Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Return of Nationalism and A Multi-Polar World

The past weeks have been pretty dramatic when it comes to world affairs: ISIS threatening the Iraqi government, increased bloodshed in Afghanistan, Germany catching an American spy, Ukrainian separatists shooting down a Malaysian airliner, and the Israeli invasion of Gaza.  Beyond the surface headlines, there are bigger trends afoot.

One of those trends is the obvious loss of American hegemony.  Iraq and Afghanistan are American imperial adventures that have completely backfired, and there is little that can be done about it.  Despite Russia's erratic and violent behavior, the US is having a hard time convincing Europe to take action against Putin.

In fact, for the first time since the end of World War II, we are seeing the emergence of a multi-polar world.  Russia is reasserting its power, and rising China has been flexing its muscles with its southern Vietnamese neighbor and traditional rival Japan.  Ironically, this process was abetted by the administration of George W. Bush, which claimed to be making America stronger than ever before.  The failed operations in Iraq and Afghanistan exposed America's weaknesses, damaged its credibility, and have reduced the American public's support for aggressive foreign policy.  One of the great "what ifs" that will be discussed by future historians will be "what if Al Gore had not been cheated out of the presidency," not least because he likely would have continued the safer, multilateral foreign policy of George HW Bush and Bill Clinton.

While I am not a cheerleader for American hegemony, I do not look optimistically at the emerging multi-polar system either.  A multi-polar world lends itself to conflict, a fact scary to contemplate one hundred years to the month after the "July Crisis" of 1914 that led to worldwide war.  Nationalism provides the fuel for such fires, and gives the masses reason to cheer their troops on the road to the slaughterhouse.  After years of talk of globalization many observers have been acting as if nations are a thing of the past.  Russia and China put lie to that belief, as the Chinese government has whipped up anti-Japanese sentiment, and Putin is pursuing an ultra-nationalist foreign policy that calls for all Russians to be united, regardless of borders.

That kind of nationalism might seem paradoxical in a world of greater and greater global economic convergence, but it shouldn't.  After all, in 1913, on the edge of World War I, global trade reached new heights despite the rabid nationalism that would send the world into conflict.  Nationalism is an incredibly potent force, since it gives legitimacy to autocratic and undemocratic regimes, by riling up the masses and giving them a feeling of having a stake in the state.  While it is not the only game in town (just look at ISIS and its idea of Sunni state), it's still really, really important, and has been fatally ignored for too long.

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