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Geopolitics

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

-Analysis-

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.

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