Don't Fear the New Nationalism

Don't Fear the New Nationalism

The utopian belief in a globalized world without borders is dying in the West.

The erasure of American nationalism from discussion helped allow liberal internationalists to believe in American power and its infinite expansion because a non-nationalist, benevolent American power could be seen as coterminous with all the positive aspects of globalization. Equally astounding to me, among sections of the Washington liberal establishment in the late 1990s was the belief that globalization would inevitably erode—even to insignificance—the power of national states, when these people lived surrounded by symbols and expressions of American national power and greatness, and themselves belonged to the elite that presided over that power. The point is, however, that globalization for them (whether they themselves are fully conscious of this or not) is seen as an entirely U.S.-dominated process, led by liberal Americans like them who would recruit members of other nations to become just like them. This would, in effect, lead to the Americanization of the world—Francis Fukuyama’s vision in The End of History and the Last Man.


The logical consequence of all of this was a belief that members of other nations, if they were progressive, disinterested or even just rational, had a moral and intellectual duty to “do the right thing,” not only by adopting American institutions but by identifying with and supporting American power in the world, since this power was identical with all the good sides of globalization and with the general interest of mankind. For a long time, U.S. prestige, power, funding by Western institutions and dissent against local regimes did produce small but voluble cadres of intellectuals and even politicians in various countries who were prepared to identify with this view.

This in turn contributed to the final piece of the puzzle, which brings us back to theories of constructed nationalism. These theories in their vulgarized form became a great way of delegitimizing and ignoring any national sentiments, or expressions of national interest, that were in opposition to those of the United States or the West more widely, or were simply ones of which the writer in question disapproved. Rather than being genuinely—or for that matter rationally—held by large parts of the population concerned, such sentiments were portrayed simply as the products of cynical manipulation and indoctrination of the innocent masses by regimes and elites. When democracy dawned, the veils would be lifted from the peoples’ eyes and they would see that their nations’ interests and those of the United States were identical.

THE INTELLECTUAL, moral and political autism fostered by this set of attitudes has been one of the main causes of the failures of U.S. foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. The chauvinist hysteria now being directed at Russia by supposedly internationalist liberals has its roots not only in the Cold War but in the fact that, after the Cold War, developments in Russia were the first to reveal the emptiness and impracticality of the combination of American imperialism with liberal internationalism.

It should have been apparent as early as the mid-1990s that this was never going to work. Even at its time of greatest weakness, and greatest (apparent) democracy, Russia was not prepared to accept a role as an impotent subordinate in a U.S. global order. India too, though a democracy (of its own kind) with real reasons to seek alliance with the United States, has always been absolutely determined that such an alliance should be on India’s terms and serve India’s interests, and that (as over Iran), India would reject American requests whenever these conflicted with Indian interests. This was as true under the civic nationalism of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty as it has been under the Hindu nationalism of Narendra Modi and the BJP. As for China, the Communist Party’s legitimacy now rests squarely on a combination of nationalism and economic growth—and economic growth presented as necessary not just for individual and social well-being, but for the strength of the nation.

The rise of nationalism in western Europe and the surge in what has been called “Jacksonian nationalism” in the United States are now obvious, and strike the liberal-internationalist project at its very core. These developments also greatly undermine the vulgar and didactic version of the constructivist theory of nationalism, whereby nationalism is invariably the product of manipulation by the state and by elites. For if there is one thing that is absolutely clear about the resurgence of nationalism in the United States and Europe it is its profoundly antielitist character, and the degree to which elites have banded together against it. Indeed, to a considerable degree over the past two generations in western Europe, state institutions themselves have been dedicated to discouraging nationalism.

In many European countries, this has led to a situation in which all the mainstream parties have combined in an attempt to prevent the nationalists from gaining power (something that, while successful in the short term, is having visibly disastrous effects in the longer term, as it leaves opposition to the existing government nowhere to go but the extremes).

In a radical reversal of earlier patterns, the greater part of the state school systems in western Europe have also dedicated themselves to combating their own states’ nationalisms. In America, meanwhile, the school system remains dedicated to propagating U.S. civic nationalism (what I have called the U.S. nationalist thesis) but often with a strong emphasis on multiculturalism and openness rather than, as previously, on assimilation. This approach seemed to have had a remarkable success for many years, and to have borne out the ability of elites to create radically new cultural and political paradigms. But it is now also visibly failing, as far as large parts of the European populations are concerned.

This is, above all, because of the discrediting of a central but partly unspoken assumption of the liberal-intellectual paradigm of recent generations: that multiculturalism was both desirable and possible because culture does not really matter. This assumption is at the core of rational-choice theory (at least in its cruder economic variants), and of the Washington Consensus in economics. It found voice in Tony Blair’s (historically ludicrous) statement to the U.S. Congress in 2003:

Ours are not Western values, they are the universal values of the human spirit. And anywhere, anytime ordinary people are given the chance to choose, the choice is the same: freedom, not tyranny, democracy, not dictatorship.

This belief underpinned the liberal (including neoconservative) case for the invasion of Iraq, and the almost equally disastrous Western overthrow of Muammar el-Qaddafi. The idea that multiculturalism is possible because culture is unimportant and all the really important things are shared is a profoundly American one. It has allowed the belief that people of every ethnic, racial and religious origin can become full Americans as long as they subscribe to the “American Creed” of belief in the Constitution, democracy, the law, freedom of speech, human rights, capitalism and individualism. Cultural difference then becomes little more than a question of private religious belief (with a marked tendency to a sort of soft Protestantism, as Michael Lind and others have remarked), food (with a marked tendency to taste similar) and dressing up in folkloric costume on national days. And for most of the immigrants who arrived from Europe in the later nineteenth century, and Asians since then, things have worked out that way, albeit only after long and often painful struggles.

As a result, all of these groups eventually gained admittance into the middle classes—a group with its own strong cultural as well as ideological features. Walter Russell Mead has called them a sort of national “folk.” Latino immigrants seemed heading down the same path, until many American whites were driven into a state of panic by the Latinos’ sheer weight of numbers—and especially, unlike previous immigrants, by illegal immigration—coupled with the ghastly pictures of state decay and gang warfare in Mexico and Central America. And this occurred just as economic growth evaporated for much of the white middle classes, and inequality soared.

ISLAM IS different. It has gradually become apparent in Europe that even moderately strict versions of Islam (whether of the Koranic “fundamentalist” variety or those linked to conservative local cultures) do produce important cultural differences, which make assimilation difficult if not impossible, and produce separate cultural communities. For instance, in England as in much of Europe, the most important institution of social interaction is the pub or bar. If your religion does not allow you to go there, then you will at the very least be at a tangent to the rest of British society. Intermarriage is also impossible, unless your partner converts to Islam.

To attract sufficient numbers of young Muslims to break so definitively with their own traditions would have taken the offer of great economic rewards for doing so—and this is precisely what the deindustrialized European economies cannot offer to less skilled youth, whose lack of skill in the Muslim case is being reinforced by cultural isolation and barriers to education, especially for women. Faced with a combination of the widespread failure of Muslim assimilation, ever-growing numbers (the Muslim proportion of Britain’s population has risen by an average of more than 60 percent per decade for the past half century), and the threat of Islamist terrorism, it is hardly surprising that growing numbers of indigenous Europeans have abandoned an ideology of multiculturalism and open borders. Nor is it surprising that, in an EU with stagnant economies and austerity in defense of the common currency imposed by Germany through European institutions, this nationalism should also have a strongly anti-EU character.