Erdogan, Trump, Putin: Nationalists Backed Into A Corner

While populists toughen their positions and beat their chests, the deep-seated weakness of their policies is driving everything.

The three nationalist leaders on a mural in Berlin, Germany
The three nationalist leaders on a mural in Berlin, Germany
Éric Le Boucher


PARIS — The Turkish president stands up in defense of the world's Muslims against French secularism following multiple deadly attacks in France. The American president threatens not to respect the election result, setting off fears his administration will tamper with mail-in voting. The Russian president aims to assassinate his opponents. And yet, none of the three has been able to propose anything in place of the liberalism they challenge. The nationalists are in dire straits.

Many thought that coronavirus was going to signal the death of populism. This is partly true: Populists, by nature, challenge scientists — these "experts' serving the elite. And indeed, they were all slow to acknowledge the pandemic and adopt the containment policies because they would increase popular discontent. In fact, the public recognized this disastrous management of COVID-19 and it accelerated the collapse of their standing.

It's dangerous because the failure of nationalist-populist policies is proven.

But this defeat comes from much further afield, from the root cause: Nationalism does not work. It has become fashionable to denounce disease-carrying globalization, to praise border closures and to promise the revival of health and industrial sovereignty. What good are our blue, white and red masks and our "made in France" incubators? The protectionist discourse soaks up — we dare not dare say "infects' — the words of all parties. Liberalism, disqualified as "ultra," is judged without trial as responsible for all misfortune. Nobody, or almost nobody, defends free trade policies anymore. It's dangerous.

It's dangerous because the failure of nationalist-populist policies is proven. If Recep Tayyip Erdogan bares his fangs, it is because he has not managed to improve people's lives, as he claimed he had. His economic policy was simple: stop the unpopular reforms (on wages, taxes, subsidy cuts) and replace them with a fiscal stimulus and a massive policy of loans offered by the nationalized banks.

But of course there are consequences: Nationalism works in the very short term; but in a predictable paradox, it creates an increased dependence on the outside world, from tourists to investors. This policy is "unsustainable," as the International Monetary Fund put it diplomatically. The Turkish lira is weakening as Turks privately hoard euros and dollars. Erdogan engages in a "smokescreen" foreign policy built on the imperial past of Greater Turkey. In reality, it is the opposite of greatness: The country depends much more on others and the convergence of living standards with Europeans has broken down.

"Make America Great Again." Donald Trump pursued a similarly inspired economic policy. He stopped Barack Obama's social reforms, gave tax breaks that were not financed by the budget and promised to revive industrialization by closing the borders. The result? Nothing. After months of headbutting with China, Trump signed an agreement that forces the Asian giant to buy $200 billion worth of U.S. products. He cries victory. However, the true amount, as of September, barely reaches $60 billion.

He is the leading example of the inanity of nationalist haranguing.

More broadly, his policy of threats, tariff hikes and renegotiating agreements had no effect on the U.S. trade deficit. On the contrary, it rose from $750 billion in 2016 to $864 billion last year. His campaign promise to relocate factories back to the U.S. has barely materialized, with few exceptions. Hence the disappointment of workers in the Midwest, who are expected to vote Democratic again. Trump's overall assessment of nationalism was to consolidate China's willingness to invest in high-tech, to rebuild Europe and to cast suspicion on the strength of the dollar. The American economy remains strong, but with no thanks to Trump.

Vladimir Putin, who has been in power for more than 20 years, is the leading example of the inanity of nationalist haranguing. Unable to diversify his country's economy, the Russian president has again and again made his country entirely dependent on the price of oil — and therefore on foreign powers.

Globalization needs to be rethought; patriotism may be good in economics, but nationalism is an illusion. Promises of "sovereignty" and "relocalization" are not to be dismissed without examination. But beware of chauvinistic excess: The strength of an economy rests on a competitive offensive, never on a timid defense. The current health crisis should not push us in the wrong direction: It will only be defeated by international cooperation, by free trade and, with the challenging winter to come, by opening doors, not closing them.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!