Self-determination is the essence of nationalism. A nationalist believes that a people or a nation can only have an autonomous and authentic existence, according to their own traditions, language, values and norms, in a state of their own. He often sees himself as a force for democracy. Self-determination, the national liberation of a nation that is captured in an alien state and that has to follow the decision of an external power, is indeed part of the struggle for democracy.
However, problems can arise from the desire to have a perfect match between state and nation. If every nation should have its state, then every state should comprise only one nation. A multicultural nation can never be legitimate according to nationalism, because in such a state it is inevitable that some nations or peoples are ruled by others and hence do not have an authentic and autonomous existence.
The problem that nationalism misses is that its policies lead to a homogeneous society and that diversity and multiculturalism can be attractive. Most problems of multiculturalism – a lack of integration, conflicts between communities, one group dominating another – can be solved by democracy (by tolerance, respect for religious freedom and individual rights, non-discrimination, institutional reforms, local autonomy etc.).
Nationalism solves the problems of multiculturalism by destroying it. It’s a kind of intellectual laziness to go immediately for the most extreme solutions. The only way to have homogeneous territories in our multicultural and melting pot world is the use of force. Homogenization often requires violent separation, civil war (because of the violent reaction of states that want to keep their territory intact), centrifugal forces (because of a lack of clarity: which group is a “nation” and has therefore a right to its own state?), forced relocation of members of other nations – also called “ethnic cleansing”, a method often used when there is no clear territorial separation of nations within a state – and, if really necessary, genocide.
If members of another nation have the misfortune of inhabiting parts of a territory that is claimed by the nationalist nation as the soil of its future state, and if these members do not leave the territory, give up their possession and abandon their graves voluntarily, then nationalism requires the elimination of these people. As long as they are present, the state will not be the representative of one nation. Democracy will require the representation of all nationalities and that is not the optimal situation for nationalists because it means that every nation is not able to rule itself. This is obviously a distorted and dangerous view on democracy.