on inclusivity, it can actually be a progressive force. Because inclusivity is not only a sound statecraft, it also fulfils the function of a moral imperative and together, they deliver stability and dignity to the human race. This moral imperative also ennobles national collectivism to seek kinship with patriotism, which is an individual’s birthright that transcends divisiveness and coheres people. A progressive nation knows the difference between nationalism and patriotism.
As history has repeatedly warned us, the danger of not having a moral compass, whether for an individual or a nation state, has invariably led us to an existential wasteland.
The two World Wars are stark reminders of that incontrovertible reality.