contributor perspectives

Apr 21, 2017 | 08:10 GMT

6 mins read

In the Age of Nationalism, the World Takes a Back Seat

Board of Contributors
Ambika Vishwanath
Board of Contributors
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks at a rally
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Last month, India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, voted the nation's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) into power. The party then selected a deeply divisive figure from within its ranks to serve as Uttar Pradesh's chief: Yogi Adityanath, at best a Hindu fundamentalist and at worst a politician capable of splitting his state and country along religious lines. The appointment doesn't bode well for a nation with a long and bloody history of religious violence. But in some ways, it's also hardly surprising.

Adityanath is a long-serving member of the party who meets its criteria for an ideal candidate. His rhetoric is harsh and unforgiving toward women, minorities and Muslims; he draws large crowds by preaching a Hindu way of life; and he calls for a shift away from the secular state India was meant to be. The ruling party has done much the same at the national level, and though Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not openly advocated moving toward a Hindu state, he has subtly pursued one by fanning the flames of nationalism. His "Make in India" policy, his alignment with likeminded countries, his silence when state authorities curb religious and other freedoms, the religious right's greater say in his administration's agenda, and Adityanath's recent appointment are all evidence of that.

But India isn't alone. Since 2014, when Modi was elected, it has become increasingly clear that nationalism and ultranationalism are making a comeback across the globe, from East to West. Japan has leaned toward a more patriotic style of education, while nationalists have gained momentum in Putin's Russia, Erdogan's Turkey and Netanyahu's Israel. Disillusionment with the political and business elite, dissatisfaction with high levels of immigration, and tougher attitudes toward border issues have given rise to a worldwide nationalist wave that new leaders in North America, Europe and Asia are riding into office. But this renewed love of one's own threatens to undermine the global order of the 21st century.

The Perks of Working Together

Sixty years ago, six European nations signed the Treaty of Rome. In doing so, they founded the European Economic Community, an ambitious experiment that eventually led to the creation of the European Union. In many ways that experiment was — and still is — hugely successful, having provided the Continent and countries worldwide sound norms, rules and regulations to live by. The EU Water Framework Directive, for instance, is an excellent standard for nations to aspire to as they provide their citizens with water that meets certain quality standards.

Yet this experiment is also in jeopardy. An influx of refugees; changing ties with Russia, the United States and Turkey; and new dangers posed by non-state actors have placed it in peril from without. But it also faces rising threats from within: Sluggish economic growth and disillusionment with the "ever-closer union" have bolstered support for Europe's right-wing conservative parties, which are gaining ground in France, Germany, Hungary, the Netherlands and other states. Now there is a real possibility that the very social fabric the union was conceived and built on will be torn apart.

The world is waiting with bated breath for the outcome of France's presidential election, the first round of which will be held April 23 — and the results of which could signal the fate of the union as a whole. Should the country elect controversial ultranationalist candidate Marine Le Pen, it will be the end of the bloc; even powerful German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not be able to save it. (Merkel, moreover, faces her own demons at home as her popularity declines because of her stance on refugees — a stance that many Germans deem too soft.) A new sort of diplomacy will arise between France and its neighbors, leading to drastic changes in Europe's strategies for defense and cooperation.

It's unlikely, in the absence of strong leaders, that many of today's supranational organizations will survive in their current state. Every international agreement, from the United Nations itself to deals on climate change, security threats and space exploration, will be called into question.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — one of the first leaders to run on a nationalist and anti-elite platform in the 2000s — will continue to distance himself from the Continent. Ankara's lack of cooperation will almost certainly threaten Europe's borders, especially if Erdogan chooses to allow a million Syrian refugees to leave Turkey for the Continent. The outcome of Turkey's constitutional referendum on April 16, which favored Erdogan, will dramatically alter the country's course as well. Armed with a plan to transform Turkey into a presidential republic, Erdogan will pull more powers into the office he holds, granting himself the ability to act more quickly in his turbulent region.

Nations Come First

It's unlikely, in the absence of strong leaders, that many of today's supranational organizations will survive in their current state. Every international agreement, from the United Nations itself to deals on climate change, security threats and space exploration, will be called into question. New negotiations will become all the more difficult, particularly as the rise of China's influence in Asia, the growing clout of the BRICS nations and Russian interference in Eastern Europe change and weaken the modern order of global governance and open markets.

At the same time, national rhetoric will be critical not only to the future of these international relationships but also to long-standing territorial disputes. Both Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping have used nationalism to spur domestic reform and curry favor with the public — at the cost of reviving dormant border disputes. Under Abe, Japan has taken a harder line on the islands it and China claim, and in December 2016 it pledged to increase its defense spending, putting South Korea on high alert. Ongoing territorial spats in the South China Sea and the race to discover oil and natural gas resources in the Arctic are poised to become key flash points in the competition among Asia's biggest rivals.

To the west, an overhaul in South Asia's relationships is underway as well. A spate of recent attacks and skirmishes between India and Pakistan has given Modi the reason he needs to take a tougher stand on Islamabad, boosting his popular support at home in the process. The prime minister has also strengthened his ties to Afghanistan as China has gained ground in Nepal and Sri Lanka. Other world leaders have warily watched these adjustments, looking for signs of trouble as the volatile region reshapes its priorities and partnerships.

Clearly, challenges to the political establishment are not just a problem for elites in the West. Though this movement doesn't necessarily signal the end of globalization, it does foretell a new way in which countries — especially those in the developed world — are going to engage with the international community and with one another. National interests will outweigh global ones, however detrimental or unethical the result may sometimes seem, and mottos like "America First" or "Austria First" will quickly become the new norm.

Ambika Vishwanath is an independent consultant and political scientist specializing in Middle East politics and water and energy security. She has consulted with several governments and international organizations in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe and helped shape their policies toward conflict resolution, water diplomacy and security. Previously she worked with the Mumbai-based Strategic Foresight Group.

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