There is a new danger to nation states and their survival and it is a strange one: one-country nationalism or small-country patriotism.
The idea is a fairly simple one that has strong emotional appeal: the primary activity of a government should be to preserve a nation’s unique political, cultural and economic identity and independence at all costs. In economic terms that means restricting business activity and trade, in cultural terms it means putting up barriers to keep out alien influences real or imagined. Politically or diplomatically that means avoiding alliances and withdrawing from international organizations and alliances.
Such thinking has come to the forefront because of the success of the Brexit vote in the UK, and the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. It also has strong intellectual support in some circles such as the paleocons at The American Conservative, and finds some sympathy in mainstream opinion.
The Danger to Freedom
The danger from one-nation nationalism is that it is unworkable. No country can have a modern economy without trade, and modern business cannot operate without fairly open borders.
An even greater danger is implementing the one-nation agenda would involve suppression of freedom. There are some countries that have tried this in the past; including Cuba in the 1990s when people were forced to return to using horse-drawn transport and North Korea.
One-nation nationalism sort of worked in those Communist states because the governments were able to implement it by force. People who did not want to go along with project were arrested and sent to concentration camps; or forced to move to Miami.
Donald Trump’s Brain-Dead Trade Agenda
Some one-nation nationalist proposals such as Donald J. Trump’s brain-dead trade agenda would bankrupt the country. Trump wants to punish China and Mexico with high tariffs of up to 40% on their imports.
Such taxes would probably cause a sudden economic collapse in the US and those countries. Indeed Trump’s trade proposals bear a strong similarity to the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930 that many economists blame for making the Great Depression worse.
Dividing the Nation to Save It
Another danger is that one-nation nationalism by excluding others can be highly divisive. Brexit has reinvigorated Scottish Nationalism, and prompted that nation’s First Minster Nicola Sturgeon to launch a new drive for Scottish independence. It even led briefly to popular demands for London to leave the United Kingdom, and become a free state.
In the United States, Trump’s campaign has supercharged the white separatist Alt-Right movement and fueled a nasty upsurge in racism and xenophobia. It has also deeply divided the Republican Party; and turned political allies against each other.
This is the opposite of traditional patriotism which seeks to unite the nation. Instead one-nation nationalism divides the country by turning citizens against each other.
The Emotional Appeal of One-Country Nationalism
Despite that one-country nationalism has strong emotional appeal, particularly to those left behind in the modern economy.
Many workers are drawn to one-country solutions because they promise to bring back high-paying jobs and restore the importance of labor in the economy. Conservatives are drawn to it by the promise of restoring lost values, and rebuilding long gone communities.
Others want to get rid of elements they view as alien or dangerous; such as immigrants. Racists see it as a means of making their foul beliefs mainstream and palatable to mainstream audiences. Pacifists latch onto it as an antidote for militarism and imperialism.
All this creates more divisions by replacing interest or ideological politics with a simple emotionalism. It also contains an element of utopian thinking and denial of reality.
By ignoring the rest of the world and international institutions, one-country nationalism makes a realistic foreign policy impossible. The refusal to acknowledge economic realities makes a modern economy impossible. That makes one-country nationalism a utopian belief that rejects reality which is dangerous.
A major reality that one-country thinkers reject is history. They refuse to acknowledge the role their beliefs had in triggering World War II. Hitler simply took such beliefs to their logical conclusion, while the America First Movement in the United States effectively blocked a successful Anti-Nazi alliance for over two years.
Why One-Country Nationalism is Doomed
More recently the Brexit backers ignored the economic realities that made European Union necessary. They seem to want a return to the economic malaise, stagflation and mass unemployment of 1970s England. Such people refuse to acknowledge that it would be impossible for Britain to function as a totally independent economy apart from the EU.
There is one thing good about one-country nationalism it is probably unsustainable as a long term political movement because its promises are too unrealistic. The appeal of the one-country fantasy will collapse, once it becomes apparent that it is incompatible with the modern economy.
For example, Europeans will probably abandon one-country when they realize their welfare states will be unworkable under it. Americans will probably give up on it when it fails to bring back the jobs and restore the golden age of the 1950s. Many will turn on it when they realize it will curtail economic freedom.
After that we will probably see another crackpot notion arise to take its place: possibly a rebirth of socialism. Or an attempt to restore traditional religion.