November 5, 2018


Nationalism Isn't a Bad Thing, But Trump's Version Is (Hal Brands, October 3, 2018, Bloomberg)

[T]he reason nationalism gets a bad name is that collisions between the sharpest types of nationalism -- those that take a Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest approach to international affairs, that depict global politics as an unceasing clash in which one must dominate or be dominated, that exalt struggle as the ultimate test of a nation's worth, and that turn every international interaction into a zero-sum competition for glory and advantage -- have caused repeated geopolitical cataclysms.

This, in a nutshell, is the problem with Trump's America First nationalism. At a time when the international system is being tested by resurgent nationalism on the part of China, Russia and other powers, the Trump administration is undermining a system that has benefited the U.S. immeasurably by embracing a toxic nationalism of its own.

Trump built much of the momentum for his candidacy and presidency through foreign-policy pronouncements that have been openly hostile to the international system the U.S. built after 1945. Yet his speech at the UN was more subtly subversive. Some parts -- his paeans to the distinctive histories, cultures and traditions of different countries -- had a Kumbaya quality that might seem right at home in Turtle Bay. Until, that is, one realizes that by championing unrestrained nationalism in foreign policy, Trump is inviting a return of the brutal, destructive patterns that the UN and so much of today's international system were created to overcome.

The emergence of such hypernationalism was a critical driver of World War I -- at that point, the most violent conflict in history. Just 25 years later, the rise of predatory regimes motivated by some of the most unconstrained, aggressive nationalisms ever seen triggered an all-consuming conflagration.

This dynamic was hardly unique to the 20th century. As Charles Edel and I argue in our forthcoming book, "The Lessons of Tragedy," the clash of extreme nationalisms has been a recurring feature of geopolitics since the emergence of the modern nation-state system in the 17th century, and the result has often been to foster cycles of great-power war and all the accompanying devastation.

The determination to break this cycle was at the heart of the postwar system. Contrary to what the president argues, the U.S. never abandoned nationalism -- it never pursued a foreign policy that was intended to do anything other than promote a secure, peaceful and prosperous world in which America itself could flourish. But U.S. officials of the 1940s and after understood that the most vicious aspects of nationalism had to be tamed if the international system was not to be pulled back into violent, chaotic darkness. The great innovations of postwar foreign policy were thus expressly designed to cage and control nationalism.

America's promotion of an open global economy was meant to avert the protectionist, beggar-thy-neighbor policies that had set countries against each other in the 1930s, frustrating cooperation and hastening the spiral into depression and bloodshed.

The Right is so hostile to trade because capitalism is inherently transnational.

Posted by at November 5, 2018 4:00 AM