Liberalism retreats before the advance of nationalism and the strong man

The turbulence of 2016 has revealed enough to make clear that we now have two competing visions of the global political order, liberalism and nationalism. One might say “nothing new then”, given that such a competition is in some ways a reversion to an older pre-1945 pattern, were it not for the apparent progress made since then to create a rules and human rights-based international order. Now however, some might think that such progress is going into reverse, with the rise of “strong man” authoritarian regimes in important states like Russia, Turkey, India and even, for some, the USA under Trump, to join longer-standing regimes in places like China. Suddenly liberal democracy looks to be under threat.

A rules-based liberal global order

Since the end of the Cold War, and the competing claims to legitimacy of democracy and communism, it had seemed that liberal democracy policed by the USA was the new order de rigueur, a form of constitutionalism containing democratically-governed states, or those transitioning to democracy, along with international bodies like the UN, the WTO and the IMF, with a growing body of international law and an international court of justice. States were beginning to reach out beyond the nation-state model to develop transnational institutions, as with the EU. Now it might be that we see this phase as an interregnum before another, older set of competing ideologies could emerge. Nature, it is said, abhors a vacuum.

The appeal of nationalism

Nationalism, and its familiar bedfellow authoritarianism, are concepts that have existed since at least the 19th Century. People like Napoleon and Bismarck found that nationalism could harness popular unrest and divert potential internal conflict to a force that buttressed the nation state around a patriotic vision that asserted its primacy within a world of competing interests and one of the survival of the fittest. Thus elites used nationalism to avert social revolution and distract it against an internal and/or external alien “other”. Darwin’s theory of evolution (Origin of the Species, 1859) was transposed on to political evolution through Social Darwinism and from there it was not far to go to ideas of superior races and 20th Century racist ideologies. Relations between states were, since time immemorial, one of competition, win-lose, dominance-submission, great power spheres of influence, and the imposition by force of one set of values over others. Whole areas of the world became subject to highly militarised empires.

20th Century Totalitarianism

One might say that the First World War, whose centenary is now being marked in many parts of the World, was both the zenith and nadir of such ideas, and many thought that, with the “War to end all wars” having created mutual destruction, we could begin a new ideology of internationalism through the new League of Nations. That in fact proved to be no more than a 20 year “armed peace” before the conflict resumed. This time nationalism had recruited a far more sophisticated bedfellow in a “master race” ideology of National Socialist racism, competing with communist egalitarian authoritarianism in a totalitarian all-powerful Leader-principle at the apex of a volk that would create the Reich of a Thousand Years.

The World of Trump, Putin and Xi Jinping

As Mr Trump seeks to close the borders of the USA to the victims of persecution on, of all days, International Holocaust Remembrance Day; as Marine Le Pen, whose father regarded the holocaust as a “detail of history”, prepares her bid for the Presidency of France in 2017; as Mr Putin waits in the wings with his vision to weaken the EU and restore Russia’s dominance over its sphere of influence in Eastern Europe; as China spreads its influence through commerce over large swathes of the developing world, as the world shifts away from free trade towards protectionism, as it also did in the early 1930’s as an important precursor to renewed conflict; as we erect barriers against our fellow humans; as the UK prepares to leave the EU and tries to balance a liberal parliamentary system with dealings with “strong men” illiberal rulers in a blatant version of 19th Century realpolitik – we need to pause and reflect on what is happening to the vision for the world order so optimistically stated in the aftermath of the Second World War.

With the Bretton Woods agreement (1944) and the creation of the UN (1945) and later the EU, the world sought to reach beyond the world of competing spheres of influence, of dominance and submission, of master and slave. Right now, one might say we are at the cross-roads, and, like Leonard Woolf, see the world going “downhill all the way” to further conflict, or we could assert, against the odds, that there is something that serves humanity better than “strong men”, “me first”, great power interests, and the “power over” model that now has such appeal.

%d bloggers like this: