The Rising Tide
“Today, the West is also confronted by the powers that seek to test our will, undermine our confidence, and challenge our interests… Do we have the desire and the courage to preserve our civilization in the face of those who would subvert and destroy it?”
President Donald Trump just recently spoke at length in Poland of the threats we, as the members of Western society, currently face. In particular, political pundits drew conclusions that his words were in response to the rise of terrorist groups in the Middle East using Islam and a newly established caliphate as their means to push a new ideology on their victims. But President Trump has spoken in this tone before, on similar subjects, as part of advancing his grand strategy which we’ve come to know as “America First.”
We can look further than simple contemporary comments made in regards to recent particular incidents. To truly understand the concept of America First and the world stage, it requires a deeper understanding.
“What we already knew [is] that the President of the United States has a particular skill set, that he’s identified an illness in Western democracies, but he has no cure for it and seems intent on exploiting it.”
Chris Uhlmann, political editor at ABC News in Australia, diagnosed the issue head on. There is an illness in Western democracies, from Poland and Great Britain all the way across the pond to the United States. The difference is in who is calling the illness. To President Trump and purveyors of the America First strategy, the illness is globalism. To Uhlmann and many of the other world leaders seen at the recent G20 Summit in Germany, the illness is the contrary: nationalism.
Globalism began shortly after World War II, leading to widespread prosperity and a technological and trade boom unlike anything the human race has seen. With the grand life it brought much of the world, a higher quality of life overall that the world had yet to see in the history of humanity, why the backlash? Why is nationalism slowly emerging as the option chosen more frequently in the West as of late?
Let’s start at home with basic definitions of nationalism. Per Merriam Webster, nationalism defined is, “Loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially: a sense of national consciousness… exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.”
Perhaps the biggest example of choosing nationalism over globalism lies in an event that began last summer, Brexit. The decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union was, in a nutshell, a result of nationalism. Increasing terror attacks, refugees flooding Europe, the aforementioned two points being drawn together, and economic stagnation (among other variables) left Britain with myriad problems and no clue of whom to blame.
This leaves a precarious situation: a lot of problems and no single mea culpa. This is where Boris Johnson seized the opportunity. Acting in a manner that took a page out of Donald Trump’s playbook, Johnson campaigned across the country proclaiming that globalism caused Britain’s problems. The scapegoat: the European Union. The means by which to counter these problems: resurgent nationalism. Our nation above all the others. We can take care of ourselves and to hell with the rest of the Union’s problems that were spreading to us anyway.
Granted, this is an abridged account of the factors at play in Brexit, but they all can be boiled down to the rise of nationalism and populism, i.e. our country is facing problems, these problems are coming from the outside because our nation was founded on greatness and we must return to our former historical level of greatness. But, to do so means to return to a greater sense of patriotism and leaving the world behind, because what brought us down from greatness was the rest of the world, their lack of respect for us, their taking advantage of our generosity, and their attempts to change us from what we are: great.
Sound familiar? It’s the same playbook President Trump used to achieve the Presidency of the United States. It’s what has led to the controversy surrounding the travel ban, America First foreign policy that still leaves NATO on edge from time to time, and Steve Bannon’s project of economic nationalism.
Let’s save the results of nationalism for later, as the scoreboard does tell the story at the end of the day, but first we can dive into why nationalism is so easily appealing. Surely Western society, founded on the principles of freedom and individuality, should be more inclined to think through decisions and make the best choice based on what’s available. However, our predisposition towards nationalism goes back further than modern politics even considers.
A brief look at evolutionary psychology tells us that early nomadic humans became vastly successful once they realized the benefits of working together to solve problems. This not only led to a faster development as a species, but also the byproduct of forming tribes once we realized really big groups could accomplish more than any single human.
People forget that the age of civilization, from the Egyptians to the Hebrews to the Romans to now (this being a Western viewpoint), is relatively small compared to the thousands of years humans spent developing as these nomadic tribes. That being said, our tendencies and adaptations we gained from these tribes has developed us into who we are today, and many of those inclinations still abound.
For example, suppose you are a member of a nomadic tribe when suddenly you come across a member of another nomadic tribe. Maybe they look different than you or do things in a way you’ve never seen before. What you are now feeling is fear. You are unsure if this new body you are encountering has the potential to end your life, either through physical means or the pathogens they carry, and when discussing in terms of evolutionary psychology, the ultimate goal is survival, so the ultimate fear is death.
This evolves into disgust, a hybrid of fear. It’s just as a piece of contaminated or uncooked food may taste bad and cause you to vomit. Your body is simply ridding itself of that which is dangerous, and you then grew to be disgusted even by the sight or smell of that thing.
Now bring this back into the example of encountering someone new and different from your tribe. Your reaction is disgust, evolving into hatred and the desire to banish this person from your sight, lest they do you or the members of your tribe any damage.
The last line there is the most crucial part: once you get past the danger to yourself, you think of the danger to your tribe. You feel a greater purpose in eliminating the threat. Now jump forward thousands of years and we’re at a very crude but still decently accurate depiction of nationalism.
This concept continued for centuries. As stated earlier, the idea of an individual and their own personal freedoms is a relatively new concept. In medieval Britain, you weren’t simply a peasant, you were a member of a kingdom, and you lived under that realm. Take the crusades for example. Galvanizing support was easy when you explain that the way of life for your group, how you survive, is under attack from outsiders.
The instinctual pull to be a part of a group permeates many facets of modern society. No longer tribes, we now yearn for social interaction, being a fan of a particular sports team, being a member of a certain church, being a citizen of a country. These are all great things, wonderful things to be a part of, but now we see why we take their membership so seriously. We are a part of it. We are a part of something greater than ourselves. Still, the power of that group over us is the truly incredible part.
In addition, we see how instinctual adaptations to encourage our survival led us to develop fear and disgust of outsiders. Couple these two elements together, and we can see how the purveyors of nationalism so easily influenced entire countries to cooperate accordingly. It’s almost too easy.
Now that we understand the psychology and history behind nationalism, let’s look at them quantitatively. It’s hard to judge the success of nationalism over globalism by popular opinion or foreign policy when we’re only a year into its current battle, so let’s go with economics.
Economic nationalism, defined in a 2009 article by The Economist, is, “…the urge to keep jobs and capital at home.” Stuart Anderson of Forbes offers a more volatile definition, “Economic nationalism is not a real economic theory that explains how markets function in a global economy. It is instead a set of political arguments aimed at blaming foreigners for America’s problems. In sum, ‘economic nationalism’ equals economic nonsense.”
Further, continuing with The Economist, “Three arguments are raised in defence of economic nationalism: that it is justified commercially; that it is justified politically; and that it won't get very far. On the first point, some damaged banks may feel safer retreating to their home markets, where they understand the risks and benefit from scale; but that is a trend which governments should seek to counteract, not to encourage. On the second point, it is reasonable for politicians to want to spend taxpayers' money at home—so long as the costs of doing so are not unacceptably high.
“In this case, however, the costs could be enormous. For the third argument—that protectionism will not get very far—is dangerously complacent. True, everybody sensible scoffs at Reed Smoot and Willis Hawley, the lawmakers who in 1930 exacerbated the Depression by raising American tariffs. But reasonable people opposed them at the time, and failed to stop them: 1,028 economists petitioned against their bill. Certainly, global supply-chains are more complex and harder to pick apart than in those days. But when nationalism is on the march, even commercial logic gets trampled underfoot.”
One last key point of President Trump’s nationalism advances was the return of manufacturing jobs to the United States, arguing that they had either been outsourced for cheap labor or taken over by illegal immigrants. Anderson refutes this with, “When it comes to manufacturing jobs, trade is being blamed instead of other factors. ‘According to a study by the Center for Business and Economic Research at Ball State University, 85% of these [manufacturing] jobs losses are actually attributable to technological change – largely automation – rather than international trade,’ reports The Financial Times.”
In review, we see nationalism as not only psychologically primitive but also economically unsound, especially in a world that has now adapted to the globalized market. Even China, a country founded on nationalism, has embraced globalism in recent decades and quickly became the world’s fasted growing economy. But what we haven't addressed are the inconsistencies.
One can draw a conclusion from earlier that if the return to tribalism is what drives nationalism; wouldn't creating a globalized world be just one big tribe and therefore bad? By no means is the social inclination of humans a bad thing. After all, it was the ability to form groups and work together that led to our growth as a species and the advent of civilization.
The problems occur when one loses their individuality, their ability to think above the group and make rational decisions. For as much as we can work together to achieve great things as a group, we can also fall victim to stupidity and irrational thinking just as quickly, if not more. To quote famed psychologist Sigmund Freud, “Each individual… has a share in numerous group minds – those of his race, of his class, of his creed, of his nationality, etc. – and he can also raise himself above them to the extent of having a scrap of independence and originality.”
These components, freedom, individuality, equality, are what the United States was founded upon, and is it by the hand of nationalism and groupthink that we’ve come up short in them on numerous occasions. However, the potential remains. The ability to accomplish them remains. The opportunity to create a better world all around remains.
In fact, the opportunity has been here before, in the form of globalism. But things change quickly in a world that operates at high speed. Fred Hu and Michael Spence of Foreign Affairs illustrate, “For many decades after World War II, a broad range of countries shared a fundamental economic vision. They endorsed an increasingly open system for trade in goods and services, supported by international institutions; allowed capital, corporations, and, to a lesser extent, people to flow freely across borders; and encouraged the rapid spread of data and technology. As trade expanded, global living standards improved dramatically, and hundreds of millions of people escaped from poverty.”
Then things changed.
“Today, every aspect of this globalized economy is under assault. A popular backlash against free trade and unrestricted cross-border movements of capital has picked up momentum. The ideal of freely flowing information has clashed with growing calls for privacy rights, the protection of intellectual property, and increased cybersecurity. Across the developed world, sentiments have turned strongly against immigration, especially as waves of Middle Eastern refugees have flooded Europe. And after several successful rounds of multilateral trade negotiations in the postwar years, new agreements have become much rarer: the World Trade Organization (WTO) has not completed a single full round of successful negotiations since its creation in 1995.”
Because of these inconsistencies, due mostly from globalism expanding far too fast for its own good, we see the results we spoke of earlier: the resurgence of nationalism. When you experience problems, you look for solutions, and nationalism was only far too easy to access and exploit for modern political leaders, in spite of its obvious drawbacks.
The rapid spread of capitalism, the economic booms that followed, both for the United States and as of recent China, led to the emergence of global superpowers. In addition, the rise and expansion in capital coupled with specialization led to an astronomical leap in the rate of technological development, which we still see today. With growing technology, communication spread, cooperation spread, and all these factors contributed to a world that grew at a speed that became uncomfortable and uncontrollable.
As we can see, problems followed, but these problems can be managed without reducing ourselves to psychological whims or falling prey to outdated ideas of the past. Hu and Spence dictate what occurred as we discussed previously, “The rejection of the old order was not immediate. For a while, people believed that their economic woes were a temporary result of the global financial crisis of 2008. But over time, they began to suspect that disappearing jobs and stagnant wages had become lasting features of the economic landscape. They turned against the elites they held responsible, including business leaders, academics, and the political establishment. And as they watched powerful economic and technological forces buffet their countries—forces over which policymakers at the national level appeared to exert little control—they sought to regain ownership of their destiny and reassert national sovereignty.”
“This has played out most dramatically in Europe, where real and perceived erosions of sovereignty, above all concerning immigration, played a major role in the British vote to leave the EU. Even privileged citizens who had thrived in an open global system voted for Brexit, believing that doing so would allow them to take greater control over their lives.”
With the world stage in mind, we now see the United States in a very interesting position. Britain leaving the European Union puts them in a peculiar stance as we’ve seen Germany emerge as the leader of Europe for now. France, in the first pushback against nationalism, offers a glimpse of hope for a return to the prosperity of globalism with a business-minded young leader at the helm. China, with its rapidly expanding economy and influence, stands ready to overtake the United States as THE world power as long as its openness to globalism increases as well.
However, the threats loom large. Russia touts its influence over political affairs around the world, despite having a military proven to be all show and no actual strength. This follows the typical tradition of Russia attempting to act outside its rational capabilities, which led to the downfall of both imperial and soviet versions of the country.
In addition, further crises continue with Syria in the Middle East as well as the United Nation’s greatest humanitarian crisis to date in Yemen, Somalia, and South Sudan. Nonetheless, what we see in all these situations are problems which the countries at stake cannot solve themselves. If every country were to fall to nationalism and protectionism, we would then be faced with stronger countries exerting their power over weaker countries in a quest to ensure ultimate safety for their own country, i.e. primacy. Primacy and primitive start with the same four letters for a reason.
And so the United States, as the head of the world with the most power, profit, and potential, must set this stage accordingly. By no means must the United States take care of all the business by itself, but by setting the standard for others, cooperating to solve problems and establishing a global order that is in every sense of the adjective, global, we can create a world reminiscent of the prosperity experienced following the advent of globalism, from East to West. This time, however, we can be prepared, and we can advance accordingly together and at a pace that leads to prosperity by all and mitigating the problems and issues that will surely follow with any successful process.
President Trump himself spoke in the same speech at this article’s introduction, “There is nothing like our community of nations. The world has never known anything like our community of nations,” and he is correct. Never before has the world seen a collection of states so able to solve the problems of the old world and advance towards global prosperity. It’s ideal, but it’s possible.
Above all it requires us to think above our psychological predispositions toward fear, both of the world and each other. It requires us to take a chance and be steadfast in the storm we are all experiencing today, not only because it will make our lives better, but because it will make all lives better. And a world where all have the opportunity to be better is a better world for all.
After all, as former president John F. Kennedy liked to quote, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
Featured Image // Via https://www.foreignaffairs.com/topics/globalization
Laredo Loyd is an upcoming junior at Texas Christian University. He is studying Political Science and Psychology.