Is Nationalism an Asset or a Hindrance in Today's Globalized World?

First Prize, High School Category, Essay Contest 2016

December 30, 2016

CREDIT: geralt via Pixabay, public domain.

Coen Armstrong, age 16, is a high school student at Eton College in the UK. He originally grew up in Singapore, and this multicultural background sparked an interest in the ways we choose to organize our world. He also debates (far too much).

ESSAY TOPIC: Is nationalism an asset or hindrance in today's globalized world?

Seven billion is an unimaginably vast number of people. I know possibly a few hundred faces, and this is true of most of us. But we act, not in groups of hundreds, but in the hundreds of millions. This is nationalism's true impact—to take communities and of them make societies; to take societies and make nations. Today, we live in a world of nations, but, for the first time in centuries, we are able to transcend the nation, and deal with nationalism's imperfections. How we organize these 7 billion people will define our lives; nationalism, yesterday's solution, is insufficient.

Pulling the nation together?

In 2004, Barack Obama famously remarked "there is not a Black America, and a White America, and a Latino America and an Asian America—there is just the United States of America." This is nationalism at its best: nationalism that uses the concept of a 'United States of America' to overcome divides of class, of race and of religion. Nationalism gives common ground to people from the most disparate of backgrounds, people who are not united by background, interest, religion, geography, or even language. The reason Russians from St Petersburg can vote on matters along with Russians from Vladivostok, 9,500 miles away, is precisely that they are Russian. The reason, then, that the nation acts as a cohesive political unit; that people from one end of a country care about the lot of those on the other end, even if they have never met and never will meet, is nationalism.

But we must also remember nationalism at its worst. We must remember that, although Obama's particular nationalism was inclusive, the 'United States of America' was 'white America' until the civil war, 'male America' until the 1920, and 'rich America' until well into the 19th century. A cursory glance of Congress reveals that America is still more 'white,' 'rich,' and 'male' than would be proportionate, and this is quite compatible with nationalism. After all, nationalism started out as the belief in states organized around one ethnic group; far, far down that road, we have Hitler's quest to create an Aryan state or Pol Pot's crusade for a Khmer state.

This mono-ethnicity is a relic of nationalism's past. At a time when people generally lived in the same village as their ancestors, nations were far more homogenous. Obama's speech, which, after all, calls to mind that current America has large segments of its population drawn from five continents, underlines the difference. Where, two centuries ago, would people of Asian, Latino, African, Native American and European ancestry meet? Racism needs by definition more than one race: perhaps globalization is its cause? 

Nationalism is, ultimately, a tool. It can be defined both inclusively and exclusively; it can both soothe and ferment ethnic conflict. Like all ideologies, it can be used as an effective political distraction, to prop up a corrupt government; it can also be used as the impetus to expose one. What sort of nationalism it ends up as is up to its adherents. For every Obama, there is also an Erdogan, who uses nationalism to clamp down on the Kurdish in Turkey.

Nowadays, nationalism tends to unite more than it divides. It has become about the state: thus, geography is the only qualification needed to subscribe. Geography does not discriminate. The problem is only the desirability of unity, not its feasibility. After all, Erdogan wants the Kurdish to become Turkish; he might very well use Obama’s words, "there is just the Republic of Turkey." Uniting may crush the local culture, but to forge a new national culture has always been a national goal: nationalism does indeed unite, even if its methods are undesirable. 

Tearing the world apart?

However, nationalism built on the idea of a nation has a fundamental, inescapable flaw—what about all the other nations? As we all learnt in the most recent election, rallying behind the 'United States of America' can leave the citizens of other countries vulnerable. Nationalism is a belief and a commitment to the prosperity (and superiority) of one nation that, in today’s cutthroat world, strips other countries barren for ‘comparative advantage’. Nationalism relies on the distinctness of a nation; it thus creates an 'us' and a 'them.'

Without the nation, and a strong belief in it, the classification 'illegal immigrant' would not exist. The borders that these people illegally cross are fenced in with barbed wire and prowled by guards, but it is a nationalist belief in the supremacy of one people over another that pays for those walls and motivates those guards. Indeed, it is because of nationalism that those borders exist at all. It is a desire to hoard national resources for citizens that condemns the people on the other side to poverty.

The nationalist not only protects national resources, but also claims those of other nations. Wars between sovereign states, motivated by dreams of greatness, have wrecked our past. Around 34 million soldiers died in the 20th century, in conflict between sovereign states, based on 'national greatness' or 'national security.' They died on a wave of violent greed for national glory and prosperity, propped up in the belief of national superiority. Voltaire famously remarked, "It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets"—nationalism musters those numbers and sounds those very trumpets.

Wars are just one example: everywhere, nationalism prioritizes its citizens over all others. In the West, child labour is forbidden, but most people are clothed (cheaply) in garments sewed by Pakistani children. We care about workers' rights, but we power our lives with the minerals African workers mine at $2 a day, less than 3 percent of the US federal minimum wage. In 1993, the US pulled out of Mogadishu after 18 marines died, leaving it to burn for over two decades. Half a million Somalis died in the civil war. Russia commits untold horror in Syria, because of 'Russian interests.' The 'Syrian interests,' Somali lives, child laborers, and African workers are all forgotten, because they are not part of the nation.

Globalization moderates the primal impulse to exploit. It provides interaction, over the Internet and through travel, which makes it harder to senselessly exploit and kill. But it only helps nationalism by replacing it. The belief in national superiority is an inescapable part of nationalism; globalization's moderation is only achieved through challenging it.

Nationalism did contribute to globalization. Its driving forces were long-distance communication, fast travel, and a lingua franca; the influences that collect towns into a nation also link those nations themselves. Villages moving off their local time zones and losing the strength of their local dialects, contributed to a wider identity—but there was no reason the identity had to stop at a border.

But, despite contributing to the technology of globalization, nationalism is opposed to internationalism, to ensure its very survival. Nationalism draws lines that restrict interaction. After unifying languages, the nationalist yearns for a national language, to differentiate itself from other nations. The Irish state uses Gaelic, not English: it wants to tie itself together, not tether itself to the world. And vested interests are aware of nationalism’s importance to national prosperity. Not everyone can exploit; some must be exploited. The gains of nationalism to some come at the expense of others; this is the meaning of comparative advantage. Internationalism would force comparative parity; veto the prioritization of some lives over others; lead to a sharing of national resources. For the nationalist, there can be no sharing. Nor do they deem it moral. Nietzche’s maxim, "equality for equals, inequality for unequals," seems their mantra.

President Obama could have said "there are no black people; there are no white people; there are just people." The classification 'American' relies on there being non-Americans: nationalism only unifies some through excluding others. Thus, Obama’s speech relies on there being an 'America'—and also a 'Mexico,' whose inhabitants are on average three times poorer and four times more likely to live in.... It shows the great disconnect, caring about national inequality, but not international inequality. It feeds the catalogue of American profit built on misery seen earlier.

It is possible to be nationalist and ethical. Perhaps national pride could lead to a competition as to which country gives the most in foreign aid, or takes in the most refugees. However, the current reality is that nationalism comes with a disregard for the peoples of other nations, purely because it is so profitable. Nationalism is an asset for that nation; it eases the path into profitable barbarity. Yet profits gained of barbarity are always somebody else’s losses. Nationalism is a hindrance to the world as a whole, slowing down globalization and driving the world apart. A system of organization must suit all 7 billion people, not the privileged few: we must move away from nationalism.

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