Skip to main content

Timothy Garton Ash is professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

This past week saw the inauguration not just of Donald Trump as President of the United States, but of a new era of nationalism. Mr. Trump joins Vladimir Putin of Russia, Narendra Modi of India, Xi Jinping of China, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and a score of other nationalist leaders around the globe. While it might be unfair to describe Theresa May as a nationalist, her announcement that she's going for a hard Brexit reflects the pressure of English nationalism on the British right and will encourage the nationalism of others. Of course eras of nationalism are nothing new, but precisely because we have experienced them before, we know that they often start with high hopes and end in tears.

For now, the nationalists are giving each other the Trumpian thumbs-up across the seas. Paul Nuttall, the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), says he is "massively excited" by the advent of President Trump. The vice-president of France's Front National responded to Ms. May's Brexit speech by declaring: "French independence soon." And so it goes on.

This world of mutually reinforcing nationalisms is also one in which both the relative power and the internal coherence of the West are being eroded from both sides of the Atlantic. The deterrent effect of the United States' NATO security guarantee to Europe is being undermined from Washington itself. Meanwhile, we have had the amazing spectacle of the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran getting together to make a cynical deal over Syria. Erdogan-supporting Turkish commentators revelled in the fact that neither the United States nor Europe was even at the table.

The way in which the representatives of these countries talk about international relations is in many ways more reminiscent of the 19th-century world of sovereign great powers pursuing their own national interests. I'm writing this column in India, and hence came across some recent remarks of India's Foreign Secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, which illustrate this perfectly. Faced with the prospect of Mr. Trump's United States cozying up to Mr. Putin's Russia, he observed "with Russia, India's relationship has actually grown very substantially in the last two years, as has the bonding between our leaders. An improvement in U.S.-Russia ties is, therefore, not against Indian interests." That is the sober, realpolitik kind of nationalism.

But by their very nature, nationalisms are likely to clash sooner or later. Thus Ms. May's insistence that Britain will leave Europe's single market puts her on a collision course with Scottish nationalists, who have a referendum mandate for saying that Scotland wants to remain in the European Union – and certainly in the single market. Moreover, 21st-century nationalisms exist in a high-pressure ecosystem of 24/7 media coverage and public scrutiny which would have appalled Bismarck, Disraeli and the czar of Russia. Even authoritarian rulers like Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi are riding the tiger.

By far the most serious of these potential clashes is that between China and the United States. In his confirmation hearing, Mr. Trump's new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, compared China's program of island-building in the South China Sea to Russia's annexation of Crimea, and said the new administration would tell Beijing "your access to those islands is not going to be allowed." Meanwhile, here in India, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris, warns that "India should be concerned about the increasing Chinese influence in the region. If you believe that there is only finite influence, then whatever influence China has means that influence India does not have." A zero-sum game, then.

Now this is partly just the familiar dance of great powers competing for influence with each other and with third parties. But the risk of an accidental naval or air confrontation somewhere in the South or East China Seas is far from negligible. And then the question would become: Do Mr. Trump and Mr. Xi have the wisdom, statecraft, sound advice and not least, domestic political elbow room, to step back from the brink? This is where Mr. Trump's irascible, bullying, narcissistic character could be such a liability. On the other side, the personally much steadier Mr. Xi has staked so much of his legitimacy as "core leader" of China's party-state on his "China dream" (that is, make China great again) that he would be under great pressure not to back down. Whether the cause is psychological, political or both, so-called strong men often feel they can't afford to show weakness.

No, I'm not predicting the third world war. But a 21st-century variant of the Cuban missile crisis? Entirely possible. So let's have no illusions. Up on the magic mountain in Davos, Switzerland, Mr. Trump's smooth-talking mouthpiece Anthony Scaramucci tries to persuade us that everything is going to be fine. He says "the path to globalism for the world is through the American worker" (unpick that if you can) and Mr. Trump's "disruptive change" is going to be "a positive thing in [our] lives." Don't be fooled, don't be Scaramuccied. We are in for a dangerous, rough ride over the next few years, and we'd better be ready for it.