This ought to be a wonderful moment, if you happen to be a nationalist.
Everything you’ve ever wanted has come true. Borders are closed. Global trade has plummeted. Citizens are rallying behind their national leaders, and those leaders are doing big, domestically focused things. Foreigners aren’t trusted. International bodies from the World Health Organization to the United Nations Security Council, have been gelded and sidelined under attacks from the United States and other countries. When the going got tough, the big guys decided to go it alone.
Yet it doesn’t quite smell like victory. The closing of borders, the embrace of compliant national solidarity, the retreat of multilateralism – nationalists dreamed of those things happening because citizens would rise en masse to demand them. Instead, they’re emergency measures, greeted with dread by a battered and mourning public, amid a vista of mass graves and ruined livelihoods.
Real-world nationalists have not generally fared well during this crisis. Political parties devoted to closed borders and national identity have fizzled: the AfD party in Germany, the Lega Nord party of Italy’s Matteo Salvini and the Freedom Party of Austria have all seen their poll results plummet.
Among the few elected leaders who haven’t seen their popularity rise during this crisis are ratings-obsessed U.S. President Donald Trump and his Brazilian counterpart Jair Bolsonaro, both of whom met the pandemic with nationalist, closed-borders rhetoric and little actual action.
Their greatest hope is that these conditions become a new normal. Will governments’ primary and lasting takeaway from this crisis be that globalized economies and free movement represent a threat?
Some non-nationalists worry that’s already happening. In early March, when the crisis was new, the otherwise global-minded British analyst Philippe Legrain wrote an cautionary essay titled “The coronavirus is killing globalization as we know it,” one of the better examples of pandemic-era prognostication.
There probably will be forms of economic nationalism that will retain some popularity in post-vaccination life. Some spooked countries are bound to subsidize the national manufacture of surgical masks and ventilators, for example (though this plan will likely backfire, because creating domestic monopolies is never a good way to secure a national supply). We can hope that more robust national income-support programs, tested on a vast scale, will retain some popularity.
The future is unknowable. But there are reasons to doubt that an earth-spanning virus will make the world a smaller place.
First, because much of what we call “globalization” has been in retreat anyway, for reasons that had nothing to do with nationalism.
The practice of offshoring – moving supply chains or manufacturing across the ocean – has been in decline at least since 2008. A study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development last year found that value chains are becoming “increasingly concentrated in regional/local hubs closer to end markets.” This isn’t because of national interest or politics, but because of “changes in cost structures” – Asian countries, their populations increasingly middle-class, no longer offer labour and production costs low enough to justify the inefficiency and inconvenience of shipping parts and managers across the Pacific.
Second, because the countries that are succeeding best at keeping the virus under control are the ones maintaining an international orientation.
Here in Germany, where shops are preparing to reopen Monday, international movement was shut down gradually and tracked carefully, and never fully stopped. The borders with Belgium and the Netherlands have remained fully open, unguarded and often unmarked, throughout the crisis, their citizens trusted to minimize contact. Volkswagen had to close its factories for a few weeks because so many components came from northern Italy – but is now reopening them, its global links more secure.
Canada and Germany are among the countries that, instead of blocking foreigners, quickly resumed immigration arrivals, with migrant farm labourers from Romania and the Caribbean already landed and at work. And it’s no coincidence that the countries that have tried to bolster international organizations, rather than attack them, are the ones having the best pandemic outcomes.
Third, the nationalist approach to this crisis has offered absolutely nothing, other than blind panic and failed leadership.
Emergency measures do not have a great history of becoming lasting policies. During the Second World War, some might have predicted that nationalized manufacturing, price controls and zero immigration would become enduring features. Instead, most countries made an abrupt about-face and spent decades beating a retreat from these measures.
There have not been many stellar examples of international co-operation these past two months. But it would be a mistake to think that citizens will look back at this time, and its ugly retreat behind borders, and see it as the example they want to follow for the rest of their lives.
Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.