The Winter Olympics encourage a healthy feeling of patriotism that does not unleash the tiger of unthinking nationalism.
he Winter Olympics have come and gone. Britain, my home country, exceeded expectations and won five medals. On the diplomatic front, North and South Korea managed to mend the wounds of 60 years of conflict and tension enough to walk out together at the opening ceremony and compete as a united team. Despite the inevitable intrusion of politics, the games seemed to herald a brief interval for the countries participating to put aside some of the animosity they feel for each other and compete in a non life-and-death struggle.
These games demonstrated that the nation is still the social unit that most people associate themselves with today. It is hard to imagine a European Union team inspiring much loyalty and enthusiasm, for example. The Olympics, as with other sporting events, showed that patriotism is not automatically a bad thing that leads to violence and bigotry, as some assume. Far from being an example of malignant globalism that some on the right see through their ideologically skewed lenses, the Olympics proved that sport is a way of bringing people together while still retaining the boundaries and attachments of nationhood.
The Olympics and other international sporting events are arguably examples of Henry R. Nau’s conservative internationalism seen through the prism of sport. Nations are a small enough unit of social organization that they are comprehensible to people. They are made up of people who share a similar culture, history, language and ways of doing things. Amorphous transnational organizations like the EU and the United Nations are too big for people to relate to or feel any real affection for. When bureaucracies like the EU and UN displace the nation as the largest conception of a tangible “we,” people are left feeling disconnected from their peers, wallowing in a sea of atomized individuals who are all alone together, to borrow Sherry Turkle’s phrase.
The Winter Olympics and similar events are the opposite of this. They encourage a healthy feeling of patriotism that does not unleash the tiger of unthinking nationalism, a beast many have tried to ride and instead have been devoured by. There is a balance to be struck between a total investment in nationalism and a total belief in globalism. Nationalism, at its most potent, is too closed off to outside influences, ideas and beliefs. It is inflexible and ultimately leads to stasis and degradation. Globalism on the other hand, in its most open-borders form, removes the bonds that tie people together, give their lives meaning and allow them to exist in the world as part of a community. Nationalism, taken to its closed extreme causes excessive order, while globalism taken to its open extreme causes excessive chaos. Each represents a threat to the kind of society most people want to live in.
The Winter Olympics encourages feelings of national pride and sentiment, which is good for the cohesiveness of the nations involved. It allows people to express their affection for the place they call home in a healthy manner, while at the same time not being stripped of all feelings of competition and assertiveness. At the same time, due to its very nature, it encourages the conservative internationalism that Mr. Nau discussed in his essay; nations are distinct from each other, and that is good.
That does not mean, however, that there should not be an exchange of culture and ideas between them. They should not exist in isolation from each other, otherwise life would be devoid of the beneficial interactions between people of diverse backgrounds. This does not mean that there should be a completely open free-for-all, as that is a recipe for unhappiness, dislocation, resentment and unrest.
There is a balance between openness and restriction. The Olympics and sports in general that consist of national teams competing against each other show that it is possible to live in a globalized world, where people can be as interconnected as they are, while still retaining a sense of loyalty and affection for the place they call home. We should be grateful for events like the Winter Olympics for reminding us that having pride for our homeland is not a bad thing.