Over the past three centuries, the global capitalist system has oscillated between periods of internationalism and free trade and periods of nationalism and protectionism. In recent years, it has been evident that a new transition is underway, with tariffs and trade wars as well as the pandemic and armed conflict prompting a reconfiguration of supply chains and reshoring of industry. In an American or Western-European context, resurgent nationalism has mostly taken the form of limiting immigration and restricting trade; in other parts of the world, as we have been reminded in recent weeks, it is often a deadlier proposition. Historically, nationalistic turns have led to a reshuffling of international alliances, and it is increasingly obvious that our era is no exception, as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and now the war between Hamas and Israel make clear.

If the conflict in the Middle East could be resolved solely in the interest of preserving as many lives as possible, perhaps various proposals for the mass migration of Palestinians from their homeland to various Middle Eastern and Western countries would receive more support. As it stands, however, only a handful of libertarians and a few neoconservative politicians openly support such a solution. Most ordinary citizens on both sides feel that the conflict is about much more than safeguarding human lives: It is a struggle for national survival, to which end some lives will necessarily be sacrificed.

Not belonging to a nation is unimaginable to most people living today, but for most of history, it was the norm. As the political philosopher Benedict Anderson explained in his 1983 study, Imagined Communities, in the pre-industrial era, people’s sense of belonging was usually far more localized. They felt a tenuous affiliation with the broader administrative entity—kingdom or empire—that nominally ruled the territory in which they lived. Kings and emperors didn’t stake the legitimacy of their rule on notions of common origins or cultural or linguistic homogeneity within their lands—indeed, it wasn’t uncommon for them to speak different languages than the majority of their subjects. Instead, religion provided the most common unifying ideology. Unlike nationalism, religion typically underlined the differences between monarchs, aristocrats, and commoners, rather than asserting a common identity shared between rulers and ruled.