Nationalism – a rising tide!  Is the monster that brought on World War II at our doors?

By Robin Arthur

Late last month, US President Donald Trump threatened to close the US-Mexico border and halt trade with Mexico, if the arrival of migrants from central America there leads to disorder. These are people fleeing violence, persecution and poverty in their home countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. But Trump has said they are criminals. He also said he had given troops at the border the go-ahead to use lethal force if needed. “The US will not be a migrant camp. It’s not going to happen on my watch,” he said. On Sunday, November 25, the US shut its Tijuana border and border security unleashed tear gas to disperse crowds, including children.

Macron with Trump – The French President told leaders: “Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.” Earlier Trump told the UN gathering his country rejects the idea of globalism. Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead

A sweeping view of the political landscape emerging  in Europe and in the United States of America makes it almost worrying  to think of how fast and furiously the ideas of bigots and demagogues are beginning to influence voter electorates in the West to create isolated havens settled by people of “pure Aryan races.” The two World Wars of the last century were fought precisely for that nirvana. An extremist nationalist ethos seems to me the most damning for any hope of a globalized planet.

These are scary times, almost reminiscent of that cataclysm of the early part of the last century which eliminated some twenty million people in two world wars. If this seems like an exaggeration, consider Cass R. Sunstein’s It Can Happen Here, and reports he presents of the eerie silence and an impassioned insouciance that lingered across Hitler’s Germany as he prepared for that egregious morass.

While the Brexit catapult, the racial rumblings in Europe, the rise of Donald Trump and other rightwing nationalists including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping, were already painting a dim future for the world, Trump, speaking at the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly in September, unabashedly dumped the global cooperation idea. He told Heads of State and Government that his country rejects the ideology of globalism, both generally and in relation to international justice and the migration crisis

It’s just as well that on November 11, French President Emmanuel Macron told world leaders who converged on Paris for the centenary of the World War One Armistice, they must reject nationalism outright, describing it as a ‘betrayal of patriotism.’ Macron went on to say:  “By saying ‘our interests first and never mind the others’ you stamp out the most precious thing a nation has – its moral values.”   German Chancellor Angela Merkel nodded in agreement and echoed the same political sentiment.


What signs do we see of these scary times ?


The Ukraine-Russia sea clash has the potential to blow up into a major crisis. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has urged Nato to send ships to the Sea of Azov following a naval confrontation with Russia off Crimea and Nato has expressed “full support” for Ukraine although it’s not a member state. When you mull the provocations that kicked off the two world wars of the last century, you realize why  this crisis is significant. But let’s examine developments over the last few years that have been especially worrying.

In a referendum on 23 June 2016, Brexit took the world by surprise. Almost sixty percent of the participating UK electorate voted to leave the EU, overthrowing Britain’s relationship with its European neighbours in what was unequivocally some political upheaval. That was probably the first open demonstration of irritation festering within rightwing western electorates at the rapidly growing migration of people to their shores.

Anger over  Europe’s liberal immigration policy may have been brewing for a long time. But in early 2012 that festering anger among European right wingers  simply exploded  and we stood by as lone wolf terrorist attacks on the continent shocked us all – the 2011 bestial shooting on the island of  Utøya in Norway by Anders Behring Breivik was just one of them. In the Netherlands, politician Geert Wilders had presented a set of proposals—ahead of parliamentary elections in 2017—which included banning migrants from Islamic countries and closing mosques, Islamic schools and asylum centres. Now the immigration rules in Denmark are probably among Europe’s toughest. The country allows its police to seize the property of migrants to pay for their upkeep and wants to boost contraception aid to developing countries to “limit the migration pressure.” In June, Austria said it would close down seven mosques and expel imams who, it says, are funded by foreign countries. The G-7 Summit hosted in Canada in June 2018 was contentious and acrimonious, threatening to kick off a trade war and possibly destroy long cherished relations between allied countries.

Seen within that lens, the emergence in 2016, of a Donald Trump in the United States with his nebulous mantra  Make America Great Again should have come as no surprise.

A rising tide of nationalism is, actually, being witnessed across the world and with it we see the totalitarian rogue creeping in.  Beginning with its intervention in Ukraine in 2014 and its annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin had  sowed the seeds for authoritarian rule to germinate in a resurgent Russia. In Moscow, there were rallies in May 2018, two days prior to his inauguration for a fourth time, when more than 1,600  protesters were detained, many  carrying placards that said “He is not our Tsar.”

In China, President Xi Jinping is now empowered to stay in power indefinitely after the announcement February 25, that China will drop term limits on the presidency.

On 25 June, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan won sweeping new executive powers after his victory in elections. His main rival, Muharrem Ince of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), conceded defeat but told a news conference: “The new regime that takes effect from today is a major danger for Turkey… We have now fully adopted a regime of one-man rule.”

There is widespread talk of a democratic erosion in Poland, Hungary and the Philippines, as well, an ultra-nationalist government in India is paving the way for a theocratic Hindutva that would alienate Christian, Muslim and other non-Hindu communities. A rising tide of nationalism in India is driving ordinary citizens to spread fake news, according to BBC research. The study commissioned by BBC World Service, found that the emotional desire to bolster national identity trumped the reporting of facts.

All of this seemingly mirrors the political climate in Europe prior to 1945. Two essential factors drove Hitler to declare war and invade Poland. First, his hate of Jews and a burning desire to create a world of  “pure Aryan races.” Second, his dream of a sovereign and supreme Germany that would usurp the continent at some point. The memory of that history is, to me, very reminiscent of what’s going on today and  history will ascertain, that an extremely nationalist ethos, actually  provides that fertile ground for the germination of  dictators.

Late June 2018, President Trump said that people who enter the United States illegally should be sent back to where they came from immediately without any judicial process. Earlier, facing a public outcry and pressure from even his Republican party, he backed down and reversed his infamous policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border so that parents could be detained and prosecuted. Earlier on 16 May, he provoked controversy during a public round-table discussion about immigration, when he reportedly said “You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people, these are animals.” Trump’s comments were immediately criticized by multiple sources who likened his remarks to those of Adolf Hitler.

In a quiet moment, it’s nice to think about how and why this has come to pass and what’s the way out of this quagmire?   

The history of conflict on the planet is a narrative of how the marginalized, the plebeian, rank and file masses have turned against the bourgeoisie – our capitalist societies.  So, it’s reasonable to say that the rich and poor world can never ever co-exist without ineluctable conflict because profligate societies  incite an irascible response from the observer across the border. There must be committed engagement  by rich nations  with societies down south of the globe because a common future for all, can come with the common responsibility of all.

There is this allegory of the long spoons, a parable attributed to Rabbi Romshishock that makes a subtle point about “common responsibility” and “common future”.   Think of diners sitting on two sides of a long table on which delectable food waits. The guests at the table have extremely long spoons making it impossible for them to scoop up the food and drop it into their mouths. So, what does one do? The parable suggests that people on one side of that table have the opportunity to reach out to the others across the table with their resources  – their long spoons in this allegory –  so that in feeding one another, all are fed and no one is hungry.

Consider expanding the notional scope of what globalization can do to create a better, safer and a just world and be cognizant of the fact that should  the richer half  of the planet choose,  instead, to ignore and neglect this other half,  global poverty will come back to haunt us. There are no “quick fixes” to sorting out the quagmire we are trapped in. Walls will not keep festering anger lying servile within. That anger will likely explode and breakdown walls. In 2016 we saw an ocean of displaced humanity flock to European shores from war-torn Syria. In the last couple of weeks we have seen caravans of  about 5000 South Americans fleeing poverty, violence and persecution in the Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.     A civilized nation cannot turn to actions that dehumanize the marginalized – separating families or unleashing tear gas on children seeking refuge at their borders. A careful examination of what lies at the root of all this trouble might reveal the fact that migration is driven by poverty, the absence of opportunity and the curse of terrorist violence and war primed by sectarian strife and nationalist ambitions that push the plebeian, the marginalized, the rank and file to pile up on boats and take those dangerous journeys to western shores.  

The creation of the European Union was a great idea. Similar economic blocs can bring about that change we seek. What the World Trade Organization has shown is that precisely by breaking down barriers or by trade groupings as in NAFTA, can national economies forge ahead with greater pace. The idea of a world commonwealth is not new. It was the inspiration behind the founding of the League of Nations.

So, perhaps the intellectual and technological convergence of nation states to elevate the power of literate human capital in developing countries can gradually halt the need to migrate at all, because literacy will open the gates to jobs and jobs will close the gates to poverty. Dr. Wally N’Dow, the former Secretary General of the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements, who I had the opportunity to meet sometime ago, had suggested that  no one should, any longer, ignore the fact that man must share a common responsibility for a common future. “Of the 100 babies being born every day, eighty are from the Third World,” he said. “If we do not give these children the skills, to empower themselves, the burden of life will ultimately impact all of humanity.”

How do people in developing countries with less than basic literacy skills in their villages cope with the technological progress in the cities?  The world has been doling out financial aid without technological partnerships to Africa for many decades. What’s the outcome? The worries of that continent are, with every passing day, getting to be of gargantuan proportions.

The United States has been pursuing its seemingly noble goal of exporting democracy to the Middle East. But what may not be understood is that democracy is about making intelligent choices. The Greeks, the founders of that political ideology had warned that democracies cannot survive in a socio-cultural environment that is not ready for it. This is no chicken and egg question about what comes first: It is social change, not prosperity, that must first provide the climate in which the seed of economic development can germinate.

Furthermore, a major threat to the world today is terrorist violence – random and unprovoked cataclysms that strike fear and dread in our societies. No more is it political, instead driven by ideological fundamentalism. The world’s response has been reactive, not innovative, not pre-emptive. Walls are not going to stop thugs and terrorists from invading our countries. The job calls for striking at the roots.

King Abdullah of Jordan in his memoir: Our Last Best Chance: The pursuit for peace in a time of peril speaks about his county’s war on terrorism. He writes: “Our two greatest weapons against the takfiris are education and opportunity – not only providing better schools and universities but also improving the quality of our religious education. To make sure our young people hear the true message of Islam, we have to encourage bright and well-educated members of our society to pursue careers in religious affairs.”

That education and mature literacy is a change-setter, is witnessed in the thousands of make-shift schools that are mushrooming in the developing world this century. These initiatives deserve a shot-in-the-arm. A globalized world can do this. A greater emphasis on interventions that target economic development and institutional reform could help bring stability and prosperity in source countries. This may, naturally, require better risk analysis of developing states, closer cooperation with the countries of migrant origin, and far more judicious targeting of government and donor funding to aid development in these countries.

If we go down that road, it is fair to say that a couple of decades from today, the world will see broad-based literate societies unfolding in economically weaker nation states. That will end the frustration of the plebeian masses, the rank and file and open up opportunities in countries across our borders. At that point, migration may no more appear like a haven to citizens of other worlds. Instead, it might seem as if migration would then become an absolutely welcome alternative to propel slowing economies in the West.  

There are no quick fixes to the torment of our times. The development of literate societies, an overhauling of the nature of our ethos, the sharing of technology and resources with weaker nation states through a sterling globalized culture and the creation of egalitarian societies, may be the only way forward.  The stakes are high. The global community needs to give that challenge a shot, before time runs out.



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