Wake Up, Globalization Fans: In a Pandemic, Nation-states Are at Their Best

In a crisis that demands solidarity and sacrifice, within a society based on true democracy, it's clear which political frameworks will deliver – and it's not what historian Yuval Noah Harari is selling us

A man wearing a mask passing before a screen displaying a propaganda image (top), on a street in Beijing, April 20, 2020
Propaganda projected on a Beijing street, in April. China is clearly not becoming a responsible partner in a liberal global village, based on universal human rights.Credit: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP
Gadi Taub
Gadi Taub
Gadi Taub
Gadi Taub

When the gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic crisis began to come into focus, casting a shadow on global horizons, world-famous Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari rushed to print a series of articles in an effort to steady our resolve. We need to be careful, Harari warned, not to draw the wrong conclusion from the outbreak of the pandemic.

While there are borders that need to be strengthened, he said, such as those between viruses and humans, it would be a mistake to reinforce borders between nations. The answer to the coronavirus, in Prof. Harari's opinion, lies in greater global cooperation, especially in the joint efforts of the international scientific community – not in a return to atavistic divisions.

Harari, a worldwide best-selling author is, perhaps, the most widely known ideologue of the new, progressive neoliberal globalism. And he was right to be worried. Because the dream of a "global village" on which internationalist elites have staked their political and economic fortunes is now in jeopardy. But his eloquent defense of globalism, with all the beautiful ringing phrases we have come to expect from him, published just as the world was turning its attention to China and Italy, seemed strangely out of step.

The growing crisis had not only shown that epidemics have been globalized along with almost everything else, it also offered a ready metaphor for other dangers globalism had brought into its fold: China is clearly not becoming a responsible partner in a liberal global village, based on universal human rights. Rather the Chinese Communist Party, the most murderous regime in the history of mankind, has been using the post-Cold War international order in order to steal technology, oppress minorities, bully smaller nations, pollute the environment and run roughshod over anything that stands in its way to global hegemony. The coronavirus and the web of lies around it have reminded us whom we are dealing with.

A man walks next to a mural showing an image of the Chinese Communist Party's emblem along a street in Shanghai, China September 25, 2019. Credit: ALY SONG/Reuters

Italy, meanwhile, seemed to offer a complementary metaphor about international institutions: They can't be trusted to help the afflicted. As the pandemic ravaged the country, the world press was full of stories about how its fellow European Union member states turned their backs on Italy and scrambled to hide their own medical supplies, contrary to their EU obligations.

Harari had little to say about the conduct and future of the EU, or about how the Chinese totalitarian regime had deceived the world by, among other things, leveraging its influence on the World Health Organization, and by withholding information until it was too late: Flights departed Wuhan for the rest of the world after domestic flights from the city were stopped. Instead the historian focused his wrath on Donald Trump, the first American leader to seriously challenge China since 1972.

Trump's America First policy, said Harari, exemplified the bad old idea of national egotism. In response to Trump's halting U.S. support to the WHO, Harari announced he personally would donate $1 million to the organization. The proper response to the pandemic, his Twitter account announced, is a show of "global solidarity and generosity."

In articles in the Hebrew press, he also berated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was using the pandemic, Harari claimed – wrongly, it turned out – to turn Israel into a dictatorship. It turns out that China's dictatorship bothered Harari less.

A police officer gestures at a photographer as people line up to get a nucleic acid test after a spike of cases of coronavirus, in Beijing, China June 17, 2020. Credit: THOMAS PETER/ REUTERS

This is not the first time that he has chosen to accommodate dictatorships. He infamously replaced his criticism of Vladimir Putin with criticism of Trump in the Russian edition of his blockbuster book "21 Lessons for the 21st Century."

But this time not only Harari's moral credentials were on the line. This time his views of politics and history were also put to the test, and it can be said they have stood it very well. If you want to defend globalism from the coronavirus pandemic, though, you have to do better than that. It is not enough to conflate Western nationalism with egotism while ignoring the bullies that are taking advantage of the neoliberal global order.

If you're serious you would need to explain why international institutions have failed us so badly in stopping China's egotism, and why so many people turned instinctively to rely on to the nation-state, which the internationalists have been casting in the role of villain since the end of World War II.

A medical worker conducts nucleic acid testings for residents in Wuhan, China, May, 2020. Credit: ALY SONG/ REUTERS

Loyalty and altruism

It turns out that people have good reasons for turning to the nation-state in such a crisis. The first is solidarity. National societies are able to evoke altruism and self-sacrifice among their citizens. Sadly, larger collectives, such as "humanity" or "Europe," have so far not been able to do the same. For nations are, as Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony's "The Virtue of Nationalism" has recently reminded us, like extended families: They are bound by ties of "mutual loyalty."

The second reason to turn to nation-states, one that is even harder for neoliberal internationalists to acknowledge, is democracy. So far nation-states have proven to be the most effective vehicle for people – and peoples – to exercise control over their common fate. Self-determination – perhaps better described as self-sovereignty – is not a singular act of creation at the birth of independence; it is a continuous form of collective action. Democracy is nothing if not the framework for exercising self-sovereignty.

This seems to be lost on contemporary liberals. In the false dichotomy neoliberalism has imposed on our political discourse there are two opposing poles: On the left there are abstract, universal individual human rights, and opposite them, on the right, there is jingoistic blood-and-soil nationalism, which is all but synonymous with fascism.

People drink outside a bar during the reopening phase following the coronavirus outbreak in the East Village in New York, June 12, 2020. Credit: JEENAH MOON/ REUTERS

This misleading picture is habitually found in Israeli discourse too, in every second op-ed by Profs. Zeev Sternhell and Mordechai Kremnitzer as well as among their many allies. The dichotomy falsely implies that democracy is somehow automatically on the side of individual human rights. We rarely pause to notice, however, that the more human rights have wedded themselves to internationalism, in the admirable cause of promoting universal humanism, the less they have been able to explain how people could hold their leaders to account, or control their own political fortunes.

It turns out that transcending nationalism also means transcending democracy. The EU , for example, though liberal, exercises much power over the lives of people who do not feel it takes their political will into account. Or consider the International Criminal Court in The Hague: Clearly intended to embody liberal values and uphold the universality of human rights, it nevertheless defies the first principle of democracy: government with the consent of the governed.

This trend had also shrunk our concept of liberty. On this view, it seems to mean something like Isaiah Berlin's "negative liberty": freedom from external coercion. But when left alone humans are not free. Alone we are helpless and defenseless. We can be free only within a society and we are the freest when we can take part in charting the course of the collective of which we are a part. This is why democracy, rooted in national solidarity, has been able to turn us from subject into citizen, anchoring liberty in sovereignty. And what this means, to the chagrin of internationalists, is that, through the medium of democracy, solidarity is the precondition of liberty.

Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari, speaking in Beijing, in July, 2017. Instead of criticizing China's totalitarian regime during the crisis, he's focused his wrath on Trump.Credit: VCG via Getty Images

The coronavirus crisis has reminded us why in times of distress we cling to the nation-state, its government and its borders to protect us. Because nations are bound by solidarity and can demand that their citizens exercise caution not just to protect themselves, but also to protect others. In the context of solidarity moral behavior is derived from something more than enlightened self-interest. And thus such societies can expect genuine altruism of their citizens.

The EU, it now seems abundantly clear, has failed to produce such bonds of mutual loyalty. And this is why it didn't take its various member states long to revert to shutting down their national borders: In a crisis that demands sacrifice for the sake of others, everyone seemed to know what political frameworks can be expected to deliver.

By contrast, globalist neoliberalism – whose purveyors today call themselves “the progressive left” – is not just unable to offer a framework for solidarity. It has in fact mutated into a form of individualism so extreme as to reject the very idea of solidarity. Pivoting around 1968, or thereabouts, the left, all across the West, has taken a momentous turn from class solidarity (which failed) to personal self-realization – from Marx to Nietzsche, from communism to existentialism.

America first

Not surprisingly America took the lead, because the turn was seemingly the most natural there: In America socialism never found a comfortable home among the working class, and individualism was its homegrown creed. It is therefore no surprise that Reaganism eventually replaced the framework of the New Deal, in 1980. What we tend to forget is that the individualist revolution had already taken place on the other side of the spectrum when the 1960s New Left replaced the Old Left's quest for class solidarity with a quest for personal authenticity. So that when Reagan stepped into the ring, he found no serious opponent.

If anything, the left's individualism was more extreme than the right's. The American right, though strongly wedded to the free market, as well as to the old Emersonian ideal of the self-made man, still had the traditional checks of conservatism to circumscribe its rugged individualism: the trinity of God, Country and Family. The left rejected all three. We may therefore say that what we now call leftism is not an attack on individualism but the very opposite: an attack on the remaining checks the right has to restrain it. It has therefore become a rejection of solidarity.

A cadet graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point stands amidst the coronavirus pandemic, June 13, 2020. Credit: MIKE SEGAR/ REUTERS

One may of course object and say that the contemporary left has enlarged the circles of solidarity to include, beyond class, race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. But in practice the whole trend not only balkanizes class solidarity, it also produces an emphasis on the symbolic at the expense of the political. It offers symbolic quotas in elite jobs and institutions, and individualistic experimentation in self-styled transgressions of gender boundaries. This is not something we should expect to appeal to workers who have lost their jobs to China and are now constantly berated by their would-be betters for their backwardness. "Clingers," Barack Obama called them. "Deplorables," his anointed successor, Hillary Clinton, echoed.

But despite constant attempts to delegitimize them as xenophobes, homophobes, Islamophobes and, of course racists, a growing number of citizens have come to understand what is at stake in the struggle over globalism: their civil rights, their citizenship, which is to say, democracy itself. Elites who seek to dismantle the nation-state under the guise of curing us from atavistic nationalism are really dismantling democracy's political apparatus, which is all that stands between the mass of citizens and the reversion to the status of subjects.

But the masses stubbornly see themselves not as enemies of democracy but as the only force that can save it from the globalist dreams of elites. Indeed, the dream of a single global village has always looked better from airport business lounges than from working-class neighborhoods ravaged by unemployment, and transformed into foreign countries for their indigenous inhabitants by illegal immigration (which has also depressed wages in local markets). The globalist dream seems to them more like a nightmare. The very rich may become "citizens of the world" but the rest of us would become subject of nowhere, under international managerial elites.

A woman wearing a mask walks by a Louis Vuitton store, Thursday, June 11, 2020, in New York's Fifth Avenue shopping district. Credit: Mark Lennihan,AP

Harari's internationalism is not an alternative form of solidarity. It is the alliance between bureaucratic elites over the heads of their various national publics – the same alliance which has failed to face the current crisis, and proved impotent in holding China to account. Of course, no one in their right mind, except in totalitarian states, would be against sharing scientific knowledge. No Western nation has done that in the face of the pandemic.

But when actual international solidarity is called for, it cannot be achieved by first suppressing solidarity within states. An international order is probably best suited to preserve liberty when it seeks to become a family of free independent nations – not a uniform humanity under a single bureaucratic managerial elite.

The internationalist elite, with its frequent traveling, would probably recognize a handy metaphor for this in flight-safety videos, rendered perhaps even more evocative in a world scrambling for ventilators: When traveling with a person in need of assistance, first put on your own oxygen mask. It is clear why: otherwise you would impair your ability to assist them.

If we are to subdue this disease and emerge from the crisis in reasonable shape we had better hope that Donald Trump, to return to Harari's example, takes care of the America economy first. Unless, of course, Europe will be content to see the next Marshall Plan come from China.