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Upsurge in nationalism does not bode well for world order

The factors that brought Western nations together under the US umbrella forged international institutions designed to achieve unity of purpose and preserve shared liberal democratic values to prevent another devastating world war. But many of those alliances and institutions are today being undermined by a wave of nationalistic sentiment deluging America and Europe, where mutual cooperation is gradually being replaced with every country for itself.

Growing sectors of populations feel they have been relegated to the back of opportunity’s queue. Others in countries that have absorbed large numbers of immigrants and refugees fear a loss of national identity. This phenomenon is the driver behind Britain’s exit from the EU, and propelled Donald Trump into the White House.

The underprivileged have rightly concluded the status quo is not working for them, and no longer believe the comforting rhetoric of establishment figures. The prevailing mood of discontent has also opened a window for populist anti-immigration, anti-establishment, EU-skeptic, far-right politicians to ride high on the politics of fear in a number of European nations.

On Monday, the leader of France’s National Front Marine Le Pen kicked off her presidential bid with an anti-globalization, freedom agenda. She is pledging to cut immigration by 80 percent, deprive illegal immigrants of health care and place an additional tax on foreign workers. She wants out of the EU and a return to the French franc. NATO serves US interests, she says, vowing to extract France from NATO’s integrated command.

Democracy — government by the people in which supreme power is vested in the people — is undergoing its gravest test, raising the question of whether the masses are qualified to make the right choices.

Linda S. Heard

Billing herself as the “freedom” candidate offering “a patriotic choice,” in reality she is the face of rampant nationalism. Pollsters suggest she will be knocked out in the second round of elections, but with the conservative candidate, former Prime Minister Francois Fillon, enmeshed in a scandal, her chances have soared.

Worse, the Islamophobic head of Holland’s far-right anti-EU Party for Freedom, Geert Wilders, is poised for a win in March. Wilders wants a ban on all migrants from predominantly Muslim countries, the closure of all mosques and Islamic schools, and the country stripped of all Islamic symbols.

If this xenophobic/racist, anti-globalist trend continues, the cohesion of the EU and NATO is in the balance. Trump says he could not care less if the EU dissolves, and has described NATO as “obsolete.” EU leaders recently met in Malta to thrash out various challenges, among them the changing relationship between the EU and the US.

The UN has been threatened with a cut in US funding. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has warned allies that the Trump administration is ready to “fix anything that seems obsolete” within the UN, and if they fail to support Washington, she will be “taking names.”

The UN needs overhauling, but not to be brought to Washington’s heel. The idea that a single veto-holding member country among the big five can block a resolution green-lighted by all Security Council members is an outmoded rule smacking of imperialism.

While it is true that the EU needs a new direction — given how many citizens are chomping at the bit to reclaim their country from Brussels, and how Hungary and Poland are going renegade — Europeans should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. A divided, vulnerable Europe plays right into the ambitions of President Vladimir Putin, who hankers after the Soviet Union and is keen to expand Russia’s sphere of influence.

A nationalistic movement is underway and growing from one side of the Atlantic to the other. Nothing can be taken for granted while the geopolitical deckchairs are being rearranged. Democracy — government by the people in which supreme power is vested in the people — is undergoing its gravest test, raising the question of whether the masses — fed false news, sound bites and blatant propaganda — are qualified to make the right choices.

Change does not necessarily mean there is something better on the horizon, as the misnamed “Arab Spring” sadly evidenced. I am afraid that democracy is being exploited by slick-talking opportunists who have given their following a license to hate.

There is a big difference between patriotism and nationalism, often conflated in people’s minds. American author and journalist Sydney J. Harris defined this difference perfectly: “The patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war.” 

• Linda S. Heard is an author and columnist specializing in Middle East affairs.