Nationalism—placing the interests of one’s own nation above the interests of other nations—has been a powerful force in world affairs for centuries.
But it seemed on the wane after 1945, when the vast devastation of World War II—a conflict fostered by rightwing, nationalist demagogues—convinced people around the globe of the necessity to transcend nationalism and encourage international cooperation. Indeed, the widespread recognition of the interdependence of nations led to the creation of institutions like the United Nations (which established a modicum of global governance) and the European Union (which established a regional federation).
Thus, it came as a shock when, during the second decade of the twenty-first century, a new generation of nationalists, invariably rightwing populists, made startling political breakthroughs in their countries. Feeding on popular discontent with economic stagnation and widespread immigration, nationalist demagogues like Matteo Salvini of Italy, Viktor Orban of Hungary, and Geert Wilders of the Netherlands stirred up mass support. In Britain, Nigel Farage’s new United Kingdom Independence Party spearheaded a campaign for a British exit from the European Union, leading to passage of a June 2016 Brexit referendum. In France, Marine Le Pen, leader of the neo-fascist National Front who focused on what she termed a battle between “patriots” and “globalists,” came startlingly close to election as her country’s president in 2017. Another flamboyant nationalist leader, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, campaigning under the slogan “Brazil Above Everything, God Above Everyone,” was elected his nation’s president with 55 percent of the vote in 2018.
Perhaps the best-known of the new crop of nationalist leaders, as well as a keen inspiration to them all, was Donald Trump, the surprise victor in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Adopting the slogan “Make America Great Again” during his election campaign, he spelled out his nationalist views even more plainly at a December 2016 rally of his supporters. “There is no global anthem,” he declared. “From now on it is going to be: America First. Okay? America First. We are going to put ourselves first.” Contemptuous of the United Nations, he told it off with remarkable bluntness in September 2019. “The truth is plain to see,” he informed the UN General Assembly. “Wise leaders always put the good of their own people and their own country first. . . . The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots.”
This attack upon the very basis of institutions for international cooperation and global governance was not just rhetorical. During his presidency, Trump had the U.S. government pull out of the UN Human Rights Council, abandon UNESCO, defund UN relief efforts for Palestinians, withdraw from the World Health Organization, and invoke sanctions against top officials of the International Criminal Court. He also withdrew the United States from key international nuclear arms control and climate agreements.
Recently, however, the nationalist wave appears to be receding. Although Britain’s ruling Conservative Party took up the Brexit torch, it proved unable to facilitate Britain’s departure from the European Union. Today, more than four years after nationalists’ referendum victory, Brexit talks are stalled. In France, Le Pen’s National Rally party (which replaced the National Front) was trounced in the July 2020 local elections, and polls indicated that, in the 2022 presidential election, she would lose once again to the internationalist Emmanuel Macron. Similarly, in Brazil, President Bolsonaro made almost daily Facebook Live broadcasts this November, encouraging his supporters to back specific candidates in local elections. Subsequently, most of them went down to defeat.