They go by different names: Britain First, Party for Freedom, America First. They range from right-wing nationalists to left-wing communists. And as far as it is possible to nail down proper policy from him, America’s leading Republican candidate, Donald Trump, seems to be one of them.
Years ago I wrote a two part series positing what might happen if the United States suddenly withdrew its power from the world. The results were hardly pretty: regional powers that were used to either being protected or checked by American power rearmed and went to war to establish new geopolitical balances. Poverty skyrocketed as resources were dumped into vast new militaries, while the threat of nuclear war grew as countries that once lived under the American nuclear umbrella felt the need to arm themselves with atomic bombs.
Now the idea of refortifying borders is gaining traction in virtually every developed democracy. Now, as then, it’s still a terrible idea.
First and foremost: why are people talking about scrapping free trade deals, currency zones, and putting up border fences?
The Great Recession was a geopolitically traumatic event for the developed world: virtually every economic assumption was wrecked in its aftermath, including free trade, which had been billed as the road to prosperity. As foreclosures and bankruptcies grew, it was only natural for mass numbers of people to seek something, anything, to blame.
There are good reasons to get angry at free trade, open borders, and even military alliances: all of them siphoned resources from nations and sent them to others. That created people who often lost out on prosperity: witness the coal regions of the United States, who in the past 20 years have been forced to compete not just with European coal but suddenly cheap and abundant Chinese coal. If only a trade barrier kept that Chinese coal out, they cried, and states like West Virginia would not be human development index cesspools.
For the superpower’s citizens, the distinct lack of gratitude for America’s world policing has grated especially hard during the War on Terror: from overthrowing Saddam to killing bin Laden to suddenly being forced to confront both the Chinese and the Russians on various military playing fields, U.S. citizens can’t be blamed for feeling like their Asian, European, and Arab allies are happy to fight their wars to the last American. (This is a big reason Israel, for all its faults, remains popular in the United States: IDF soldiers are seen bleeding and dying). 15 unproductive years of war and a distinct feeling that problems with Russia and China are more European and Japanese problems rather than American ones have strongly contributed.
But that’s all short-term thinking, which is why it’s both dangerous and wrong.
Take free trade. Free trade absolutely takes resources from one nation and distributes them to another. But this does not make one nation poor and another richer: rather, it more evenly spreads wealth between the two nations.
It allows nations to specialize at what they’re really good at and to rely on others to fill in the economic gaps for what they’re bad at. It gives nations without ports access to the sea; lands without forests access to viable timer; nations full of soft-handed educated citizens access to the labor of faraway miners.
In the long run, both nations end up better off. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t pain: unproductive regions who were already at the margin of productivity are often devastated. But protecting the handful of inefficient places is harmful to the rest of the nation: why, after all, should we all give up cheaper goods from foreign countries so that people in our backwaters don’t have to change their lives?
There is a moral counterargument to that: greed shouldn’t crowd out lifestyles. But that stops short of yet another good reason to embrace free trade and open borders.
Because free trade and open borders undermine the notion of war.
This much should be obvious: to bomb your trade partner will hurt your business elite, who will in turn pressure you to stop.
But free trade and open borders also create opportunities for foreign peoples to interact and focus on getting things done: they build relationships, tell stories, swap knowledge, and invariably see one another as people rather than nationalities. Once they’ve done so, the necessary process of Othering – the process by which we categorize people as different from us – becomes much, much harder. Without Othering, war is impossible: large groups of people cannot be convinced to slaughter fellow humans. Only when Othering has turned foreigners from people to “the enemy” will citizens allow themselves to be mobilized to go to far away places and kill complete strangers.
This forces geopolitical competition to shift from military dimensions to less harmful economic, legal, and cultural ones. It hardly eliminates geopolitical competition altogether; so long as there are nation-states, they will compete. But when nationalities humanize one another, they will resist efforts by their elites to settle their differences on the battlefield.
This is also a huge reason why questioning effective alliances is a no good, very bad idea.
NATO is, for all its faults, largely responsible for keeping the peace of Europe. Once a blood-soaked, super murderous continent of Hitlers, Napoleons, Caesars, and Stalins, Europe is now a greying, quiet place where the grumbles of the citizenry are channeled into politics rather than war. Doubtless, 1914 Germany, if faced with the debts Greece today owes Berlin, would have long bombed and occupied Athens to collect: today Germany is content to suffer Greek protests and long-winded negotiations.
This isn’t entirely because Germany has suddenly become a more enlightened place, though it has: it’s also because the option of war simply isn’t there. To attack Greece is to leave NATO; to leave NATO to attack Greece means to go to war with NATO; and to do so means to lose, for the combined power of the alliance, headed by the United States, would absolutely destroy Germany.
This isn’t to say that there are secret cadres of Germans who seek to debt collect by gunship, but rather that Germany cannot even remotely entertain the idea, even as fantasy. That hard reality is key to keeping the peace: Germans born beyond the lessons of the Cold War and the Holocaust may well forget Auschwitz and the Stasi, but they cannot ignore the reality of how NATO governs the security environment of Europe.
This makes Donald Trump’s complaints that NATO allies aren’t paying their “fair share” all the more dangerous. NATO works so well partially because it’s so dominated by the Americans: this keeps the alliance from fracturing, for everyone knows to drop out means to lose that all-important American shield. Were NATO more balanced, factions would arise; invariably, these factions would splinter, much to the detriment of Europe’s security. It serves the interests of both Americans and Europeans to keep it lopsided in favor of Washington. While there is room for tweaking who contributes what, to rebalance the share of power to half Europe, half America, is to invariably undermine NATO and possibly break it apart.
This also extends to the notion of the Brexit which, while less dangerous, is still not the greatest of ideas.
Britain is currently debating whether it should stay in the European Union. The EU, as a geopolitical project, is the attempt to economically unify Europe, alleviating the hard edges of economic competition. Like any free trade deal, it has meant that each country has losers, whether they’re local power brokers who used to benefit from poor and easily corruptible citizens or working class folks who are doing jobs citizens from elsewhere will happily do for less. The net gain, however, benefits far more than it harms, as cultures mix, expats become citizens, and the idea of being European gains more traction than being German, Polish, Italian, or French.
For Britain to withdraw means to cleave itself from the nearby continent not just economically but only culturally: a notion that could well leave London all the more dependent on the United States. The U.S., for that matter, doesn’t particularly want to play favorites in Europe: a united Europe under America’s thumb serves its long term interests best.
While there are obvious geopolitical advantages to keeping borders open and alliances strong, there are also places to rebalance.
Free trade has entrenched capital in the hands of an elite few: this information is obvious and well-known. Such imbalances of wealth have always led to unrest, revolution, and civil war. For the sake of a secure state, they must be addressed.
Some of that will come from smarter taxes; some will come from better laws. None of it will come from rebuilding barriers. If anything, it’s the barriers themselves that foment tax havens that are the problem: were the world under more equal rules, there would be no Cayman Islands to hide funds in.
Switzerland is a fine example of the equalization of rules: once a place where the scum rich hid their ill-gotten gains, it now cooperates freely with international bodies that ensure that taxes are paid where they should be. But were Switzerland to suddenly lose easy access to the European market with tariffs and trade barriers, there would be little to no incentive for it to cooperate in tax evasion cases from the continent.
But no one should pretend that closing the borders will ease wealth inequality: if anything, it will allow the elites to distract the citizenry from them by creating foreign bogeymen.
The world is not yet ready for full free trade and for the flow of migrants to and fro, but it must get there if it is to evolve past the murderous competition of nation-states.
The ideal world is one in which nation-states serve as reasonable federates in a world federation: checks on a centralized power, protectors of unique cultures, but not military or economic threats to one another. There is a long road ahead: a century or more of cooperation before generations have passed through the necessary steps to see nation-states as secondary to their own identities. But that is a road worth taking. The alternative is a past we already know far too well.