The World Isn’t Entering a New Age of Nationalism

In his 1981 book, The Expanding Circle: Ethics, Evolution, and Moral Progress, Peter Singer argues that our sense of moral responsibility has steadily grown to encompass larger and larger groups of people over the millennia: “The circle of altruism has broadened from the family and tribe to the nation and race, and we are beginning to recognize that our obligations extend to all human beings.” Singer also observes that reason will naturally continue to propel this process: “Ethical reasoning, once begun, pushes against our initially limited ethical horizons, leading us always toward a more universal point of view.”

Almost four decades later, Steven Pinker mirrors this argument in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress:

Given that we are equipped with the capacity to sympathize with others, nothing can prevent the circle of sympathy from expanding from the family and tribe to embrace all of humankind, particularly as reason goads us into realizing that there can be nothing uniquely deserving about ourselves or any of the groups to which we belong. We are forced into cosmopolitanism: accepting our citizenship in the world.

In 2018, the idea that we’re citizens of the world with obligations toward all human beings is under assault. President Donald Trump’s America First foreign policy—a slogan which echoes Charles Lindbergh’s isolationist, anti-Semitic campaign to keep the United States out of World War II—captures the aggressive nationalist sentiment in much of the country. Meanwhile, Europe is experiencing a period of resurgent nationalism: with Britain’s messy exit from the EU; the popularity of far-right parties in France, Germany, Austria and the Netherlands; Viktor Orban’s illiberal democracy in Hungary; the rise of the Law and Justice Party in Poland; and the deep hostility toward the EU that has been exploited by Syriza in Greece.

As is so often the case, the spread of nationalism has been accompanied by the spread of illiberalism. For example, Freedom House’s most recent Freedom in the World report is a dismal story of democratic relapse: “Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017 as its basic tenets—including guarantees of free and fair elections, the rights of minorities, freedom of the press, and the rule of law—came under attack around the world.” For more than a decade, we’ve been hearing grim news about the worldwide democratic recession, and the nationalist boom is a major part of that story.

But there are historical forces larger than Donald Trump, Viktor Orban and Marine Le Pen. Even if we set aside the question of whether it’s right to broaden our circle of altruism (I agree with Singer and Pinker that it is), we live in a far more integrated world than ever before. And the forces pushing us toward greater cooperation are only going to become more powerful.

Standing Athwart History

Since the end of World War II, the number of democracies in the world has increased from less than two dozen to over 100. In 1945, around 11 percent of the world’s population lived in democratic countries—a proportion that has surged to more than half. This dramatic transformation has taken less than three-quarters of a century, much of it after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite recent setbacks, the appeal of democracy as a system of government isn’t going to vanish anytime soon. As Pinker and Robert Muggah explain in Project Syndicate, democracies “stand out for their higher rates of economic growth and higher levels of wellbeing. Democracies also tend to have fewer wars and genocides, virtually no famines, and happier, healthier, better-educated citizens.”

Democracies forge alliances and establish international organizations with one another. For example, the NATO charter states that the alliance’s members are “determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law.” Of course, members of NATO don’t always live up to these ideals—as Greece proved when it was under military rule between 1967 and 1974, and as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan is doing his best to demonstrate today. But it’s easier for countries to cooperate if they have at least an outward commitment to certain shared values and institutions.

Like NATO, the EU was established in the spirit of democratic cooperation. As the Treaty on European Union states, “The Union shall respect the national identities of its Member States, whose systems of government are founded on the principles of democracy.” After World War II, six European states (France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands) recognized that closer economic ties could reduce the threat of another devastating conflict on the continent. The European Coal and Steel Community was established in 1952, followed by the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957 and, ultimately, the EU in 1993. The union has since grown from six founding members in 1952 to twenty-eight countries today.

But one of those countries is on its way out. It has been more than two years since British voters decided to leave the EU—another development that has made many wonder if we’re witnessing the inauguration of a new age of nationalism.

The language used by many pro-Brexit campaigners presented a simplistic zero-sum view of the world. For example, Boris Johnson’s Brexit slogan was take back control, which implied that the British government was on the losing side of an all-or-nothing power struggle with the EU. If that didn’t make the point clearly enough, recall how he phrased his claim that the EU is just another attempt to establish a single autocratic European government: “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically.” In a 2016 Breitbart article, Nigel Farage argues that support for continued membership in the EU and support for national sovereignty and democracy are mutually exclusive: “Either you support the existing global elite or you want real change and believe in nation state democracy.”

Like the Brexiteers, Trump has used the language of disenfranchisement and alienation to galvanize his supporters. He knows globalization has created a massive reservoir of resentment and anxiety, and he’s adept at directing all this animosity toward the global elites who allegedly couldn’t care less about the citizens of their own countries. When Trump formally announced that he was pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, he said, “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” He has repeatedly referred to trade deals and other international agreements as disastrous and said other countries are out to humiliate and demean the United States—language that resonates with people who feel like forgotten casualties of an increasingly global economy.

Trump has described the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a “continuing rape of our country.” He constantly accuses NATO countries of taking advantage of the United States, by failing to invest enough in their militaries: “They pay only a fraction of the cost—and laugh!” During his speech on the Paris Climate Accord, he said, “We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore. And they won’t be. They won’t be.” Trump places countries in two categories: winners and losers. He believes the international system is an arena of endless zero-sum conflict, which is why his speeches about international institutions and agreements always sound so aggrieved and vindictive. And many Americans agree with him, hence the success of his America First rhetoric.

Despite all the recent victories of the Trumps and Farages of the world, there are good reasons to believe that this widespread revival of nationalism, like the democratic recession, is an aberration, not an inexorable trend. As with democracy, the overwhelming benefits of greater international integration will eventually prove more compelling than the shallow nativist appeals offered by populist politicians.

Brexit and the Faltering Challenge to Globalization

On the cover of the 2011 edition of The Expanding Circle, there’s an endorsement from Robert Wright, the author of Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny (which was published almost two decades after The Expanding Circle and almost two decades before Enlightenment Now). In it, Wright argues that biological and cultural evolution are directional—that is, they lead to greater complexity and cooperation over time. Wright says the pursuit of “non-zero-sumness” has driven humanity toward greater unity and collaboration, a process that shows every sign of continuing—assuming we can avoid destroying ourselves (a point I’ll return to shortly).

In Nonzero, Wright predicts far more international political and economic integration than we have now: “World governance, you might say, is human destiny, the natural outgrowth of the millennia-old expansion of non-zero-sumness among human beings.”

For example, the expansion of commerce gives trading partners a “shared interest in protecting it from friction and disruption”—from European monarchs, who “smoothed the path for commerce, quelling trouble, harmonizing law, (and) creating the nation-state” during the Middle Ages, to the nations that formed what would ultimately become the EU after World War II. And this economic logic doesn’t just underpin the expansion of regional institutions like the EU—it also applies to international institutions like the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund.

Every government has an interest in maintaining a rules-based trading system and preventing global economic shocks, but this means organizations like the WTO and the IMF need the authority to enforce those rules and compel countries to observe consistent standards. Yes, this will require countries to sacrifice some sovereignty in exchange for cooperation. But as Wright reminds us. “If we define sovereignty broadly—as supreme control over your fate—then the loss of sovereignty is a fact of history, one of the most fundamental, stubborn facts in all of history.” We all live in nations that have a monopoly on the use of force and laws that must be obeyed, but these infringements on our individual sovereignty are what hold civilization together.

While it’s difficult to imagine the realization of Wright’s theory that the “logical scope of supranational government could conceivably become the whole planet,” it’s worth remembering that the level of international cooperation we see today would have been unthinkable even in the twentieth century. As Wright puts it, “If ninety, even sixty, years ago, you had predicted that someday France and Germany would have the same currency, the reply would have been: ‘Oh, really? Which nation will have conquered which?’”

Despite anomalies like Brexit, the pace of globalization is only going to quicken. A recurring theme in Nonzero is the role of technology as a catalyst for non-zero-sumness, and this has never been more apparent than it is today. From vast global supply chains to the rapid growth of international markets to instantaneous communication with anyone in the world, the incentives to do business across borders are only going to get stronger. This means international laws and regulations will get stronger, too.

Consider the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, which came into force earlier this year. GDPR requires companies that collect data on EU citizens to submit to a new set of stringent rules: they have to report any data breach within 72 hours of its discovery, delete citizens’ personal data upon request (in all but a few specific circumstances), and make sure any third parties that have access to this data are observing the same standards. These are just a few of the requirements imposed by GDPR, and if companies fail to comply, they could face massive fines and other penalties.

It doesn’t matter if a company is based in Palo Alto, Beijing or London—if it does business in Europe, it’s bound by GDPR. The UK is scheduled to formally exit the EU next year, but British companies operating in Europe will still have to submit to rules issued by Brussels. And there are plenty of other EU regulations that will continue to affect British businesses even after Brexit takes place—the UK government will just have less influence over the development and implementation of those regulations.

Does Brexit portend even more economic fragmentation in Europe in the coming years? Not likely. If anything, Britain’s experience leaving the EU will encourage other European countries to move closer together, not further apart.

First, there’s the likely economic cost. While there’s no consensus on exactly how Brexit will affect the British economy, most credible projections suggest a decline in GDP and employment. Second, most UK citizens are pessimistic about the prospects of a successful Brexit, which raises questions about the future political viability of other nationalist policies. According to a recent YouGov poll, only 20 percent of Britons think the government is handling Brexit negotiations well. On measures including the economy, jobs and British influence, a significant plurality of respondents said they expect Brexit to end up being harmful. And even though most Britons are resigned to the inevitability of Brexit and think the government should move forward with it, the people who say the decision to leave the EU was a mistake now outnumber the people who continue to support it.

Meanwhile, some of the most vocal Brexiteers regard the government’s EU exit strategy as a “complete betrayal of what people voted for,” as Farage recently put it. When Johnson resigned as foreign secretary, he summarized this view in a letter to Prime Minister Theresa May: “We appear to be heading for a semi-Brexit, with large parts of the economy still locked in the EU system, but with no UK control over that system.” One of the major complaints of the Brexiteers is that the government will be outmaneuvered by EU negotiators. As former lead Brexit negotiator David Davis argued in his resignation letter to May: “The general direction of policy will leave us in at best a weak negotiating position, and possibly an inescapable one.”

Apart from the question of whether it’s wise to recede from the world as it becomes more and more interconnected and interdependent, the Brexit turmoil should be a reminder that it certainly isn’t easy. Members of established international institutions like the EU have a huge stake in protecting their interests, and powerful mechanisms to do so. The European Commission has no incentive to capitulate in the Brexit negotiations—if countries could reap all the benefits of the union without contributing to the EU budget or submitting to many of its rules, that’s what they’d all do. Brexit will likely serve as a deterrent, not an invitation.

Even though Britain will soon be able to use the money it spends on EU contributions for other purposes, a GDP loss of 1 percent or more would offset these savings (and that’s a fairly conservative estimate). And depending on the full range of economic consequences, Brexit could become even more unpopular in the coming years. Considering all these facts, as the leaders of other countries watch what’s happening with Britain and the EU, what are the chances they’re thinking, “That’s something we should emulate”?

An Ugly Alternative

Speaking of emulation, what example are ascendant nationalist parties and figures setting for the rest of the world? A glance at the headlines reveals that it hasn’t been pretty.

In countries where nationalists have an outsize role in government (such as the United States, Hungary and Poland), there have been incessant attacks on the independent judiciary, the media and democratic norms and institutions. But things can get much worse than that. As Freedom House explains, the military in Myanmar continues its assault on the Rohingya Muslims, and its campaign of “arson, rape, and mass murder” is “supported by radical Buddhist leaders who portray the Rohingya as a menace to national unity and security” (italics added).

While national identity can bring different religious and ethnic groups together under a single banner of citizenship, it can also be a powerful engine of tribal conflict. Fervent nationalists don’t tend to celebrate diversity or facilitate social cohesion—instead, they use divisive rhetoric to rally their supporters and engender suspicion toward marginalized groups of citizens (who are accused of rejecting national values and being disloyal to their country). Besides causing economic harm and excluding countries from deliberations about international policies that affect them, intense nationalism almost invariably leads to social and political instability.

Consider Trump’s antipathy toward Muslims. During the presidential campaign in 2016, he called for the establishment of a registry of American Muslims, threatened to shutter mosques, and demanded a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” After he took office, he promptly banned travel and immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries. His motivations have never been a mystery—in a 2016 interview, he made the division between Muslims and their fellow Americans explicit: “Islam hates us.”

This is the same divisive tactic used everywhere from Myanmar to Turkey, where Erdogan continues his campaign against the Kurds (which shows no sign of ending anytime soon, particularly since Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party formed an alliance with the far-right, anti-Kurd Nationalist Movement Party). While Erdogan often tries to downplay tensions with the Kurds, his attempts to do so are cynical and hollow—before the most recent elections, the leader of the Kurdish opposition party campaigned from a prison cell.

When nationalists target minority groups, they don’t just betray democratic principles—they end up attacking democratic institutions. Take, for instance, Trump’s immigration ban. After he issued his executive order, US District Judge James Robart granted a temporary restraining order that halted its implementation. Trump responded by expressing his contempt for the judicial process: “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned!”

Later that day, Trump seemed shocked and irritated that the judicial branch is capable of checking the power of the executive branch: “What is our country coming to when a judge can halt a Homeland Security travel ban and anyone, even with bad intentions, can come into US?” In other words, What is our country coming to when courts can challenge my decisions? This is what nationalism so frequently devolves into—not just a narrow and exclusionary view of the state’s interests, but an insistence that only one person can protect those interests. Just recall Trump’s infamous proclamation at the Republican National Convention: “I alone can fix it.” This is the same attitude Trump has toward the international system—America First often means America alone.

But no individual country can solve the world’s most urgent problems on its own. From climate change to nuclear proliferation, the most severe (and potentially existential) threats that confront our species can only be addressed through robust international action. Take, for instance, the risk of nuclear war. If we want states to reduce the size of their nuclear arsenals, abandon first-use and launch-on-warning policies, and adhere to other restrictions on the use of nuclear weapons, we have to establish and maintain international norms and conventions—such as the New START Treaty, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the Nonproliferation Treaty—that reduce the risks for everyone.

Nuclear arms control is a perfect example of non-zero-sumness—everyone on the planet wants to avoid nuclear war (aside from a few deranged exceptions), which is why the international community has overseen a drastic reduction in the total number of nuclear weapons since the mid-1980s. In 1986, there were more than 64,000 nuclear warheads in the world—a number that has fallen to around 9,200. While more nations now possess nuclear weapons, many nations have also given them up (South Africa), agreed not to build them (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Argentina, Brazil and Sweden) or handed their inherited stockpiles over after the Cold War (Belarus, Ukraine and Kazakhstan).

The history of nonproliferation demonstrates that countries are capable of abandoning the deadliest weapons in human history—potent symbols of national power and prestige—to make the world a safer place. But instead of hailing this progress, Trump thinks nuclear proliferation is inevitable. During the campaign, he even claimed the United States would be “better off” if Japan and South Korea had nuclear weapons, and said we should resign ourselves to the fact that Saudi Arabia will eventually have them, too. In May, he pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal against the advice of the United States’ European allies and much of the rest of the world.

It isn’t surprising that Trump knows nothing about the long and successful history of international anti-proliferation efforts (often spurred by American leadership)—he believes we live in a world that has always been and will always be riven by zero-sum conflict. Like so many nationalists, Trump is enamored with division—whether it’s division between his fellow citizens or division between cultures, religions and countries. Even when these divisions degrade our civil society, make us poorer and threaten us with nuclear and environmental catastrophe, leaders like Trump insist on making them wider and deeper. But there have been many leaders like Trump in the past, and the circle has never stopped expanding.

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1 comment

  1. How do you get around HA-JOONCHANG’s Thing 3 in Twenty-Three Things They don’t Tell you About Capitalism. He says that the welfare of the vast majority of people in wealthy countries depends on draconian border control?
    The view from the top is different from the view down below and if you are going to motivate you have to deliver in a tangible sense?


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