The hyper-nationalist politics of the COVID-19 pandemic

By Monica Duffy Toft

Originally Published in Responsible Statecraft

For those of us born before 1980, perhaps the most impactful international political event of our lifetimes was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and, soon after, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. There were three reasons this was such a watershed event.

First, almost no one in academia or in government saw it coming (only those few who researched ethnic and civil war or demography — hardly marquis subjects within the international relations academy — remained unsurprised); second, it happened without sparking a third world war; and third, it enabled those of us dedicated to the study of political violence to shift focus to civil, as opposed to interstate, war.

Recall that the two big lessons of the last great interwar period — 1919–1939 — had been an amalgam of liberal and realist insights. On the realist side, it was clear that real security cooperation — not just between friends, but between international political rivals as well — would be necessary to prevent spirals of insecurity leading to war. On the liberal side, it was equally clear that cooperation in trade would be critical to preventing a repeat of the global economic depression of the 1930s.

Coming as it did following a war which ended in an unjust peace, the Great Depression, as it was called, gave rise to not only nationalism, but to hyper-nationalism: “the belief that other nations or nation-states are both inferior and threatening,” as political scientist John Mearsheimer has noted.


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