Ebola and the Allure of Nationalism

Note: This post is intended as a thought-article, and is less empirically driven than most of my blogposts. If you have data relevant to points in the article below, please feel free to reach out and share them with me. 

The international response to the outbreak of the Ebola virus in Africa reflects the persistence of state nationalism. While the international community moves towards an increasingly internationalized society, distinct national identities are unlikely to disappear in the foreseeable future.

At first glance, this doesn’t make much sense– our interconnected, globalized community operates in a world where instant communication and high-speed travel render specific geographic locations largely interchangeable. As our global economy continues to develop, major urban hubs such as New York, Paris or Beijing begin to look increasingly similar. This trend towards global internationalism has been accompanied by an upswing in the focus on human universality; an emphasis on similarities in the human experience. In short, humanity has never been so focused on the sameness of allegedly diverse peoples.

In turn, this has led to a widespread endorsement of a new depth to the commitment to human equality. After all, if everyone is essentially the same, then countries, citizenships, and nationalities become divisions along arbitrary lines. Nationalism, a “belief, creed or political ideology that involves an individual identifying with, or becoming attached to, one’s nation” should be on its way out. But despite these ideological developments, nationalism does not show signs of disappearing. To the contrary, nationalist parties are on the rise across the European continent.

Analyzing the response and obligations to the Ebola crisis help highlight the allure of state nationalism and why, despite the trends towards increasing globalism, nationalism will persist as an attractive ideology.

When Ebola cases began streaming out of Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia, the primary concern in the international community was containing the spread of the disease. With an apparently incurable disease on the prowl, everyone was scared. Across the world, domestic audiences debated proper defensive measures to protect their own nations from the contracting the disease. On the other hand, the logistics involved in sending doctorss and nurses to treat African patients infected with the disease were only a secondary concern. Furthermore, those Westerners infected with Ebola could expect life-saving treatment in world-class hospitals, while native Africans have to make do with the resources on the ground. The first Ebola patient to be treated on American soil was American doctor Kent Brantly. Brantly was flown to the United States for treatment in August. The Ebola outbreak began in March.

According to globalized values of human equality, every human life has the same value. In a sheer utilitarian sense, such a mentality may require behavior that endangers your own safety for the greater good of those around you. Everyone is the same, and humanity has a responsibility to look out for everyone else.

While the idea of a global responsibility is attractive, the ramifications scare people. Even if many more Ebola patients could have been treated and saved in U.S. hospitals, United States citizens are insufficiently altruistic to voluntarily expose themselves to the potential for a deadly disease for “someone else’s” problem. Nationalism helps justify the establishment of otherness and putting your own interests before those of others. Even more powerfully, a nationalist mentality demands that a government puts its own citizens’ interests first.

When global responsibility does not jeopardize core national interests, then countries are willing to support wider humanitarian concerns. However, the spread of globalized values has not convinced domestic societies to place an equal weight on their own safety and welfare as that of human beings across the globe.

A national structure limits the extent of obligations within a support network. The nation accepts some level of responsibility for the welfare of those within the state, but shields itself from an unmitigated requirement to alleviate all of the world’s ailments. While nationalism limits a society’s liability, it also demands a gamble: if the time comes where that society faces a crisis, the society is betting on that their specific group resources will be sufficient to addressing the problem. [1]

For many states, particularly well-off states, nationalism provides an attractive alternative to the moral and financial burden of global responsibility. Tying this back to the European Union, individual European states are questioning the utility of committing their resources into a larger pot—some are thinking of hedging their bets to narrow their scope of responsibility. In turn, this has created a backlash against European Union obligations.

Therefore, for the instrumental purposes outlined above, throwing away the nationalist support network will likely remain politically unpopular. Ideological trends aside, nationalism looks like it will be around for the foreseeable future.


[1] Unsurprisingly, the most dangerous states often struggle with a cohesive national identity; as people do not trust the capabilities of their national groups to protect them. This theoretical approach to nationalism as a protective organization has been influenced by Tilly, Charles, et al. War making and state making as organized crime. Cambridge University Press, 1985.


About Brian Mund

UPenn '13; YLS '18. My research focuses on sovereignty, the United Nations and the legitimacy of secession.
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