Your first duties - first as regards importance - are ... towards Humanity. You are men before you are either citizens or fathers. If you do not embrace the whole human family in your affections; if you do not bear witness to your belief in the Unity of that family, ... if, wheresoever a fellow-creature suffers, or the dignity of human nature is violated by falsehood or tyranny - you are not ready, if able, to aid the unhappy, and do not feel called on to combat, if able, for the redemption of the betrayed and oppressed - you violate your law of life, you comrehend not that Religion which will be the guide and blessing of the future.
But what can each of you, singly, do for the moral improvement and progress of Humanity? ... The individual is too insignificant, and Humanity too vast. The mariner of Brittany prays to God as he puts to sea; "Help me, my God! my boat is so small and Thy ocean so wide!" And this prayer is the true expression of the condition of each one of you, until you find the means of infinitely multiplying your forces and powers of action. This means was provided for you by God when He gave you a country."
Why have a nation? For Mazzini the nation is not an end in itself. Instead, it is an instrument to better enact a universal political morality.
Mazzini uses the image of a lever to describe this instrumental understanding of nations:
In labouring for our own country on the right principle, we labour for Humanity. Our country is the fulcrum of the lever we have to wield for the common good.
So was Mazzini onto something? Can this particular type of liberal or humanistic nationalism justify the existence of countries?
I think not. It seems to me to be too unstable a justification. After all, if a nation is a lever for achieving universal political aims, then it will only be held onto until a more powerful lever emerges, such as a League of Nations or a UN or a European Union or a regional power bloc.
It then becomes logical to transfer allegiance from the "lesser" instrument to the greater.
As an example of this, consider the following recent opinion piece from an Australian website, The Dead Roo. Titled "Get rid of Australia", the piece argues that the UN would be a more effective institution than the existing nation state for securing desired political outcomes:
The long-term goal of constitutional reform is obviously the dissolution of Australia.
The Westphalian system is failing. The legality and morality of meddling with the internal affairs of nation states is demonstrated by actions in the Balkans and East Timor, or the inaction in Darfur or Zimbabwe. The necessity of co-ordinated management of global issues, including forced compliance of recalcitrant states, becomes more obvious every year. Climate change is merely the most pressing issue, universal human and para-human rights the deepest.
In the modern world, nation states are as irrelevant and indeed counterproductive as the city-states of old.
There's another problem with the instrumental view of nations. There's no reason for the end goal to remain the same. Politicians might decide to change economic partnerships, or political alignments or moral causes. If the nation exists as an instrument to achieve such aims, then it must change in character as the aims change. The tool must fit the task.
Politicians therefore think it reasonable to make the most radical changes to national existence to serve what appear to be historically transient aims of trade or diplomacy.
A genuinely conservative view of nations differs considerably from this. The nation isn't assumed to be an instrument for the getting of some other aim or the spreading of some other value. It is justified, in itself, as an aspect of being, as constituting a part of who we are, of our self-identity.
A conservative is likely to value the national tradition he belongs to as providing him with a particularly close connection to his own culture, to the places he inhabits, and to generations past and future. He is likely to value it too as providing a larger, stable setting in which to make his commitments to family and to maintaining the standards of public life.
It makes little sense, in terms of this conservative view, to voluntary discontinue an existing national tradition. Even if a greater lever of state power became available, or if there were new claims of trade and diplomacy, this wouldn't be thought to justify overturning an ongoing tradition which is so significant in forming our identity and our deeper attachments.