America is experimenting with nationalism again, and history is not on our side. Nationalism is the belief that the nationals of one country are, in some unexplained way, more important, more worthy of peace and security than the nationals of any other country. It is the cheerier, younger, more patriotic sibling to racism. It ignores context, waving off anything not fitting this narrative. Nationalism is not mere pride in one’s country, but rather a kind of collective hubris, an inflated sense of importance supported almost entirely by revisionist history, denial and magical thinking. But nationalism combines this excessive pride with an infusion of greed, resulting in a toxic brew of “otherism” and ultimatum.
The dangers of Nationalism are legion, but none so much as fact that many nationalist policies seem so benign and appealing. After decades of our servicemembers being used as pawns in proxy wars, being sent to die for vendettas, being flown around the globe to fight and bleed and die for others, the suggestion that we should isolate seems downright refreshing. Far from simply criticizing Obama for failing to demonstrate strength against Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria, an even greater swath of the population would have had him refuse to become involved in the first place: avoid conflict, remain neutral, focus on defense of our own interests without committing our own troops to police the rest of the world. And of course when compared to the stacks of bodies shipped back on military aircraft over the second half of the 20th century, this seems not only logical but also imperative. Yet, this conveniently overlooks the opportunity we saw and took to protect vulnerable Yugoslavians from ethnic cleansing in the 90s. It overlooks the failure of the world to halt the genocides in Darfur or Rwanda. It overlooks the fact that isolation was responsible for the mass deaths in World War II, and the extent to which those deaths were carried out was enabled, at least in part, by American isolationism. Nationalists, operating under the assumption that American lives are inherently worth more than other lives, would simply say that these stains on humanity are merely unfortunate but not our problem. This abdication of responsibility for our fellow man is as cowardly as it is crass.
Neo-Nationalism trains its sights less on military interventions and more on globalization. Its calls to halt and reverse the effects of globalization seem facially reasonable: Americans need work and globalization removes certain jobs from the economy and sends them to other nations where those jobs can be performed more cheaply. Yet this call to bring these jobs back to America conveniently overlooks the cost of doing so, and fails to acknowledge where that cost will be most keenly felt. The increased cost of producing goods in America will have a twofold effect. Prices will go up. Wages will go down. And it further fails to recognize the global security provided by economic development in other nations. Burgeoning manufacturing sectors in otherwise-economically-depressed parts of the world help to prevent the kind of suffering that drives desperate people to do desperate things in the name of some ideology-du-jour. That international safety net will be slashed by forcing low-skill jobs to return to the US.
Nationalism is wrong, but nationalism is ultimately self-cannibalizing: America may well survive this flirtation with self-importance and isolation only to find itself a shadow of what it might have been. But those wounds will be entirely self-inflicted. The darker question will be what damage the rest of the world will suffer as a result.