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David Ignatius

The New Nationalism

By David Ignatius
Wednesday, April 20, 2005; Page A25

A funny thing is happening on the way to a globalized economy: Even as national boundaries are getting fuzzier because of free trade and instant flows of capital, the world is becoming more nationalistic.

In this new nationalism, as in most things, America has led the way. Recall the behavior of our Olympic athletes over the years and you'll realize that American chauvinism and flag-waving are nothing new. President Bush elevated "America First" to a new ideology after Sept. 11, 2001 and has been denounced by globalists ever since for "unilateralism." But Bush-bashers may be missing the real point: Everybody is more nationalistic these days.

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Contrary to the assumptions of a decade ago, globalization isn't sweeping away national identities. The world isn't flat, notwithstanding the arguments of my friend Tom Friedman in his excellent new book; instead, the world is a washboard landscape of hills and dales and sharp ridgelines of national fervor. In some ways, this new nationalism is a kind of geopolitical fundamentalism -- in which people cleave to old identities as a way of coping with the new stresses of globalization.

The past few weeks have brought examples of this powerful, if sometimes irrational, resurgence of nationalist sentiment. The Chinese seem to have gone off their rocker with the recent street protests against revisions of Japanese schoolbooks. The Chinese claim that the texts whitewash Japanese brutality against China during World War II. Maybe so, but what's striking are the chanting, unruly nationalist protesters in Chinese cities.

The communist autocrats who run China must have thought they knew what they were doing when they unleashed the demonstrators -- sending a message to Japan that Asia will have only one regional superpower, I assume. But the effect has been to undermine confidence that China is on a steady course toward full, seamless partnership in the global economy. The Chinese, it turns out, can act as crazy in their patriotism as Americans. Even Rupert Murdoch, chief executive of News Corp. and until recently one of the world's great Sinophiles, was heard declaring in Washington last week that the Chinese miracle hasn't produced many dividends for foreign investors.

Then there's France, which is always secretly competing with the United States to see which country can be more highhanded in asserting its national interests. This year France may take the prize. After prodding other European nations for a generation toward its view of a unified Europe -- and after former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing took the lead in writing a new European constitution -- the French public is leaning against ratification of that constitution in a national referendum next month.

The French will probably ratify the document in the end, but the lesson is clear. The old vision of a quasi-federal Europe must accommodate the new nationalism that is stirring across the continent. The French (and most other Europeans) want to guard their national sovereignty, their national culture, their national prerogatives, their protected national labor markets. Indeed, it turns out that the French have the same basic Euro-skepticism as the British: They want to keep their national identity regardless of what the bureaucrats in Brussels have to say. These national traits may be inefficient in a free-market sense, but if a European constitution tries to sweep them away, it will fail.

The gaudy parade of nationalism continues: The Iranians want their own made-in-Iran bomb, and this nuclear nationalism is as strong among the educated Iranian technocrats who are supposedly our friends as among the mullahs. The Lebanese, whose modern identity had been bound up in the idea of an "Arabism" that could unite Christians and Muslims, have decided that they're really Lebanese after all and have driven Syrian occupiers back home.

Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser, notes that the new nationalism among young people is triggering some copycat movements. The Orange Revolution in Ukraine was driven in part by young street protesters from a group called Pora, or "It's Time." In response, notes Brzezinski, Russian leader Vladimir Putin has encouraged a new movement called Nashi, or "Ours," that's designed to appeal to the nationalism of young Russians. Brzezinski fears it could degenerate into a dangerous, right-wing "Nashi-ism."

Loving one's country is laudable, but it also has created rivers of blood over the centuries. Thus the dream after 1945 that the great powers, led by the United States, could create international institutions that would provide a new kind of global security. It would be a delightful irony if the Bush administration, seeing the worrisome rise of nationalism in other countries, helped lead the way back toward dynamic, reformed multilateral institutions. But I'm not holding my breath.


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