WASHINGTON -- In China, a military parade this year will commemorate not the triumph of communism, but, rather, the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II. Chinese nationalism (and historical hatred of Japan) will trump Marxist ideology.
In France, right-wing ultra-nationalists support the referendum that Greek's leftist government called to determine whether the indebted country should accept the latest debt-deal proposal from its international creditors. Why? Because National Front party leader Marine Le Pen wants to use the same mechanism -- a referendum -- to vote France out of the European Union. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron leads a Conservative Party majority, but is hobbled by Scots who want to split from England and by a splinter party that wants England out of the EU. The whole United Kingdom is consumed by questions of who it is and where it belongs. And of course, in Greece and Germany, the name-calling between the two countries over the Greek bailout issue has become intense and is sure to worsen -- even while some observers suggested that Germany, if you count Prussia before it, has gone though more bankruptcies than Greece.
It turns out that “globalization” hasn’t doused, let alone put out, the embers of nationalism. It has inflamed them. Global and regional frameworks -- from the EU to the UN to seemingly stable balance-of-power standoffs –-- are under assault amid a renewed obsession with national identity. For a while, it appeared otherwise. Some public surveys, for instance, showed substantial support for the idea of a united Europe. But it seems that support was for the idea, not the reality. Many of the forces that once made a one-world future appealing -- global investment, migration, travel, communications -- can now make the planet seem crowded and cruel.
Global capital flows have brought rapacious profits to corporations while allowing generous welfare and pension spending in poorer countries, often resulting in “austerity” programs that are awakening and unleashing a nationalistic backlash. “The ravages of globalization have made national identity that much more important,” said Jeremy Shapiro of the Brookings Institution, who previously worked in the Obama State Department. “Since World War II people have searched, nobly, for structures that would bring peace and prosperity to the world. In some ways they succeeded." “But nationalism is the most powerful force in modern human affairs," Shapiro continued. "And that is clear in Europe and elsewhere once again.” Greece may be just the beginning for Europe. Italy, Portugal and Spain face similar financial challenges and are also seeing growing nationalist resentment against big global lenders. Immigration and travel have brought creative new cultural mixes and profits from tourism. Yet there are also 60 million refugees worldwide, “boat people” shunned and adrift in open seas from Asia to the Mediterranean, and rising us-versus-them resentment in countries where sluggish economies have stoked local resentment for immigrant labor. Instant and ubiquitous global communications are another mixed blessing. The same system that spreads Taylor Swift videos and "Game of Thrones" allows the Islamic State, or ISIS, to recruit worldwide, creating another reason for nations to fear the rest of the world. “Nations exist ultimately to protect their citizens against ‘outside’ influences,” said Shapiro. “That’s in terms of economics, culture and physical security.” In other words, the more threatening the planet becomes, the more people hold on to their national identity. “Even ISIS wants to be a ‘state,” he said. “In fact, they claim to be one. And the reason is the same: protection for their people.” For some nations, the best defense is a good nationalistic offense. That is what President Vladimir Putin is doing in Russia, feeding an endless cycle of distracting nationalism by attacking Crimea and Ukraine and by threatening the Baltic States and Poland -– which respond in nationalistic ways of their own. Russia, essentially kicked out of the G-7, has become something akin to a trolling hacker of the West's orderly network, setting one nation against another whenever it can, which is increasingly often. And China, having adopted capitalism but not freedom, is growing so powerful that other Asian countries worry about their identity and respond to China’s might with fear. Much of these countries' behavior is justified by history as well as by the behavior of China, which tends to treat its neighbors as nettlesome but ultimately weak. “China doesn’t believe in a ‘balance of power,’” Henry Kissinger recently said during a speech in Washington. “The idea is incomprehensible to them, and that will not change.” This means increasing nationalistic conflict, even as President Barack Obama tries to forge a new 11-nation Pacific trade organization that notably does not include the People’s Republic. Congress voted last week to give Obama amplified powers to negotiate such a deal, but even if the Trans-Pacific Partnership comes into being, no one should expect nationalistic fervor to disappear from the shores of the Pacific. It just means that China will stage another, even bigger parade.