It is often times the interests of the state (raison d’etat), broadly or narrowly conceived, that are the operating premises of foreign policy formulation and execution. But, the world we inhabit contemporarily, defined as it is by flux and fluidity, where identity and cultural politics has made a comeback, might have upended these traditional paradigms of foreign policy. It appears that muscular nationalism is now its bedrock. As odious as this trend can be, evidence for this can be found in America’s external orientation under Trump, from security, to foreign to trade policy. (Trump’s Syrian adventure is just that: an adventure in the nature of a technique to draw certain red lines in Syria, while the war grinds on. And, it is neither indicative of a change in United States foreign policy nor can anything substantive inferred from it). If, the question is, muscular nationalism(s), becomes the foundation for foreign policies for states, what implications and consequences follow? And, why is it wrong?
While the nature of the state (as an entity) is abstract but it is somewhat reified by the interests of states which can range from security, power to economic development or even growth. But, muscular nationalism adds or injects ingress of popular passions and mass emotions to it. If and when foreign policy is divorced from the interests of a given state (right or wrong), then foreign policy becomes an extension of domestic policy and politics. And, when domestic politics forms the gravamen of foreign policy, then the “natural” checks and balances, inhering in international relations and politics, lose ground to forces of atavism and political emotion. The blurring or actual meshing of foreign policy and domestic politics and policy means that the political class can actually take recourse to foreign policy adventurism, for the sake of votes, electoral cycles, populism, all divorced from “reason” and “rationality”. The traditional norms, regimes like international law, ethics and morality wither and in the absence of these and other restraints, states can go to war. (War, as we all know, is a pestilence and scourge that must be avoided at all costs). Muscular nationalism’s influence, in any form whatsoever, then is a bane and even a curse for mankind.
All this becomes more acute and poignant against the backdrop of the world’s regression into cultural and identity politics and the relapse of sovereigntism. Even the European Union, which staked its claim, so to speak, to a “post national politics and age” has fallen victim to these trends. Obiter Dictum, the Union’s retreat into itself, in terms of foreign policy has, from both its inception and gradual evolution, rendered it into an impotent and irrelevant player on hard security and foreign policy issues.( In terms of its flaccid diplomacy and diplomats, the less said the better). Now, if identity politics and muscular nationalism have become rather normative across the world, and is in the process of casting a causative influence on foreign policies of states and international relations, is there a reprieve from it?
The answer to this question is a difficult and a fraught one. But, by way of a tentative answer, I would posit and root for elitism in the design, conception and formulation of foreign policies of states. This might sound counter intuitive given that the contra politics across much of the world is actually predicated and directed against elitism. But, to be clear, I am arguing for elitism in international relations. More specifically, what I have in mind is the reign of the philosopher king in international politics. This is not to be interpreted as narrow technocratic leadership but a more humane, expansive, moral and ethical approach towards international relations. The philosopher king, in contention, must be a thought leader, connected to the people, learned and scholarly. These are and should be the essential attributes of the hypothetical scholar plus philosopher. But, above all, the philosopher king must be an epitome of and symbolize, morality, ethics and humanity. While the locus and well spring of his power could be his nation or people but, he must rise above these and place the welfare of all, the entire human kind, on a pedestal. Is, the question is, this scenario of the philosopher king, possible? No, is the sad answer. We, humans, are still wired to be wedded to our respective nations and societies and generally speaking, we view and interpret the world through the respective prisms of these. Given this prosaic reality, can a prediction about the near future world events be undertaken? Alas yes, but the picture that presents itself is full of gloom and doom!
—The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org