Patriotism, Nationalism and Isolationism Then and Now

isolationism graphics

An article in The Orient in November 1912 sarcastically referred to then-former Minister of the Interior Talat Bey and his colleagues in the Committee of Union and Progress as “high-minded patriots.” They had plotted a coup d’état against the 1912 Entente Liberale government and had been arrested. The editor noted that the attempt showed “a lamentable lack of understanding of the elements of patriotism on the part of [the] former leaders,” who, in an article less than two months later, were said to be “capable of almost anything for the sake of gaining the upper hand.” I’ve been thinking a lot lately about political isms, and the general and lamentable lack of understanding of the differences of patriotism, nationalism, and isolationism.


Buy British Empire-grown Tea

A patriotic promotion to buy tea from the British Empire, courtesy of Imagining Markets.

Patriotism is defined as devoted love, support, and defence of one’s country—an emotional attachment to one’s homeland. There are many aspects to patriotism, including ethnic, cultural, political and historical. With true patriotism, part of supporting your country is offering constructive criticism, and continually working to make it better. In his 1945 essay Notes on Nationalism, George Orwell wrote, “By patriotism I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world, but has no wish to force upon other people.”


Join or die - snake

Promotion by American Benjamin Franklin to entice his compatriots to fight for independence from Great Britain.

Nationalism is often used synonymously but erroneously with patriotism. They share the sense of devotion to one’s country, but nationalism has more to do with political power, self-government, and developing and maintaining a national identity. The rise of pre-World War I nationalism caused the demise of the world’s empires (British, German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman), but also the independence of many of today’s nations. While nationalism can involve a sense of pride in national achievements, as Orwell wrote, nationalism “is inseparable from the desire for power.”


Isolationism is the policy of isolating one’s country from the affairs of other nations by declining to enter into alliances, economic agreements, and other international commitments. Its purpose is solely concerned with the advancement of one’s own country and avoidance of foreign responsibilities. The late Ottoman Empire and early Nationalist Party promoted “Turkey for Turks,” and did its best to remove Christians and foreign influence from the country. Recently candidate Marine Le Pen ran on the slogan and policy of “Choisir la France” (Choose France); she didn’t win the election, but did get 11 million votes. President Woodrow Wilson campaigned on “America First” to keep the United States out of WWI; he succeeded until 1917.  The short-lived America First Committee tried to keep the country out of WWII, but shut down after the invasion of Pearl Harbor. During his inaugural address, current US President Donald Trump reminded his fellow Americans that his policies would put “America First.” He is certainly attempting to isolate his country by dropping out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and threatening to drop out of NAFTA, NATO, and other agreements. Unfortunately, what isolationists fail to realize is that this policy is usually detrimental to a nation’s economy, and to a nation’s international relationships.

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