Nationalism Isn’t a Bad Thing, But Trump’s Version Is

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- What, exactly, is the matter with nationalism? Many of Donald Trump’s supporters must be asking this question as the foreign policy establishment rains criticism on the president’s address to the United Nations General Assembly. The answer is that while nationalism itself is natural and even healthy, the sort of uninhibited, cutthroat nationalism Trump favors has often caused catastrophe in global affairs.

Nationalism is not inherently bad, of course. It is an unavoidable characteristic of a world made up of individual nations that each have their own identities and interests. And if nationalism refers to a belief in the unique nature and value of one’s country, and the desire to prioritize its interests over those of other countries, then nationalism is a necessary ingredient of U.S. foreign policy. To reflexively condemn nationalism, as some of Trump’s critics have done, is to lose sight of the fact that the world can be a nasty place in which states must indeed look out for themselves.

Yet the reason nationalism gets a bad name is that collisions between the sharpest types of nationalism — those that take a Darwinian, survival-of-the-fittest approach to international affairs, that depict global politics as an unceasing clash in which one must dominate or be dominated, that exalt struggle as the ultimate test of a nation’s worth, and that turn every international interaction into a zero-sum competition for glory and advantage — have caused repeated geopolitical cataclysms.

This, in a nutshell, is the problem with Trump’s America First nationalism. At a time when the international system is being tested by resurgent nationalism on the part of China, Russia and other powers, the Trump administration is undermining a system that has benefited the U.S. immeasurably by embracing a toxic nationalism of its own.

Trump built much of the momentum for his candidacy and presidency through foreign-policy pronouncements that have been openly hostile to the international system the U.S. built after 1945. Yet his speech at the UN was more subtly subversive. Some parts his paeans to the distinctive histories, cultures and traditions of different countries — had a Kumbaya quality that might seem right at home in Turtle Bay. Until, that is, one realizes that by championing unrestrained nationalism in foreign policy, Trump is inviting a return of the brutal, destructive patterns that the UN and so much of today’s international system were created to overcome.

The emergence of such hypernationalism was a critical driver of World War I — at that point, the most violent conflict in history. Just 25 years later, the rise of predatory regimes motivated by some of the most unconstrained, aggressive nationalisms ever seen triggered an all-consuming conflagration.

This dynamic was hardly unique to the 20th century. As Charles Edel and I argue in our forthcoming book, “The Lessons of Tragedy,” the clash of extreme nationalisms has been a recurring feature of geopolitics since the emergence of the modern nation-state system in the 17th century, and the result has often been to foster cycles of great-power war and all the accompanying devastation.

The determination to break this cycle was at the heart of the postwar system. Contrary to what the president argues, the U.S. never abandoned nationalism — it never pursued a foreign policy that was intended to do anything other than promote a secure, peaceful and prosperous world in which America itself could flourish. But U.S. officials of the 1940s and after understood that the most vicious aspects of nationalism had to be tamed if the international system was not to be pulled back into violent, chaotic darkness. The great innovations of postwar foreign policy were thus expressly designed to cage and control nationalism.

America’s promotion of an open global economy was meant to avert the protectionist, beggar-thy-neighbor policies that had set countries against each other in the 1930s, frustrating cooperation and hastening the spiral into depression and bloodshed. America’s decisions to create standing military alliances and quasi-permanently station U.S. troops overseas were intended not simply to deter Soviet aggression, but to smother the hypernationalist competition that had previously arisen between Germany and its neighbors in Europe, and Japan and its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific.

Likewise, the U.S. backed the development of supranational institutions like the European Coal and Steel Community (which ultimately evolved into the EU), which worked to control nationalist impulses by promoting institutionalized cooperation between historical enemies. The UN was created as a multilateral body that could promote collaborative solutions to global problems rather than forcing every state to fend entirely for itself. And in general, by promoting an international environment in which not just the U.S. but any like-minded country could benefit, Washington sought to kill the idea that countries had no choice but to engage in unrestrained competition in order to satisfy their basic needs. Insofar as the world has been a better place since World War II than it was before, it is because America and its friends managed to stifle the worst types of nationalism.

Trump’s UN address — and his foreign policy writ large — seem utterly blind to this fact. From the outset of Trump’s presidency, administration officials have seemed to delight in describing foreign policy in the old exploit-or-be-exploited, winner-take-all terms. The president, for his part, has made a central intellectual thread of his statecraft the idea that the U.S. must seek to dominate every interaction with every other country (except, perhaps, Vladimir Putin’s Russia or Kim Jong Un’s North Korea), that it must cast aside the illusion of positive-sum solutions to global problems, and that Americans can only thrive by freeing themselves from the multilateral agreements and institutions that have kept nationalism in check for generations.

This would be a profoundly corrosive policy under any circumstances. Its ill effects are only exacerbated by the fact that the revival of nationalism is not solely an American phenomenon. In the heart of the Western world, European integration and cooperation are fraying as resurgent national identities and ambitions — often with xenophobic overtones — flare up across the continent, stoking fears that resurgent geopolitical frictions might eventually follow.

In East Asia, Japan is rediscovering its own nationalist tradition under the leadership of Shinzo Abe, a phenomenon that has made it more active in countering a rising China (good), while also unnerving some of Tokyo’s former enemies (less good). And Russia and China are not trying to integrate into some post-modern paradise, as was sometimes hoped after the Cold War. They are pursuing their own forms of increasingly assertive, even aggressive, nationalism meant to help achieve the influence and prestige they believe they are unjustly denied in an American-led order.

Almost everywhere one looks, the world seems to be slipping back toward a tenser and more conflicted past. One would expect the U.S., as the country that has profited the most from an international system predicated on suppressing dangerous forms of nationalism, to be fighting this trend with all its power. Yet Trump’s articulation of America’s own form of xenophobic, hypercompetitive nationalism is simply accelerating that pernicious change.

The president may not see where this is likely to lead, because he does not have much historical sensibility or imagination. But those who remember what global affairs looked like prior to 1945, in earlier eras when nationalism ran rampant, understand the dangers all too well.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His newest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump." 

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