THE march of populism has created two strange phenomena. The first is the idea of a “league of nationalists”; Steve Bannon, the former adviser to Donald Trump, has set up a European movement for like-minded groups, a kind of “injustice league”. Many right-wing European populists express admiration for both Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. The second and related phenomenon is the idea that authoritarian leaders “get things done” as outlined in a recent piece by Clare Foges, a former speechwriter for David Cameron.
These nationalist movements define themselves as in opposition to “globalists” (sometimes used by anti-semites as a codeword for Jews) who believe in freedom of movement for goods and people. In contrast, they want policy to be determined at the national level, which they argue will be more democratic. By implication, they want a world in which countries compete rather than co-operate.
Strategically, this argument might seem to make sense for the US. As the largest economy in the world, and the most powerful military nation, the US has enormous leverage when negotiating with other countries on a bilateral basis. Multilateral organisations like the EU or the WTO allow other countries to band together to counter American power. (In practice, however, US citizens prosper when the world prospers, something America recognised in the aftermath of World War Two, when multilateral institutions were set up.)
The same line of reasoning is why the Russians are so keen to find ways to divide the EU and why they interfered in the US elections, and why the Chinese are not keen on co-ordinated UN action. Neither nation wants to be constrained in its actions by the global community, and both countries realise they have enormous power to extract good deals from smaller states.
But it is not clear why politicians in small European countries would think that a more-nationalistic world would be in their best interests. They may resent the power of Germany within the EU. But the EU has a whole system of checks and balances, including a directly-elected Parliament, that constrains collective action; indeed it is a common complaint that it is hard to get anything done. Dealing with Angela Merkel may be frustrating but try reasoning with Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping.
Eager British Brexiteers who think they will get a great trade deal with the US should watch the threats and tariffs being imposed by Trump while negotiating with China, the EU and Canada. And nationalists in Europe should pay attention to the spat between Trump and his fellow authoritarian, Turkey’s Erdogan, which has seen the lira plunge.
Big nations find it easier to get by on their own. The US has a huge domestic market, with enormous agricultural and energy resources; its imports are just 15% of GDP while those of Poland are 49% and Hungary 82%. A global trade war will make life harder for small nations.
As for the enthusiasm for authoritarians, it is all reminiscent of the 1930s when some were seduced by the progress made in Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, in contrast to the dithering of the democracies. But we now know a lot more about what has happening in both countries. Collectivisation of farming in the Soviet Union created a famine that killed millions; as the historian Robert Service commented: “The USSR demonstrated its excellence at producing tanks and aircraft while proving itself woefully inadequate in the feeding of its population.” Hitler’s government was beset by infighting between the various authorities and emphasised armaments over consumer goods; some food was rationed even before the war. One significant reason for Hitler’s invasion plans was the need to grab and exploit the resources of other nations.
Those looking for a more modern example of the failures of authoritarianism can turn to Venezuela where an oil-rich nation has suffered a huge fall in GDP, hyperinflation and millions of citizens fleeing the country under the dictatorial rule of Chavez and Maduro.
When in opposition, authoritarian and nationalist parties have the luxury of criticism, blaming all the problems on liberals (or neoliberals). But when in office, they make things far worse in the long run. And thanks to their authoritarian approaches to the media, they also make it very hard for the opposition ever to unseat them. That is the danger voters should consider. As I wrote in a 2013 book, a vote for these parties might be the last vote you ever get to cast.