As is happening with distressing frequency these days, a person most of us never heard of has risen up to scare us to death. The man in question is Vladimir Zhirinovsky, leader of Russia's inappropriately named Liberal Democratic Party, which got a big vote in Russia's elections on Sunday. Zhirinovsky's party is better described as authoritarian and extreme nationalist -- or, if you prefer, fascist.

Many Russians are clearly unhappy with Boris Yeltsin, the results of economic reform and Russia's loss of status in the world. And, as Fred Hiatt reported in The Post, Zhirinovsky offers a rather chilling solution. "Why should we inflict suffering upon ourselves?" Zhirinovsky asks. "Let's make others suffer."

When you get right down to it, that is what all forms of extreme nationalism preach. But before condemning Russians for giving so many votes to an irrational extremist, consider that that these elections are part of a larger trend toward nationalism around the world.

Nationalism -- albeit in a less virulent form -- is rising right here in the United States, and those who would understand it should read an article in the forthcoming issue of the National Interest magazine by Alan Tonelson titled "Beyond Left and Right." I have some major disagreements with Tonelson, which I'll get to. But Tonelson's piece is brilliant as a description of why the American foreign policy debate seems so strange.

Tonelson, research director for the Economic Strategy Institute, begins by discussing the odd new alignments over issues such as Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti. How, he asks, can one make sense of a time when Cold War doves want air strikes over Bosnia while hard-line anti-Communists oppose them -- with "Pat Buchanan picking up George McGovern's plea 'Come Home, America.' "

What's really happening, Tonelson says, is the collapse of the Cold War internationalist consensus and the rise of a new debate between internationalists and nationalists.

The internationalists, he argues, continue to believe that "international activism itself is the key to American security and prosperity" and that the United States will never know peace or prosperity "unless the rest of the world also becomes secure, peaceful, prosperous and democratic." The nationalists believe "in a relatively passive strategy whose supreme goal is consolidating American military and economic strength and enhancing America's freedom of action." Nationalists accept that large parts of the world will suffer from brutal conflicts, but believe that the United States can prosper despite them and should thus mostly stay out of them.

In economics, internationalists believe in an ever more open trading system and see all forms of protectionism as dangerous. The nationalists see the nation-state as "an economic player" and free traders as dangerously naive about the economic competition among nations and trading blocs.

Tonelson's conclusion is that the nationalist-internationalist battle is opening up a large class gulf in American politics. Internationalists tend to be richer and well-educated; nationalists -- often labeled "isolationists" -- are less well-off and have less formal education. Typically, he says, internationalists conclude that this simply proves that theirs is the more enlightened view, "since, after all, their strongest backers are best qualified to express an opinion." Tonelson, an unapologetic nationalist, takes a different view: "that the best and the brightest tend to escape the worst consequences of these policies -- from military service to unemployment."

Attention must be paid to Tonelson's argument. Internationalists and free traders have gotten out of the practice of making arguments for their positions because for 40 years they didn't have to. Engagement was essential as long as the Soviet Union posed a threat, and free trade was obviously beneficial to the United States when it was the overwhelmingly dominant economic power. But neither condition applies anymore, and internationalists will not carry the day simply by asserting that theirs if the more "enlightened" view.

Tonelson is also correct in perceiving a conflict of interest between internationalist elites and many average wage earners. The global economy and its opportunities really do look different to investment bankers and international lawyers than they do to garment workers or machinists. Something of the same split is visible in Russia. And, as Tonelson says, not a lot of rich kids enlist in the military to fight those "brushfire" wars or join those "peacekeeping" missions.

The problem with Tonelson's view is that nationalism is not a solution to the problems he describes -- and the deepening of nationalist feelings will make a lot of them worse. To begin with, nationalism is, at best, silent on such crucial matters as human rights. And even nationalists have to admit that global instability can reach levels where the consequences become genuinely dangerous.

There are also limits to economic nationalism. Yes, the United States needs to take a tougher view of trade issues now than it did when it sat on top of the world. But the United States doesn't always "win" when, say, Germany and Japan "lose." As Business Week has reported, the current U.S. growth rate would be 3.8 percent instead of 2.9 percent but for our rising trade deficit. Their recession means that the Japanese and Europeans are buying less from us, costing a lot of American jobs.

Tonelson also sometimes confuses the democratic impulse with the nationalist impulse. Democracy exists within nation-states, and as nations lose control over economic matters to the global market, democracy's writ is narrowed. Thus, many small-d democrats who worry about the effects of the global economy are defending the nation state's prerogatives not because they're nationalists but simply because that's the only way of asserting the right of average citizens to some influence on economic matters. It's an argument free traders need to take far more seriously -- but it has almost nothing to do with nationalism.

In fact, fighting the rise of "let's make others suffer" nationalism is a political imperative for decent people in every country. Those who praise nationalism need to understand that unchecked, it can lead to the frightful irrationality of the likes of Russia's Zhirinovsky. But internationalists should remember the lessons of the 1930s: that when the international political and economic system fails average people, they will look almost anywhere -- and especially to radical nationalism -- for protection. Internationalism is a noble impulse, but citizens will judge it the way they judge almost all political ideas: by results.