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Nationalism and globalization
Saturday, 23 May 2009 12:05

Nationalism has made a major contribution to global governance through our system of nation-states.  Nationalism has been called an ideology, a sentiment, a culture or even a social movement that pertains to nations.  According to anthropologists, ethnic groups or nations have existed for at least 20,000 years, although until recent centuries virtually no-one had more than a local identity.

In many ways, nationalism is the foundation of modern society and social solidarity.  It is often used by politicians to promote national unity and patriotism.  But it is also often used to justify otherwise unacceptable behaviour.  Overall, nationalism has caused as much grief as good.

Beware, nationalism is raising its ugly head again!  As William Blum apparently said "If love is blind, patriotism has lost all five senses".

Nations dominate the planet, as virtually every corner now belongs to one of the more than 200 nations or territories.  But nationalism and our system of nation-states has had a checkered history.  First, there are still many parts of the globe where border disputes remain, and give rise to tensions -- like China's claim to the Spratly Islands in the South China Seas.  Second, some ethnic groups or nations have been split by borders drawn by our political leaders, especially in Africa.

Third, borders have often been drawn in a way that leaves some ethnic groups as minority groups with nation states, and thereby vulnerable to political abuse.  The Kurds are for example a minority in several countries like Iraq, Iran and Turkey.  Fourth, the wise leaders who drew the borders of our nation-states left a good number land-locked especially in Central Africa and Central Asia -- they are dependent on their neighbours' infrastructure, good governance and goodwill for their trade with the rest of the world.

A much bigger problem, and related to some of the above points, is that nationalism and nation states enable groups of human beings to define themselves as being different from one another (very often these differences are more imaginary than real, based on myths and legends of creators and heroes).  Nationalism thus contributed to the major wars of the 21st century, which began in Europe, the very origin of nationalism.

The post-world war 2 world, substantially constructed by the US, led to major changes in our system of nation states.  The many western colonies in the developing world were set free, and allowed to create nation-states.  A similar process occurred at the end of the Cold War when the many republics of the former Soviet Union were allowed to become independent nation states.

In Europe, the nation-state took a backstep with the creation of the European Union.  Countries pooled sovereignty, and worked together for their common good.  While nation-states still exist, their differences should be a joy for tourists, not a source of conflict.

On the global scale, a similar thing happened with globalization.  Reductions in barriers to trade and finance have led to global market -- although national dimensions to markets still exist, they are much less important than they used to be.  The progressive globalization of markets over the past six decades has led to unprecedented increases in prosperity and reductions in poverty, and also more safe and secure societies.  Very few miitary conflicts occur these days between nation-states.  Most conflicts involve non-state actors which operate within countries and/or across borders.

Nationalism is often a response to economic or political problems.  We blame others for our problems, or because we feel inferior we make great efforts to be superior using nationalism as a motivator.

So, it is not surprising that nationalism is raising its ugly head at the current moment with our global financial and economic crisis.  The European Union has recently celebrated the tenth anniversary of its most ambitious and successful collective project, the euro.  But nationalism has reappeared with protectionist threats from countries like France, and difficulties in agreeing on stimulus packages.  And in Japan, frustration at almost two decades of economic stagnation and social fracturing is feeding nationistic politics.

There are many reasons to beware of nationalism.  One of its main manifestations, protectionism (or economic patriotism, as the French call it) is very costly to our economies.  There are many gains from trade and investment in terms of specialising in what you are best at, and achieving economies of scale.  And then, protectionism usually ends up in tit-for-tat retaliations -- while the French want to protect their motor vehicle production, they would be horrified if the Chinese blocked their exports of fashion, wine and nuclear technology.

Collective action is necessary for the biggest challenges of the world today like climate change, international crime, infectious diseases and of course financial instability.  Nationalism is the greatest impediment to successful collective action.  Each nation has to give up something for the benefit of us all.

And of course, we have to be wary of possible future conflicts.  The world is full of unexpected events, "black swans", and problems can be ignited in the blink of an eye.  East Asia is a curious case.  It is the region with the most successful globalization record these past few decades,  But it has so many security flash-points like the Koreas, China/Taiwan and the southern Philippines.  And Japan, despite many efforts to befriend its neighbours, is very much isolated in the region.

All human beings need to have a sense of belonging, and nationalism can provide that -- we belong to a nation.  At the same time, we should not be seduced by fantasy.  The French, for example, are proud of their culture, and are worried about it being polluted by US culture.  But the French "culture" is very much a hybrid, having absorbed over the centuries a vast variety of influences from other European countries, Arabs and Africans, as well as the Americans.

Sport is perhaps the healthiest way for us to vent our nationalistic feelings.  But even there, a large number of international sports stars of migrant origin.  But sports can be a great teacher of some of the most important things in life, namely, that no-one can win all the time, and that it is important to be a gracious loser.

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