CAMBRIDGE – We are almost two years into an unwanted experiment in what happens when national borders clang shut in a globally interdependent world. Cargo sits unclaimed at ports while container ships float offshore for weeks. Migrant workers are stranded. Rich countries hoard vaccines for future use when poorer ones need them immediately. What have we learned about nationalism and globalization that we can carry into a post-pandemic (if not post-COVID) future?
I pondered this question when I decided to drive around the United States in lieu of traveling abroad (owing to pandemic restrictions). The rural expanse of the American heartland is itself a somewhat foreign country to people like me — a nonwhite, college-educated city-dweller from the northeast. I drove past homemade billboards in cornfields denouncing abortion and protesting wind farms. I saw giant floodlit crucifixes looming over highways, and more Trump flags than I could count. Returning home 10,000 miles later, I recognized this particular America, at least superficially, swaggering through the Capitol on Jan. 6, streaked in red, white and blue face paint, waving Confederate flags, and chanting, “USA! USA!”
In a “normal” year, I would have spent some of January in India as a visiting professor at a university in Ahmedabad. In January 2020, I had watched aghast as Hindu-nationalist thugs stormed the campus of Jawaharlal Nehru University, menacing student opponents of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made himself the face of an explicitly Hindu chauvinism, gazing smugly from billboards and sporting a new lockdown look as a long-haired ascetic.
At the same time, his government’s systematic persecution of minorities includes a legislative effort to denaturalize millions of Muslims and the eviction of hundreds of thousands of indigenous people from their land; it has also passed land reforms opposed by Sikh farmers. Just before the massive spring surge of COVID-19, the government abruptly rewrote the rules for the closest thing to dual citizenship that India offers. “Overseas Citizens of India” are now required to secure special permission for activities such as scholarly research, journalism, and travel to sensitive regions — in short, to see or report on anything the government doesn’t want publicized.
Ordinarily, I also would have visited Britain, the focus of my historical research. There, right-wing nationalism wears the podgy face of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, doing his best to channel his cartoonish vision of Winston Churchill. It seems crazy to say it, but COVID-19 has been something of a blessing for the blustering Brexiteer, both by allowing Britain to set its own vaccination timetable and by distracting attention — for a while, at least — from Brexit-related trade disruptions.
But Johnson’s government has lurched from one scandal to another, each wrought by incompetence, cruelty, and outright corruption — most recently in the awarding of COVID-19 testing contracts. When in trouble, Johnson turns to Churchill. In October, he duly invoked Britain’s World War II-era leader in the peroration to his Conservative Party conference speech — a flaccid celebration of the British “spirit.”
The folly of nationalism
The parties of Trump, Modi and Johnson reprise old nationalist scripts, mobilizing racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia to generate a heady brew of grievance and entitlement. (All three also happen to be fighting culture wars over how to write and memorialize national history.) Of course, the same governing elites seem to have no problem with foreign connections that serve their own interests. The U.S. state of South Dakota — governed by a Trump loyalist and boasting one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the U.S. — has been exposed by the Pandora Papers as a premier global haven for money launderers and tax evaders. The Tory Party feeds off donations from Russian oligarchs, who take advantage of Britain’s permissive defamation laws to sue the journalists investigating them. The BJP government has relaxed various restrictions on foreign investment in India even as it hamstrings foreigners from donating to charitable organizations. It is globalization for the rich, nationalism for the poor.
But not all right-wing nationalists are moved — or moved equally, at least — by the politics of hate. I was struck by this observation in August, when the United States and the United Kingdom withdrew from Afghanistan. The foreign-policy establishment and left-leaning media outlets lambasted U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration for giving in to a Trumpian “America First” mentality. Where, they cried, was America’s commitment to spreading democracy and women’s rights? These were excellent questions to pose… to the Texas state legislature, which has radically restricted voting access and effectively banned abortion.
If one path to Jan. 6 led through a history of racism and hostility toward the federal government, another ran through 20 years of a losing war waged disproportionately by the working class (veterans make up approximately 1 in 5 of the Capitol rioters who are facing charges). It ran through years of jobs being outsourced and of access to higher education being priced out of reach. It ran right through the rural heartland those on the coasts disdain as “flyover country.”
And yet, as the pandemic has shown, this sort of nationalism, regardless of why people espouse it, will ruthlessly devour its own. On Jan. 6 alone, 3,964 people in the U.S. died of COVID-19. Trump supporters have been rallied by cynical politicians to reject even those government services that might help them, notably the provision of affordable universal health care. Resistance to the role of “experts” now fuels a suicidal — even homicidal — anti-vaccine movement, with some Trump supporters booing the demagogue himself when he tepidly endorsed the shots.
Britain, meanwhile, has gone from having the highest number of COVID-19 infections per capita in Western Europe to facing Brexit-amplified supply shortages and inflation. Particularly in the second half of 2021, energy costs soared, and gas stations frequently ran dry, owing to a lack of truck drivers available to restock them.
In India, Modi held super-spreader election rallies and allowed a major religious festival to proceed while the virus was beginning to surge. Critics of the government’s response have been censored and arrested.
A new internationalism
The world of the 2020s is burning, drowning, infected, and dying. No amount of tub-thumping nationalism will end the global scourge of the pandemic or arrest the ravages of climate change. What we really need is a new internationalism — one that does not involve invading other countries or catering to the needs of oligarchs and billionaires.
We need an internationalism that urgently responds to climate change via multilateral agreements with robust enforcement; that addresses the yawning global inequalities of wealth and security that lead migrants on harrowing journeys toward the frontiers of wealthy countries; and that can orchestrate an effective program of vaccine production and distribution to contain the pandemic and slow further mutations. A U.S.-U.K.-India partnership, as it happens, would be singularly well-placed to lead this initiative, given the strengths of all three countries in pharmaceutical research and manufacturing.
But to achieve any of this, we will need new versions of nationalism. How about a nationalism that makes countries compete with one another to be world leaders in cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, rather than pointing the finger at China or blaming consumers in the Global South for wanting cars, air conditioning, and other technologies that Americans and Europeans have long taken for granted? How about a nationalism that combats poverty and immiseration without fomenting identitarian division? How about a nationalism that shores up the machinery of democracy and shows it to be an ideal form of governance, rather than dismantling it via cronyism, corruption, and disenfranchisement?
This is the nationalism to which we should aspire. To achieve it, the reopening of borders must coincide with an opening of minds.
Maya Jasanoff, professor of History at Harvard University, is the author, most recently, of “The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World.” © Project Syndicate, 2021
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