The return of the nation

Gideon Rachman, writing in the Financial Times, says that despite the popularity of the idea of a borderless world, which became near gospel about 30 years ago, “borders are now returning with a vengeance,” and their return, he says, is being driven by the frightening spread of the COVID- 19 corona-virus. “When the pandemic passes, the most extreme barriers to travel will be lifted. But it is unlikely that there will be a full restoration of the globalised world, as it existed before Covid-19 … [thus, he says] … The nation-state is making a comeback, fuelled by this extraordinary crisis. There are three main reasons for this:

  • First, the pandemic is demonstrating that in times of emergency people fall back on the nation-state — which has financial, organisational and emotional strengths that global institutions lack;
  • Second, the disease is revealing the fragility of global supply chains. It is hard to believe that large, developed countries will continue to accept a situation in which they have to import most of their vital medical supplies; and
  • Finally, the pandemic is reinforcing political trends that were already potent before the crisis broke — in particular the demand for more protectionism, localisation of production and tougher frontier controls.

In other words, he seems to be saying in the final bullet, Donald Trump was right all along.

But, he adds, “In the current situation, tightening border controls for a while makes sense … [in fact, Canada should have done it weeks ago, in February, when Australia did] … And,” he adds, and I agree that, “if this reversion to the nation-state is kept within bounds, it need not be a bad thing. It would simply be the kind of political course correction that takes place in democracies, in response to events and to changes in the public mood … [but, Mr Rachman writes, and I agree fully, albeit fearfully, with this, too] … “the danger is that the revival of the nation-state will slide into uncontrolled nationalism, leading to slumps in global trade and the near abandonment of international co-operation. The worst-case scenarios include the collapse of the EU and a breakdown in relations between the US and China that could conceivably culminate in war.

memoryThe Truman Doctrine, despite being badly bent by the likes of John F Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, guided US and Western policies for almost 70 years. It created the environment in which, despite communist aggression, spearheaded by the Comintern and Cominform, peace and prosperity were available to those who wanted them. It was the Truman Doctrine and e.g. NATO and similar offshoots, not the United Nations, that kept the peace. Under the Truman Doctrine, liberal notions, with some of its roots going back almost 1,000 years, like the rule of law, free trade and capitalism, spread everywhere, even to China.

The reversion to the nation-state,” Gideon Rachman says, “has been particularly striking in Europe because the EU is meant to be the organisation that has gone furthest to transcend the nation. When Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, gave an emergency address to the nation, she did not mention the EU once. Frontier controls that had basically disappeared — for example between France and Germany — have suddenly been restored. Financial aid for businesses and unemployed workers is largely coming from the European nations, not the EU. Prominent politicians in Poland, Italy and Spain have criticised the EU for failing to deliver on its promise of solidarity … [but, he says] … The antagonisms that the pandemic have opened up between the US and China are more visible. Donald Trump’s decision to label Covid-19 the “China virus” is typical of the US president’s name-calling, blame-evading, political style. But it is also a reaction to efforts by Chinese officials to suggest that the virus might have originated in America.” Like many observers, I am of the view that the world is more dangerous, right now, in 2020, Screen Shot 2020-01-24 at 11.48.51Screen Shot 2019-11-16 at 09.39.36that it has been at any time since 1950. The pandemic has, I believe, given Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and others the excuse they were looking for to ratchet up tensions. I do not believe that either Trump or Xi wants a war ~ President Trump, especially, strikes me as being almost pacific in his actions, despite the bluster in his rhetoric.

Mr Rachman says that “The pandemic also strengthens the hand of those in the Trump administration who have long wanted to dismantle international supply chains and repatriate production to the US. Peter Navarro, the most ardent protectionist in the White House, argues that the virus demonstrates that, “in a global public health emergency, the US is alone”. It is certainly true that a situation in which 97 per cent of all antibiotics in America are imported from China is never likely to seem acceptable again. These kinds of considerations extend well beyond medicines and the fraught US-China relationship … [for example] … Just a few weeks ago, it was possible for a British government adviser to suggest (in the context of Brexit) that there is no real need for the UK to produce its own food … [but, now] … with whole nations, as well as individuals, having to practise self-isolation, nobody can now blithely assume that essentials can always be imported from overseas.

The pandemic-driven pushback against globalisation,” Gideon Rachman opines, “will come initially from protectionists and national-security hawks. But it will gather force as it merges with other political currents that were gaining strength before anyone had heard of Covid-19. On the left, the environmental movement was already stigmatising air travel and demanding that localisation should roll back globalisation. On the right, the clamour for walls to keep out refugees and illegal immigrants was growing ever louder.” But neither group, he says, has any useful solutions. We are, in fact, facing a global nightmare and we will solve it most effectively if we work on a cooperative, global basis. We need more globalization, not nationism and isolationism. Mr Rachman and I both worry that nationalism and isolationism will lead us into an even worse situation: violence and wars … and Canada is not ready.

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