Thursday, May 22, 2003

Figures. I wrote a long post yesterday, and the thing crashed on me as I tried to post it, and didn't have time to rewrite it. Ah well.

The post in question was about economic nationalism. Several sources I've read recently (including CNN, and the Washington Post) seem to imply either explicitly or implicitly that the current economic weakness in the United States is partially due to other countries "taking away American jobs". Whether or not the accusation is made directly by the media or as quotations from "another source", there's little doubt that the meme is out there, and it's more than a little disturbing. I had thought that that particular interpretation of events was pretty much dead, but it would appear that economic xenophobia returns reliably whenever the economy is weak. It happened in the early 90's, and it's happening now.

The difference now, though, is the presence of its political counterpart. While the question of whether "everything changed" after the 9/11 attacks is under constant debate, what has certainly changed is the level of overt nationalism in American political culture. This is worrisome in itself, and has lead to the spectacle of what can only be described as "bottom-up" censorship. Those that question American culture, American politics, or American leadership often become the targets of a barrage of criticism (if not outright hatred) that aids the Bush administration (and the cause of nationalism) tremendously. One need only look at the reaction to France for its opposition to the American invasion of Iraq; it's striking that a country became demonized for its opposition to a pre-emptive war that many Americans were leery about before the easy victory and all-pervasive "liberation" spin convinced them that it was for the best, and that objectors were sympathetic to dictatorship. It has turned the American body politic towards an "us vs. them" sort of viewpoint, intolerant of criticism and unpleasant ideas.

Economic nationalism, however, could make this even worse. Even at the height of political xenophobia, the simple fact that the United States needs and benefits from trade with other countries can do a lot to dampen down this sort of distrust. If other countries are seen as economic competitors and political opponents, however, then there is little to tie the United States with other countries except their common humanity... which isn't exactly a popular concept nowadays. (Shared political systems, while seemingly a cause for common understanding, aren't that useful either- witness the opposition to the thoroughly democratic Canadian, French, and German governments for listening to the will of their citizenry, and the reaction to the Turks can be added in for good measure).

This combination of economic isolationism and political unilateralism could (and quite likely will) lead the American population to a sort of mercantilist viewpoint, where the key idea in trade is "beating the other guy"... turning into economics into the sort of zero-sum game that most economists could never take seriously. There's no way that the United States could or would become autarkic, but it's quite possible that it will start connecting the political with the economic, only trading with countries that it sees as allies, and cutting off ties to countries that are seen as political "competitors". This could be disastrous.

One example I can think of showing why this would be disasterous would be China. It is definitely an economic threat from a zero-sum perspective- it is "taking jobs away from Americans" at a quicker rate than any number of Mexican "Maquiladoras" and is unlikely to move to western salary levels anytime soon. It is also a political threat- it is home to a hostile political system, is a regional threat to traditional allies Taiwan and Japan, and loudly defends the very concept of national sovereignty that the United States is now so profoundly and absolutely hostile towards. The old Clintonian way of looking at things would be to acknowledge their political opposition while also acknowledging their economic cooperation, with the hope that things will improve with "capitalization". What would happen, however, if a Chinese action prompted a Cuba-like economic pullout of American interests, prompted by economic nationalism? It would turn China into a serious threat overnight, seemingly reconfirming U.S. conceptions. They'd have a point, too.. the Japanese and Taiwanese would sense the threat and call for help immediately, prompting at the very least a regional cold war. That would quickly turn Southeast and East Asia into another Middle East. Nobody wants that, but we may end up there.

How to solve this? Not sure, except to remind people that trade isn't a zero-sum game; that economic nationalism and xenophobia are bad ideas that create worse circumstances. It also shows once again that the United States cannot abandon the multilateral political institutions that shape and support the world's economy and political landscape. It's not just that they're relevant. It's not just that ignoring them puts one in an insoluble ethical and moral dilemma (as I mentioned below). It's that without them, the world becomes a scary, dangerous, and violent place for everybody that no amount of arms can contend with. The United States is no exception.

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