This week’s feature piece explores nationalism’s impact on domestic politics, the global economy, global security dynamics, and international institutions. Overall, the rise of nationalism has had adverse effects on international relations. As states turn inward, the global landscape becomes economically and politically fragmented. This has led to concerns for international security and stability. At the same time, the ability of international institutions to foster peace and cooperation is eroding under the pressures of nationalism. These effects are especially significant at a time where the world faces challenges that require international cooperation and coordination to overcome.

As nationalism heightens tensions between states, it also undermines the ability of institutions to foster cooperation and peace. Today, the rise of nationalism is forcing leaders across the world to confront  the tension between domestic politics and foreign policy. More often than not, they are opting for domestic politics. A consequence of rising nationalism across nation-states is that it is forcing leaders to act only domestically, as they perceive that far-flung, ambiguous foreign policy is not a priority for their electorates. In a world full of competing nationalisms, the landscape for interstate cooperation and global governance is deeply fractured. This damaged environment for international cooperation has grave ramifications for the international institutions that lie at the heart of global governance.

The onslaught on international institutions expresses itself in varying fashions. We see the threats to global institutions are often overt, but they can often be extremely subtle. This section quickly reviews some of the overt acts contributing to institutional erosion, owing to rising nationalism. It further looks  at some of the future  implications of fragmented geopolitics and how rising nationalism is reducing the potential for global governance.

In the past few years, nothing has led to the erosion of international institutions as much as Donald Trump in the United States, whose election to President can be attributed to nationalism. It is deeply ironic because the institutions currently under attack were created by the United States in the post-war period, to reflect its values and the world order according to America’s national interests. Under Trump, United States is officially seeking to reduce its aid to the United Nations by a whopping $285 million. Under the official UN Charter, the US is responsible for 22% of the body’s annual operating budget. Trump is also working to pull out the US of UNESCO. In 2018, the share of refugees is higher than it has ever been since 1945. UNRWA takes on an even more important position in such a situation. The US decision to hold back $65 million of a promised $125 million payment to the organization worsens the  global refugee crisis. With all its faults, the UN and its satellite organizations continues to be the cornerstone of global cooperation. American efforts to undermine the organization reduces American foreign policy influence and weakens the prospects for international cooperation.

Donald Trump has eroded international institutions and the potential for global cooperation. Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Furthermore, America has officially moved out of the Paris Climate Deal severely endangering the future prospects of climate governance. The United States accounts for the second highest share of greenhouse gases emissions globally. Its withdrawal from the climate deal not only challenges America’s global leadership role, but is also a direct attack on the fight against climate change. At the NATO summit, Trump refused to officially state America’s unwavering support for “Article 5” of the NATO Charter. Article 5 is a binding clause that compels each NATO member to treat a security threat on any member state as its own security threat. Trump’s refusal to state America’s support for Article 5 severely undermines the post-war security architecture of the Western world. It has compelled states such as France, Germany and the UK to seek for alternative security arrangements. At worst, this is making the Baltic States deeply insecure about Russian aggression.

A decade ago, the key concern raised by developing states was reforming international institutions in order to reflect the changed global power distribution. In contrast, today the rising powers are less interested in reforming the institutions, and more interested in establishing a completely new set of institutions. Powers like China, India and Russia are cases in point.

The global leadership vacuum left by the United States is being partially filled by a rising China and other BRICS powers. The concern with this development is two-fold. Firstly, with institutions such as Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Contingent Reserve Agreement (CRA), and China International Payments Systems (CIPS), the only alternative form of global governance being provided is strictly economic in nature. Although global economic leadership is welcome, it is by no means sufficient to deal with the challenges faced by the world today. Absence of any real global political leadership is resulting in what political scientist Ian Bremmer has termed the “G-Zero World.” In a G-Zero world, the absence of global leadership has the potential to affect geopolitical fault lines and make them worse. The unchecked rise of ISIS and the ongoing wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya are cases in point.

The flag of the United Nations, the global forum for international cooperation. Photo by Sanjit Bakshi, via Flickr Creative Commons.

Furthermore, this new set of institutions is not being built without a cost. These institutions are likely to lead to added transaction costs, forum shopping and limited membership. These institutions are far more limited in their scope of membership, which has a profound cost and risks instability. The consequence of this phenomenon is institutional fragmentation, which is in turn giving rise to global regulatory complexity. Rising regulatory complexity makes the system intrinsically more unstable.

Absence of international cooperation, coupled with a rapidly changing world, leads to some of the biggest concerns for global governance at-large. While nationalism across nation-states is compelling states to look more inward than in the past, a new technological revolution is on its way. Technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, automation, autonomous weapons, and cyber warfare are not limited to one sovereign state. Their proliferation and impact is likely to be transnational in nature. In times of such profound technological shift, states should ideally be cooperating and setting up institutions to develop the regulatory framework governing these technologies. Unfortunately, the absence of such cooperation raises massive risks of disruption, inter-state conflict regarding these technologies and at worse, misuse by non-state actors.

“In a world full of competing nationalisms, the landscape for interstate cooperation and global governance is deeply fractured. This damaged environment for international cooperation has grave ramifications for the international institutions that lie at the heart of global governance.”

Much like economics, geopolitics features cyclical logic. With the relative American decline and a rising China, Pax Americana is nearing its end. Such shifts in systemic polarity have historically been marked with reduced interstate cooperation and geopolitical chaos. The tide of rising nationalism is exacerbating the crisis of international cooperation. While the post-war American institutional architecture is unable to meet the rising demands of global governance, the new set of institutions created by China are not entirely inclusive and have the potential of generating fresh interstate conflicts. In a world challenged by such profound change, it has become more important than ever that leaders across nation-states look beyond their narrow nationalist interests and invest in global cooperation. It is imperative that they collectively work to reform existing international institutions in a way that succeeds in meeting today’s changing demands for global governance.

Read more of this series: Domestic Politics, the Economy, and International Security.

The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and they do not reflect the position of the McGill Journal of Political Studies or the Political Science Students’ Association.

Feature Photo by Penn State, via Flickr Creative Commons.