From a geopolitical point of view, nationalism’s defining characteristic is its capacity to better harness national power. Medieval feudalism splits capacity among the royals, the nobles, and the peasantry, with loyalty within and among the three largely determined by a system of bribes and threats. It works, but is wildly inefficient. In contrast, nationalism fuses ethnic identity directly to a centralized governing system, both eliminating the middleman and making loyalty part of the governing rationale. Such organizational slimming funnels more resources—financial and labor, in particular—to the one government that rules it all.
Nationalism took root quickly, in no small part because France’s rivers enabled the quick transmission of ideas. A single horrific bloodbath to annihilate the economic and political classes of the medieval order and France was off to the races.
The question quickly became what to do with all those newly concentrated resources. Nationalism suggests the answer. Because the nation-state is rooted in ethnicity, not everyone qualifies as “people.” Sitting not-so-comfortably on the other side of the twentieth century, you probably see where this is going. Nationalism might make for a much more powerful, capable, inclusive, and accountable state than feudalism, but it also makes it excruciatingly easy to march to war.
Empowered by the social technology of nationalism, France was the most consolidated, stable, mobilized, and potent country of the early 1800s. In contrast, the rest of Europe was politically shattered, emotionally demoralized, and in many cases militarily incompetent. Napoléon Bonaparte wielded the merger of ethnic and government interests against his unsuspecting foes like a flamethrower against soccer hooligans. In a few short years, France’s citizen armies had either conquered or forced alliance upon every country on the North European Plain, as well as Italy and Iberia, and stood at the gates of Moscow itself.
Yet the French bid didn’t simply fail, it failed catastrophically . Which brings us to the first lesson of French power: even when France has its ducks rowed up and everyone else has gone fishing, the geography of Europe—the endless Northern European Plain, the variety of highlands and peninsulas and islands—means France can never win.
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