"First and foremost, there is fear – and apparently a great deal of it. It is a fear based on the instinctive realization that the 'White Man’s World' – a lived reality assumed by its beneficiaries as a matter of course – is in terminal decline..."
BERLIN – There is an alarming political shift to the right occurring on both sides of the Atlantic, linked to the growing force of openly chauvinist political parties and figures: Donald Trump in the United States, Marine Le Pen in France. Other names could be added to the list: Hungary’s prime minister, Victor Órban, who advocates “illiberal democracy,” or Jarosław Kaczyński and his quasi-authoritarian Law and Justice party, which now rules Poland.
Nationalistic, xenophobic political parties had been on the rise in many European Union member states long before Syrian refugees first arrived in appreciable numbers. There has been Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Vlaams Blok (succeeded by today’s Vlaams Belang) in Belgium, the Freedom Party of Austria, the Sweden Democrats, the Finns Party, and the Danish People’s Party, to name just a few.
The reasons for such parties’ rise and success vary greatly at the national level. But their basic positions are similar. All of them are raging against the “system,” the “political establishment,” and the EU. Worse, they are not just xenophobic (and, in particular, Islamophobic); they also more or less unashamedly embrace an ethnic definition of the nation. The political community is not a product of its citizens’ commitment to a common constitutional and legal order; instead, as in the 1930s, membership in the nation is derived from common descent and religion.
Like any extreme nationalism, the current one relies heavily on identity politics – the realm of fundamentalism, not reasoned debate. As a result, its discourse takes an obsessive turn – usually sooner rather than later – in the direction of ethno-nationalism, racism, and religious war.
The rise of extreme nationalism and fascism in the 1930s is usually explained in terms of the outcome of World War I, which killed millions of people and filled the heads of millions more with militaristic notions. The war also ruined Europe’s economy, leading to a global economic crisis and mass unemployment. Destitution, poverty, and misery primed publics for toxic politics.
But conditions today in the West, in the US and Europe alike, are rather different, to say the least. Given these countries’ affluence, what accounts for their citizens’ attraction to the politics of frustration?
First and foremost, there is fear – and apparently a great deal of it. It is a fear based on the instinctive realization that the “White Man’s World” – a lived reality assumed by its beneficiaries as a matter of course – is in terminal decline, both globally and in the societies of the West. And migration is the issue that brings that prognosis home (not just metaphorically) to today’s angst-inspired nationalists.
Until recently, globalization was largely viewed as favoring the West. But now – in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis and with the rise of China (now turning into this century’s leading power before our eyes) – it has become increasingly clear that globalization is a two-way street, with the West losing much of its power and wealth to the East. Likewise, the world’s problems can no longer be suppressed and excluded, at least not in Europe, where they are now quite literally knocking on the door.
Meanwhile, at home, the White Man’s World is threatened by immigration, globalization of labor markets, gender parity, and the legal and social emancipation of sexual minorities. In short, these societies are undergoing a fundamental shock to traditional roles and patterns of behavior.
From all these profound changes has arisen a yearning for simple solutions – to build fences and walls, for example, whether in the US South or in southern Hungary – and strong leaders. It is no accident that Europe’s new nationalists view Russian President Vladimir Putin as a beacon of hope.
Of course, Putin has no appeal in the US (the world’s greatest power won’t turn away from itself), or in Poland and the Baltic states (where Russia is regarded as a threat to national independence). Elsewhere in Europe, however, the new nationalists have made common cause with Putin’s anti-Western posturing and pursuit of Great Russia.
With the new nationalism threatening the European integration process, France holds the key. Without France, Europe is neither conceivable nor practicable, and a President Le Pen would certainly sound the death knell for the EU (as well as bringing disaster for her country and the continent as a whole). Europe would then withdraw from twenty-first-century world politics. This would lead inexorably to the end of the West in geopolitical terms: The US would have to reorient itself for good (toward the Pacific), while Europe would become Eurasia’s appendix.
The end of the West is a dim prospect, to be sure, but we aren’t there yet. What is clear is that more depends on the future of Europe than even the most vociferous advocates of European unification had previously believed.
Copyright: Project Syndicate/Institute for Human Sciences, 2015.
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