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Gordon Brown’s Warning and the Potential Outcomes of the War in Ukraine

Gordon Brown’s Warning and the Potential Outcomes of the War in Ukraine

Sunday, 20 November, 2022 - 11:30

A few days ago, the British daily “The Guardian” published a cautionary column by Gordon Brown, who was UK prime minister from 2007 to 2010 and is currently a WHO ambassador for global health financing.   

The column laments the reasons for the current state of the world. International organizations and their many conferences are failing to address worsening social problems, keeping in mind that they cannot be resolved within the framework of nation-states. This is as true for immigration and asylum as it is for the environment, terrorism, drugs, etc…   

While Brown quotes an African leader who told him, “there is no longer such thing as the international community,” he goes on to note that the populists in power seek solutions for the problems of the present in the past, thereby undermining opportunities for the future.  

Protectionism is increasing, no consensus brings the countries of our world together, and no country can push any of the others to accept to do anything. All of this, in general, leaves everyone poorer and exacerbates environmental problems…   

However, Brown, who chose “Nationalism is the ideology of our age. No wonder the world is in crisis” as his headline, places particular emphasis on the rise of nationalism and populism.

“Most important of all, nationalism has replaced neoliberalism as the dominant ideology of the age. If, for the past 30 years, economics drove political decision-making, now politics is determining economic decisions, with country after country weaponizing their trade, technology, industry and competition policies. The win-win economics of mutually beneficial commerce is being replaced by the zero-sum rivalries of ‘I win, you lose’, as movements such as ‘America first’, ‘China first’, ‘India first’ and ‘Russia first’, ‘my tribe first’, threaten to descend into an us versus them geopolitics of ‘my country first and only’.”  

Brown’s warning reminds us of some of liberalism’s delusions, which thrived in the early 1990s, regarding the waning and “endings” of nationalism. The fact is that these delusions, as well as the spread of neoliberal economics and the expansion of the gulf among classes and nations that came with them, have reinvigorated the nationalist sentiments that seemed, for a moment, to be on the retreat.  

Before the latest wave of migrants and refugees arrived in Europe, adding fuel to the fire, nationalism with a vengeful impulse began to make a strong comeback.  

It was accompanied by two factors that are no less toxic: militant populism resentful of globalization that claims to represent the “people” in their battle against international organizations and institutions like the United Nations and the European Union, and charismatic leaders who present themselves as saviors and sell the glories and grandeur of the people languishing under the weight of elites labeled as corrupt.  

Nationalism, as we know, is an extremely powerful force. True, it is a social construct that transforms and changes like all other prominent social links, and it is not a fundamental feature of our existence that precedes and determines it. However, repudiating the idea that nationalism is an organic and biological phenomenon and other arguments that it is apriori and inevitable does not negate its dazzling success, which can be explained, to a large extent, by its unparalleled malleability.  

Those on the right can be nationalists, and so can those on the left. And the same is true for both those pushing for nationalist expansion and those defending their independence or right to self-determination. 

Nationalism could be armored with a doctrine and message, as we saw with Nasser, Nkrumah, and Sukarno, and it could not be, rendering it little more than a framework for plunder and tyranny, as we saw with Al-Assad, Gaddafi, and their like.  

Perhaps with the exception of anarchism, all modern ideologies have attempted to claim some kind of connection to nationalism or a capacity to express or be coupled with it.  

Even internationalist Marxism, which emerged hostile to nationalism - which it saw as bourgeois - subsequently reconciled with nationalism and then incorporated it, as demonstrated by the many conflicts that divided the former socialist countries.  

Nonetheless, one of the few certainties we have today is that Russia is waging the most critical of populist nationalism’s battles on Ukrainian territory. If it is defeated, it would be fair to say that this political and intellectual bent was dealt a global blow. It would not be a fatal blow, but it would leave populist nationalism with serious injuries, and it could open the door to resolving the problems Gordon Brown reminded us of.  

Such a defeat could justify writing the history of major wars of our time like this: the First World War dealt the old empires a crushing blow, the Second World War razed the foundations of Nazism and Fascism, the Cold War broke the Soviet Union, its bloc and its communism, and finally, the war on Ukraine dealt populist nationalism a decisive defeat.  

Who knows?  

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