The new great debate

Abdel-Moneim Said
Friday 12 Apr 2019

In recent years, populism appeared to gain the upper hand, sending the world into isolationist mode. But its ascendancy proved short-lived

The world and its ideas are changing faster than anyone could ever have imagined. From the Cold War we plunged straight into the age of globalisation.

As much as the latter disseminated, it did not prevent the tides of this decade: the reassertion of nationalisms as a parting cry of the longing for national permanence and immutability. Now that cry appears to be receding and there are signs of its immanent failure.

As to what will come next, no one can predict that with any degree of certainty. The result is a new great debate in global thought.

They say that what is gone is gone, never to return. But perhaps what they say has gone never really left or, at least, parts of it remained. No one can deny that the mechanisms of globalisation are still in place and that technology has not stopped progressing with the speed of light, covering distances that know no borders or national sovereignties.

The change is essentially dialectical. The old and the new are combined in mechanisms that force contradictions to interact like cells: constantly dividing, recombining and producing new shapes and original substances.

The process can be observed, above all, in academic periodicals concerned with international affairs and developments in the world order.

Until just last year, Foreign Affairs magazine published by the US Council on Foreign Relations focused on three phenomena: convulsions afflicting the liberal world order; how these convulsions were giving rise to anti-globalisation and anti-liberal political movements and to autocratic trends in government; and thirdly, the new authoritarianism with its essentially ultranationalist, xenophobic and isolationist outlook.

The latter has expressed itself in such rubric as “our country first”, which presumes that the country in question had never “sunk so low” and that this nadir occurred because the government’s concern for regional or global interests failed to realise the nation’s interests.

The outlook also presumes a form of political treachery against the motherland perpetrated by a horde of liberals whose incessant search for freedom led them to scorn all sorts of patriotic values and traditions.

Perhaps the most explicit manifestations of this outlook are Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as US president. Both are cases of the rise and coalescence of the complete “antithesis” in global politics. Brexit is not just about the departure from a conventional alliance or a consensus among a group of nations.

It is a break with an unprecedented process of political engineering that was designed to bring together nations that had warred with each other for centuries into a single political, economic, social and ethical entity. The Trump election had even broader and more profound ramifications and repercussions.

If Brexit sent tremors through Europe, Trump sent tremors across the planet. His first decision was to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change, his next was to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership that sought to overcome longstanding contradictions between countries on both sides of the Pacific by gathering them into a single economic project.

The trend has not only manifested itself in the West. The success of Narendra Modi’s ultra-right Bharatiya Janata party is a sign of the rise of the ultranationalist authoritarian trend in the world’s largest democracy.

The new authoritarian movements are hoisting nationalist flags everywhere and at their forefront are leaderships which, in their own ways, hark back to the fascist movements of the past.

Jarosław Kaczyński in Poland, Viktor Urban in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey are the stars of the current phase. Ivan Krastev’s article in the May/June 2018 issue of Foreign Affairs, “Eastern Europe’s Illiberal Revolution: The long road to democratic decline,” could not have been more appropriate. The trend is certainly a departure from Samuel Huntington’s “third wave of democracy”.

Huntington depicted a linear process, with the first wave occurring from 1820-1920, the second in the post-World War II period from 1945 to 1960 and the third following the end of the Cold War in 1990.

The last wave broke on the shoals of rejection of international institutions and the issues they engendered. Hence, the opposition to immigration and migrants and immigrants, the antagonism to cultural and religious diversity, the hatred of open borders, in general, and the calls for insularism and isolationism.

Nevertheless, in the latest Foreign Affairs edition (March/April 2019), Jan-Werner Müller rejects the prevalent reading of the strident political movements that characterise the decade that will soon expire.

Beneath the headline, “False Flags: The myth of the nationalist resurgence,” he writes that what we have seen during the past few years is not the rise of nationalism per se, but the rise of populism using nationalist rhetoric. He observes that “nationalism” and “populism” are frequently conflated and stresses the need to distinguish between them.

The former concerns a set of interests and affiliations that bind a particular political group and that define its domestic and foreign outlooks, whereas populism involves playing on people’s emotions and fuelling hatred towards foreigners, international cooperation, political elites and anything that this brand of populist rhetoric calls the “enemy”.

Populism, in general, plays on fear and, specifically, fear of the “other” or anything “different”. It cultivates suspicion of the press and the media, the judiciary and the security institutions that are crucial to maintaining the balances of power in the state.

As this decade draws to a close, the dangerous nationalist concepts and populist politics that have prevailed are not just in retreat, they are facing failure and defeat.

Today, three years after the British referendum on withdrawal from the EU, the UK not only failed to exit the EU at the scheduled time (29 March 2019) but, also, the House of Commons continues to fail to reach agreement on a Brexit deal.

As I write this, Prime Minister Theresa May has gone over the heads of the Eurosceptics in her own party in order to meet with Labour Party opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn in order to work out a formula for a “very soft” exit that would keep the UK in the EU customs union.

It also looks like the British people could be called back to a new referendum which would mean the end of the coup in British politics of populist agendas.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump has not yet succeeded in building that isolationist wall between the US and Mexico, the wall that embodies his nationalist policies.

True, the Mueller report may not have found Trump directly implicated in Russian electoral tampering in 2016, giving Trump a stab at re-election for a second term. However, as a whole, his “America First” policies have not been particularly successful.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Asia and Latin America, the new “nationalism”, albeit still in the trial phase, faces various types of setbacks and defeats in the face of new waves of globalisation.

* The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 April, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The new great debate 

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