What the left misses about nationalism

Today’s nationalist revival is in reaction to the failure of global, not nation-based, initiatives that sailed over the heads of ordinary citizens. The reaction has been most potent on the political right, but there is certainly a basis for a liberal or social-democratic nationalism. If anything, the decline of liberal and social-democratic parties is a result at least in part of their inability to distinguish what is legitimate and justifiable in nationalism from what is small-minded, bigoted and contrary to the national interest it claims to uphold.

The bold supranational initiatives of globalization — a system of floating exchange rates in relation to the dollar; the unrestricted flow of capital; free trade (with few tariffs and government subsidies) monitored by the new World Trade Organization; the expansion of NATO and the European Union to ensure that former Communist states became liberal capitalist democracies — have unquestionably done some good. They helped expand trade and benefited immigrants who fled from less to more developed nations.

But in the United States and Western Europe, none of these initiatives really delivered as promised. The global economy has suffered a succession of financial crises culminating in the Great Recession and continuing to this day in Turkey and Argentina. The free movement of companies has led to a global race to the bottom for wages, taxes and regulation and to growing inequality within nations. Instead of producing convergence between the richer export-driven economies of Northern Europe and the less developed countries of Southern Europe, the euro has widened the gap between them.