Understanding the rise of nationalism in hot spots around the world

May 24, 2017

Bashar al-Assad, Brexit, Brazil. Le Pen, anti-immigrant hostilities, the Trump-Putin “bromance.” Such disruptions provided fertile ground this past academic year for Watson scholars to dig deep and explore the local, regional, and global implications of illiberalism’s rise.

Earlier this year, the #WatsonElections series focused on the U.S. presidential election. Later, programs on China, Brazil, Syria, and South Africa, among other nations, engaged the community. Now, programming comes full circle, with the upcoming Commencement Weekend conversation, “The Constitution, Conflicts of Interest and the Presidency,” featuring Ambassador (ret) Norm Eisen ’85, former Special Counsel for Ethics and Government Reform in Obama’s administration.

We must compare illiberalism across countries, systems, and times, says Watson Institute Director Edward Steinfeld. “I once [assumed] that the post-World War II status of the countries of North America and the European Union were and will forever be liberal democracies, [but] that’s not the politics we’re in now.”

While liberal governments hold individuals’ rights essential, Steinfeld says, non-liberal (he prefers the term to “illiberal”) governments focus on larger communal outcomes.

Trump’s election and Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment represent the same right-wing ascension, says James Green, Brazil Institute director. Rousseff spoke at Brown about the relationship between Brazil’s contemporary political situation and its racial and social inequality. The Brazil Initiative also presented a lecture, “Right-Wing Backlash in Brazil.”

That backlash, says Green, is related to displaced Middle Eastern and African refugees entering Europe, Trump’s working-class white support, and Europe’s decline as a unified economic power. Such phenomena arose from the world economy’s restructuring and the 2008 financial crisis’ lingering effects, which, Green says, inspire many societal sectors to seek radical solutions.

Comparing rapid urbanization in contemporary China, India, and the United States, for example, is an outgrowth of Watson’s regionally structured institutes; comparative analyses, says Steinfeld, create new ways of framing the world. So does Watson’s work on demographic changes that, coupled with revolutionary technological changes, create masses of disaffected peoples.

Without the global perspective, people might view their nation’s issues as unique, says Green, but economies, ideas, and political movements are global.

Narges Bajoghli, a postdoctoral research associate in international relations and a panelist on Middle East Studies’ “Trump’s Ban: A Teach-In,” calls Watson “particularly wonderful,” where scholars from around the world seamlessly engage in meaningful conversations, contribute to programs, and conduct research reinforcing ideas’ cross-fertilization.

Green agrees. Students’ learning here complements their courses. “Given the diversity of scholars [at Watson] … students can acquire a comprehensive understanding of the world that is essential for anyone living in a country that has such a global reach."

“Given the diversity of scholars [at Watson] … students can acquire a comprehensive understanding of the world that is essential for anyone living in a country that has such a global reach."

The Teach-In provided historical perspective on Trump’s proposed immigrant travel ban. Students were inspired by understanding challenges to former President Ronald Reagan’s deportation initiatives, former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and, today, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, says Bajoghli. By examining what worked, what didn’t and the policies’ rationale, we’re better prepared to respond effectively to current threats, she adds.

That many populist candidates from the United States, France, and India, for example, don’t seem to represent a traditional perspective suggests regime change, Steinfeld says. “There are positive aspirational possibilities in some [non-liberal governments], but others are all about humiliation, anger, and retribution. Those are usually associated with xenophobia … we see aspects of that in the United States and Europe.”  

Norm Eisen (in an interview conducted late last month) characterizes the United States’ current national populism as an ideology of hate. Divisive rhetoric against migrants and Muslims is morally offensive, he says, and harms our nation’s low-wage migrant workers, universities, research initiatives, and efforts to gain international support against ISIS.

The kleptocracy – typical in many Middle Eastern, African, and Latin American governments – Trump embraces, troubles Eisen.

Nevertheless, Eisen is cautiously optimistic that “checks and balances are working. That’s the genius of our Founding Fathers,” and heartened by energetic pushback – through litigation, judicial decisions, and protests – against several Trump proposals.  

Eisen would counsel our concerned allies, “Be patient … It’s not that easy to undo all of the might and moral majesty of the United States ….”

Watson’s commitment to world-class research and teaching requires free, open, and reasoned debate about problems that we all want to solve, says Steinfeld. “We …  can have different perspectives and learn in the process.”

– Nancy Kirsch

Commencement Forum ─ The Constitution, Conflicts of Interest, and the Presidency
Saturday, May 27, 2017 9 a.m. – 10 a.m.
Joukowsky Forum - Watson Institute - 111 Thayer Street