Foreign Policy, History and Future of Nationalism, Realist Theory

The Inconvenient Truths of International Relations

History and Future of Nationalism, Part 4

Indian schoolchildren in a rural classroom

In 1963, the economist Robert Heilbroner wrote The Great Ascent, a prescient analysis of the challenges facing the former European colonies after achieving independence. He began by saying that, if world history is defined as the common story of the majority of mankind, then world history did not exist before 1948. Since then, it has been the story of the struggle of these new nations to cement their national sovereignty and spur economic development after decades of colonial exploitation. With the end of the Cold War, this struggle became the primary motive force in international relations. The apparent achievement of these goals by China and India has only whetted the appetite of other nations to reach the same level of international respect and burgeoning power.

Meanwhile, post-Cold War American foreign policy was based on the Wilsonian liberal vision of spreading democracy, social responsibility and capitalism throughout the world.  A “new world order” under a watchful American eye would eventually erase the differences between nations and their constituent ethnic and religious groups.   The engine powering this new system would be globalization and the Internet.  It would effectively mean, as Thomas Friedman and historian Francis Fukuyama argued, the end of history.

It meant something very different to the newly developing countries.  To them, it appeared to seek their acquiescence to an unprecedented world hegemony.  Far from rejecting history, China, India and other developing nations have clung to and embraced their respective histories. The climate change debate, the COVID-19 pandemic and other security threats take place in the midst of this new nationalism driving the majority of the world’s domestic and foreign policy.   To effectively address transnational  issues, America must accept an approach that respects these nation’s national rights and aspirations while, at the same time,  vigorously defending its own.  

As I mentioned in a previous post in this series, the realist theory of international relations offers the best model for such a policy by recognizing that states are the most important actors in the international system. Whether democratic or authoritarian, they must always be building their economic and military power since it is the only way to survive in an anarchic world.  While non–governmental organizations like the UN, multinational corporations and social and environmental groups can have an impact, achievement of their goals will always be subject to at least the acquiescence of nation–states.    A sustainable American foreign policy would recognize these realities and focus on goals that could be supported by affected states without compromising our own fundamental goals of national and economic security.  The Trump Administration’s new National Security Strategy is a welcome and important step in this direction (see this post).  

I began this series by noting that how the COVID-19 pandemic has driven nations to restrict exports of medical supplies to protect their own people from the disease.  Like the US and the rest of the world, the developing nations find themselves scrambling for the kind of equipment they formerly manufactured themselves.   They only recently began opening up their economies after fostering local manufacturing of critical products through high tariffs and otherwise protecting infant industries.   This new reminder of their past dependence will not soon be forgotten. 

In the climate change arena, a realist approach would accept that the Asia-Pacific nations can never agree to any reductions in their carbon emissions that will interfere with their economic development.   To developing countries, the demand to reduce the use of coal smacks of a new form of colonialism designed to prevent them from achieving economic independence.  They have been building one new coal plant per month to provide the energy necessary to grow their economies and satisfy their people’s needs. 

The Paris climate agreement essentially recognized this fact by allowing participants to comply by stating their Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) of carbon reductions, which are only voluntary in nature.  China’s INDC allows it to avoid seriously limiting its emissions until 2030.  This modest contribution by the world’s largest carbon emitter, coupled with the general lack of transparency of most developing countries’ economies, means even these commitments will be conveniently difficult to verify, much less enforce.   

Since the Asia Pacific region alone now accounts for nearly half of the world’s carbon emissions, this means it will be impossible to avoid the 2-5 degree Celsius increase in world temperature originally targeted in the Kyoto accord without damage to the U.S. and developed countries’ economies that would be domestically unacceptable.   Adaptation, as well as carbon reduction, must become an integral part of our response to climate change.  The only alternative is imposing tariffs and trade sanctions on China, India and other developing countries to immediately force them off the path of ever-increasing carbon emissions.

In the end, the majority of the world’s nations understand that utopian ideals will not save them from a determined foe or domestic threat.  Their history has taught them otherwise and made them the ultimate realists.  The sooner Americans understand this, the sooner we will be able to make sustainable progress on the climate change and other national security goals.  

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Foreign Policy, History and Future of Nationalism, Realist Theory



History and Future of Nationalism, Part 3

As things are now, such power to command peace throughout the world could best be assured by some combination between those great nations which sincerely desire peace and have no thought themselves of committing aggressions. The combination might at first be only to secure peace within certain definite limits and on certain definite conditions; but the ruler or statesman who should bring about such a combination would have earned his place in history for all time and his title to the gratitude of all mankind

Theodore Roosevelt, Nobel Prize Lecture, May 5, 1910

Theodore Roosevelt’s quest for peace has been a goal of mankind since the beginning of time. Three different theories have been proposed to achieve it. The first is the simplest and most radical – world government. This is the globalist solution and springs from old memories of the Roman Empire’s rule of what in Westerner’s minds was the “known world“. The second is the more practical balance of power approach described in my previous post and followed by the European powers in the 19th century.

After World War II, a new strategy known as functionalism concentrated on developing international arrangements to share discrete public sector responsibilities such as collecting meteorological data, coordinating air traffic control and similar uncontroversial areas.   Sometimes referred to as “peace by pieces“, the central feature of this approach was the creation of international agencies with limited and specific powers. Functional agencies could operate only within the territories of states that choose to join them and therefore would not directly threaten state sovereignty. In theory, the web of agreements would eventually become so strong that nations would wake up one day and realize that they could not afford to go to war against each other.

Even in the midst of the Cold War, functionalism became the primary working theory of international relations and created useful mechanisms for nations and the public. For example, the Universal Postal Union enables you to send a letter to any member nation for the price of a first class stamp in your home country. I previously highlighted the work of the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation as a good example of how transnational efforts can complement rather than threaten national sovereignty.  In their early days, United Nations specialized agencies such as UNICEF, the World Meteorological Organization and even the World Health Organization performed useful functions.  The original European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) formed in the 1950s stretched the bounds of the functionalist model, but found early success because of its limited goal of reviving the European steel industry and the jobs that came with it.

An ardent American nationalist, Theodore Roosevelt arguably helped develop the tenets of a successful functionalism.  As the above quote indicates, TR  favored international arbitration and agencies, but believed their jurisdiction should be limited and confined to disputes among great powers who had the strength to insure the limits were respected and the results properly enforced. For example, he signed treaties to submit future disputes with Canada and Great Britain to arbitration, but specifically excluded territorial disputes from their reach.  He was furious when Woodrow Wilson abolished this exception. TR also opposed the League of Nations not because of a belief in isolationism, but because he believed it would be either impotent or would submit the United States to the whims of smaller, less important nations. History would eventually exonerate his assessment.

The concept of functionalism began to be abused in the 1970s when international agreements were no longer confined to discrete subjects that were openly negotiated and narrowly defined. Instead, broad grants of power were made to multilateral organizations run by elite bureaucracies unresponsive to the public who made rules with little notice or opportunity for meaningful public input.  It was not surprising when these bureaucracies succumbed to the institutional imperative. Instead of simply solving the original problem, they worked to identify new problems in order to perpetuate the organization or ideal.  Thus, the limited goals of the ECSC were slowly and deliberately expanded over the decades until it became the European Union with the goal of creating a United States of Europe. Similarly, the process of bilateral negotiation of specified tariff reductions metastasized to become the World Trade Organization with a new goal of eliminating non-tariff barriers. This eventually led to the creation of private dispute resolution courts in agreements like NAFTA.  The result was a globalist’s dream – transnational organizations run by fellow elitists with the power to impose rules locally. Conversely, it was TR’s nightmare – talking shops that allowed small states to dictate to the great powers. 

How do we escape the straitjacket that functionalism has become?  First, current agreements must be revised or, if necessary, abrogated to narrow the scope of delegation, reduce bureaucratic power and recognize great power interests. Instead of being vehicles to achieve a fragmented form of world government, international agreements and agencies could return to the kind of transparency and limited goals that found public support in the past.  Free trade pacts should drop private dispute resolution tribunals and any rules or decisions should be subject to prior public notice and comment before becoming final. The World Trade Organization should be converted into simply a arbitral body for resolving trade disputes voluntarily submitted to it by member states. In the alternative, the US should consider withdrawing to develop Its own tariff and trade treaties that preserve national security. Since the euro is one of the EU’s most popular programs, the EU should consider shrinking to become simply a monetary and customs union.

Reviving functionalism’s methodical and limited mechanisms would find favor not only in the US and the Western world, but also among the newly developed nations guarding their own recently- won sovereignty. The next post will show how their nationalism is driving international relations in the 21st century.

Foreign Policy, History and Future of Nationalism, Realist Theory

The Historical Myths of Globalism

History and Future of Nationalism, Part 2

Our duty is to the United States…We should be friendly to all nations, and in any crisis we should judge each nation by its conduct in that crisis. We should condemn the misconduct of any nation, we should oppose its encroachments upon our rights with equal vigor…..according to what it actually does on the given occasion with which we have to deal.

Theodore Roosevelt, America for Americans, Afternoon Speech in St. Louis, MO; May 31, 1916

In November of 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered what was billed as a stinging indictment of nationalism.  In lofty poetic language, Macron expressed the European elitist view that the two world wars were caused by the pursuit of nationalism and implied that only transnational global institutions such as the European Union could keep the peace and preserve “universal values”.  At the same time, the speech betrayed this theme by arrogantly claiming these values were uniquely French in origin. Indeed, it was a speech Napoleon himself, a past advocate of spreading “superior” French values, could easily have given to justify the wars of conquest France unleashed on Europe in the early nineteenth century.

Unfortunately, President Trump did not have the appreciation of history and international relations theory to effectively defend nationalism from Macron’s globalist stereotype. This defense could have started with a recitation of the wartime horrors of the Thirty Years War and the Napoleonic Wars, both waged in the name of values claimed to be universal at the time.  It then would have pointed out that it was the realistic preservation of the basic national goal of sovereignty that kept the peace after Napoleon and then highlighted the real reason for the breakdown of this peace by 1914. 

A good source for this defense can be found in former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s 1954 book “A World Restored”, which recounts how the eventual victors in the Napoleonic Wars crafted a system that avoided continental war in Europe for almost a century.  Kissinger believed in the realist theory of international relations, which says all nation-states, whether democratic or autocratic, are naturally driven to maximize their power to preserve their sovereignty and survive in an essentially anarchic world. In contrast, the policy of liberal hegemony followed since the end of the Cold War is the Macron and Napoleonic dream of developing transnational institutions to reduce national sovereignty by spreading and, if necessary, imposing by force, the democratic capitalist model throughout the world.

For a brief periods of time, the French Empire of Napoleon and his coerced allies seemed to produce peace, but could not completely stamp out the national dreams of the different ethnicities and cultures of Europe. At the Congress of Vienna in 1815, the foreign ministers of Britain, Austria-Hungary and France set out to construct a realist international system that preserved this diversity.  They did so by creating a balance of power among their nations in Europe that controlled the drive to maximize power and risk war. During that period, the main continental powers of France, Russia, Austria and later Germany would all enter into shifting alliances with and against each other while Britain remained in “splendid isolation” from these rivalries.  If one alliance grew too powerful to the point of risking conflict, Britain would intervene to balance the relative power and prevent a conflict.  It was an elegant diplomatic waltz that succeeded in avoiding all-out war during the rest of the nineteenth century.

The rise of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany and decline of Austria-Hungary upset this balance and forced Britain to expressly ally with France and Russia in response to the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria and Italy. The balancer was now gone, and Europe experienced a series of crises provoked by Germany. Enter Theodore Roosevelt and the United States, which briefly acted as a balancer and brokered a peace in a 1905 crisis involving Morocco, as shown in the above cartoon from the time.  Historians still wonder whether the First World War might have been avoided if TR had won the 1912 election and America had continued to serve the role of a balancing power.  Instead, Woodrow Wilson won and appointed the isolationist William Jennings Bryan as Secretary of State, who strongly opposed any involvement in Europe. In the end, the US could not remain aloof, but entered the fray only after war had raged for three bloody years. Wilson’s League of Nations was supposed to prevent another war, but it’s globalist dreams proved to be useless against the expansionism of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

Thus, the lessons of 1815 –  1945 are quite the opposite of Pres. Macron’s florid rhetoric. Peace is possible in a nationalist system so long as states avoid being trapped in rigid alliances that are not flexible enough to account for changes in relative national power. As TR said above, America and all nations must be free to identify and pursue their national interests and preserve their own culture according to the particular circumstances. Instead, alliances like the European Union (and NATO as well) freeze the international system into outdated alliances that do not adjust to the times and then try to justify their continued existence by exalting the alliance over its members.  This creates tension between nations instead of alleviating it. The only sustainable route to peace is to accept the diversity of nations and insure there is a balancing nation that can intervene and prevent conflict.

Wilson’s mistake also proves that nationalism is also not the same as isolationism.  Macron attempts to conflate the two to buttress his argument when, in fact, the balance of power system of the nineteenth century depended on Britain and then America becoming involved with other nations when necessary. In the modern age of ICBMS, climate change and pandemics, isolationism has never been an option and no one, including Trump, has seriously said otherwise. A nationalist system can address transnational problems so long as each nation’s sovereignty and interests are respected.  The next post will show how this can be successfully done.