Has nationalism captured the hearts and minds of the world’s people?
It certainly seems to have emerged as a powerful force in recent years. Trumpeting their alleged national superiority and hatred of foreigners, political parties on the far right have made their biggest political advances since the 1930s. After the far right’s startling success, in June 2016, in getting a majority of British voters to endorse Brexit ― British withdrawal from the European Union (EU) ― even mainstream conservative parties began to adopt a chauvinist approach. Using her Conservative Party conference to rally support for leaving the EU, British Prime Minister Theresa May declared contemptuously: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.”
The tilt toward an aggressive nationalism was particularly evident in the United States, where Donald Trump ― amid chants of “USA, USA” from his fervent supporters ― promised to “make America great again” by building a wall to block Mexicans, barring the entry of Muslims to the United States, and expanding U.S. military might. Following his surprise election victory, Trump told a rally in December 2016: “There is no global anthem. No global currency. No certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag and that flag is the American flag.” After wild cheering from the crowd, he added: “From now on it is going to be: America First. Okay? America first. We’re going to put ourselves first.”
But the nationalists suffered some major setbacks in 2017. In elections that March in the Netherlands, the xenophobic Party for Freedom, though given a chance at victory by political pundits, was soundly defeated. Much the same happened in France, where, that May, a political newcomer, Emmanuel Macron, trounced Marine Le Pen, the candidate of the far right National Front, in an election for the presidency by a 2-to-1 vote. A month later, in parliamentary elections, Macron’s new party and its allies won 350 seats in the 577-member National Assembly, while the National Front won only 9. In Britain, Theresa May, confident that her new, hard line on Brexit and divisions in the opposition Labour Party would produce huge gains for her Conservative Party, called for a snap election in June. But, to the shock of observers, the Tories lost seats, as well as their parliamentary majority. Meanwhile, in the United States, Trump’s policies produced a vast wave of public resistance, his approval ratings in opinion polls sank to levels unprecedented for a new President, and he was forced to purge Steve Bannon ― the top nationalist ideologue in his election campaign and in his administration ― from the White House.
Although a variety of factors contributed to the nationalist defeats, widespread internationalist views certainly played a role. During Macron’s presidential campaign, he repeatedly assailed the narrow-minded nationalism of the National Front, projecting instead an internationalist vision of a united Europe with open borders. In Britain, May’s fervent support for Brexit backfired among the public, especially internationally-minded youth.
Indeed, over the centuries cosmopolitan values have become a strong current in public opinion. They are usually traced to Diogenes, a philosopher of Classical Greece, who, asked where he came from, replied: “I am a citizen of the world.” The idea gained increased currency with the spread of Enlightenment thinking. Tom Paine, considered one of America’s Founding Fathers, took up the theme of a loyalty to all humanity in his Rights of Man (1791), proclaiming: “My country is the world.” Similar sentiments were expressed in later years by William Lloyd Garrison (“My country is the world; my countrymen are all mankind”), Albert Einstein, and a host of other globalist thinkers. After the Second World War brought the nation-state system to the brink of collapse, a massive social movement developed around the idea of “One World,” with world citizenship campaigns and world federalist organizations attaining substantial popularity around the globe. Although the movement declined with the onset of the Cold War, its core assumption of the primacy of the world community persisted in the form of the United Nations and of worldwide campaigns for peace, human rights, and environmental protection.
As a result, even as a nationalist frenzy has erupted in recent years, opinion surveys have reported a very strong level of support for its antithesis: world citizenship. A poll of more than 20,000 people in 18 countries, conducted by GlobeScan for the BBC World Service from December 2015 through April 2016, found that 51 percent of respondents saw themselves more as global citizens than as citizens of their own countries. This was the first time since tracking began in 2001 that a majority felt this way.
Even in the United States, where slightly fewer than half of the respondents identified themselves as global citizens, Trump’s hyper-nationalist campaign attracted only 46 percent of the votes cast for President, thus providing him with almost three million fewer votes than secured by his Democratic opponent. Furthermore, opinion polls before and since the election revealed that most Americans opposed Trump’s best-known and most vehemently-supported “America First” program ― building a border wall between the United States and Mexico. When it came to immigration issues, a Quinnipiac University survey taken in early February 2017 found that 51 percent of American voters opposed Trump’s executive order suspending travel to the United States from seven predominantly Muslim countries, 60 percent opposed suspending all refugee programs, and 70 percent opposed indefinitely barring Syrian refugees from emigrating to the United States.
Overall, then, most people around the world ― including most people in the United States ― are not zealous nationalists. In fact, they display a remarkable level of support for moving beyond the nation-state to world citizenship.
Lawrence Wittner is Professor of History emeritus at SUNY/Albany and the author of Confronting the Bomb (Stanford University Press).