Updated: Feb 20, 2021
When thinking of globalism and nationalism, the tendency to perceive opposing “teams” is tempting. At surface level, the goals of these ideologies do not appear reconcilable. Because of this false dichotomy, many are left confused as to where they stand politically. When discussing pressing issues, important distinctions between terminologies need to be understood. For instance, in the United States the definition of nationalism appears to be shifting from “love for my fellow citizens” to “hate for anyone outside of my tribe.” Globalism, on the other hand, appears to be shifting from “love for humankind as a whole” to “a global identity.” In both cases, the shift is unwarranted. What is causing this?
Before looking into the shift itself, let’s explore the notion that globalism and nationalism are mutually exclusive ideologies.
Reconciling the Difference
The clash between nationalism and globalism appears straightforward: one is in support of a specific nation, and the other is in favor of a global community. In the United States, the disparity between conservatism and liberalism has caused the public perception of the word nationalism to become inherently derogatory. It should be noted that the US is an outlier in this regard. Many Scandinavian countries, for example, exude nationalistic pride all the while supporting liberal values. How is this possible?
Let’s contextualize three of the largest issues facing humanity to find out:
Turning away from the rest of the world in a time of crises is an understandable (albeit woefully dangerous) knee-jerk reaction. As a leader, it’s natural to want what’s best for your people. If this is the case, then it only makes sense to want to cooperate with the rest of the world. Think of it this way: If I want what’s best for my nation, then I should want to cooperate with others in researching and developing a vaccine. This cooperation will, in turn, streamline R&D efforts, speed up vaccine production, and save more of my countrymen. If South Korea were to develop a vaccine, would a staunch US nationalist turn down the opportunity to receive it on the basis that it was developed elsewhere? This is of course silly. The above highlights the importance of a global scientific authority that can consolidate the R&D efforts of various nations. Sometimes, to receive the best care (which any true nationalist should want) is to admit the necessity of global cooperation.
2. Climate Change
Japan is entirely surrounded by the ocean. Because of this, they are at a high risk of being impacted by climate change. For the Japanese, this could mean sea levels rising along coastal regions, the mass relocation of people, extreme meteorological phenomena, and an increased risk of diseases spreading due to warming temperatures. No matter how much the Japanese reduce their greenhouse gasses, it will not be enough to stop an impending disaster without buy-in from other countries; the United States, China, India, Russia, and others will also have to reduce theirs. Again, we are seeing an instance of global cooperation being necessary to best care for the countrymen of a nation. And as we will see, the poorest nations will be impacted the most -- whereas rich countries will have potential technological solutions, the same will not be true for those most likely to be displaced. In the case of climate change, all of humanity will have to come together. The novelty of this requirement is a product of the 21st century. For almost all of human history, problems could be solved on a national level.
3. Technological Disruption
With the dawn of the industrial revolution came an ever-increasing gap in wealth between the richest and poorest nations. In the second half of the 21st century, the AI revolution has the potential to widen the difference even more. This is particularly frightening as there does not appear to be a plan in place (or a discussion happening) on national levels let alone globally. In the case of job loss, for example, nationalistic ideologies tend to look outward to find blame for market changes. In the near future, it will not make sense to blame immigration or outsourcing for this; rather, we will look to the Silicon Valleys of the world. What is a country like Nepal to do to compete with these changes? If the answer is to recognize the disparity and begin offering resources and knowledge to educate younger generations on coded automation, we are nowhere near a resolution.
To best illustrate the problem of technological disruption, I’ll offer a metaphor courtesy of Yuval Noah Harari. For thousands of years, the Chinese people existed as separate tribes, many of which resided along the Yellow River. To combat the devastation caused by flooding, local tribes came together to form the Xia Kingdom (2100 BC) and built dams and canals. Thus, early Chinese civilization was born. When thinking of AI and technological disruption, picture a digital river flowing through the world. Unlike early Chinese civilizations, we will be unable to combat the problem on a nationalistic level. This river flows through all our nations and will require us to agree on solutions if we are to dam the floods of inequity.
The Theme of 21st Century Problems
The problems above have something in common that may not be obvious. Throughout history, Homo sapiens have been formulating stories to incite action against their problems. We attribute value to money on the basis that everyone believes the story of its utility. During the agricultural revolution, new gods were ascribed to societies and the story of human rights was invented. With the latter, large populations were able to come together under a common system. In the instances of climate change, nuclear relations, and artificial intelligence, there is no common story shared to inspire action. Put simply, there is no “Thanos” for us to pin as the common enemy. Furthermore, these problems tend to invoke lose-lose situations, adding a layer of complexity that leaves some nations feeling like they received the short end of the stick. Addressing existential threats to humanity by reducing our nuclear warhead count, lowering greenhouse gasses, preparing for the AI revolution, or handling a pandemic requires compromise.
The shift in the subjective understanding of nationalism and globalism in the United States is concerning. While there are nuances to the shift itself, let’s briefly cover some larger pieces of the puzzle that are at the root of the problem:
1. The Role of Luck
Where someone is born is completely out of their control. Because of this, any given person's cultural norms, ideologies, upbringing, geographic location, and available resources are also generally out of their control. If our goal is to reduce suffering in the world, compassion stemming from this line of thinking is important. Of course, this does not mean that value structures can’t differ in their ability to increase (or decrease) the common well-being of a society. Recognizing that your perspective in life was determined in part through luck allows you to relinquish biases that you otherwise would be blind to.
In that same vein, environmental determinism appears to play a role in how our societies are formed. When we look at the Polynesian islands as a reference point, we see societies that descended from the same group of people that had entirely different outcomes: some remained hunter-gatherers, some formed tribes, and others formed political civilizations (Hawaii, for example). These diverging outcomes in social complexity appear to be the result of differing population sizes and densities, the ecosystem of material (natural resources), and opportunity for food variance. As with the role of luck in a person's place of birth, the judgement of another nation's current societal standing and economic viability must take into account geographic location. Being judgmental without taking these variables into consideration leaves us with an undeserved sense of superiority based on elements outside of our own control.
2. Misunderstanding The Severity
The problems of the 21st century are existential threats to humanity itself. Unlike other problems in history, the actions we take now could make a significant difference in the outcome of billions of lives. (And/or lead to our extinction.) While a global cooperative effort seems far-fetched, it will be necessary if we are to make a dent in the biggest problems facing humankind. None of our other problems will matter if we don’t solve these existential threats; the three largest being nuclear relations, climate change, and technological disruption.
3. Layers of Loyalty
Here’s the beauty in all of this: Having a global allegiance does not require the abandonment of loyalty to a nation state. We already have various layers of loyalty in our lives: to ourselves, our family, our community, our nation… and soon, humankind as a whole. Expanding the outer circle in order to deal with 21st century problems is a necessary step. But this does not mean that local governance and love for our neighbors is not important. It also does not mean that one's identity will be stripped. As we already see in many nations (including the United States), it is possible to have a functioning society containing multiple segments of identities. If I had to summarize this post in one sentence, I’d conclude: Global problems require global solutions.