At a campaign rally in Texas in October, President Donald Trump told the American public that they would have to make a choice between globalism and nationalism.
"A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much," he said. In opposition to globalism, Trump added, "They have a word. It sort of became old-fashioned. It's called a nationalist. ... You know what I am? I'm a nationalist."
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Trump has since elaborated on this tension between globalism and nationalism in interviews.
Commentators in the media have castigated Trump for this, declaring that the term "nationalist" is loaded with "racial undertones," a dog-whistle to racism that is a "favorite of the alt-right," and must necessarily stir up division and feelings of superiority for one group over others.
But these attacks on Trump's words are misguided. In fact, Trump got this issue exactly right.
Globalism vs. nationalism is the great political struggle of our age, realigning the politics of nations not only in America, but in the UK, Italy, Eastern Europe and across the democratic world. In the end, every one of us will have to understand what's at stake and take a side.
Historically, the word "nationalism" has been used to describe a view of the world as governed best when nations are allowed to chart their own independent course. This is opposed to "imperialism," which looks to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind, as much as possible, under a single political regime.
Few ideas are more maligned today than nationalism, but it wasn't always this way. Until only a few decades ago, a nationalist politics was associated with broad-mindedness and a generous spirit: Progressives regarded Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points and Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill's Atlantic Charter as beacons of hope for mankind, precisely because they were nationalist documents, promising national independence and self-determination to enslaved peoples.
Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower saw nationalism as a positive ordering principle in world affairs, and Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were welcomed by conservatives for infusing political life with a new spirit of nationalism. France's Charles de Gaulle, India's Mahatma Gandhi, and Israel's David Ben-Gurion all led nationalist movements that won widespread admiration as they steered their people to freedom.
The nationalist standpoint has a distinguished history. The vision of a world of independent nations is central to the Bible, which opposed the imperialism that was the official ideology of the Pharaohs, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians — and later adopted by the Romans, the Catholic Holy Roman Empire, and the Muslim caliphate. The modern world was born with the Protestant embrace of the principle of national self-determination, culminating in Henry VIII's renunciation of subservience to the Holy Roman Empire in 1534. The English model of national independence was subsequently adopted by the Netherlands, Scotland, France, and eventually America.
For more than four centuries, peoples of Western Europe and America lived under a new construction of the political world — one in which national independence and self-determination came to be regarded as the key to a free world. This new order of competing independent nations imparted unique dynamism to Europe, releasing a storm of dormant energies and fostering a stunning degree of experiment and innovation in government and economics, science and religion. In short, the national-state system created the world we live in.
As late as the Second World War, many still believed that national freedom was the key to a just, diverse, and relatively peaceful world. But Hitler changed all that. Immediately after the war, George Orwell began to use the term "nationalism" as a synonym for political fanaticism, and scholars such as Elie Kedourie began to develop the argument that the political theory of nationalism had been decisive in bringing about the two world wars. By the 1960s, these views had been adopted by many of the leading political and intellectual figures in Europe, who came to see nationalism as something to be despised and suppressed.
This European hostility, both to the term "nationalism" and to the theory of national independence it represents, reached the United States by way of academia, giving rise to the stigma that is so often attached to this idea, especially among university-educated Americans. In place of nationalism, many have embraced what is today called "globalism" (or "transnationalism"), which is just another name for the aspiration toward a worldwide liberal empire in which individual rights and free markets would be imposed, where necessary, on recalcitrant nations by an international regime run by Americans and Europeans.
But this case for universal liberal empire is based on a false reading of history. Hitler was no nationalist in the conventional sense of this term: He despised the dream of a world of independent nations, and in Mein Kampf he vowed to destroy the national states of Europe so Germany could become "mistress of the globe" and "lord of the earth." Nazism was an imperialist enterprise from its inception.
Blaming World War I on nationalism alone is far-fetched too. The Serb nationalists' local struggle with the Austrian Empire and their assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne, which provided the pretext for the war, could not by themselves have fueled a world war. What did it was the German Empire's bid to break the back of British and French imperialism before these empires could establish permanent control over the globe.
Learning the lessons of the 20th century isn't easy, and with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1989, Americans and Europeans should have turned to a rigorous debate over whether to replace the centuries-old order of independent nations with a universal liberal empire. But the debate never took place: After Margaret Thatcher was deposed in 1990 by her own party for raising doubts about the European Union, virtually no one in a position of influence was much inclined to take up the fight.
Utopianism was the order of the day, and with uncanny unanimity, Western leaders moved ahead with two great imperialist projects that were supposed to bring peace and prosperity to the earth: An "ever closer union" of the nations of Europe in which they would forfeit much of their former independence; and an American-sponsored "rules-based international order," under which nations that do not abide by the decisions of international bodies would be coerced into doing so, principally by US armed force -- a globalist policy that we got to see carried out in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Somalia.
But this transition to "globalist" politics was made without making sure everyone was on board. Britain's 2016 Brexit vote for independence from the European Union, followed by Trump's presidential win in the US and nationalist electoral victories in Italy and Eastern Europe, reflect widespread alienation from the imperialism of the emerging liberal world order.
Could it be that the nationalists are right? One advantage of their approach is that it sees human nature clearly: Human beings are fiercely loyal to families, tribes, and nations, much of the time acting to advance the interests, internal cohesion, and unique cultural inheritance of the collectives to which they belong. In a political order consisting of independent nations, these mutual loyalties are channeled for the betterment of mankind: Competition among independent nations has led to unprecedented innovation and flourishing.
Moreover, though national states fight over borders, they tend to prefer not to squander resources on conquering distant nations and imposing their way of life on others. Because the national-state inculcates the principle of national freedom, it also tends toward a greater tolerance of diversity among the nations that is largely absent from imperialist ideologies. This focus on strengthening the nation at home makes most nationalist movements preferable to imperialist ideologies (whether Christian, Muslim, Marxist, or liberal), with their thirst for engaging in universal wars.
Finally, the mutual loyalties that bind the nation together are the only known basis for the development of free institutions, limited government, and personal liberties. Where strong bonds of national loyalty exist, it becomes possible for a ruler to trust his people enough to grant them freedoms that limit his power -- and for rival tribes to give up on violence and accept a peaceful electoral politics. No imperial state ruling over distant nations is characterized by such mutual loyalties, and for this reason, no empire can be governed by means of free institutions.
Nationalists hope for the abandonment of the globalist project, and a revitalization of the centuries-old order of independent nations. Averse to squandering resources on conquering distant nations and trying to impose liberalism on them, they prefer to build up a world that tolerates diverse ways of life. And on this point, the nationalists are right.