The return of the nation-state

The lesson is that it’s a mistake to predict the inevitable decline of things that give meaning to people’s lives and involve fundamental human attachments. 

Mr. Lowry has got this mostly right. Trump is merely one actor in this play as national sovereignty and national identity is being reasserted in Great Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Russia, etc. across the globe. Some automatically associate nationalism with interstate conflict (i.e, war), but that is not necessarily the path it takes, especially in the liberal western democracies.

Also, people migration is not the most serious challenge facing the modern nation-state, but it’s the easiest to scape-goat. It’s deflected by cultural assimilation.

Samuel Huntington is worth reading.

The return of the nation-state

The first week of the Trump administration has been a vindication of the American nation-state.

Anyone who thought it was a “borderless world,” a category that includes some significant portion of the country’s corporate and intellectual elite, has been disabused of the notion within about the first five days of the Trump years.

Trump’s inaugural address was widely panned, but early polling indicates it was popular, which isn’t surprising since the broadly nationalistic sentiments in the speech were bound to strike people as common sense.

“At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.” Whom else would it serve?

“We are one nation . . . We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.” What’s the alternative — two nations, with two hearts and homes?

“From this moment on, it’s going to be America first.” Why would anything else come first?

“We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world — but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first,” Trump said.

Trump’s speech was less poetic, but in one sense more grounded than George W. Bush’s call for universal freedom in 2005 or Barack Obama’s vision of international cooperation leading to a new era of peace in 2009. Trump spoke of “the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”

If Bush was a vindicator of universal freedom, and Obama, in his more soaring moments, a citizen of the world, Trump is a dogged citizen of the United States concerned overwhelmingly with vindicating its interests.

His executive order authorizing the building of the wall is an emphatic affirmation of one of the constituent parts of a nation, namely borders. Trump also began the process of going after sanctuary cities as entrepôts of illegal immigration acting in defiance of the nation’s laws.

In general, immigration is an important focus for Trump’s nationalism because it involves the question of whether the American people have the sovereign authority to decide who gets to live here; whether the interests of American or foreign workers should be paramount; whether we assimilate the immigrants we already have into a common culture before welcoming more.

The Trump phenomenon is pushback against what the late political scientist Samuel Huntington called the “deconstructionist” agenda, whose advocates seek to undermine America’s national identity through mass immigration and hostility to assimilation and opposition to the teaching of US history from a traditional, patriotic perspective, among other things.

Huntington argues that until the late 20th century, these elites promoted national unity, as one would expect. “Then in the 1960s and 1970s,” he writes, “they began to promote measures consciously designed to weaken America’s cultural and creedal identity and to strengthen racial, ethnic, cultural, and other subnational identities. These efforts by a nation’s leaders to deconstruct the nation they governed were, quite possibly, without precedent in human history.”

Trump is a welcome rebuke to this attitude, though caveats are necessary:

A proper US nationalism should express not just an affinity for this country’s people, as Trump did in his address, but for its creed, its institutions and its history. These are absent from Trump’s rhetoric and presumably his worldview, impoverishing both.

Trump’s nationalism has the potential to appeal across racial and ethnic lines, so long as he demonstrates that it isn’t just cover for his loyalty to his preferred subnational group.

If Bush was overly expansive in his international vision, Trump could be overly pinched. Bush’s anti-AIDS program in Africa was unvarnished humanitarianism — and will redound to his credit, and the credit of this nation, for a very long time.

Finally, Trump’s trade agenda is also an expression of his nationalism. Trade deals should be able to pass the national-interest test — we shouldn’t embrace them for the sake of helping other nations, or out of strict libertarian principle. But protectionism is, historically, a special-interest bonanza that delivers benefits to specific industries only at a disproportionate cost to the rest of the economy.

All that said, the nation-state is back, despite all the forecasts of its demise.

The lesson is that it’s a mistake to predict the inevitable decline of things that give meaning to people’s lives and involve fundamental human attachments. The nation is one of them, something that Trump, if he gets nothing else, instinctively understands.

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The Reassertion of the Nation-State

My how we live in interesting times. I’m sure they said that at the turn of the 20th century too. Let’s hope our leaders can manage this phase of national sovereignty a bit more successfully.

It’s a mistake to ignore or turn away from this reassertion of national sovereignty with horror. It is a natural communal reaction to rapid change not properly managed. The intention should be to slow down the social impact of those technological and economic changes in order to maintain a stable path to progress. This requires the establishment center to hold, but not by dismissing the real problems faced by significant portions of their populations. Because mismanagement of this complex challenge carries risks for nation-state conflict through trade wars or even hot wars with imperialist intentions.

We should keep in mind that nationalism, patriotism, and national identity are not necessarily expressions of ill-will toward others, but they can be turned into that.

From The New Yorker:

EUROPE’S POPULISTS PREPARE FOR A NATIONALIST SPRING

By Elisabeth Zerofsky   January 25, 2017

A gathering of European far-right leaders in Koblenz, Germany, on the day of Donald Trump’s Inauguration expressed growing confidence in its agenda following his victory and that of Brexit.

On January 20th, as Donald Trump was taking the oath of office, in Washington, populist leaders from across Europe were arriving in a quiet city on the Rhine. Early the next morning, French, German, Italian, Austrian, and Dutch nationalists stood together on a stage in Koblenz, a central German town that has been associated with political countercurrents since it harbored aristocrats during the French Revolution. Their national flags flew behind them as they greeted what they called the “birth of a new world.” “Yesterday, a new America,” Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, proclaimed to a hall filled with about a thousand attendees, most of them sturdy men in dark suits. “Tomorrow, a new Europe.”

The momentum of the Brexit vote, followed by Trump’s election, has provided European populists with a ready-made argument for their own inevitability. “People thought Trump wouldn’t win and he won; they thought during the two months preceding his Inauguration he would backpedal on all his promises, but he didn’t do it,” Thibaud Gibelin, a parliamentary aide to France’s National Front, told me. “It shows it is possible to achieve victory over the establishment, and for us that’s the most beautiful symbol.” The parties gathered in Koblenz have gained voters over the past few years, as Europeans across the political spectrum have lost confidence in mainstream politicians’ ability to manage the refugee crisis, the threat of terrorism, and, in some cases, high unemployment. Both Wilders and Marine Le Pen, of France’s National Front, will face elections this spring, and both lead in the polls. Le Pen, who could become President of France in May, has called for a Brexit-style referendum, which she claims is the only way to regain control over national borders and put an end to immigration. France and Germany are the nucleus of the European Union, and a “Frexit” would in all likelihood mean its end.

The Koblenz conference was organized by Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland, a four-year-old party that is trying to gain a foothold in a country that is still loath to tolerate the far right. In the fall, the AfD will likely obtain seats in the German parliament for the first time. Much of the French and German press expressed surprise that Frauke Petry, the party’s forty-one-year-old chair, would appear with Le Pen; the National Front presents a particular taboo in Germany because of some of its founders’ ties to the Vichy regime. But of Europe’s populists, Le Pen has the most serious ambitions to become head of state, and she is the clear kingpin of the group.

Le Pen took the stage like the instructor at a populists’ master class, radiating a warm familiarity. She hailed the domino effect that June’s Brexit vote had set in motion. “We have felt it coming, the rebellion of the people of Europe against a non-elected power that has pretended to be based on democracy,” she said. “What a blow to the old order!” The applause at the end was so rapturous that she returned to the stage for a curtain call.

There is something contradictory about a confederation of nationalist parties, but in addition to their shared opposition to the E.U. the parties have a common patron in Moscow. “It’s pretty clear that one of the geopolitical elements bringing these different forces together today is proximity to the Kremlin,” Joël Gombin, a political scientist who studies the National Front, told me. Le Pen’s party has been taking money from Russian banks for years, most recently a nine-million-euro loan, in 2014, from a bank that has since been dissolved. Over the past four years, Le Pen and members of her inner circle have made several trips to Moscow, where they’ve met with officials including the Deputy Prime Minister and the speaker of the Duma; her contacts reportedly include politicians who have been sanctioned by the E.U. in response to the Ukraine crisis. Leaders from the AfD have been guests at Russian government forums, and Austria’s Freedom Party has signed a coöperation agreement with President Vladimir Putin’s party. These connections have coalesced into an informal network connecting Putin’s inner circle and the European far right.

Le Pen presents an alliance between nationalist parties as a source not of bellicosity but of harmony. In Koblenz, she laid out a vision of a flowering of European cultures, and argued that a “diversity” of strong national identities would bring not war but mutual respect. Far-right supporters also believe that new European and American alliances with Russia will bring about a broader détente. In Koblenz, I had coffee with a fifty-four-year-old German attendee who politely refused to tell me his name or profession. “I don’t know what American troops are doing six thousand kilometres away from their country at the Russian border,” he complained. I suggested that they might be responding to Russian provocation. “No, the Americans provoked first, by orchestrating Ukraine,” he said. “The Americans are very big in regime change, very bad in solving problems. Trump will solve Ukraine and concentrate on American interests. Then it’s O.K.”

At the Koblenz conference, the populists made their claims of “rebirth” before an audience of mostly older white men. But the “identitarian” movement, while small—the French chapter claims two thousand paying members—is growing among the young. Gibelin, the National Front aide, is twenty-seven years old and was dressed in a gray wool suit, his hair slicked back in the manner of Donald Trump’s elder sons. As we stood in the café outside the conference hall, the babel of languages thickening around us, I asked whether he agreed with the vision put forth by older party members. His response came in the form of a seamless narrative. “The reality today that European countries are interdependent is clear to everyone,” he told me. “Coöperation is obvious, but it’s a question of what kind of coöperation. The one we have now, which benefits the economic empire and denies identity in submission to globalized interests?” Europeans, he said, share a cultural heritage. “We have our Roman roots, our language, our culture; the cathedrals you see, whether in Cologne or Paris, that are Gothic, that’s transnational; the Renaissance was a European phenomenon; and the great religious moments that marked Europe, the spread of Christianity, the Reformation, those were never isolated to one nation.” The refugee question was simple. Global corporations sought cheap labor, and politicians enabled them. He didn’t mind European governments providing financial aid to refugees, as long as that aid was used to help them stay in their own countries. “We think the dignity of these people can be expressed in their own homeland. Not here.” He shrugged confidently. “We are attacked by the media as being extremist, but for me it’s exactly the opposite,” he said. “It’s global capitalism that is extreme. We are simply defending the interests of the people.”

The refugee question was simple. Global corporations sought cheap labor, and politicians enabled them. He didn’t mind European governments providing financial aid to refugees, as long as that aid was used to help them stay in their own countries. “We think the dignity of these people can be expressed in their own homeland. Not here.” He shrugged confidently. “We are attacked by the media as being extremist, but for me it’s exactly the opposite,” he said. “It’s global capitalism that is extreme. We are simply defending the interests of the people.”