The global elite adopted a consensus centered on democratized political institutions and liberalized economic systems after the Iron Curtain fell. This consensus gelled in an era of rapid technological, social and economic evolution. Globalization, the information revolution, and terrorism have shaken the post-World War II status quo to its core and created anxiety in industrialized and developing countries. This anxiety has facilitated the rise of nationalism as a potent political force, which creates three primary challenges to world order.
It has been said that “history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” The rising tide of nationalism in previous eras has empowered authoritarian leaders. Authoritarian leaders have proven to be threats to world order, primarily due to their disregard of the rule of law and international norms. The Russian incursion into Georgia in 2008 is a recent example of an authoritarian leader thumbing his nose at the international establishment.
Authoritarian regimes have a disastrous record on domestic human and political rights, with examples ranging from the use of chemical weapons by dictators in the Middle East to the suppression of political opposition by President Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.
Nationalist political movements are also more hostile to liberal trade policies. Free trade has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty in the developing world.
Industrial economies enjoy the benefits of lower prices for goods and specialization of labor. But a rising tide hasn’t lifted all boats. The working class in industrial economies have felt left behind by globalization and trade. These citizens blame rising economic anxiety on free trade, which creates an incentive for political leaders to adopt anti-trade and nationalistic rhetoric and policies. The British referendum to exit the European Union is one such example.
Protective tariffs and other anti-trade policies are harmful to all economies and increase the threat of armed hostility. Nations who trade with one another are less likely to engage militarily with one another. Germany’s relative pacifism in response to recent Russian aggression in Eastern Europe can be explained at least partially by the trade relationship between Germany and Russia. The trade relationship between China and the United States has prevented an escalation in military hostilities over disputes in the South China Sea.
The facilitation of authoritarian leaders and hostility to free trade policies are domestic threats attributable to nationalism. The threat to international cooperation is the most acute and troubling in the long-term. Perhaps the three most pressing issues of our time- nuclear nonproliferation, terrorism, and climate change- will require international cooperation. Nationalist political movements make it more difficult for leaders of nations to engage in the diplomacy necessary to address these issues, especially when substantial concessions are necessary.
Such movements demand that leaders “look tough” and “stand up for us” by not “giving in” to “enemies.” Any practical and sustainable climate change accord would require some degree of economic sacrifice by China, India and the United States, among others. This economic sacrifice is difficult for leaders to pitch to domestic political audiences in the most benign circumstances, and impossible if the domestic political culture includes a large nationalist faction.
The rising tide of nationalism is a phenomenon that threatens the political, social, and economic well-being of all citizens. The Europeans learned this lesson the hard way one century ago. Moreover, this tide will prevent world leaders from tackling the pressing global issues of our time. Our successors may learn this lesson the hard way one century from now.