Rising nationalism undermines world’s ‘new normal’

The U.S. is one of the countries experiencing populism as confrontations threaten to replace cooperation among nations.
A stock image of individuals at a nationalism event
The United Kingdom's withdrawal from the European Union is symbolic of the rise of nationalism in many countries. Photo courtesy of Keystone Pictures.

As COVID-19 begins to wane, much speculation is devoted to the “new normal” that will emerge as life without hyper-caution returns.

But on a grander scale, the world, which had accepted a new normal, is shifting back to the old normal. Though that may seem beyond the daily lives of average people, it directly affects us.

After the World War II defeat of nationalistic and aggressive dictatorships, the winners began a movement to liberal democracy, in which the people rule, and toward cooperation among nations through international organizations.

The result was the growth of democratic governments, most notably in Western Europe, where two world wars had begun, and in parts of Asia. The new normal worked. Both Germany and Japan achieved prosperity without military domination of other countries.

The United Nations began to function as a peacekeeping organization and Europe worked toward an economically interconnected community that would make future wars among neighbors impossible. The U.S. backed these efforts.  

American policy was based on the premise that prosperous democracies would be good partners and good customers, both helping to maintain a stable world order. With strong allies, the U.S. could contain the Soviet Union, which otherwise would try to extend its authoritarian rule.

The new normal saw democracy rising, cooperation functioning and a group of nations, led by the U.S., able to reduce, though not eliminate, local wars. The high point of this international system came with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. One philosopher concluded that the world had reached “the end of history.”

If there was ever an incorrect observation, that was it. There were countries and people the new normal simply did not suit.

China, with the world’s largest population in the fourth-largest territory, rejected a militarily weak and economically poor position. Increasingly its authoritarian government became more assertive, financing its efforts at expansion, using American dollars it had earned in trade. It pursued more territory and more power. 

Russia, the chief remnant of the Soviet Union, was offered the chance to join the community of democratic states. Instead its leaders lamented the loss of their power in world affairs. The government increasingly took outlaw steps to undermine the U.S.

The European Union made great progress toward integrating national economies, but its increased powers created some unhappy participants. Cooperation slowed and national forces resisted regional decision-making. Former President Trump scorned it, and the community weakened when the U.K. unwisely chose to withdraw, even at great cost to its economy.

That withdrawal, commonly known as Brexit, is symbolic of the rise of nationalism in many countries. It grew partly from dislike of major domestic decisions made by foreign leaders and international organizations. Nationalism had not disappeared even while cooperation had grown.

Finally, in many countries, the prosperity that resulted from the new order left many people out.  The rich got richer but many people became populists, believing themselves denied the benefits of the booming economy. 

The U.S. remained the model of democracy. It was recognized as the only superpower, able to project its influence anywhere and at will. Then, to its surprise, when Americans thought stability had been achieved, the U.S. suddenly found itself again at war as the result of the terrorists of 9/11.

Faced with the threat of terrorism, and the aggression of China and Russia, the U.S. joined in the trend toward nationalism. Its revival became obvious under the Trump presidency, when international accords were abandoned. “America First” almost went as far as “America Alone.” Healthy patriotism was being overwhelmed by unhealthy nationalism.

Support for Trump’s approach was sometimes written off as racist. While it was clear his policies gave racists comfort, he capitalized on populism that readily blended with nationalism. People believed their country was exploited by other nations at America’s expense, failing to understand that world leadership imposes a cost.

President Biden is now seeking to revive the post-war new normal by rejoining the international community, and trying to address the economic disadvantages of the middle class and poor.  Future elections will reveal if he can succeed.

Why does all this matter?

Thanks to the Internet and the airplane, the world has become a smaller place. As much as globalism is under attack, it is inevitable. Dictators, even in North Korea or Syria, can cause events that affect Americans. What happens anywhere may have effects everywhere.

What people pay for clothing or electronics or taxes to support a huge defense effort are determined by global conditions. When major nationalist powers rub against one another, the friction creates the risk of war. Wars leave temporary winners and volatile losers, preventing stability.

The world is too small to allow for American withdrawal. Nationalism is not the solution.


Gordon L. Weil

Gordon L. Weil has been active in politics, journalism, publishing and energy consulting. A graduate of Bowdoin College, he has a master’s degree from the College of Europe (Belgium), and a Ph.D. from Columbia. He is an Army veteran. He was a top aide to U.S. Sen. George McGovern during his run for president. In Maine, he served as Commissioner of Business Regulation, Director of the Office of Energy Resources and the state’s first Public Advocate. He was a Harpswell selectman. He led the negotiations that created the unified New England power grid and chaired the national organization of state energy agencies. He reported for the Washington Post, Newsweek, London’s Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal and WNET (New York). His weekly commentary has appeared in Maine newspapers since 2008. He has written or edited 16 books or collections ranging from the biography of Sears, Roebuck to the three-volume U.S. Supreme Court original jurisdiction decisions. His company, sold in 2005, was the largest publisher of state government regulatory codes.
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