According to Prime Minister Scott Morrison, sovereignty is in, ideology is out. Well, he is half right.
Sovereignty is certainly making a comeback. End of ideology? Not so fast.
Let’s deal first with sovereignty.
The coronavirus crisis has only hastened what was already underway.
What is known as the global liberal order has endured a blowback in recent years, with a renewed emphasis on sovereignty leading to a more assertive nationalism.
Thirty years since American political scientist Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history” — the triumph of liberal democracy over communism ushering in an ascendant global capitalism — history has most definitely returned.
How does that work in reality?
Brexit was a rejection of centralised European power and a desire for Britain to forge its own destiny.
Donald Trump’s slogan, Make America Great Again, put American interests first. True to his word he has challenged the shibboleths of free trade and multilateralism.
Trump has pushed back against NATO partners demanding they pay their way. He brought on a trade war with China to correct what he saw as Beijing’s manipulation and exploitation. Simply: China was taking American jobs.
He pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord.
China itself is strongly nationalistic. Xi Jinping has fostered a “China against the world” narrative, reminding his people never to forget what is seen as 100 years of humiliation by foreign powers.
Xi has asserted China’s sovereignty in the disputed South China Sea, defying a ruling from an international tribunal in The Hague.
Elsewhere nationalist leaders are popular: Vladimir Putin in Russia; Viktor Orban in Hungary; Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey; Brazil’s President Jair Bolsomaro and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines.
A blowback against immigration has fuelled a resurgent political right wing across Europe.
Conservative or right-wing politics has certainly benefitted from the nationalism wave.
National sovereignty triggers concern about a return of a survival of the fittest mentality. At its worst, critics say virulent nationalism leads to war. Nazi Germany always held up as the prime example.
The need to belong
Yet nationalism has its defenders too. Israeli political scientist Yoram Hazony says nationalism speaks to a deep human need to belong.
In his book The Virtue of Nationalism, he writes:
“Each of us in fact wants and needs something else….collective self-determination: the freedom of the family tribe or nation”.
The post-Cold War cosmopolitan dream of a world without borders looks brittle right now. The coronavirus crisis has revealed the strength and weakness of nations.
Besieged Italians did not look to the European Union but their own government for answers. Americans need American solutions.
In Australia we have looked to our government not just to keep us safe but keep us afloat.
As philosopher Craig Calhoun writes in his book, Nations Matter: Culture, History and the Cosmopolitan Dream, at the outset “nationalism is not a moral mistake”.
As he says: “Nationalism helps locate an experience of belonging in a world of global flows and fears”.
Ideology is not vanquished
National sovereignty is back. But ideology is not vanquished.
Despite what Morrison says, Australia’s response to the coronavirus is ideological.
The Government has junked traditional Liberal Party free market ideas for state control.
Paying the wages of laid-off workers, free child care, rental support, all of this along with unprecedented intervention into the lives of Australians and erosion of freedom: police-enforced lockdown; social distancing.
The Government has run up debt and willingly gone into economic recession because that is what it deems necessary to fight the virus.
Libertarians and free marketeers are in fits. But they are on the losing end right now.
Neoliberalism, the dominant ideology of the past four decades has been in retreat, weakened by the global financial crisis: coronavirus could bury it.
Consider the words of the father of neoliberalism, Nobel Prize winning economist Friedrich Hayek. Social justice, he once said, was “a mirage”.
Hayek’s great disciple, former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher (she once produced her copy of Hayek’s Constitution of Liberty and proclaimed, “This is what we believe”) famously said there is “no such thing as society”.
Who would echo Hayek or Thatcher now?
A ‘post-American world’
A return of national sovereignty raises questions about what form that will take.
Italian scholar Gianpaolo Baiocchi reminds us “the political project of popular sovereignty is not an end state”.
The right’s version of sovereignty he says is a “parochial separateness” that “excludes others”.
Baiocchi warns that to some, sovereignty “implies closure, finality, borders, negation”.
Instead he talks of a people’s sovereignty. A political “we”.
It challenges Western nation colonial states to contend with sovereign political rights claims of Indigenous groups for instance.
The return of national sovereignty does not mean that the limits of that sovereignty are set.
The world order is being remade. It was before coronavirus, it is accelerated now.
Liberal democracy was already in retreat and authoritarianism on the rise. The increasing power of China was challenging American hegemony.
A decade ago, journalist and political thinker Fareed Zakaria said the “rise of the rest” could usher in a “post-American world”.
What the experts are saying about coronavirus:
- Trump’s doing what he does best: picking fights with his perceived enemies. But it’s the WHO’s opposition to travel bans that have upset Mr Trump the most
- If someone is infected with COVID-19, then the app will be used to notify those who they have been in contact with
A global order that centres national sovereignty requires us to chart new territory.
One hundred years ago the world was re-made after World War I.
Before he became British prime minister, David Lloyd George called the war “a deluge, a convulsion of nature … bringing unheard of changes to the social and industrial fabric”.
How true those words would be today.
Historian Adam Tooze, in his book The Deluge, says the break up of the Ottoman, Habsburg and Russian empires meant that “although sovereignty was multiplied, it was hollowed out”.
The one nation that emerged more powerful was the United States. By 1928 Tooze says, Hitler was warning against the growing American dominance.
He writes: “It was precisely the looming potential, the future dominance of American capitalist democracy that was the common factor impelling Hitler, Stalin, the Italian fascists and their Japanese counterparts to such radical action”.
World War I led to the Great Depression and ultimately to World War II; by 1945 Winston Churchill described the period as the second Thirty Years War.
Upheaval can breed upheaval. Changes to the global order take us into the unknown.
From the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; the 2008 global financial crash; the rise of China to now, the coronavirus crisis: old certainties have been shaken.
We are still a connected world. Globalism is not so easily unwound. Indeed, a global response is necessary in part to defeat the virus.
What will the post-coronavirus world look like? Do we take an authoritarian turn? Does government continue to play a bigger part in our lives? Does the state trump free markets?
As the end of World War I ushered in American dominance, does China emerge from this moment more powerful?
Nations matter. Sovereignty matters. Especially now. The Prime Minister is right about that. But don’t think for a moment ideology doesn’t matter too.
Stan Grant is the Vice Chancellor’s Chair of Australian/Indigenous Belonging at Charles Sturt University and a journalist.
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