Posted: 2018-09-26

At the UN President Trump has advised nations to reject globalism and embrace patriotism. But nationalism has no answer to the world's major threats: nuclear war, environmental degradation and malign technology. On the contrary, it is a major threat to humanity in all these areas.


Donald Trump put it bluntly the other day at the UN, the world’s main international organisation, when he advised other countries to reject globalism and embrace patriotism. He was booed by many of the delegates, yet millions would appear to agree with him.

Much of the world is experiencing this mad phenomenon which it thought it had eradicated in 1945. After the descent into the abyss, we had decades of increased prosperity, interdependent economics, relative peace, open borders, enhanced human rights, and an embrace of diversity and international institutions. Now there is a widespread urge to retreat backwards, to embrace the ugly and destructive old ideas of nationalism, isolationism, demagogy, xenophobia, racism and intolerance.
China has long played the nationalist game. Putin is clearly an extreme Russian nationalist. Trump wants to make America great again by putting America first. In Europe we see it in the political successes of Hungarian, Polish and Czech nationalists. And Brexit itself is, above all, an expression of English nationalism.
Why is this retreat towards a political dark era happening? One explanation is that in an increasingly complex world, globalism for many people is too rational and abstract an idea to embrace. They find it easier to identify emotionally with their own native land and its story. After all, millions have died for their country, but who is prepared to die for the UN or the EU?
Another possible cause is the ‘left behind’ thesis  – many of the working classes in western societies have not benefited from globalisation as the gap between rich and poor has widened, and in many cases immigrants, prepared to work for less, have taken up the low paid jobs.
Whatever the reasons, the current craze of nationalism and patriotism is a dangerous path to take. Every country for itself leads to the law of the jungle in which the bully dominates. America itself has often behaved in this way and dragged other countries along with it  – countries like the UK, currently so anxious to escape the clutches of Europe yet content to be enslaved by everything American from its foreign policy to its popular culture.
In any case, we live in an increasingly interconnected world in which major problems of climate change, nuclear confrontation and global inequality simply cannot be solved on a national basis. The fact is that many rich countries continue to exploit poor nations, so is it surprising that millions of Africans want to escape to richer European shores?
The qualities that unite humans are more important than the factors that divide us. We in Northern Ireland, trapped in Orange and Green ideologies, seem incapable of learning this lesson.  On a wider scale, the shift away from globalism to nationalism is a major cause of alarm. As with most other things, Donald Trump has got it badly wrong. 
In an excellent article by Yuval Harari, author of 'Sapiens' and 'Homo Deus' in the 'New Statesman' (21-27th July, 2017), he argues that the return of nationalism threatens our future. First, in the past countries played the nationalist politics game without destroying human civilisation. But that was in the pre-Hiroshima era. Since then, nuclear weapons have raised the stakes and changed the fundamental nature of war and politics. As long as human beings know how to enrich uranium and plutonium, their survival will depend on privileging the prevention of nuclear war over the interests of any particular nation. The nation itself, without a robust system of international co-operation, cannot prevent the world, or even itself, from nuclear destruction.

Secondly, nationalism is even more dangerous in the context of climate change because it is a much more vague and protracted menace. Here, whenever environmental considerations demand some painful sacrifice, nationalists will be tempted to put the national interest first, reassuring themselves that we can worry about the environment later, or just leave it to people elsewhere. It isn't coincidence that scepticism about climate change is usually the preserve of nationalist politicians. They have no answer to the problem, and so they prefer to believe it does not exist.

Thirdly, there is disruptive technology. If and when artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence, it may be given control of weapons systems and crucial decisions, with potentially calamitous consequences, including even putting billions out of work, creating a new, 'useless class' of people, devoid of economic value and political power. If technology gets to know us better than we know ourselves, governments and corporations could predict our decisions, manipulate our emotions and gain absolute control over our lives.

Thus technology has created a set of global threats to human existence that no nation can fight on its own. He cites the EU as a model of internationalism as the way forward and regrets that the UK has thrown a wrench into a mechanism that ensures continental harmony. He says that we need a new global identity because national institutions are incapable of dealing with the world's problems and threats.


Brian McClinton 27th September 2018