Brexit, Trump and the Sorrows of Nationalism

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As I was reading the various analyses of the Brexit vote yesterday, I remembered an article I had read back in 2011 by the International Affairs scholar, Stephen M. Walt. His basic thesis was that despite all of the new global trends in 21st century, nationalism was still “the most powerful political force in the world.”

Walt concluded:

Unless we fully appreciate the power of nationalism, in short, we are going to get a lot of things wrong about the contemporary political life. It is the most powerful political force in the world, and we ignore it at our peril.

I recall being a bit irritated when I that article. Like many, I believed that the world had certainly learned its lesson from two cataclysmic world wars and that for all the problems that came with globalization, nationalism was a relic of the past.

But I’m convinced now. And at the risk of sounding too apocalyptic about it, I’m wondering if the peril we’ve ignored is now at our door.

It’s hard not to see the increasing national fervor developing all around us. Great Britain has voted to exit the European Union and other member countries are threatening to follow suit. Nationalist parties are making big gains in countries around Western Europe and Vladimir Putin has whipped a strong nationalist fervor in Russia. Many countries throughout Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia and the Far East are led by leaders who use nationalist rhetoric to win elections and promote their domestic policies.

I’ve never been a fan of nationalism. I accept that nation states are part of the social, political and economic fabric of the modern world – but I’ve long believed that the nation-statism too often fuses with tribalism – particularly during time of economic instability. This phenomenon, as we know all too well, has inevitably led the modern world to dark and destructive places.

As a Jew, I view the ultra-right nationalism that increasingly grips Israel’s political culture as the inevitable outcome of a nation that predicates its identity on one specific group of people. And as an American, I’m watching the toxic, seething national fervor unleashed by Donald Trump with genuine alarm.

In his article, Walt suggested that the US isn’t as susceptible to overt nationalism as other other countries:

Because American national identity tends to emphasize the civic dimension (based on supposedly universal principles such as individual liberty) and tends to downplay the historic and cultural elements (though they clearly exist).

Yes they clearly do exist in this country. Even if Trump loses in November – and I do believe he will – the sick nationalist fervor he has unleashed will not vanish overnight. Nor will the nations around the world that are currently increasing xenophobia, racism and fear of the other.

Now more than ever we need to stand down the sorrows of nationalism. I don’t think its too alarmist to suggest that we heed the lessons of the past lest it become an unimaginable future. As journalist Ed Fuller recently wrote in the aptly titled article: “Nationalism: Back Again Like a Bad Dream:”

I can’t help but think about the political excesses of the 1930s, the protectionism and the xenophobic zeal that were all part of the Nationalistic wave that swept the world following the First World War.  It ultimately resulted in Japan’s invasion of Manchuria, Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland and Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor, ending with Hiroshima.  Something to think about as we grapple with the challenges facing our world today.

4 Replies to “Brexit, Trump and the Sorrows of Nationalism”

  1. I wonder if it is really tribalism – the feeling of safety that comes with identifying with a group that, for historical or ethnic reason we can call us, with that distinction gain the license to do anything we like to the others.

  2. What would create loyalty to a place or piece of ground? I’d say yes if said “nation” treated all of its inhabitants (“citizen” or not) with equality, freedom from discrimination, caring for basic human needs (food, water, clothing, shelter, medical care, dignity). Has such a nation ever existed? I don’t think so, especially those that believe their existence as a nation derives from their notion of God. In the absence of such values, nationalism is used by the rulers to distract the inhabitants from the truth, and all that defines the “nation” are lines drawn on a map.

  3. Great points about nationalism, but let’s not forget to look at the other side of the argument: Responsible Nationalism is preferable to a world order presided over by transnational powers who lack basic morality. Such an idea is expressed by the GHW Bush-era phrase “New World Order.” In this scheme, the EU would march in lockstep with the dictates of the US and its most powerful partners in the UK and Israel.

    The NWO is one where a few powerful economic players have grossly disproportionate control over the individuals and weaker nations. That is a goal that David Rockefeller has explicitly endorsed. Asked if he thought a small group of individuals should decide for the rest of us the fate of the world, he responded with a statement to the effect of “Who else would do it?”

    The global economic elite already control far too much, because they essentially dictate the long-term US foreign policy, including its policy in the Mideast. Their source of power is strong, centralized government power with too little democratic control. The Brexit is potentially a step toward restoring that control. In that sense, it is completely different than the nationalist strain in the US, which as in Israel is based on mythology.

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