Event ReportsPublished on Sep 01, 2020
Rising Nationalism in Europe and Asia in the age of COVID19
Has the Covid-19 pandemic infused fresh elements into the world of geopolitics? Or what we are witnessing is a mere acceleration of trends that have long been in the making? With a particular focus on these trends in Asia and Europe, a digital round table discussion was co-hosted by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), India and the Center for Nationalism Studies (CNS), Bosnia and Herzegovina, on 18 August 2020 that attempted to examine nationalism within the present global context. Nationalism has been a potent political force across time periods and geographies and it has acquired even more significance in the 21st century. An appraisal of this remarkably consistent political phenomenon is central to the understanding of contemporary international affairs. This discussion titled, "Rising Nationalism in Europe and Asia in the Age of Covid-19," reflected upon the sway nationalism holds over the two continents and beyond. This virtual disquisition deliberated on the challenges and commonalities of nationalism across the board from a global perspective. The discussion started by contextualising nationalism in the present world. It was suggested that the current world order marks a break from the system that was built on the heels of the Second World War. Whereas the system that was assiduously constructed on the morrow of the great war gave primacy to ideological struggles, the current order is characterised by the pre-eminence of  nationalism deeply rooted in mercantile capitalism. Covid-19 was cited as a force that merely accelerates this trend and accentuates the gulf between the present previous global systems. Whilst nationalism has always been an integral part of the capitalist system , the current variety of it differs in that it is becoming inimical to the ideas of democracy and lends itself to authoritarian tendencies more easily. The strengthening of nationalism in a state can have profound consequences within its borders and without. Exacerbation of long-standing inter-ethnic strife is a strong possibility. Externally, besides the ever-present threat of conflicts with neighbours, a new form of mercantile-capitalist rivalry may be in the offing. In a worst-case scenario, each nation-state would look unto itself and will attempt to increase its profits by closing its boundaries rather than engaging in mutually beneficial trade governed by  neo-liberal market principles. It was argued that these developments were a consequence of the neo-liberal policies of the post-1980 era. The doctrine has been alleged by scholars to have aggravated income gaps between the rich and poor countries, consequently leading the latter to look for alternate roads toward prosperity. The tiny well-heeled caucus within the newly affluent countries then resort to ramping up nationalism to secure the gains they have made by entering the world market as the common masses continue to lead indigent lives. Nationalism, coupled with globalisation, has evolved into a rabid jingoism that fosters an environment of mistrust towards all things foreign. Its ramifications can be witnessed in the form of border control, supply chain disruptions, protectionist measures, and other moves that display an overt preference for the domestic over the foreign. These measures have been seen to have acquired fresh vigour since 2016 with the victory of President Donald Trump in the United States and the vote on Brexit in the United Kingdom. Three consequential modern trends accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic were enumerated in the discussion all of which, directly or indirectly, challenge globalization:
  • The nation-state is now back in the centerstage, bolstering the ideas of sovereignty. Asian countries, for instance, have adopted a host of security and strategic means during the pandemic which demonstrate passionate commitment towards protecting individual state sovereignty.
  • An interplay can be seen between nativism, culturalism and nationalism. In Europe and Asia, populist leaders who proved unsuccessful in containing the spread of Covid-19 highlight how nationalism can be used as a diverting tool. Cultural and ethnic nativism and nationalism have featured more prominently in the actions of populist leaders and they have been leveraging the Covid-19 pandemic to tighten their grip over their countries.
  • Pandemic related nationalism is trifling with salient components of democracy as most countries are using emergency powers to control their populations and the spread of the virus. Judiciaries in many democracies have been ignored and parliaments are also not in session. Accountability in a democratic system is what is being challenged with this new version of nationalism.
Nationalism is a key component of modernity, which appeals to large swathes of the populace and is deeply embedded in institutions of the modern state. The strengthening of nationalism in today's world is a corollary of the strengthening of the nation-state. The robustness of the nation-state worries academics and scholars due to its tendency to promote narrow nationalist agendas. However, the absence of a better, more efficient form of political organisation prompts one to find solutions to perfect the rough edges in the system rather than questioning its existence. Even in the European context, where the European Union (EU) is seen as a shining example of multilateralism, the pandemic has laid bare the leaders’ proclivity to shut its borders and centralise decision-making powers rather than considering cooperative efforts with other countries. The scramble for ventilators is a case in point. Initially, Italy and Spain found it difficult to procure ventilators from other countries and were even snubbed by the EU. GlobalData, an analytics firm, estimated in March that France, Italy and Spain collectively required 74,000 devices to make up for their gap in ventilators. Any crisis, therefore, indicates the strength, or lack thereof, of the nation-state which subsequently governed the functioning of civil society. In the Covid-19 discourse this can be conspicuously witnessed in how each state deployed unique methods of coping from the lull and energising civil society. Rituals such as clapping in India are nothing but nationally orchestrated spectacles of an assertion of sovereignty. Stigmatising fellow countries also play a role in this scheme of things. Ridicules are often nationally framed especially against a neighbour or a country that poses a potential threat.  For instance, myths of the virus as a ‘Chinese’ virus or an American-manufactured one are injected into the civil society so as to antagonise countries who already have very little love lost between them. These theories are perpetuated by ordinary people via social media, once again underscoring the role of the civil society in nationalism. There exist stark differences between nationalism in India and China and what is observed in Europe. The latter is a construct that flows from creating space for civilizations and a sense of national identity and spirit as opposed to artificially constructed nation-states’ notions of nationalism. India has had a long struggle of nationalism from the time of the freedom struggle against British colonisation and it has continued to be a strong popular feeling to this day. A point raised during the discussion was whether one can understand nationalism as distinct from democracy, and as something that does not threaten the latter’s existence. Nationalism does not necessarily have to mean that it requires an authoritarian leader at the helm and can instead be something organic, so to speak. When the idea of national identity is anchored in the history of civilizations, it was suggested, they do not need an autocratic or charismatic leader to have people rally around the concept of nationalism. India had a phase in its history when democracy was suspended and a state of emergency was imposed for almost two years. Yet that did not kill the national spirit which was ignited in the form of nationalist protest against that authoritarian project. Even prior to the pandemic, countries were questioning the kind of globalization that was taking place. What Covid-19 has done is accentuate a process that was already germinating. China's multiple responses during the pandemic have not particularly helped, it has only further exacerbated the need for countries to reevaluate their participation in a global process that is extremely skewed. It is imperative to consider new options that would give them some kind of protection should a similar situation arise again. Nationalism might be thought of as worrisome once it infringes on another nation's rights, liberties and sovereignties. When one is looking at countries where nationalism is still not at a stage where it is acquiring expansionist tendencies, perhaps nationalism has a very positive role to play. It does create a sense of oneness and unity and helps create what one would call a nation-state. The problem is that in the context of China - Chinese nationalism is expansionist- is China necessarily nationalist or is China doing what all great powers do? One must inspect the interplay between nationalism, democracy, and expansionism in attempting to answer these questions. There have been clear patterns and trends that have emerged across all of South Asia with the use of nationalism as an opportunity by certain populist leaders to consolidate their power and make foreign policy decisions boosting their domestic profile. In Pakistan for instance, Imran Khan found it difficult to keep up with the military’s involvement in Covid-related matters, and therefore created the Corona Tiger Force, a youth recruitment agency to fight jihad against the virus and boost public support. The takeaway from this discussion was that we are facing an increase in fervent populist nationalism that is stronger and sharper than it used to be around the world both in Asia and Europe.
  • Harsh V. Pant, Director, Studies and Head of the Strategic Studies Programme, ORF
  • Niranjan Sahoo, Senior Fellow, Governance and Politics Initiative
  • Kanchan Gupta, Distinguished Fellow, ORF
  • Nandan Unnikrishnan, Distinguished Fellow, ORF
  • Kriti Shah, Junior Fellow, Strategic studies
  • Premesha Saha, Associate Fellow, Strategic Studies
  • Sinisa Malesevic, Associate Member, CNS
  • Daniele Conversi, Senior Fellow, CNS
  • Senadin Musabegovic, Research Fellow, CNS
  • Zlatko Hadzidedic, Director, CNS

*Author of this report is Tara Rao, Research Intern, ORF Delhi
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