by Frederik Seidelin
In light of the political developments over this decade—particularly over the past two or three years—it has become decidedly banal to remark on the global turn to nationalism. Indeed, the politics of nationalism governs across the world—whether underpinned by populist support as in Britain or the United States, or by a quiescent population which tolerates administrative overreach in the Polish judiciary or the apparently politically-motivated barring of Alexei Navalny from running against Vladimir Putin in 2018’s Russian presidential election.
During 2017, we have frequently seen this nationalism underpinned by rhetoric designed to exploit religious sentiment for political gain. At Understanding Theology, we have looked at examples of this, such as the Danish Minister for Integration fanning the flames of Islamophobia and Trump’s announcement to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Populist nationalism weaponises issues such as these to great effect in order to build domestic support. Increasingly, however, the rhetoric and behaviour of populist governments are palpably altering the conventions of international politics—from the rules-based world order that many internationalists were heralding in the wake of the Cold War to an international system based on Machtpolitik.
The international institutions built in the latter half of the twentieth century are responding to these challenges. Brexit negotiators in the EU are holding Britain to its international obligations. Similarly, the European Commission has shown its teeth by threatening to suspend Poland’s voting rights in EU institutions unless they live up to the democratic commitments inherent in EU membership. The UN Security Council and Assembly, for their part, have urged the US to back down over Jerusalem. However, Poland has yet to correct its course, and Guatamala, which is heavily dependent on US aid, has announced intentions to also move its embassy to Jerusalem. In other words, the recent glut of internationalist interventionism may prove ineffectual unless the words are followed by action. Currently, it is difficult to see how the UN will prevent the US from moving its embassy, and the EU’s courses of action may be limited by the instability created by the stalemate over Catalonia and the possible security concerns over Russian aggression.
Nevertheless, it would be alarmist to presage the slow death of internationalism. The current trends of nationalism may well abate if, for instance, solutions are found to the crisis in the Middle East and to the international labour and resource struggles. Indeed, Pope Francis’ Christmas address was internationalist in his defence of refugees’ rights and his call for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine question. At the end of another year of populist nationalism, the question is whether we see light, however faint, at the end of the tunnel and a return to social justice and more amicable international relations—in spite of the narrow nationalism in the world’s populist movements and governments.