The Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis

As populist nationalists push back on neoliberal arguments on globalization, we see a diminished power of international bodies who attempt to solve global problems. Where once there was the hope of global governance, there is now Trumpism, John Birch-ism, Bolsanaro-ism, Orban-ism, and other societal ills.

A main cause of why nationalist retrenchment became so, well, entrenched, is that there was an inherent political inequality within nations and in the global governance institutions such as the United Nations.

This post asks, Is global governance inevitable? Is democratic global governance likely? The main thesis is that political inequality at home became political Inequality in global governance.

I wrote this in 2013. Unfortunately, the nationalist retrenchment thing happened. The nationalists are winning. Global governance is on the run. Democratic backsliding is real.

What is global governance?

Borrowing from Elke Krahmann, we can define global governance as regulation of international relations without centralized authority, meaning that collaborative efforts to address interdependent needs are voluntary. Because global governance challenges national sovereignty, nation-states resist centralizing too much power in a single global body.

Despite that global governance challenges national sovereignty, its institutionalization has accelerated; nations are aware that no one nation can solve global problems, and globalization has forced even the most nationalistic countries to collaborate across state lines.

Is global governance inevitable? Two Rival Hypotheses

In addressing the question of governance inevitability, there are two major hypotheses: the global governance hypothesis, and the nationalist retrenchment hypothesis.

Global Governance Hypothesis

The more problems are global in scope, the greater the chance that global governance will emerge and be enhanced.

An alternative hypothesis posits a world in which the opposite occurs: Despite growing global problems, countries will shrink from international commitments that they think will limit their ability to act in their parochial self-interest. This is the nationalist
retrenchment hypothesis.

Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis

The more problems are global in scope, the greater the nationalist retrenchment.

By nationalist, I mean a nation-centric view of world events, akin to unilateralism. By retrenchment, I mean a stop and backslide toward unilaterialism in which countries eschew global governance strategies.

Is Nationalist Retrenchment a Possibility? (I asked in 2013)

Nationalist retrenchment may be a mere theoretical counterfactual, something that at its fullest extent is not now possible.

What evidence do we have in the modern era of nationalist retrenchment? (I asked that in 2013. Josh in 2022 says, “Plenty“) The relationship between the United States and the UN is a useful case study. The “U.S. out of the UN!” movement has its roots in the ultra-right wing John Birch Society, and despite some occasional resurgence, it has never truly threatened to pull the United States from the UN or eject the UN from its New York City headquarters. Although the U.S. Congress has historically been skeptical of the UN, diehard members of the nationalist retrenchment club—anachronistic throwbacks to the pre- Wilsonian era (or the 1930s)—are a rare breed.

This possibility blossomed under Donald Trump’s surprise presidency in 2016, and culminated, thus far, in the insurrection (or “riot”) at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Political Inequality at Home leads to Political Inequality in Global Governance

If global governance is inevitable, we can now turn to the next question: Is democratic global governance likely?

Here is where the notion of political inequality is important.

There is plenty of evidence to support the view that global governance organizations are characterized by political inequality. Kofi Annan, former secretary general of the UN, said that “we cannot claim that there is perfect equality between member states.” Political inequality, according to Annan, can differ in extent: he says that the “small and powerless feel less unequal” at the UN than in other major international organizations.  Nevertheless, political inequality in terms of unequal voice and response continues to challenge the legitimacy of existing global governance institutions.

If international organizations, individual nations and social movements have thus far been relatively ineffective democratizers of global governance structures, it may be because political inequality at home translates into political inequality on the global stage.

Nationalists and internationalists—or, unilateralists and multilateralists— are battling for supremacy over foreign policy within their own nations and in global governance organizations. We can imagine a situation in which nationalists win policy battles more often than internationalists, and where the scope of the policies made by nationalists precludes or minimizes actions to internationalize.

In a world where few countries have a lot and most have little, nationalist retrenchment can also weaken democratic development of these structures by de-funding these organizations and neglecting the needs of the disadvantaged.

This post is based on the article, Dubrow, Joshua Kjerulf. 2013. “Democratic Global Governance, Political Inequality, and the Nationalist Retrenchment Hypothesis.” International Journal of Sociology 43(2): 55 – 69.

Further Reading

What Populists Do to Democracies – The Atlantic

US Congress investigates the January 6, 2021 attack