Literary analysts and historians use the term “presentism” to refer to an intellectual exercise that uses interpretations of past history to validate contemporary political ideas and perspectives.
Seeing the past through our existing lenses carries the risk that we will view historical developments as a prelude to what is taking place now. The so-called “Whig history,” for example, presents Western history as an inevitable progression towards enlightenment, political liberty, religious freedom, and women’s rights, with liberal democracy being the culmination of this process.
There seems to be an element of this kind of presentism in the way that many liberal pundits today discuss what they see as the growing power of nationalism. There is particular alarm about the pushback against free trade and open immigration reflected in the rise of Trumpism in the United States as well as the electoral successes of right-wing political movements in Europe and elsewhere.
This critique tends to embrace the notion that these new nationalist forces are challenging the so-called post-war international order. It resembles the Whig interpretation of history in suggesting that the founders of post-1945 security and economic institutions—acting in the aftermath of the defeat of Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan—set out to transform the traditional international system that had come out of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. That old system was based on the principle of sovereignty and the right and obligation of national governments to pursue independent policies that would protect their national security and grow their economies.
Such presentist history assumes that the leaders of the victorious World War II powers, who created institutions such as the United Nations (UN), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), were the forerunners of today’s globalists. It suggests that the founders of these organizations of were idealist and internationalist statesmen committed to the principles of open markets, the free flow of people across borders, and the construction of supranational organizations that would erode the power of the nation-state.
Based on this interpretation, one could make the argument that what mostly worried U.S. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, French leader Charles de Gaulle, and their respective aides was the possible resurgence of nationalism in its various forms—including protectionism, nativism, and racism. These of course are seen by today’s globalists as the main threat to international peace and stability.
If you buy into this historical analysis, then it is easy to see President Trump in a certain light. He has challenged the notion that the nation-state will and should disappear sooner than later; demanded that the U.S. government take steps to protect its national sovereignty and economic interests by placing restrictions on immigration; pursued a national economic strategy; and questioned whether the commitment to antiquated multilateral security and economic institutions serves the U.S. national interest. From this viewpoint, it seems that Trump is violating the internationalist spirit that motivated the likes of Truman or Churchill and attempting to destroy the liberal international order they created.
There is an almost manic onslaught against “nationalism” launched by today’s proponents of globalism, who advocate increases in immigration, free trade, the lowering of tariffs, military interventionism in the name of protecting human rights, and the many forms of global governance that evolved after the end of the Cold War and China’s entry into the global economy. Meanwhile, there is little mention of the notion that the international order should provide governments with the power to protect their nation’s sovereignty.
Much of this flawed analysis has been integrated into an idealized history of World War II, which sometimes creates the impression that the United States entered into the war as part of an international liberal crusade (and in order to liberate the Nazi concentration camps). Yet this ignores the fact that the U.S. was responding to an attack on the homeland by Japan, and disregards the inconvenient truth that Americans allied with the one leading world dictatorship, the Soviet Union, in order to defeat the other one, Nazi Germany.
At the same time, the post-World War II international arrangements involved the United States and the Soviet Union dividing Europe into spheres of influence; the establishment of an international security organization, the UN, where the great powers maintained veto power through the Security Council; and the formation of two military alliances, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, to maintain this new balance of power. All of this had more to do with protecting strategic interests than with advancing an international liberal agenda.
Ironically, much of what the UN engaged in during the first two decades of its existence had to do with the destruction of the most powerful supranational institutions of the time, the Western imperial systems, while supporting national movements in the Third World in achieving their goal of creating new nation-states.
Similarly, the initial steps taken to foster cooperation in Western Europe was part of an effort to encourage economic collaboration between nation-states—and diffuse the tensions between the two most powerful states by forming a Franco-German duopoly.
More importantly, contrary to the presentist history embraced by the globalists, the main lesson of the political and economic developments that led to World War II, a military conflagration that destroyed many national economies, was not the need to celebrate free trade as a universal principle. There was a consensus that promoting international trade could increase economic prosperity under certain conditions. But as political scientist John Ruggie pointed out, the new order was based on the assumption that governments needed the capacity to intervene to ensure equitable allocation of economic gains. In practice, this meant providing workers with social protections against inequalities and excesses of the market. Similarly, the IMF was created in order to help governments manage balance of payments difficulties that had the potential to develop into financial crises.
Indeed, the focus of the post-war project was to strengthen and not to weaken national governments in pursuing liberal-democratic principles along the lines of the welfare state, while preventing domestic economic and political problems that could ignite economic downturns and political disorder of the kind that engulfed Germany’s Weimar Republic and other European nations in the 1930s.
As the leading Western military and economic power and a global superpower, it was in the interest of the United States to help create and sustain this international project. Covering the costs of doing that, even if that meant subsidizing military allies and treating unfair trade practices with benign neglect, was consistent with the national interest and helped expand the U.S. economy and raise its citizens’ living standards.
From that perspective, what is being described as the rise of nationalism in the West reflects sentiments among citizens that their governments and elites should return to the original strategy of the post-war project, which included a good deal of economic nationalism and restraint in the use of military power. This reaction basically summarizes what Trumpism is all about.
Communist-party intellectual Nikolai Bukharin is recalled today for his 1920s plea to Soviet leaders to move away from the Marxist position that socialism must be established globally. Bukharin argued that the Soviet Union should strengthen itself domestically and turn toward national communism. It was called “Communism in One Country.”
In the aftermath of the expensive Cold War, Western countries had a chance to consolidate liberal democracy at home, rebuild their economies, and reassess global commitments. But the political and intellectual classes in the United States and Europe, backed by government technocrats and business executives, adopted globalism as the new governing policy. They are now facing pressures from voters to switch gears and focus on the nation-state as the primary tool for achieving political legitimacy and growing the economy—in other words, to commit themselves to the principle of “Liberal Democracy in One Country.”
Leon Hadar is a senior analyst with Wikistrat, a geo-strategic consulting firm, and teaches international relations at the University of Maryland, College Park.