President Barrack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron recently discovered that US and UK citizens have little interest in bombing Syria, no matter how heinous the crimes of the Assad regime.
President Obama was preparing to go all out in Congress to secure a vote to bomb Syria until the Russian initiative saved him from a near-certain defeat. Cameron lost his vote in Parliament and demonstrated political realism, if not Churchillian determination, in accepting the outcome with but a whimper.
The bottom has dropped out of public support for international intervention in the core of the West. If anything, international good works like development aid are even more unpopular with Western electorates than humanitarian war. It is difficult to imagine today an event like Live Aid in 1985, a dual venue rock concert to raise funds for an Ethiopian famine which captured the attention of a generation.
At the same time as internationalisms of all kinds have gone out of favour, popular passions have turned against immigrants in much of Europe, the US and Australia. The Obama administration shows no stomach to fight for much-needed immigration reform. Even the seemingly politically attractive Dream Act—granting permanent residency to illegal aliens brought to the US as children by their parents—is being left to languish.
Internationalism is increasingly a thing of the past, while the very countries that brought you neoliberal globalisation are shutting their borders. How are these developments connected and what do they tell us about politics in the coming years?
Consider the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). A recent compendium of UKIP gaffes include a Member of European Parliament who referred to African and other developing countries as “Bongo Bongo Land” and to his own female party activists as “sluts”. Meanwhile the leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, has had to deny singing Hitler Youth songs as a school boy. Yet this party commanded nearly a quarter of the popular vote in the May, 2013 local elections in the very country that defeated Hitler and thinks it civilised Africa.
A centre piece of UKIP propaganda concerns the lifting in 2014 of restrictions on movement within the EU of “29 million” Romanians and Bulgarians. UKIP websites refer to “social problems” in Romania and “poverty” in Bulgaria. The idea is that the UK and its social and health services will be ‘swamped’ by the arrival of unwanted foreigners.
Eastern Europeans may have thought they were equal members of the EU, but apparently not in the eyes of the anti-immigrant right. They may also be forgiven for thinking they are white. But anyone familiar with racial politics in the US will recognise coded phrases like ‘social problems’ and ‘poverty’. These are the kinds of terms one uses to express racist thoughts in polite society.
It is too simple to say only that UKIP is ‘right wing’. Conservative leaders like Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher expressed great concern for those same Romanians and Bulgarians as well as other Eastern Europeans when they were trapped behind the Iron Curtain. They committed their country to an enormously expensive and risky venture known as the Cold War to liberate Eastern Europe.
Old style anti-communism may not be the same thing as post-1989 liberal humanitarianism, but it did arise from an internationalist sensibility: the idea that we should care for foreign others and, more importantly, that our fates and their fates are ultimately linked together.
Arms-length bombing of Libya was the height of Cameron’s internationalism. Mostly he and his party seek to outdo UKIP in making life difficult for immigrants, exemplifying the new Homeland Politics of the West.
Foreign students face increasing barriers to studying in the UK, despite bringing much needed revenue; legislation is being proposed to charge tax-paying, legal immigrants for the use of health and social services, effectively double taxing them; work and spousal visas are being limited in number and denied for clerical errors despite opposition from the business sector; and vans paid for by the government roam the streets telling illegal immigrants to go home.
Cameron also faces a challenge from what passes for the left in the UK. But this is not an internationalist left. The Liberal Democrats and Labour seek various kinds of social welfare and national economy provisions designed to help Britons struggling against the vicissitudes of the globalised, neoliberal economy.
Such policies come in centre-right and centre-left versions, but all are part and parcel of Homeland Politics. The Tories, like their Republican counterparts in the US, seek to assist families, married couples, and small businesses as well as to help home buyers. Labour has gone for hackneyed populist initiatives like proposing to freeze energy prices. Few politicians speak much of the world beyond the Homeland, expect in terms of erecting barriers to protect an increasingly tattered standard of living.
Obama’s Democrats want to ‘nation-build at home’ rather than abroad. But like Labour, they are shot through with neoliberals from the last century who believe that the main problem the left faces is demonstrating electability through market-friendly policies. This is one reason why the right wing version of Homeland Politics is likely to triumph in the coming years.
Nowhere outside of UN conference halls and university common rooms are clarion calls heard for international engagement. Indeed, one of the only genuinely popular forms of international politics around these days are those of the Islamist jihad. More hopeful, if only regional in scope, is Latin America’s anti-capitalist populism.
And so we are faced with the coming spectacle of the world-bestriding West retreating to petty nationalisms and new-fangled racism. Having long ago allowed its economic internationalism to be overtaken by the imperialist pipedreams of liberal interventionism, the establishment left has nothing to offer but warmed over social welfare policies and economic nationalism of its own.
Welcome to the world of Homeland Politics, an ironic outcome of neoliberal globalisation.
It is time to imagine new internationalisms and a new global politics for the twenty-first century.
Tarak Barkawi is Reader in the Department of International Relations, London School of Economics.