The future will explain the present better than we can. Still, we of the present should make an attempt to understand what’s going on.
Globalization, which was all the rage until the other day, seems to have come to a stop. In fact, today’s Europe, Britain included, suggests that nationalism has overcome even regional cooperation, seen until the other day as Europe’s historic gift.
Boris Johnson’s installation as PM may ere long be perceived as an extension of the European story, not an exception to it. Merkel in Germany and Macron in France could be the ones who may end up being seen as Europe’s rarities.
In Europe, including Britain, the question, ‘Who Are We?’ is increasingly being answered with ‘English,’ ‘Scots,’ ‘German,’ ‘French,’ ‘Poles’ or ‘Hungarian’ rather than ‘European’. In the US, a steadily louder answer is ‘White American’. These are not unanimous responses, only the voices of a narrow majority. In some cases, the majority is yet to be tested or confirmed.
But that is the trend: back to the tribal tent.
Nationalist leaders in Europe see one another as allies or rivals or both. To them Trump is an inspiration, but America and NATO are viewed as external forces which true nationalists must oppose. In earlier years, anti-Semitism was a common feature in nationalist rhetoric in Europe. Now anti-Semitism has been replaced by Islamophobia and warnings against migrants from Africa.
Two dozen energetic (and frequently toxic) nationalisms will not unite the world. Their mutual tensions and contradictions will probably endanger the world before too long. For the time being, however -- as long as believers in liberalism, democracy and free trade remain influential in different parts of our globe --, populist nationalists will draw strength from one another.
Putin and Trump will continue to buttress each other. Trump will cheer Boris, and Boris will cheer Trump. England’s Nigel Farage and France’s Marie le Pen will have a similar relationship, and they will be inspired simultaneously by both Trump and Putin.
In Asia, Xi Jinping’s Belt Road Initiative will continue to run into nationalist currents. How Kim Jong Un copes with Xi and Trump, and how Xi and Trump cope with each other, are among the more consequential questions that have been thrown up.
India’s Narendra Modi is also having to cope with both Trump and Xi. So is Japan’s Shinzo Abe.
For their pressing oil needs, Xi, Abe and Modi all want trade relations with Iran – and with Iran’s regional adversary, Saudi Arabia. For other and equally compelling reasons, Xi, Abe and Modi all need good relations with Iran’s global adversary, the US.
Another player on the global stage, also a populist nationalist, in his case a Muslim nationalist, is Turkey’s Erdogan. A NATO member, Erdogan also needs to stay on good terms with neighbour Putin. And this Muslim nationalist also needs a non-hostile relationship with an even closer neighbour, one with a history of tension with Islam: Israel.
For now, the world’s proliferating nationalisms do not seem to have taken the world as a whole to the edge of war. But a common feature and a common risk are worth observing.
The common feature, to take a very broad view, is the mix of mutual fear and dislike dividing our world’s Muslims from its non-Muslims. The common risk is presented by the nuclear capabilities of, to name them in reverse alphabetical order, the US, the UK, Russia, Pakistan, North Korea, Israel, India, France and China.
On such a risk-loaded planet, led in many parts of the world by populists playing on fear and dislike, what is the responsibility of the ordinary citizen?