Where Are All These Globalists I Keep Reading About?

There’s a new scholarly journal out there called American Affairs. Eliana Johnson of Politico describes it as “a journal of public policy and political philosophy with an eye toward laying the intellectual foundation for the Trump movement.” Many people in the Trump movement purport to be in favor of “nationalism” over “globalism,” so you can imagine the journal will have some things to say about this topic. In the mission statement, the editors note the following:

We are said to live in a “globalized” world. Yet the most conspicuous global phenomenon of the present time would appear to be the resurgence of nationalism, in the United States as well as in Europe and Asia. What is the future of nations and nationalism, and what are the consequences of further separating political sovereignty from the existing political community of the nation-state? Is further “globalization” both inevitable and desirable? Can nationalism be leavened by justice—or even be essential to it—rather than being abandoned to its worst expressions?

And in the first issue, nationalism vs. globalism gets some prominent discussion. Georgetown political science professor Joshua Mitchell has a piece called “A Renewed Republican Party,” in which he talks about the “repudiation of globalism” in the 2016 election:

What term, then, should Republicans use to name the repudiation of globalism during the recent historic election? There will be a division, I suspect, along the lines we saw during the painful run-up to the 2016 election itself. On the one hand, Republicans who sided with globalists on the issue of commerce or who had a low estimation of American culture will indeed call what has happened a populist revolt. On the other hand, Republicans who think that globalism has not only been a disaster for the whole of the America but also that it is theoretically untenable will—or should—call what has happened a revolt in the name of national sovereignty, not populism.

Now, I’m not convinced that Trump really is the nationalist he plays on the campaign trail, or that his supposedly nationalist advisers are either. (The way they reach out to like-minded people in the UK, France, Germany and Russia seems kind of, well, globalist. Maybe it’s not really a repudiation of globalism they are after, but rather a different kind of globalism.)

Regardless, that’s the narrative going on right now: nationalism vs. globalism. And not suprisingly, this talking point has made the leap to a full-fledged academic fad, as evidenced by the creation of the American Affairs journal.

But what I keep wondering is: where are all these globalists that we are supposed to be afraid of? Mitchell tells us that American citizens want “their towns, counties, cities, states, and country” back. But back from whom? Who exactly has taken these things from us?

Reading the Mitchell piece, I was left without any clear answers to this question. He offered a few suggestions, but nothing concrete. In his view, “global elites” have used “the apparatus of the state” to push globalist initiatives which take power from the nation-state:

The post-1989 experiment with globalism and identity politics demonstrates that Hobbes was correct, so long ago, that supra- and sub-state sovereignty are perennial temptations of the human heart. The post-1989 version of that temptation saw global elites use the apparatus of the state to bolster so-called free trade, international law, global norms, and international accords about “climate change,” the advances towards which purported to demonstrate the impotence of the state itself. In such a world managed from above, the only task left for the Little People was to feel good—or feel permanent shame—about their identities, and perhaps to get involved in a little “political activism” now and again, to show their commitment (on Facebook, of course) to “social justice.” 

This argument fits solidly within the narrative about globalism, but it is almost completely devoid of any factual basis. Here’s the thing about trade agreements, international law, global norms, and environmental accords: they have an extremely limited impact on American sovereignty.

Now, I can understand why someone not familiar with international law and agreements might think there has been some massive loss of sovereignty, as people who don’t know the details often make this claim, and others then repeat it. But if you take the time to read the texts of international agreements, you will quickly see how limited their scope is. Often there is no enforcement mechanism at all in these arrangements, but even where there is, enforcement is pretty weak. The United States has not signed on to any arrangement with an international prosecutor who can put Americans in a global jail. So here’s what those who fear globalism need to understand: globalism has not taken your governing power. You still have it.

Of course, if you want to debate the precise contours of global rules and institutions, that’s fine. We should be careful with delegating power to international or supra-national bodies. But don’t delude yourself into thinking there is some big global power center out there, undermining American sovereignty. It just doesn’t exist.

(Now, if you are European, I can see how the facts are different. The EU involves supra-national institutions that do have a significant amount of power. Europeans should definitely have a vigorous debate about how they want power allocated across various levels of governance.)

Turning back to the Mitchell article, here he is weighing in on what the thinks trade agreements do: 

Trump’s critics have informed us that there is no way to avoid this inevitable consequence of globalization if there is to be “improvement”—Adam Smith’s favorite word in The Wealth of Nations—and a global increase in the standards of living. Protectionism will not solve this problem; it will make things worse. In our own day, however, the seemingly simple opposition between protectionism and “free trade” has become blurry. NAFTA is hundreds of pages long; the TPP is ten times that large. The remarkable thing that has happened in our own day is that these “free trade” agreements are in fact a new form of protectionism. That is, they involve endless stipulations, enforced by the state and often promulgated by self-interested global corporations themselves, which protect those very corporations because smaller enterprises seldom have the compliance staff necessary to adhere to, let alone understand, those stipulations. For us today, so-called free trade is not opposed to protectionism; it is a species of it. Globalization, to put the matter otherwise, involves not the supersession and growing irrelevance of the state, but the close alliance between growing state bureaucracies and large corporations—the name for which is crony capitalism. …

This gets the situation almost completely backwards. Protectionism is, inherently, about crony capitalism. Well-connected companies go to their national government with requests for protection from competition, which the government often grants. This transfers wealth from all consumers to a few corporations and expands the power and role of government as well. Protectionism is the epitome of big and corrupt government.

Trade agreements try to take this on, and overall have done a pretty good job. When governments can agree amongst themselves not to give in to crony capitalism, we the people are much better off.

Now, these agreements are not perfect, and yes, some companies and NGOs have been able to use trade agreements as a tool for pursuing their particular interests (strong intellectual property protection, labor rights, etc). I’m not going to defend these aspects of trade agreements. I’ll just say that we should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

So how do we respond to this apparent movement to intellectualize Trumpism, with its argument that nationalism is superior to globalism? My focus here has been putting the burden on this movement to show that globalism actually has an impact on American sovereignty, and to push people to understand what the global governance rules actually say.

By contrast, an approach I would not recommend is the response to Mitchell offered by Anne-Marie Slaughter:

Feelings of being disconnected and despised, however, are powerful emotions, strong enough to twist facts into a dark alternate reality. It is critical to look beyond a simple story of populism, of masses versus elites. A narrative of grounded, connected nationalism versus sanctimonious free-floating globalism is one that will generate support and staying power even among many well-educated people.

The right response is not to deny the existence or legitimacy of a desire to stay grounded amid tumultuous change, or love of country and culture, much less to look down on the less educated. It is to build a new narrative of patriotism, culture, connection, and inclusion. Even if Wilders lost this month and Le Pen loses in May, they and their supporters will not be going away.

I am puzzled by the suggestion that there is an effort “to deny the existence or legitimacy of a desire to stay grounded amid tumultuous change, or love of country and culture,” or “to look down on the less educated.” Perhaps this is happening at the margins, but mainly what I see is outrage over the rise of neo-fascist nationalists around the world. Hopefully, we can at least come together and repudiate this.

Putting that aside, I take her point to be that we need to fight Trumpist nationalism with some other form of nationalism. In my view, however, competing visions of nationalism are not the answer here. Slaughter’s nationalism-lite will not be an effective response to Mitchell’s industrial strength nationalism.

What we need instead is an informed debate about how power should be allocated at the local, national and global level, and a discussion of the proper role of global governance and institutions. What will become clear is that Americans have control over their towns, counties, cities, states, and country. The question is, what do they want to do with that control? So far, the answer from Trump and his purported nationalist supporters has been pretty vague, and also far from unified. To the extent there is anything they actually want to achieve, they may want to start now. Because pretty soon, their supporters will start to realize there aren’t really any globalists out there to fear, and the people they elected are not doing anything for the nation they claim to love so much.