“Nationalism,” George Orwell once wrote, “is power hunger tempered by self-deception.” How true. And yet, in the global leadership sweepstakes, the men on white horses – a new brand of Orwellian uber-nationalists – are in the vanguard whereas those running dysfunctional, enfeebled, underachieving unter-democracies are fading in the stretch.
Xi Jinping of China is having a stellar run, transforming the Chinese economy from export trade dependence to one that is more consumer oriented, attacking corruption within the communist hierarchy, flooding China’s neighbourhood with infrastructure largesse, touting ambitious regional initiatives like the “Silk Road” that would unite all of Eurasia, while stifling whimpers of protest from Hong Kong virtually ignored by western democracies. Xi is clearly leading the pack with others running close behind.
Vladimir Putin’s aggressive moves against Ukraine have fueled nationalist pride in Russia to a point that, until now, has masked the steady deterioration of the ruble and Russia’s “gas-station-with-attitude” economy. Putin’s end of the year press conference said it all. He blamed the West for Russia’s economic woes and told Russians to tighten their belts. There was precious little evidence in anything he said that plummeting oil prices or sanctions are curbing his ambitions to build the “New Russia.” In fact, the worse the Russian economy gets the more Putin is emboldened to whip up nationalist fervor against his neighbours and his own internal critics. There is no freedom of the press in Russia anymore. And respect for human rights is fast retreating to the Gulag of a bygone Soviet era. As Ian Bremmer recently observed “Putin now needs scapegoats, internal and external.”
Elsewhere in the world, autocrats are draping themselves in nationalist garb. General al-Sisi in Egypt has smothered the last vestiges of the Arab Spring, locked up or executed the Moslem Brotherhood leadership and established authoritarian rule in a manner that makes Hosni Mubarak look like a moderate. As Hebah Saleh of the Financial Times recently observed, it is no accident that he is using the country’s most “cherished national symbol,” the Suez Canal, as the primary focus “of a vast new public works programme designed to restart the country’s ailing economy and rally political support.” Meanwhile, and despite initial misgivings, the U.S. and of course the Saudis continue to provide him with financial assistance.
In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is busily invoking the memory of Turkey’s former Ottoman Sultanate as he solidifies political control with a heavy tinge of Islam distancing Turkey both from its secular foundation and its western inclinations. Critics are persistently confined to jail cells.
There are also demonstrable hyper-nationalist ambitions, albeit in extremist Islamist garb, in Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who dreams to create a caliphate. Such ambitions go well beyond those of al-Qaeda whose goal is to drive Westerners out of the Muslim world and establish Sharia law. What makes Islamic State (also known as ISIL or ISIS) so potent and dangerous are its genocidal intentions towards “non-believers,” especially Christians and other religious minorities, and its effective use of social media to rally conscripts.
Kim Jong-un, the uber-nationalist running the world’s most despicable dynasty in North Korea, is now projecting his power into cyberspace causing Sony and entertainment distributors alike to run for cover seemingly bereft of any credible response.
Western democracies are not immune to the “new” nationalism.
The nationalist tide is stirring throughout Europe as well, notably in Hungary, whose Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, claims Mr. Putin’s Russian model as one to be emulated. Vestiges of the same can be seen in the resurgent National Front in France under Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party in Britain. All are running with the anti-foreign wind of nationalism at their back.
Even democratic leaders such as Narendra Modi of India and Shinzo Abe of Japan are reinforcing their recent electoral victories with fervent and popular appeals to nationalism.
Traditional bulwarks of democracy and democratic values such as the United States and western Europe are very much on the back foot these days. They are the world’s underachievers, the unter-democrats, as their governments offer little appeal to disgruntled voters at home let alone a compelling model to those in the outside world. As students of history know only too well, perceived weaknesses in the West and rising nationalism elsewhere may ultimately lead to accidents on the track or overt confrontation. Once unleashed, the sirens of nationalism rarely respond to “peace in our time” dialogue and, sadly, there is no sign of a Churchill or Roosevelt entering the paddock.