The election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the recent election of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister of Great Britain has emphasized a fact which many have thought was either outdated or irrelevant in an age of mass communication and “globalization.”
The resurgence of nationalism that has been promoted by Trump’s “MAGA” campaign and by Johnson’s “Brexit” has lifted the thin veil off the unity movements that have dominated elite opinion since at least the Second World War.
Unity for All
The notion of global unification, however, is as old as mankind itself. All the great religions have advanced a form of unification under God that, in retrospect, was considered His intention in the first place.
The very word “Catholic” itself means “universal,” “undivided,” “unqualified,” while the Islamic word “Caliphate” is translated as land ruled over by a Caliph, or Muslim territorial authority.
Today, the world is witnessing a global “jihad” between a resurgent Islam for an expanded Caliphate versus Judeo-Christianity within its political authority. In this manner, the globe is facing an ancient conflict between two definitions of “unity,” each based upon its own definition of theology. In effect, the medieval “crusades” have been renewed.
“Conversion” is endemic to religion, meaning “transformation,” or “changeover,” which, in effect, defines the nature of politics since there were religions.
Nor should a clash between hostile “unities” be considered remote or unique. Distinctions between the religious and the secular are often very fragile. Protestantism is widely alleged to be the origin of Capitalism (Max Weber’s famous thesis) by its emphasis upon self-initiative. The Cold War, which ended in 1991, was itself a conflict between two competing “worldviews,” either the Marxism of a global “proletariat” or the American view (“Wilsonian”) of a world made “safe for democracy.”
Disunity as Reality
Yet, despite six thousand years of conflict, war, religious, and national rivalry, there has never been anything even close to a true, authentic world government. Most of world history has been comprised of “empires” that stretched over regional land masses but were never very distant from their home origins.
The largest land empire was the Mongol regime begun by Genghis Kahn into the 13th and 14th centuries. At its height, the Mongols ruled from Mongolia to east-central Europe, to the Sea of Japan, Siberia, parts of India, Southeast Asia, and the Iranian Plateau. The largest maritime empire, the British, reached its extent in the late-nineteenth century when it governed about one-fifth of humanity.
Modern “nationalism” is, in reality, a latecomer to the world scene. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) is generally considered the beginning of the “nation-state,” making this form of polity occupy approximately five percent of world history. This makes both The Donald and Boris “newcomers” to world politics. This means little, however, to the notion that man’s ultimate fate still resides in some form of unification. The idea just will not go away and remains to this day the lasting symbol for the future of the political earth.
In our times, perhaps the notion was first revived after World War I when President Wilson stunned the other allies by introducing a “League of Nations,” the first formal effort to enroll the entire globe to keep peace and order. Nationalism defeated the weakened League without much effort (minus the U.S.), but its replacement was revived by Wilson’s successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the end of the Second World War.
By comparison to the League, the United Nations is a huge success, having lasted nearly four times longer with a large bureaucracy and a string of social/economic accomplishments unprecedented in history. While membership is nearly universal, the UN has failed miserably to convert into a truly international body. It remains dominated by nationalism, with 193 member-states, each clinging to the twin pillars of statehood: territory and sovereignty.
At the same time, the political globe is beset with the same internal and international conflicts that have endured from the beginning of time. Only the circumstances and locales have changed. One wonders why we even occupy ourselves with the particulars, unique maybe for the first few times, but tiresome after the next hundred thousand.
Yet the mystique of unity still persists as ultimate salvation. Theater and sentiment keep demanding “one” world, with the anthem “We Are The World” still in vogue. Regional unities, especially the European Union, are said to be the future, while “globalization” remains the definition favored by academics and politicians.
But beneath the ideology, reality dominates. Donald and Boris are mere symbols, beneath which lie competing sovereignties, religions, ethnic and racial groupings, tribes, languages, cultures, and the stubborn nationalism of nearly 200 states.
In Great Britain itself, both Scotland and Northern Ireland threaten independence movements. In the U.S., the political system is so divided that red-blue colors describe the sectional landscape, while a set of ideological “isms” (race, gender, white nationalism) have been introduced for deeper schisms. The future is so precarious that some compare it to the Civil War era, when “blue-gray” were the colors.
During World War II, the 1940 Republican presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie, published his seminal book, One World, calling for “peace on a world basis … quite literally that it must embrace the earth. Continents and oceans are plainly only parts of a whole.” One World was described by one reviewer as “the greatest nonfiction bestseller to date in U.S. publishing history.”
Willkie died in 1944, but One World remains a legacy that continues to govern the thinking of much of the political and intellectual globe, bedeviled almost daily by uncomfortable doses of reality.
To quote the folk song, “when will they ever learn?”