Trinity economist traces historic roots of economic nationalism

Posted on: 11 May 2023

From China’s ‘Wealth and Power’ to Trump’s ‘America first’ – Trinity economist traces the historic roots of economic nationalism

From China’s ‘Wealth & Power’ to Trump’s ‘America First’ – new research by Trinity economist Dr Marvin Suesse, explores the deep history underpinning the revival of economic nationalist policies and explains their appeal and inherent conflicts.

Drawing on historical case studies from thirty countries Marvin Suesse, Assistant Professor in the School of Social Sciences and Philosophy, paints a broad panorama of economic nationalism over the past 250 years in his new book “The Nationalist Dilemma: A Global History of Economic Nationalism, 1776-present”(Cambridge University Press).

Case studies examined by Dr Suesse range from how 18th century policy makers grappled with the development of an ‘independent’ US economy after the American Revolution through to the emergence of ‘resource nationalism’ in contemporary Latin America and Biden’s efforts to decouple the US economy from China.

Many nationalists seek to limit global exchange, but others prioritise economic development. The potential conflict between these two goals shapes nationalist policy making, according to Dr Suesse.

“National borders have started to matter again. Whereas a few years ago, policy makers would have talked about ‘interconnectedness’ and ‘globalisation’, the catch words of the day are ‘decoupling’ or ‘economic security’. These efforts are often associated with Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ and the sloganeering of Eurosceptics, most notably in Britain. Yet this revival of economic nationalism goes much deeper than its most obvious manifestations.

“It is visible in Joseph Biden’s sustained efforts to decouple the US economy from China, which mirror the efforts of the Chinese leadership to develop its home markets and indigenise technological innovation. It is similarly visible in a renewed focus on industrial policy championed in Germany, France and even at the level of the European Union.

“Comparable trends also emerge in the Global South, from Narendra Modi’s plan to develop a ‘self-sufficient’ India to the rise of ‘resource nationalism’ in sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America. Finally, resistance to migration continues to motivate and rile voters across the globe – protests that often draw on a potent stew of domestic inequality and rising costs of living that stoke xenophobic resentment.”

The book explains why economic nationalism has become influential, despite the internal contradictions and chequered record of many nationalist policy makers. At the root of economic nationalism's appeal is its ability to capitalise upon economic inequality, both domestic and international, Dr Suesse argues. These inequalities, are reinforced by political factors such as empire building, ethnic conflicts, and financial crises. This has given rise to powerful nationalist movements that have decisively shaped the global exchange of goods, people, and capital.

Head shot of Dr Marvin Suesse“At the most fundamental level, nationalists want two separate things when they think about the economy. For one, they are interested in isolation. They want trade and investment to occur among co-nationals, and they want domestic firms to employ domestic workers. This is what we are most familiar with when we think of characters such as Donald Trump and Nigel Farage.”

However, according to Dr Suesse, this is not the whole story. “In many developing countries, and especially in postcolonial societies in the Global South, economic nationalists have also pursued a second aim: economic development, or as Chinese thinkers sometimes refer to it: growing ‘Wealth and Power’. In this sense, economic nationalism is not only a divisive and isolationist project, but it can also be an emancipatory one.”

“The real dilemma nationalists face is how to combine and reconcile these isolationist and developmental strands in their thinking. Very often, these strands will conflict, because it is frequently not possible to pursue high growth rates while also achieving self-sufficiency at the same time. My research has investigated how nationalists have dealt with this tension.”

“The Nationalist Dilemma: A Global History of Economic Nationalism, 1776-present” (Cambridge University Press).

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