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Nationalism Is Necessary but Insufficient

Posted by hkarner - 10. Juli 2019

Date: 09-07-2019
Source: The Wall Street Journal By Walter Russell Mead

Trump’s approach helps win allies in Asia. But it isn’t a basis for world order.

As President Trump reveled in air-force flyovers and a tank display this Fourth of July, the idea that dominates his administration’s domestic and foreign policies was on full display. That idea is nationalism, and Mr. Trump hopes it will reshape both American politics and the international order.

At home, Mr. Trump relies on the power of nationalism to isolate and marginalize his opponents. At a time when some on the left believe it is more important to denounce America’s failings than to hail its accomplishments, Mr. Trump seeks to wrap himself in a flag that most Americans revere.
We’ll know in November 2020 if this strategy has paid off at the polls. The results of a frankly nationalist foreign policy may take longer to assess. The Trump administration’s hostility to such multilateral institutions as the European Union, the World Trade Organization and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization—and its apparent cynicism toward international law and democracy itself—have astounded and embittered many longtime American allies. This is costly; the trans-Atlantic alliance that grounded American policy for 70 years is visibly and rapidly weakening.

For many of Mr. Trump’s critics, “America First” foreign policy reflects demagogic populism, incompetence or worse. The reality is more complicated. As America’s foreign-policy focus shifts to the Indo-Pacific to balance the rise of China, the globalist, cosmopolitan ideas that guided American foreign-policy makers through the post-Cold War era may create as many problems as they solve.

An American crusade to make the world more like the European Union will not win allies in the Indo-Pacific. The recent events in Hong Kong movingly demonstrate that many people in the region are deeply attached to democratic values, but the rulers of countries like Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam are more interested in the regional power balance than in an ideological contest with China’s one-party state. Even democracies like South Korea, India and Japan are less interested in building European-style multilateral institutions and spreading democratic values across Asia than in maintaining their national independence in the face of Chinese regional ambitions.

Embracing nationalism appeals to many in the Trump administration as a way to combine the president’s unilateralist instincts with a coherent set of principles that can undergird the kinds of alliances the U.S. must build in Asia. The idea that the world’s people are divided into nations, that each nation has the right to self-determination, and that government legitimacy flows from this was one of the driving forces in postcolonial countries during the Cold War, and it remains a potent source of political mobilization today. Instead of trying to further empower supranational institutions and weaken national sovereignty, the Trump administration favors leaning into nationalist sentiments when it suits U.S. interests.

Some of the shift is inevitable. The heady years after the Cold War, when American foreign policy consisted primarily of extending Western institutions and values across a unipolar world, are gone, at least for now. But nationalism, while a powerful tool of statecraft, cannot serve as the basis for a coherent world order.

The application of nationalist principles to the real world leads to as many dilemmas as the application of any other universal idea to the rough terrain of world politics. Are the Kurds a nation? The Uighurs? The Igbo? The Tamils? The Hmong? Who decides—and how does a foreign policy based on nationalism cope with the inevitable conflicts that follow?

As Europeans discovered in the 19th century, nationalism can be both irresistible as a political force and disastrous in international affairs. The struggles for national self-determination among the captive peoples of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires brought freedom and in many cases democracy to millions. They also plunged the region and ultimately the world into horrific conflicts whose memories and legacies still plague us.

Defenders of nationalism are right that nonnational entities—whether multilateral institutions like the EU and U.N. or postcolonial governments trying to rule large, ethnically and linguistically diverse populations—are often too weak to govern effectively. Yet the large majority of world states comprise multiple national groups and cannot be made into “nation states” in the traditional sense without a long and likely violent process of breaking up existing states.

The end-of-history vision of a postnational world order needs adjustment in an age of geopolitical competition centered in the Indo-Pacific. But nationalism alone cannot be the foundation of global stability and prosperity. The work of updating America’s approach to the world to meet a new set of challenges is nowhere near complete.

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