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Globalization and the New Nationalism

Many liberal pundits (and American allies) were alarmed at Donald Trump’s recent use of the phrase “America First,” reminding them of the American isolationism of the 1930s. In fact, Trump’s message contains a mix of foreign policy isolationism and economic imperialism. But the core of his appeal really is a sort of isolationist nationalism, which says, in effect, “we’re not going to be controlled by anyone else, we’re going to do things our way and make our decisions based on what’s good for us, not for anyone else.” This message is combined with a suspicion and distaste for immigrants and even for American citizens who appear too different from the majority of white Christians.

Trump’s sentiments and those of his supporters, are being echoed throughout much of the developed world. In Europe, what is being called “New Nationalism” is on the rise. According to British academic Ruth Wodak, this movement in Europe can be divided into four groups: "parties [that] gain support via an ambivalent relationship with fascist and Nazi pasts" (e.g., in Austria, Hungary, Italy, Romania, and France), parties that "focus primarily on a perceived threat from Islam" (e.g., in the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland), parties that "restrict their propaganda to a perceived threat to their national identities from ethnic minorities" (e.g., in Hungary, Greece, Italy, and the United Kingdom) and parties that "endorse a fundamentalist Christian conservative-reactionary agenda" (e.g., in Poland, Romania and Bulgaria).

Recently, China has reversed a policy of welcoming Western businesses and other types of organizations to China to one of requiring non-government organizations to have a Chinese sponsor and register with Chinese law enforcement before carrying out any activities in China. Chinese president Xi Jinping cited resistance to “Western influences” and a belief that foreign nongovernment groups are “black hands” working to undermine one-party rule in the country.

What is happening that is causing the world, or at least the world of more developed countries, to pull back into their nationalistic shells and to attempt to reaffirm their unique ethnic and social backgrounds in ways that reject influences from outside their own countries?

Globalization is a force that has given the impression that it is sweeping the world in an inexorable fashion. The three most prominent arms of globalization are 1) internet-based social media, which brings outside cultural influences into a country, 2) global business, which not only spreads cultural influences (e.g. Apple, Starbucks, Alibaba and the NBA) but links economies to one another, taking control away from the interests of a single country, and 3) the reach of war, which has brought both terrorism and refugees from war-torn Middle Eastern and African countries to Europe and to a lesser degree the United States. The changes brought about by climate change, which include increasing droughts and rising ocean levels, will increase both wars and migration in the future.

Many countries are reacting to globalization by retreating into their own pasts, or at least into what they believe their pasts stood for. This is the reaction of a developed world that feels threatened. Although the players who pose much of the threat—business leaders, military-linked business and government leaders, techno-media giants—are regarded by many as in control of what happens in the world, ordinary people only understand what they feel as a threat from ideas, cultural practices and people with physical appearances and languages that are foreign to them. They view these people as the problem and want to be rid of them, to wall them out, and to put the old, familiar faces and cultural practices back to the forefront of their societies.

It is simplistic to say that the isolationists will lose because globalization cannot be halted, even though that is true. But in the immediate future, the isolationists can win. The result will be a greater cultural divide between countries, a stronger feeling that those cultures that are different from one’s own pose a threat and must be stopped, even if that means by military means (which will always be labeled and even seen as “defensive,” as in the U.S. war in Iraq and against ISIS), and probably, trade wars that exaggerate recessions and recoveries differently for different countries, bringing further unrest within those countries which struggle economically. Meanwhile the developing world will be shut out. Since the only overtures to them will be to use them as military bases or to exploit their resources for the benefit of developed countries, while using them as a market for goods (at the expense of their own indigenous industries), a situation most developing countries are already familiar with from years of history, they will not only disintegrate further but direct more and more of their anger at the developed world. Within these countries, religious zealots and power-hungry dictators will rise to the top. A global approach to the major issue of our times, climate change, will be impossible.

Both liberals and conservatives within the U.S. embrace some version of increased nationalism. For conservatives it is the Donald Trump brand of xenophobia. For liberals and progressives it is resistance to any kind of Free Trade Agreement. Everyone has his or her own brand of “America First.” But globalization is inevitable and forward thinkers need to formulate policies that allow the United States and other developed countries to address this inevitability without losing national identity or becoming pawns of global business interests.  I don’t know how this is done, but knee-jerk suspicion of anyone different, of religions that are foreign to one’s country’s history, or to any kind of international trade cooperation is not going to work in anyone’s favor. 

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