The hyper-nationalist politics of the COVID-19 pandemic
For those of us born before 1980, perhaps the most impactful international political event of our lifetimes was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and, soon after, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. There were three reasons this was such a watershed event.
First, almost no one in academia or in government saw it coming (only those few who researched ethnic and civil war or demography — hardly marquis subjects within the international relations academy — remained unsurprised); second, it happened without sparking a third world war; and third, it enabled those of us dedicated to the study of political violence to shift focus to civil, as opposed to interstate, war.
Recall that the two big lessons of the last great interwar period — 1919–1939 — had been an amalgam of liberal and realist insights. On the realist side, it was clear that real security cooperation — not just between friends, but between international political rivals as well — would be necessary to prevent spirals of insecurity leading to war. On the liberal side, it was equally clear that cooperation in trade would be critical to preventing a repeat of the global economic depression of the 1930s.
Coming as it did following a war which ended in an unjust peace, the Great Depression, as it was called, gave rise to not only nationalism, but to hyper-nationalism: “the belief that other nations or nation-states are both inferior and threatening,” as political scientist John Mearsheimer has noted.
The pathway by which that happened is more complex and nuanced than can be recounted here, but in its simplest form it advanced in five stages: (1) a world war left Europe destitute or, in the case of Russia, in the midst of a savage civil war; (2) just as recovery became a real hope, a combination of a U.S. stock market crash (October 1929) and myopic “beggar thy neighbor” tariff and trade policies, led to a global economic depression which left millions of ordinary hard-working citizens unemployed and with no savings; (3) this led to anxiety, fear, bankruptcy, and widespread poverty; soon followed by anger and resentment; (4) this anger was weaponized by charismatic demagogues in the U.S., France, Britain, Germany, Japan, and Italy; and (5) with better established educated middle classes and a longer history of democratic institutions, the U.S., France, and Britain managed to keep hyper-nationalism at bay; whereas in Germany, Japan, and Italy hyper-nationalism became the keystone in the arch of state policy, and war of conquest — necessary to give teeth to ideology — led to a world war whose end result was the near complete destruction of the hyper-nationalist states that started it.
Of course, history never actually repeats itself, but the emergence and intensification of the COVID-19 pandemic has created conditions which, falling as they do into a world of advanced industrial states already turning to hyper-nationalism, the political far-right, or outright authoritarianism — including but not limited to Britain, the United States, France, Germany, Austria, Turkey, and Russia — make major interstate war more likely.
That pathway is shorter than the post-WWI pathway: (1) a widely incompetent response to a looming pandemic is weaponized by besieged elites into a “foreign” attack with racist overtones; (2) the economic disruption from the pandemic’s spread and intensification leads to economic recession, then global economic depression, mass unemployment, bankruptcy, and civil unrest; (3) early anxiety and fear gives way to anger and resentment, which is redirected by domestic political elites to immigrants, foreigners, people of color, and the like; and (4) calls for law and order intensify, leading to “emergency measures,” restricted civil liberties, authoritarian rule, and eventually, war.
There is of course a hopeful counter-argument; and it goes like this: because the pandemic is by its nature without agency or agenda, and because it affects all humans — regardless of race, class, or faith — at a biological level, we may expect the emergence of a humanitarian and communitarian response rather than hyper-nationalism. And we see evidence of this in China, in the United States, in Italy and no doubt even Iran: people coming together to help each other out as people rather than as fellow nationals.
But sadly, there are two problems with this counterargument. First, a communitarian response cannot by itself stop the pandemic or reverse its follow-on economic consequences. In order for that to happen, the competent intervention of governments is needed at the highest level. But that intervention can’t happen, because political elites in China and the United States, for example, remain committed to shifting blame for their earlier incompetence to “foreigners.”
Second, because the humanitarian and communitarian response cannot succeed without help, it is apt to be discounted as authoritarian governments seek to use fear and anger to maintain and acquire yet more power (enough to silence critics who would hold them responsible not for the pandemic itself, but for the entirely unnecessary severity of the pandemic’s effects). A loss of control over the ‘others are to blame’ narrative would also force acknowledgment that decades of conservative ‘shrink the government’ policies have made some countries much more lethally vulnerable to COVID-19 than others.
Finally, it should go without saying that authoritarian governments are necessarily minority governments that go to great lengths to stay in power. The implication of this observation — which is hardly new — is simply that once in power, authoritarian rulers must stay in power lest they be prosecuted for the crimes they need to commit to stay in power (election tampering, bribery and corruption, interference with courts, and so on). All of this eventually provides a path to, well, interstate war.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin, for example, has faced several crises in his long tenure as Russia’s leader; but each time, he was able to use a war started by Russia to distract popular criticism, consolidate political power (and in particular power over the narrative) and maintain his tenure in office.
In 1999 he engineered the destruction of Chechnya to secure power first; then went into Georgia in 2008, and in 2014 he engineered the annexation by force of part of the sovereign state of Ukraine. Russia’s neighbors are keenly aware of the possibility that should Putin again face an internal leadership crisis, they are apt to be targets of Russian conquest and, more tragically, Russia is likely to get away with it (again).
In sum, the fear, anxiety, economic disruption, and anger emergent in the current COVID-19 pandemic has fallen into already more fertile ground than Adolf Hitler’s national socialism or Benito Mussolini’s fascism did in the 1920s and 30s. The U.S. president at first downplayed the threat, then last week began calling it the “China virus,” and has now begun to uniformly assert both that he was always seriously concerned by the virus, and that any shortcomings in a federal response were the fault of others (Obama, “liberals,” and so on).
Like leaders in Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and Russia, the U.S. president is comfortable scapegoating when he is called to account. As things worsen, he will arrogate more emergency powers to the executive branch, likely with broad public support. As the United States shifts to the right, its former allies will also likely shift to the right, and we will see the emergence of an international political environment much like that Mearsheimer warned about in his “Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War” essay from 1990