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Growing tensions between globalisation and nationalism

Rajen Harshé | January 3, 2018


#Donald Trump   #USA   #Cold War   #Afghanistan  
Photo Courtesy: www.whitehouse.org
Photo Courtesy: www.whitehouse.org

After the end of the Cold War in 1991, the USA had not merely emerged as the sole military superpower but it was also leading the movement towards globalisation. Owing to the so-called triumph of liberal democracy over communism, optimists like Francis Fukuyama began to see the end of history, rather prematurely, as they visualised a marriage between welfare capitalism and liberal democracy shaping a new cosmopolitan order under globalisation.

Simply put, globalisation entails free movement of goods, capital, services, labour people, knowledge, information, trade, technology, finance, terror and diseases across the national borders. It has certainly widened the scope of inter-state and inter-societal cooperation and conflicts. Consequently, as the leader of the emerging order, the USA chose to play the role of a self-styled guardian or a ‘gendarme’ in world politics. It stepped out to fight terror and defend democracy as well as universal human rights by intervening militarily in Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003). It also opted to uphold the banner of a denuclearised world by exercising control over prospective nuclear states such as Iran.

Paradoxically, president Donald Trump has virtually reversed the erstwhile priorities of the USA. “America First” has been the central theme of Trump’s agenda, which presupposes an inward looking USA. Trump’s constant rant against the negative effects of globalisation on the prospects of employment in the USA, reservations against free trade and transnational migrations as well as a measure of disdain for racial minorities have begun to give this message unambiguously. In substance, a country that dared to spread the wings of its empire across the world has chosen to retreat within its shell by championing populist nationalism that can be chauvinistic. In his external policy, Trump’s recent recognition of Jerusalem as Israeli capital and move to shift the American embassy to Jerusalem can merely sustain race base nationalism in Israel. It also highlights how Trump is catering to right-wing constituencies that happen to be his domestic support base. Besides, his refusal to endorse the idea of trans-pacific partnership (TPP) and withdrawal from the Paris climate accord signify a perceptible change in the attitude of the USA in world affairs.

Strangely, contemporary times are characterised by a live tension between the forces of globalisation on the one hand and varieties of populist nationalisms on the other. Such forms are shaped and dominated by the majority in a given context.

Incontestably, nationalism is a complex concept because an idea of a nation combines two elements: ethnic-national and civic-territorial. The former can be deployed to write a biography of a nation or any community that has linguistic, religious and racial commonalities while the latter determines notions like citizenship. Hence, nation as a concept is constantly subject to manipulations. Just as it is a tool to unite people, nationalism can be used to divide or aggravate differences between the people. Populist and aggressive forms of nationalism can be virulent and utilised effectively to manipulate the support from racial, religious or ethnic communities. When the majority community in any nation gets manipulated, the minorities get insecure. In contrast, the nationalism of minority groups is often reactive.

Like the USA, several leading powers of contemporary Europe such as Britain, France and Germany are facing the rise of ethnic chauvinism as well. These erstwhile metropolitan powers are facing an acute challenge of managing their multicultural societies, comprising inhabitants of Asian and African origins. Moreover, apart from the challenge of brown and black races, owing to its membership of the European Union (EU) so many citizens of other European countries were employed in Britain. This eventually led to Brexit, as the UK withdrew from EU in 2016 to offer fair chance to British citizens in their own country. The Brexit shattered the dream of building a United Europe. In France the anti-immigrant far-right National Party has built its social base by spewing venom against immigrants from Arab and Africa. Recurrent terrorist attacks or threats of such attacks in France at the end of Hollande’s presidency (2015-17) only aggravated hatred for Islam and the French citizens of Afro-Arab origins that had embraced it. In France, despite comfortable victory of Macron in presidential elections with 66.1 percent votes in the second round in 2017, the National Party led by Marine Le Pen also made  impressive gains by capturing 33.9 percent votes. What is more, as the most powerful EU nation, Germany under Angela Merkel opened its doors for immigrants who sought refuge after fleeing Syria due to Islamic State’s (IS) atrocities. However, their entry has caused the rise of a far-right party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), which opposes immigrants staunchly.

Furthermore, among the two major Euro-Asian powers, Russia, which has been a place of diverse religions and nationalities, has witnessed a decline of cosmopolitan values. President Putin and his ideologues are reimagining Russia by upholding a combination of Slavic traditions and orthodox Christianity. Alexander Dugin, a favoured ideologue in Kremlin, states, “For us, Orthodoxy is the axis of the Russian world we seek to build.” Return to the pre-revolutionary and pre-Czarist past to draw from heritage of Orthodox Christianity does not augur well for minority religious groups in Russia. Similarly, Turkey was a model of open, democratic and secular state in the Muslim world. However, with the advent of Recep Tayyip Erdogan as president in 2014 secularism is receding in Turkey. His AK Party (AKP) is rooted in conservative Islam. Erdogan has emerged as an authoritarian ruler. He is brutally suppressing Kurdish national movement. Besides, there are tensions between Turkey and the EU. While the former is accusing members of EU of supporting the terrorists,  the latter is taking Turkey to task for its dismal record in protecting human rights and democracy.

Among the dominant Asian powers, China today is only next to the USA. Irrespective of the economic benefits accrued due to modernisation programmes, China is not free from ethnic chauvinism. In China ethnicity and nationality are conflated. The Han ethnic group, which constitutes 1.2 billion of the population, overwhelmingly dominates politics in China. In addition, China is always supportive of Han/Chinese people in Taiwan and Hong Kong, areas that it considers integral to mainland China. China is a homogenous state and minorities at the borderlands, especially those in Tibet and Xinjiang, are constrained to survive by negotiating with the Han majority. Unsurprisingly, even the socialist experiment is being carried out in China with Chinese characteristics.

Like China, India is not averse to globalisation and economic reforms. Although it is a secular state, the politics of Hindutva has led to the rise majoritarian nationalism in India. Indeed, neither the Hindu religion nor Hinduism is homogenous but there has been a conspicuous effort to construct India’s national identity on the basis of Hindu cultural nationalism since the advent of the BJP-led regime to power in 2014. The BJP, along with its allies, is in search of finding rightful place for the Hindu majority in India. In the pursuit of building majority identity, it is making conscious efforts at mobilising masses to struggle to build a magnificent Ram temple in Ayodhya. In the midst of the rising tide of Hindutva, the government has not been able to take effective measures against the menacing activities of the so-called cow vigilantes and other fringe groups that are adding to the fear psychosis of the Muslim community. In substance, secular nationalism in India is slowly getting weakened.

Indeed, the panoramic overview of contemporary world distinctly demonstrates brewing tensions between the processes of globalisation and ethnic nationalism across the world in different degrees. Even if the superpower like the USA and emerging powers like China and India differ in their attitudes towards responding to challenges of globalisation, practically all the major countries are seriously plagued by the resurgence of diverse forms of ethnic/populist nationalism. This ongoing tussle between the global and national is partly shaping the contemporary political and international relations.

Harshé is president of the GB Pant Social Science Institute, Allahabad, and founder vice chancellor of the Central University of Allahabad.

(The column appears in the January 15, 2018 issue)

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