Liberal Nationalism

Giuseppe Mazzini, a 14-point plan, and the Scottish National Party may seem like a random assortment of words, but a key thing they have in common is the promotion of liberal nationalism. If that's not clear enough, let's take a more in-depth look into liberal nationalism in this article!

Liberal Nationalism Liberal Nationalism

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Table of contents

    Liberal nationalism – Meaning

    Liberal nationalism, as the name suggests, applies the principles of Liberalism to Nationalism. The principles it particularly focuses on are Individualism and self-determination. It then extends the right of self-determination beyond the individual and argues that nation-states should be able to determine their own path. As such, liberal nationalism focuses on the Nation State.

    Self-determination in nationalism is the right of a people to decide their political destiny and form their own political structure. This can mean the right to choose your own government, the right to independence, or autonomy (or all three!).

    Another defining feature of liberal nationalism that sets it apart from other forms of nationalism, such as Ethnic Nationalism, is that it is inclusive. We can see this because it advocates for the civic nation. That is, anyone committed to the nation’s values is permitted to be a part of that nation irrespective of ethnic origin, language or religion.

    For more on the civic nation, see Civic Nationalism.

    Liberal nationalists also reject hereditary monarchy in favour of a democratic government. As such, liberal nationalism differs from other branches of nationalism as it is progressive, inclusive and promotes the liberal values of tolerance and individualism.

    Liberal Nationalism Founding members of the United Nations StudySmarterFig. 1 The founding members of the United Nations.

    The goal of liberal nationalism is to establish a peaceful world order in which a collection of independent nation-states can live together in harmony, and therefore liberal nationalism often promotes ideas of liberal internationalism.

    Liberal internationalism is the idea that all nation-states need to respect the right of sovereignty that each nation-state possesses, and they should all be equal.

    Liberal nationalism promotes self-determination free from interference. Due to a lack of constraints and interference. This freedom from interference has caused many to argue that the inability to interfere may lead to some nations acting in ways that are detrimental to other nations. Whilst liberal nationalists believe that war would naturally be reduced through adherence to liberal nationalist ideas, there is no guarantee that this will always work. Therefore, to combat issues that may arise, liberal nationalists, especially liberal internationalists, believe that international organisations such as the United Nations must be established to keep the peace.

    Civic nationalism

    Civic Nationalism is a form of liberal nationalism which focuses on shared and equal citizenship. According to civic nationalism, a country's sovereignty is built on its inhabitants' commitment to honouring their civic duties. Civic nationalism is characterised by a dedication to liberal concepts like tolerance, democracy, and individual rights. It depends on the embrace of common principles by citizens. People strive to abide by certain laws to enjoy society's advantages in a civic society.

    Examples of liberal nationalism

    The USA is one of the most famous examples of countries founded on liberal nationalism today. This is because American society is multi-ethnic and multicultural, but people are patriotically American. They may have different racial origins, languages, or religious origins, but they are brought together by the Constitution and liberal nationalist values such as freedom. In practice, however, the extent to which the US can accurately serve as an example of liberal nationalism is contested due to the systemic racism and marginalisation of numerous ethnic groups.

    In the United Kingdom, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru (a Welsh political party) both describe themselves as liberal nationalists who advocate for independence and popular sovereignty to those who live in their nation and not based on ethnicity or history.

    Liberal nationalism – History

    Liberal nationalism emerged out of the French Revolution and the wider Enlightenment Period. This period of time saw radical political and societal change in France, and these changes sought to free individuals from imperialism and oppression. Giuseppe Mazzini and Jean-Jacques Rousseau were among some of the influential thinkers who were critical in spreading liberal nationalist ideologies across Europe during this period.

    The popularity of monarchical rule in this period began to wane due to reasons such as a reaction to the intellectual discussions around the Enlightenment, resentment to the cost of taxation to support endless wars across Europe and a desire for independence from the absolu rule of monarchs. This historical period led to the cementation of one of the core ideas of liberal nationalism; that nations needed to become Nation States.

    A nation-state is a nation of people who govern themselves on their own sovereign territory. The nation-state is a result of self-determination. Nation-states connect national identity with that of statehood.

    Liberal Nationalism Cartoon of Wilson's 14-point plan as a roadmap to peace StudySmarterFig. 2 Cartoon of Wilson's 14-point plan as a roadmap to peace.

    Liberal nationalist ideology also saw a strong re-emergence in the rhetoric at the end of World War I from US President Woodrow Wilson. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson presented his 14-point peace plan to end World War I in front of Congress. The plan was focused on territorial issues and how to bring about peace in the world; he wanted the world to accept that recognisable nations were entitled to be self-governing states that are free and thus, established the principles of liberal nationalism. The 14-point plan outlined the following:

    • All states had sovereignty, and therefore other states should not interfere in the matters of other sovereign states;

    • Governance of states should be based on the will and of the inhabitants of those states; and

    • All states must receive equality in terms of respect and recognition on an international scale.

    Woodrow Wilson's 14-point plan is often criticised due to events occurring in conjunction with the plan's emphasis on self-determination for all states. Whilst in Europe and the US, the agenda of liberal nationalism was being forwarded, in which it was agreed that states should not interfere with other states, and all states had the right to self-determination. Across the world, many nations in Africa and Asia were being left out of this discourse. In fact, many of the European states that promoted liberal nationalism, such as France and Britain, had vast colonial empires that were actively preventing nations the right to self-determination.

    Therefore, whilst liberal nationalism was presented as a way in which all nations could experience self-determination and prevent outbreaks of future war, in practice, this was applied almost exclusively to western nations. It would not be until the decolonisation periods of the 1950s and 1960s that African and Asian nations were able to exercise their right to self-determination.

    Liberal nationalism – Key thinkers

    Many key thinkers shaped liberal nationalism over the years; perhaps most important were Giuseppe Mazzini and Jean Jacques Rousseau.

    Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872)

    Liberal Nationalism Portrait of Giuseppe Mazzini  StudySmarterFig. 3 Portrait of Giuseppe Mazzini.

    Giuseppe Mazzini was an Italian nationalist. Mazzini formed ‘Young Italy’ in the 1830s, a movement that aimed to overthrow the hereditary monarchy that dominated Italian states. At this time, Italy was not the unified nation it is today. Mazzini was heavily involved in the Italian Revolution, where he became the leader of the Roman Republic due to his involvement in the liberation of Milan. Mazzini subscribed heavily to liberal nationalist ideals, and after forming 'Young Italy', Mazzini went on to form Young Europe to spread liberal nationalist ideas throughout Europe.

    Mazzini believed that every nation should be a nation-state, and whilst he sought after the unification of Italy as a nation-state, unfortunately, Mazzini did not live to see his dream come to fruition. It was not until after his death that Italy was unified as a republic.

    Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778)

    Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a French/Swiss philosopher who was heavily influenced by Liberalism and the French Revolution. Rousseau is an important thinker in liberal nationalism, with a particular emphasis on civic nationalism.

    A principal concept in Rousseau's writings was the general will. This was the idea that all nations had the right to self-determination as well as a shared collective spirit. Rousseau believed that governments should be founded on the will of the people of that nation and encouraged governments that served the people as opposed to the other way round.

    These are important figures to know for your exam.

    Liberal Nationalism - Key takeaways

    • Liberal nationalism applies principles of liberalism to nationalism, especially individualism and self-determination.

    • Civic nationalism is a form of liberal nationalism based on shared and equal citizenship.

    • Common examples of liberal nationalism include the USA, and Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru, UK political parties.

    • Liberal nationalism arose from the Enlightenment and French Revolution and aimed to free individuals from imperialism and oppression.

    • Liberal nationalist ideology also saw a strong re-emergence towards the end of the First World War.

    • Arguably, the most influential thinkers of liberal nationalism are Giuseppe Mazzini and Jean Jacques Rousseau.


    1. Fig. 1 United for peace and freedom - the founding members of the United Nations ( by Universalis ( Licensed by CC-BY-SA-4.0 ( on Wikimedia Commons
    Frequently Asked Questions about Liberal Nationalism

    What do you mean by liberal nationalists?

    A liberal nationalist is someone who believes in upholding the liberal principles of self-determination and individualism and applies them to the nation-state.

    What were the ideals of liberal nationalism?

    Self-determination, freedom, tolerance, democracy, and individualism. 

    What major issue was criticized by the liberal nationalists?

    Hereditary monarchy was an issue criticised by liberal nationalist, liberal nationalist believed the government should serve the people and not the other way round. 

    How did liberal nationalism develop in Europe?

    In Europe, liberal nationalism developed through the intellectual thought of the Enlightenment period and the growing resentment to hereditary monarchy, as well as  the spread of liberal ideas. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What is liberal nationalism?

    Which time period did liberal nationalism emerge?

    Which of the following is a form of liberal nationalism?


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