What the West needs to do about growing nationalism


As well-placed developing countries have accumulated more resources, they have acquired a greater ability to carry out propaganda and build coalitions. But even more important has been the ideological dimension. Because Western diplomacy has increasingly come to be seen as a form of meddling (a perception with some justification), efforts to defend human rights, media freedom, or democracy in many countries have proved either ineffective or counterproductive.

In Turkey’s case, the prospect of accession to the European Union was supposed to improve the country’s human rights record and reinforce its democratic institutions. And for a while, it did. But as the demands from EU representatives multiplied, they became fodder for Turkish nationalism. The accession process stalled, and Turkish democracy has been weakening ever since.

The nationalism fueling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reflects the same three factors listed above. Many Russian political and security elites believe that their country has been humiliated by the West ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Russia’s integration into the world economy has brought few benefits to its population while furnishing unimaginable riches to a cadre of politically connected, unscrupulous, often criminal oligarchs. And though Russian President Vladimir Putin presides over a vast system of clientelism, he skillfully cultivates and exploits nationalist sentiment.

Russian nationalism is bad news for Ukraine, because it has allowed Putin to make his regime more secure than it otherwise would have been. Sanctions or no sanctions, he is unlikely to be toppled, because he is protected by cronies who share his interests and nationalist sentiments. If anything, isolation may further strengthen Putin’s hand. If the war does not weaken his regime, it could continue indefinitely, regardless of how much it damages the Russian economy.

This era of resurgent nationalism offers some lessons. We may need to rethink how we organize the processes of economic globalization. There is no doubt that open trade can be beneficial for developing and developed economies alike. But while trade has reduced prices for Western consumers, it has also multiplied inequalities and enriched oligarchs in Russia and Communist Party hacks in China. Capital, rather than labor, has been the main beneficiary.

We therefore need to consider alternative approaches. Above all, trade arrangements must no longer be dictated by multinational corporations that profit from arbitraging artificially low wages and unacceptable labor standards in emerging markets. Nor can we afford to base trade relations on the cost advantages created by cheap, subsidized fossil fuels.

Moreover, the West may need to accept that it cannot reliably influence its trading partners’ political trajectories. It also needs to create new safeguards to ensure that corrupt, authoritarian regimes do not influence its own politics. And, most importantly, Western leaders should recognize that they will gain more credibility in international affairs if they acknowledge their own countries’ past misbehavior during both the colonial era and the Cold War.

Recognizing the West’s limited influence on others’ politics does not mean condoning human-rights abuses. But it does mean that Western governments should adopt a new approach, curtailing official engagement while relying more on civil-society action through organizations such as Amnesty International or Transparency International. There is no silver bullet to vanquish nationalist authoritarianism, but there are better options to counter it.

By Daron Acemoglu for Project Syndicate


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Charles Rukuni
The Insider is a political and business bulletin about Zimbabwe, edited by Charles Rukuni. Founded in 1990, it was a printed 12-page subscription only newsletter until 2003 when Zimbabwe's hyper-inflation made it impossible to continue printing.


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