In the struggle of the Ukrainians to defeat the Russian invasion of their country, we can see the conflict between two kinds of patriotism: the patriotism of a liberal nation versus the patriotism of illiberal nationalism. To see this, we need to understand that the idea of a nation is distinguishable from the ideology of nationalism, because a people can feel a patriotic attachment to their nation without the xenophobic feelings of nationalism. Liberal democracy supports a patriotic sense of national identity but denies the illiberalism of xenophobic nationalism. The nationalist critics of liberalism are wrong when they say that liberalism must dissolve any sense of national patriotism.
As I have indicated in a previous post, Ukraine is a far more liberal country than Russia, at least as measured by the Human Freedom Index, although Ukraine has far to go in moving towards the liberalism of countries like Estonia. As Putin has clearly stated, the purpose of his invasion is to prevent Ukraine from moving towards the liberalism of the "Atlantic" world and to advance the illiberal vision of a Russian Eurasian Empire opposed to the liberalism of the West.
The courage of the Ukrainian people in risking their lives in defense of their liberal nation shows how liberalism can sustain national patriotism. But this Ukrainian liberal patriotism shows none of the xenophobia of malignant nationalism. This Ukrainian patriotism is not based on a national identity defined by race, religion, ethnicity, or language. One of many signs of that is that while Zelensky belongs to the small Jewish minority in Ukraine, he was elected president with over 70% of the vote. Ukraine must be one of the few countries in the world--other than Israel--where that could happen. And even as they fight this war against the Russian invaders, the Ukrainians have not shown any hatred of ethnic Russian, Russian-speaking, or Russian Orthodox citizens.
In thinking about how liberalism can be compatible with the human desire for national identity, one needs to raise a fundamental question: what does the existence of nations say about human beings? My thinking about this question has been stimulated by Steven Grosby, in his book Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2005), although my answer differs slightly from his.
First, we must ask what we mean by "nation." The Oxford English Dictionary defines "nation" as "a people or group of peoples," or "a large aggregate of communities united by factors such as common descent, language, culture, history, or occupation of the same territory, so as to form a distinct people." Notice the ambiguity in that a nation shows the unity of "a people" and the multiplicity of a "group of peoples."
Grosby conveys this ambiguity in saying that a nation exhibits "only a relative cultural uniformity" that is not absolute, because every nation will territorially encompass a number of different localities, regions, cultural traditions, languages, religions, and legal systems. Sometimes that will lead to separatist movements like that of Quebec in Canada, Scotland in Great Britain, or Catalonia in Spain. Consequently, every nation must try to manage the conflicts that arise from this diversity.
Grosby's brief definition of nation is "a territorial community of nativity." More elaborately, he explains:
"A nation requires a relatively extensive, bounded territory or an image of such a territory, the existence of which usually involves the following: a self-designating name, a centre (with institutions), a history that both asserts and is expressive of a temporal continuity, and a relatively uniform culture that is often based on a common language, religion, and law. Still, it is more faithful to the historical evidence to realize that each of these characteristics is rarely found to be absolute or complete; rather, they are processes in the development of interests, practices, and institutions, all of which are beset with ambiguities and tensions" (20).
The word nation is derived from the Latin word natus for "birth," which Grosby conveys by speaking of "nativity." Membership in a nation arises from being born into it. But then there are different ways to be born into a nation. According to the "ethnic" criterion of birth, one joins a nation by being born to parents who are recognized as members of that nation. According to the "civic" criterion of birth, one joins a nation by being born in the territory of that nation. According to the "naturalization" criterion of birth, the laws of immigration and citizenship can set procedures by which immigrants become "naturalized" citizens--that is, they are treated as if they were natural-born citizens.
What this shows is that membership in a nation is a social reality that human beings create and maintain through the language of collective recognition or acceptance: someone belongs to our nation when we agree to designate them as such. This means that the standards for membership in a nation are always changing as we change the institutional facts of citizenship. This is an example of what John Locke called "mixed modes" and what John Searle has called "institutional facts." (I have written about this previously.)
Our standards for membership in our nation will depend upon what we believe to be the best standards for promoting the well-being of our nation, and there will be debate over this. Liberals like Locke will argue for general laws of naturalization that make it easy for foreigners to immigrate to our nation. (I have written about Locke's open borders immigration policy as cultural group selection.) But illiberal nationalists like Trump, Le Pen, and Viktor Orban will argue that the well-being of the nation requires strict barriers to immigration.
This debate over open borders versus border walls depends ultimately on what we think the existence of nations says about human nature. For example, if you agree with someone like Frank Salter that people need to live in nations to satisfy their natural desire for ethnic identity, then you will probably agree with him that every nation should practice ethnic nepotism that favors its ethnic group over others.
But I have argued against this by claiming that while there is evidence for evolved instinctive tribalism or coalitional affiliation by which we distinguish between in-group and out-group, the cues for identifying who belongs to which group are set by social experience that is not instinctive but learned. Consequently, we can decide that the well-being of our nation requires a broad sense of national identity that does not depend on ethnicity, race, religion, or other narrowly exclusive forms of identity.
According to the ideology of nationalism, the existence of nations shows us that human beings naturally desire to live in a national community that is uniform and fixed in its biological and cultural identity as defined by race, ethnicity, religion, or language, which defines those who belong to "us" against those who belong to "them"--or the "people" against the "enemies of the people." There are the true Americans and those who are not. There are the true French and those who are not.
This ideology of nationalism makes two mistakes. First, no national community is absolutely uniform and fixed biologically or culturally. Even the most seemingly homogeneous country will have some cultural diversity that will create potential conflicts that have to be managed. So, for example, Putin is forced to recognize this problem in that while he often appeals to Russian nationalism based on a shared Russian ethnicity and religion, he also has to admit that Russia is a multiethnic and multireligious society, and so Russian national identity must somehow recognize that diversity.
A liberal nation will manage those multicultural conflicts by looking for compromises and promoting civility. One way a liberal regime does that is by distinguishing state and society and saying that while the state will coercively enforce those criminal and civil laws necessary to secure individual liberty, but without enforcing a tight moral community based on some conception of the best way of life, people will be free in civil society to form such moral communities organized around families, churches, schools, neighborhoods, and other voluntary associations. One example of this is how the Amish immigrated to North America so that they would be free to establish and maintain their tightly organized moral communities without being persecuted. I have spoken about this in my responses to the communitarian critique of liberalism coming from people like Patrick Deneen and Rod Dreher.
The second mistake made by the ideology of nationalism is the assumption that human beings cannot extend their sense of affiliation beyond their own nation. In fact, human beings engage in all kinds of activities, occupations, and organizations that bind them into global networks of cooperation and affiliative attachments. The monotheistic religions, global charities, international commercial trade, scientific research, human rights organizations, and all of those millions of global networks of cooperation show how we extend our social concern beyond our nations to all of humanity.
We see that displayed now when people around the world wave the Ukrainian flag, sing the Ukrainian national anthem, and come to the aid of Ukraine in its war against Russia, because they see that the victory of this liberal nation in defending its liberal social order from conquest by an illiberal power will serve the interests of many nations by showing the resoluteness of liberal patriotism in defense of national liberty.