The liberal imagination was not always so constrained, at least in regard to nationalism. In the heyday of what has been called "liberal nationalism" - the nationalism of liberation rather than domination - the preeminent liberal, John Stuart Mill, made just such distinctions and judgments. Mill was a great champion of nationalism which he saw as the corollary of liberalism and democracy. "Where the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is a prima facie case for uniting all the members of the nationality under the same government, and a government to themselves apart. This is merely saying that the question of government ought to be decided by the governed." But the desire for unity and independence could be satisfied only under specific conditions: the country had to be "ripe for free institutions"; there had to be no "geographical hindrances" to unity (as in Hungary, for example, where the different nationalities were so intermingled that they had to "reconcile themselves to living together under equal rights and laws"); and the people had to meet one "purely moral and social consideration" - they had to have attained a level of civilization that made it advantageous for them to be independent. The last criterion disqualified those "inferior and more backward" peoples (such as the Bretons and Basques, the Welsh and Scottish Highlanders) who live amidst "highly civilized and cultivated" peoples and who should be pleased to be absorbed into those higher nationalities.22 Mill's three points were later superseded by Wilson's Fourteen Points, and a qualified principle of nationality by an unqualified "right" of "self-determination." The result has been a catastrophic failure of political imagination and political candor - the ability to think and speak realistically about peoples and nations, about what they might desi and what they were capable of achieving, about their will and capacity for free institutions, above all, about that ultimate "moral and social consideration," their level of civilization. It is almost impossible today to speak of higher and lower civilizations, let alone of "inferior and more backward" peoples. It has even become difficult to speak candidly about the "free institutions" required of those aspiring to self-determination, institutions designed to assure religious toleration, minority representation, and respect for ethnic differences.. Now that such conditions are more pertinent than ever - certainly far more than in Mill's time - we are more than ever inhibited about discussing them. We cannot say what has become so painfully obvious. Not all countries are disposed or committed to free institutions. Not all nationalities are worthy of respect and recognition. Not all peoples have a "right" to independence and self-determination. In the post-cold-war world, as before, there is no moral equivalence among nations - or among would-be nations. Gertrude Himmelfarb (1993) "The Dark and Bloody Crossroads: Where Nationalism and Religion Meet" The National Interest, 60
I have been critical of Gertrude Himmelfarb in the past because, while she is very good at exposing lazy thought, she is often not very interested in the ideas she opposes (recall here). And I will be somewhat critical in what follows, but before I get to my present interest in the essay that I quoted from above, I should note what she is absolutely right about. Too many celebrated twentieth century scholars (not just liberals, but also marxists and many conservatives [she is very astute on the blinkeredness of Fukuyama]) and commentators have (i) failed to grasp the on-going significance of nationalism and religion, and (ii) the connection between the two. On (i) Himmelfarb correctly notes that even when nationalism is taken seriously, "nationalism is [treated as] irrational, parochial, and retrograde. (A neo-liberal version of this doctrine has the nation-state being superseded by a "civil society" dominated by individuals, groups, and communities responsive to local and particular rather than national concerns.)"  It follows from this that even critics of nationalism end up belittling it. On (ii), she correctly notes that religion is routinely treated as something private, and, more interesting, that the ways in which recent nationalism is itself religious in character is missed; the state or nation is itself 'deified' or 'holy' (57, partially quoting Conor Cruise O'Brien, although it goes back to Spinoza.) Himmelfarb argues correctly that since the middle of twentieth century, religion is increasingly "a prime mover of nationalism."  She closes her essay with the brief suggestion that religion may also be a means of tempering and elevating nationalism (61).
Himmelfarb's core insight is that the liberal conception of human nature cannot quite grasp, and therefore accommodate, the features of human nature that give rise to nationalism and (non-domesticated) religion. Unfortunately, Himmelfarb is rather terse on what is precisely overlooked or missing from the liberal anthropology, but she is quite explicit and apt about her claim that "there is something pathetic in the attempt to counteract a virulent nationalism with a vapid internationalism, or to substitute an artificial, bureaucratic "European community" for historic, organic nationalities." (61) With the benefit of a further quarter century's hindsight, we can see that in the case of Europe, as the (historical) memories of national competition and multiple wars have faded (and died off), commitment to cosmopolitan, internationalism has been on the defensive. But while we must give Himmelfarb credit for understanding these facts, it is also worth remarking (and she does not) hat such internationalism has not been utterly destroyed--it is also quite clear that many of the especially, well-educated younger generations Stateside and in Europe have embraced such cosmopolitanism. I return to her critique of liberal anthropology before long.
Okay, with that in place, let's conclude with a reflection on the long passage quoted at the top of this post. Himmelfarb corectly reminds the reader that nineteenth century liberalism was both often nationalist in tone (she could have mentioned Mazzini, too) and quite critical of religion (especially Catholicism, which is universalist and imperial in sensibility). On Himmelfarb's interpretation, there was a great and decisive rupture and decline in the trajectory of liberalism between Mill, who defends a qualified principle to self-determination and Woodrow Wilson (ca 1919), who defends the unqualified right to self-determination. Since the 1990s, Mill's position has returned to some prominence in terms of 'state-building' favored by Himmelfarb's political allies on the Neo-Con right and flirtations with humanitarian trusteeship among Liberal interventionists.
In Mill's case the position was grounded in a narrative of cultural (and sometimes also racialized, alas) progress, which he inherited from Adam Smith (who was careful not to racialize it), in which there is a movement from savagery (lacking rule of law and other institutions) to civilization (which means, being under the rule of law). Mill's stance also helped justify a species of liberal imperialism.*
The awkwardness of Himmelfarb's position is that she is both probably right that "not all countries are disposed or committed to free institutions," and wrong to suggest that this fact is grounded in there being "inferior and more backward" peoples. To be sure, Himmelfarb does not explicitly ground her judgments in a racial theory of superiority/inferiority, but she kind of insinuates that it is merely modern liberal piety or taboo (and lack of imagination) that prevents one from grasping the point. As others have noted experiments in democratic self-determination and peaceful co-existence thrive in many places, including places beyond the Western imagination (go read hard-nosed authors like Elinor Ostrom ). That is, one need not deny that there are all kinds of cultural and institutional factors that go onto the very possibility of succesful experimentation with self-government without resorting to essentializing national character.
That Himmelfarb essentializes national character and accepts a narrative of cultural progress becomes clear from her mistaken belief that the American Founders figured out how "to mitigate" and tame permanently the excesses of the "power and passion of nationalism," (61) and managed to promote a "civic minded" nationalism (61, quoting Tocqueville). She praises all the republican remedies (to republican ills) they proposed: "a Western-type, civic-minded nationalism, complete with checks and balances, representative government, civic liberties, the rule of law....And among these remedies (as both Tocqueville and the Founding Fathers recognized) is religion itself - or rather, a plurality of religions, religions that tolerate each other and that are themselves not merely tolerated but respected, and not merely as a private affair but as an integral part of public life." (61)
For all of Himmelfarb's sober realism, it is odd how she fails to recognize the intrinsic fragility of these remedies, which did not prevent the horrors of civil war nor the disgrace of Jim Crow. [A charitable reader may suggest that she is promoting a noble lie about the success of these remedies in order to promote the right kind of civic values.] It's as if, Himmelfarb, who is one of the greatest historians of Victorian Britain, wishes away the very existence of Jacksonian America that is nativist (and sometimes genocidal) in spirit. In addition, she fails to grasp the hegemonic aspirations of much of this Jacksonian Christian America, which quite clearly lacks the spirit of toleration toward, say, Muslims, Jewis, or Atheists. (It has come to terms with Catholics and Mormons.) Even if one stipulates that these aspirations are, themselves, a response to Liberal cultural gains, these aspirations are no less real and adhered to a substantial number of Americans.** That is, for all of her criticism toward liberal failures of imagination, Himmelfarb buys into a myth of American exceptionalism and, thereby, turns out to be less than helpful for those of us that have to confront, anew, authoritarian nationalism and religion.
*Wilson, who was undoubtedly a lot more racist than Mill, ended up championing international policies that attacked liberal, racialized imperialism.
**That's compatible, of course, with huge swaths of Christian America being respectful of other religions and atheists.