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[Park Sang-seek] Why does globalization strengthen nationalism?

When globalization began to accelerate in the 1990s, globalists rejoiced and predicted that globalism would eventually weaken nationalism, and international organizations, particularly the UN, would become more powerful. However, such optimism has turned out to be a naive dream.

Nation-states have become more vital and powerful, while within nation-states ethnic or religious minority groups have become more assertive of their identity and have often sought to establish a separate state. In the contemporary world, the nation-state system is the foundation of the global political order. Nation-states are the main actors in the world and all the other actors such as the UN and other international organizations are their clubs.

Immediately after World War II, global leaders and scholars believed that nation-states would become gradually subordinate to international organizations, particularly the UN. But even after more than 70 years since the establishment of the UN, member states have become more numerous and more self-assertive than ever before.

Moreover, no country -- big and small or rich and poor -- wishes to subordinate its sovereign power not only to other member states but also to the UN. They still hold that national sovereignty is the most important principle of international relations and the UN.

Globalists and the UN hold that national sovereignty has two faces: right and duty. No country can intervene in the internal affairs of other states, but its sovereignty can be limited by the UN and multilateral or bilateral treaties, because it has given consent to them. Globalists believe that interactions between and among states accelerate centripetal force and eventually integrate them into one bigger entity. But this theory has proven to be wrong. In reality, since WWII no existing state has merged into another state and no newly established states have merged with other states, new or old. A few newly established states have attempted a merger but have failed.

Globalists believed that globalization takes place in all fields of human life -- political, economic, social, cultural, knowledge and information -- and forces nation-states to promote mutual exchanges, cultural homogenization, all kinds of international organizations, and private and public networks.

But exactly the opposite is happening. The existing nation-states are making all-out efforts to consolidate their national unity, while minority ethnic or religious groups within a state are desperately fighting for separation or autonomy. No country is seeking for a pan-national state or regional integration. The only exception is the European Union. Primordial ties are the most powerful glue for unity for them. Under the circumstances, people are more concerned about the loss of primordial ties than the loss of all kinds of gains globalization can bring about. This is the reason why most peoples in the non-West are willing to preserve the primordial ties rather than to gain economic and other benefits of globalization at the sacrifice of ethnic unity.

Globalization is taking place in all fields of human life: political, economic, social, cultural and knowledge and information. As a result, the forces that promote internationalism and the forces that promote nationalism come into conflict in these fields.

In the above six fields, the forces of nationalism, regionalism and internationalism in the political field; the forces of mercantilism and free trade in the economic field; the forces of xenophobia and xenophilia in the social field; and the forces of Western and Non-Western civilizations in the cultural, knowledge and information fields are now going through a period of conflict and accommodation. In this period of globalization, conflicts between the West and the non-West on the global, regional and national levels are inevitable.

Globalization of economic, social and cultural life actually means the Westernization of the non-West. This is the main reason why most non-Western countries have become anti-Western. They try to protect their national identity through cultural or religious chauvinism. But the reality shows that some non-Western countries such as Japan, Singapore and South Korea, which have sacrificed their traditional cultures for westernization, have succeeded in achieving political stability and economic prosperity.

In Africa and the Middle East, religious and ethnic ties are so strong that any aspects of globalization that they consider harmful to these primordial ties are rejected strongly. They consider the West as the prime mover of globalization because the West uses globalization as the weapon for global domination. The non-West uses nationalism as a counter weapon against globalization.

The stronger the forces of globalization become the stronger nationalism becomes in non-Western states, while ethnic and religious groups that live as minority groups in those states are eager to establish their own states because they believe that they can protect their cultural identity better if they have their own states. Eventually, primary groups have to fight against two enemies: westernization and globalization. Big ethnic and religious groups have mostly succeeded in establishing an independent state but small ones can hardly succeed.

The result is not what globalists have predicted: globalization weakens nationalism. On the contrary, the result is what nationalists have predicted: globalization strengthens nationalism. Nationalism taking various forms of independence movements -- separatism, irredentism, pan-nationalism and Zionism -- is reasserting itself in the midst of globalization. It is ironical that in the midst of globalization, nationalism becomes stronger. As long as humans completely abandon their primordial instinct, the nation-state will remain the basic unit in international relations and nationalism will prevail over internationalism regardless of how strong globalization becomes. Humanity has to live with nationalism for a long time and war will remain a way of life in the nation-state system.

Park Sang-seek
Park Sang-seek is a former chancellor of the National Diplomatic Academy, Korean Foreign Ministry and the author of “Globalized Korea and Localized World and Land of Tears.” -- Ed.