On October 26, 1929, Albert Einstein gave a famous interview to The Saturday Evening Post in an article entitled, “What Life Means to Einstein.” Interestingly, the interview was published concurrently with the global stock market crash of 1929. Also interesting, the interviewer was George Sylvester Viereck, a pro-Nazi, German-American writer who, a short decade later, would go on to be indicted and imprisoned during World War II as a Nazi agent.
In the interview, Einstein touched on many subjects – science, democracy, America, Zionism, capitalism – but his most emotional comment was on nationalism. Viereck asked, “Do you look upon yourself as a German or a Jew?” Einstein replied, “…both. I look upon myself as a man. Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”
Today, like then, nationalism is making its rounds. In the Middle East, Europe, Russia, China, Japan, and even the U.S., the spirit of nationalism is alive and well and is now dominating the global political process.
The faltering global economy, the refugee and immigration crises, the fear from global terrorism – all can easily explain the rise. As countries seek security in their national heritages, they inevitably move towards xenophobia, ethnicity, and sectarianism.
In France, the usually obscure right-wing National Front party, not so surprisingly, gained the most votes in the country’s recent elections. The Russian economy is in shambles, yet Vladimir Putin is riding a patriotic wave of popularity that most western politicians would envy. Japan has overturned its long standing constitutional pacifism. With its repeal of the ban on collective self-defense, a prohibition in place since the end of World War II, bitter memories are stirring for China as Japan returns to militaristic nationalism.
Even the fundamentalist ISIS movement claims an extreme version of sectarian nationalism.
And nationalism is not just infecting the world’s major powers. It now has significant followings in most countries across the globe – Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela, Iceland, Thailand, and Hungary, to name a few.
Viktor Mihály Orbán, the Prime Minister of Hungary is setting out to rebuild a more centralized state reminiscent of Hungary’s Cold War era. Once an anti-communist fighter, Orban now views democracy, with its diverse and divided interests, as the reason for political stalemate. “The export of Western democracy has failed… It’s time for realpolitik. The era based on the export of democracy and human rights is coming to an end.”
The master of realpolitik, Otto von Bismarck, German statesman and extreme nationalist of the mid-1800s, would not have said it any better. And this is the concern now of pacifists and idealists around the globe.
Nationalism has a dreadful track record. Each time it has surfaced, it has brought death and destruction, fueling outbreaks of global conflict four times in the last four centuries. Europe’s Thirty Years’ War in the 1600s, the American and French Revolutions in the late 1700s, the American Civil War and the European wars of unification in the mid-1800s, and finally, the World Wars in the early1900s. It’s no wonder Einstein likened nationalism to a pandemic.
Post-World War II, the “Superpower” order was constructed to inhibit the future rise of nationalism. But global and regional power institutions such as the UN, EU, and NATO now seem helpless as renewed obsession with national identity takes hold. Nations are moving to protect their citizens against threats from the global economy and outside cultures.
With the Superpowers – the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. – there was a rule of order above the national sovereign level. Now without the regulating effect of the Cold War, anarchy governs the geopolitical relationships of state and non-state actors throughout the world. Also adding to the confusion are the sheer numbers of divergent factions making alignment of interests difficult, at best. Take Syria for example.
Tragic is nationalism’s propensity to spread with its negative feedback loop. As the downward spiral gains momentum and fear grows, more and more people turn inward towards their national uniqueness, forcing an even greater jingoistic response. This phenomenon is now being witnessed within the U.S. presidential campaigns. The candidates cry for more and more extreme nationalistic policies, their polling numbers increase and the threats abroad suddenly grow stronger. The resurgence of nationalism cannot be blamed on, nor is it particular to, the right or the left. It is happening on both sides of the political party divide.
Along with the rise of nationalism are the rise of realism and the fall of idealism. The history of the last five centuries reveals that idealism is most prevalent following a period of horrific global conflict as a brave new world emerges. Realism, on the other hand, seems most relevant as orders die and the world moves ever closer to the brink of global war’s next abyss. As the transition from idealism to realism ensues, mistakes in leadership are made, actions and reactions are incorrectly anticipated, and flawed assumptions force policymakers down errant paths. History is replete with these examples.
When world order begins to fray, it is only the height of naiveté that can possibly allow for a world view through the lenses of idealism. Societies in danger are like individuals in danger: they will do whatever they need to do to survive. As anarchy spreads and security becomes more oblique, indiscriminating power grabs will continue to spark conflict until the fire is finally ignited.
Mankind has failed again, nationalism has incubated, and there is no containing it unless global economic and physical security threats suddenly dissipate. Since peaceful solutions seem far off, nationalism is likely to run its dreaded course once again.
As the Nazi terror rolled across Europe’s center stage in the late 1930s, even Einstein would eventually lose his pacifism. Einstein immigrated to the safety of the U.S. and would go on to help with America’s war efforts. Ironically, it was Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt in August of 1939 which ultimately led to America’s push for the atomic bomb.
Christopher Petitt is the author of the book, The Crucible of Global War: And the Sequence that is Leading Back to It. It is available for sale at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com and for order at bookstores everywhere.