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2 October 2020updated 04 Oct 2023 12:13pm

How Britain and the US became trapped in the nationalism of decline

The contempt for international law shown by both nations is a betrayal of the postwar order they helped to create.

By Jeff McMahan

Among the most disturbing of recent political developments in the US and the UK are the countries’ repeated betrayals of the internationalist, cosmopolitan ideals that inspired many of their finest achievements during and especially in the aftermath of the Second World War.

In 1941, Roosevelt and Churchill met to discuss their countries’ postwar goals. Prominent among these was the promotion of international cooperation in the service of global peace and prosperity. Their statement, the Atlantic Charter, was the basis of the Declaration by United Nations in 1942, which in turn laid the foundations for the establishment of the UN in 1945.

The UN soon founded numerous institutions to facilitate collective efforts among states to address global problems. These included the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Health Organization (WHO), Unesco and the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The UN has done much more than any other agency in history to establish the rule of law among states. By far the greater part of contemporary multilateral international law – law that is binding on many or all states – has been created under the auspices of the UN. The countries that were most responsible for the creation of the UN and its ancillary institutions, and thus for the development of international law, are the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK.

Also after the war, various efforts were initiated to foster European integration and solidarity. In 1946, Churchill gave a speech in which he envisioned the development of a United States of Europe. The European Economic Community was created in 1957 and, following centuries of war among the states of Europe, the European Union was founded in 1993 to provide institutional means of developing policies and resolving disputes in a cooperative, democratic manner. In 2012, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its contributions to “the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy, and human rights in Europe”.

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Yet since the early 1980s, the US, at least under Republican administrations, has led the way in violating, evading, and eroding international law and withdrawing from the international institutions it once worked hard to create. In 1986, when the ICJ ruled that the US’s proxy war against Nicaragua and mining of its harbours violated international law, the Reagan administration withdrew the US from the compulsory jurisdiction of the court, effectively exempting it from enforcement of the court’s judgements.

Later, the Bush administration refused to ratify the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC), and aggressively pursued a series of coercive bilateral agreements with other states intended to guarantee Americans immunity from prosecution under international criminal law.

This retreat from cooperative engagement with other states has accelerated dramatically under the Trump administration, which has consistently attempted to follow its slogan, “America First” – except, of course, when that clashes with its unspoken categorical imperative, “Trump First”.

The US has recently withdrawn from Unesco, has scheduled its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and from the WHO, and is weakening its commitment to Nato by preparing to remove more than a quarter of its troops from Germany. Taking over Bush’s crusade, Donald Trump has declared that the ICC poses “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security” of the US because of its investigation of possible American war crimes in Afghanistan. This places the ICC in the same category vis-à-vis the US as transnational terrorist organisations. The Trump administration has also imposed individual sanctions on two high officials of the court, including its chief prosecutor, a Gambian national. The Rome Statute states that attempts to intimidate officials of the court are crimes. In addition, the US is continuing to build its border wall to exclude people of the wrong ethnicity and is attempting to buy for its own use the entire world’s supply of the antiviral medication, Remdesivir.

Meanwhile, under the Conservatives, the UK has begun to rival the US in isolationism, egotism, and international criminality. It will soon become the only member state ever to leave the EU. And the current government threatens to eclipse even Trump in its contempt for international law.

The Conservative government is, for example, defying a ruling by the ICJ, which was supported by a nearly unanimous vote of the UN General Assembly, that it must end its occupation of the Chagos Archipelago in the Indian Ocean and allow the former inhabitants of the largest island, Diego Garcia, to return to their homes, from which the UK had earlier expelled them to enable the US to establish a naval airbase.

The government has also introduced an internal market bill that one of its own ministers concedes would violate international law by overriding a protocol in the withdrawal agreement with the EU. And in order to facilitate the expulsion of refugees and other immigrants and to shield future British war criminals from legal action, the government has announced that the UK is opting out of parts of the European Convention on Human Rights, which Britain helped to write in 1950 as a founding member of the Council of Europe.

These and other petulant displays of national self-assertion by the US and the UK are symptoms of conspicuous national decline. The US is one of only three countries whose citizens are, according to 50 combined measures of well-being, worse off than they were in 2011. It ranks 91st among all countries in access to basic education, 97th in access to quality health care, and 46th in life expectancy, just below Cuba. It has 4 per cent of the world’s people but accounts for 22 per cent (over 200,000) of global deaths from Covid-19. If its government had responded to the pandemic in the way that, for example, the South Korean government did, between 70 and 99 per cent of those deaths would have been prevented.

The UK ranks 29th in life expectancy, which has stopped rising for the first time in 100 years and is even declining among some groups. In part because it was distracted by preparations for a no-deal Brexit, the government failed to seize the opportunity of an early response to the pandemic – an opportunity that Italy, Germany and others were denied – leaving the UK with the worst death toll in Europe. By likening his plans to restore the virus-ravaged economy to the New Deal, Boris Johnson has sought to portray himself as a latter-day Roosevelt; yet all he stands for, to the extent that he stands for anything other than opportunism, would have been anathema to the former president.

It is a terrible irony that the governments of the main former Axis powers – Germany, Italy and Japan – have been far more effective than the successors of Roosevelt and Churchill in the US and the UK in protecting their citizens from the pandemic.

Citizens in the US and the UK are uneasily if not always consciously aware that their countries are plummeting from their former positions of global preeminence. Large segments of these populations are thus desperately seeking to blame scapegoats and also to be assured that renewed national glory is imminent. The Tory slogan, “Global Britain”, is not only a pitiful echo of Trump’s Make – or, now, Keep – America Great Again, but is also a scarcely veiled appeal to nostalgia for Britain’s imperial past.

Supporters of the present US and UK governments have, in short, embraced what might be called a “nationalism of decline”. While their countries are visibly collapsing politically, culturally and economically, they console themselves with pathetic fantasies of robust self-reliance – plucky Britain going it alone – and impending national grandeur.

A nation is a group of people united by commonalities of, for example, ethnicity, language, religion, culture, and territorial occupancy, as well as by a shared sense of collective identity. Nationalism always involves the attribution of special significance to the nation, but it comes in many varieties.

Universalist nationalists believe that the members of every nation are entitled to act on the basis of some degree of loyalty and partiality to their nation. Particularist nationalists, by contrast, hold that the members of their nation are special, indeed superior, and are entitled both to a certain degree of deference from other nations and to maintain their purity through the stringent regulation of immigration. Particularist nationalists also tend to be “ethnonationalists”, for whom the most important forms of commonality are hereditary and thus non-voluntary.

The nationalism of decline is particularist. Earlier this year Trump ordered the forcible dispersal of some peaceful protesters who had gathered in Washington, DC — as in many other American cities — in the wake of the killing of George Floyd, so that he could lead a parade of men in suits to a historic church. There, as he fumbled with a Bible for the cameras, he was asked what his thoughts were. All he could think to say was, “We have a great country. That’s my thoughts. Greatest country in the world.” The pantomime audiences whose cheers and boos he orchestrates at his pep rallies revel in these empty triumphalist pronouncements, for they are the people who make the greatest country great.

But the greatness is under threat, both in the US and the UK. As many supporters of the current governments see it, the threat comes primarily from potential immigrants, people who are of inferior ethnicity or fail to exemplify the virtues of the national character. And it is those who have already been allowed entry who are the primary culprits for the economic and other woes that afflict these great nations.

For example, the virus, as Trump repeatedly observes, “comes from China”, just as he says drugs, rapists and other criminals come from Mexico. In the UK, opposition to EU rules on immigration was arguably the dominant motivation behind popular support for Brexit. This embrace of ethnonationalism is a striking departure from tradition, particularly in the US, which has for centuries been a multi-ethnic, immigrant society.

The similarities between particularist ethnonationalism and racism are obvious. Just as the racist believes that other races are inferior, not because of their skin colour or gross morphology, but because of supposed deficiencies of character and intellect with which the superficial characteristics are supposedly correlated, so ethnonationalists believe the same about other nations. Racists are also typically insecure about their personal merits and thus seek self-transcendence through identification with a collective they regard as superior. Thus, when I was a child in the rural American south, it was essential to the self-esteem of many of the poorest, least educated white people that they could feel pride in being white and, as such, superior to black people.

Yet a person’s being of a certain race or nationality indicates nothing of significance about that person’s individual nature. Unless there is some admirable characteristic that is constitutive of membership in a group, pride in mere membership – particularly when membership is non-voluntary – is generally unjustified and irrational.

National pride is irrational in this way and is often, as I suggested about racial pride, an unconscious confession of personal inadequacy. As the 19th-century philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, observed, “the cheapest kind of pride … is national pride. For it betrays in those affected by it the lack of individual qualities of which they could be proud, since they otherwise would not grasp at something that they share with so many millions.”

Another of the many ironies is that nationalism in the US and the UK is having highly atypical effects. Although nationalism tends to exacerbate hostilities between nations, it is almost always unifying within the nation. Yet, while the arrogant exceptionalism of both countries is indeed attracting the animosity of other nations, the US is now more deeply divided than at any time since the Civil War, and Brexit risks alienating loyalists in Northern Ireland and catalysing the secession of Scotland.

Who, then, gains from the recent eruptions of national pride in the US and the UK? Not the “populist” devotees of Trump and Johnson, who are the most ardent particularist nationalists. Indeed, the poorer among them will suffer most, as Trump supporters who are losing their health insurance and unemployment benefits are about to discover.

The most obvious beneficiaries are the Republican and Tory parties, which have laboured to ignite the epidemics of nationalist fever that they have then exploited to gain or retain power. But behind both parties are a small number of the wealthiest people whose interests these parties serve.

In the US, multimillionaire and billionaire donors channel vast sums into Republican campaigns in exchange for promises of economic deregulation and the removal of constraints imposed by administrative agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency. In the UK, what the wealthiest people want from Brexit is an exemption from EU regulations, particularly those governing labour and the environment. Their hope is to convert British labour into a sweatshop workforce and to be free to ravage the environment for the sake of profit.

The nationalism of decline is, therefore, yet another means of manipulating people to collaborate in their own impoverishment for the benefit of the rich. These beneficiaries might find it unfortunate that inflaming nationalist fervour requires the repudiation and subversion of ideals that motivated the US and UK to rebuild the postwar world in ways that fostered cooperation under the rule of law. But this is apparently a small price to pay for advancing the personal ambitions of conservative politicians and the plutocrats they serve.

Jeff McMahan is White’s Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford. He is the author of Killing in War as well as an essay, The Limits of National Partiality, which further explores the relations between nationalism and racism.

This article is part of the Agora series, a collaboration between the New Statesman and Aaron James Wendland, Senior Research Fellow at Massey College at the University of Toronto. He tweets @ajwendland.

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