The virus of “crisis nationalism”

What role might peace and global citizenship education play in addressing nationalist responses to a shared global crisis such as COVID-19? 

By Werner Wintersteiner

“Mastery over nature? We are unable as yet to control our own nature, whose madness impels us to mastery over nature while losing our own self-control. […] We can kill viruses, but we are defenseless in front of new viruses, that taunt us, undergo mutations and renewals. Even as far as bacteria and viruses are concerned, we are compelled to strike a deal with life and nature.”  -Edgar Morin1

“Humanity needs to make a choice. Will we travel down the route of disunity, or will we adopt the path of global solidarity?” – Yuval Noah Harari2 

“Crisis Nationalism”

The Corona crisis shows us the state of the world. It shows us that globalization has so far brought interdependence without mutual solidarity. The virus is spreading globally, and combating it would require global efforts at many levels. But the states react with national tunnel vision. Here (nationalist) ideology triumphs over reason, sometimes even over limited economic or health policy reason. Not even in the self-proclaimed “peace power Europe,” the European Union, is there any sense of cohesion. “The member states are gripped by crisis nationalism,” as Austrian journalist Raimund Löw puts it very aptly.3

In contrast, a perspective of global citizenship would be appropriate to the global crisis. This does not mean an illusionary “global perspective,” which does not even exist, but it means abandoning “methodical nationalism” (Ulrich Beck) and renouncing the “reflex” of nationalism, local patriotism and group egoism, at least in the perception of the problem. It also means to give up the attitude of “America first, Europe first, Austria first,” (etc.) in judging and acting and to adopt global justice as the guiding principle. Is it too much to ask? This is nothing other than the insight that we as a nation, as a state or as a continent cannot save ourselves individually when we are confronted with global challenges. And that we therefore need both global thinking and global political structures.

That it has never been easy to counter these identitarian reflexes is well illustrated in the play Der Weltuntergang (End of the World) (1936) by the Austrian poet Jura Soyfer. Against the background of the rise of National Socialism, he draws a scenario of absolute threat – namely the danger of the extinction of humankind. But how do people react? Three phases can be identified: the first reaction is denial, then comes panic, and finally a (hardly meaningful) activism at any price.4 First, politicians do not believe the warnings of science. But as the catastrophe approaches undeniably, no solidarity can be observed, so that together we can perhaps avert the danger after all. Neither between the states, nor within the individual societies. Rather, the richest once again profit from the situation by issuing a “doomsday bond” and investing in a wickedly expensive spaceship to save themselves individually. After all, only a miracle can avert the doom. The comet, sent to destroy the earth, falls in love with it and therefore spares it. The play is an indirect but very urgent appeal to global solidarity.

Today, of course, everything is completely different. The COVID-19 crisis is not the end of the world, and most governments are making every effort to take all necessary measures to slow the spread of the virus to the point where counterforces can now be built. And in Austria, efforts are being made to cushion the effects socially and in terms of generations. However, especially in an exceptional situation such as this, we must not be completely absorbed in coping with everyday life; more than ever, we need critical observation and critical thinking. After all, the corona virus suddenly makes it possible to restrict fundamental rights which would be unthinkable in normal times.

However, especially in an exceptional situation such as this, we must not be completely absorbed in coping with everyday life; more than ever, we need critical observation and critical thinking.

We can ask ourselves, for example: Is everything really quite different from the play by Jura Soyfer? Do we not already know the behaviors the poet describes – denial, panic, actionism – from the climate crisis? What are we doing to ensure that the mistakes that have so far prevented us from effectively curbing climate change are not repeated in the current crisis? Above all: Where is our solidarity given our much-vaunted “common earthly fate?” Because in one point our reality differs very clearly from the theatre play: no miracle will save us.

The drastic effects of narrow (national or Eurocentric) tunnel vision will now be shown with a few examples.

Perception: A “Chinese virus?”

Only when the epidemic spread to Italy did we remember that globalization means complex interdependence – not only of trade connections, production chains and capital flows, but also of viruses.

The narrow view already clouds our perception of the problem. For weeks, if not months, we have been able to observe the corona epidemic, but we have dismissed it as a Chinese affair that only affects us peripherally. (Of course, the initial cover-up attempts by the Chinese government also contributed to this). President Trump now speaks quite specifically of the “Chinese virus,” having originally dubbed it a “foreign virus.”5 And let us remember the first “explanations” for the outbreak of the disease – the questionable eating habits of the Chinese and the poor sanitary conditions in the wild markets. The moralizing and also racist undertone could not be ignored. Only when the epidemic spread to Italy did we remember that globalization means complex interdependence – not only of trade connections, production chains and capital flows, but also of viruses. However, we do not want to take note of the fact that our methods of factory farming already cause epidemics with a certain regularity and promote a resistance of bacteria to antibiotics, which is still little talked about but which is already fatal a thousand times a year, and that our entire way of life therefore increases existing risks on a global scale.

Action: “Every man for himself” as a solution?

Corona has once again confirmed what was already noted last year on the occasion of the first truly global discussion on the climate crisis: global threats do not automatically lead to global solidarity. In every crisis we react in principle, i.e. if we have not previously established other mechanisms, not according to the motto “stick together,” but according to the maxim “every man for himself.” So it is no wonder that most states considered border closures to be the first and most effective measure to stem the spread of corona. It will be said that border closures are a reasonable choice, because health systems are organized on a national basis and there are no other instruments available. That is true, but it is not the whole truth. Instead of blanket border closures, would it not be more sensible to isolate affected “regions,” and to do so solely on the basis of the health risk, that is to say, across borders where necessary? The fact that this is not possible at present is, after all, an indication of how imperfect our international system is. We have created global problems, but we have not created mechanisms for global solutions. There is the World Health Organization (WHO), but it has very few competences, is only 20% financed by the member countries and is therefore dependent on private donors, including pharmaceutical companies. Its role to date in the Corona crisis is controversial. And not even the member states of the EU have been able to develop a pan-European healthcare system to any degree. Health policy is a national competence. And no appropriate structures have been created for the EU civil protection mechanism, adopted in 2001. That is why we are responding as we did in the “refugee crisis” – closing borders. But it works even less well with a virus than with people on the run.

The (national) egoism goes even further. A special example is probably the case of the Tyrolean winter sports areas in Austria. Apparently the tardiness of the Tyrolean tourism industry and health authorities is responsible for dozens of infections of international skiers, which has caused a snowball effect in several countries. Despite the warnings of the emergency doctors, the Icelandic health authorities and the Robert Koch Institute, skiing was neither stopped immediately nor were the guests isolated. Meanwhile the courts are already dealing with the case. “The virus has been brought from Tyrol into the world with the eyes of the beholder. It would be overdue to admit this and apologize for it,” an Innsbruck hotelier quite rightly said.6 He is thus one of the few to address Austria’s international responsibility and thus the idea of worldwide solidarity.

The negative impact on ourselves of this attitude of national isolation, which Austria shares, became apparent during the crisis weeks in mid-March 2020: the German export ban on medical equipment, which was lifted after protests, prevented for a week urgently needed and already paid for material from being imported into Austria.7 Even more serious is the situation of home care for old and sick people, where our country is dependent on caregivers from EU (neighboring) countries. However, due to the closing of the borders, they can no longer carry out their duties in the usual manner.

In the meantime, the European Union, which apparently has itself switched to emergency operation, has at least achieved that trade in medical equipment within the EU has been fully liberalized again, while at the same time exports from the Union are restricted8. A learning process? Perhaps. But is this not ultimately a European egoism rather than a national one? And the test of international solidarity will only come when Africa is more strongly affected by Corona!

The lack of European solidarity has had the worst impact on Italy. The countries of the European Union, although affected later than Italy, have been preoccupied with themselves for the longest time. “The EU is abandoning Italy in its hour of need. In a shameful abdication of responsibility, fellow countries in the European Union have failed to give medical assistance and supplies to Italy during an outbreak,” says a commentary in the US journal Foreign Policy, without mentioning that the USA has also ignored Italy’s call for help.9 On the other hand, China, Russia and Cuba have sent medical personnel and equipment. China also supports European countries such as Serbia, which have been left alone by the EU. This is interpreted by some media as Chinese power politics.10 Be that as it may, the EU would have it in its power to assist a candidate country too!

A bizarre situation has also arisen on the island of Ireland, where – as long as the Brexit has not yet been fully completed – the border between the Republic and British Northern Ireland is not perceptible in everyday life. With Corona, this has changed. For a while Dublin, like most EU states, introduced strict restrictions on contact, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson did not consider this necessary for the longest time (the ideology of “herd immunity”) and left schools open, even in Northern Ireland. This prompted the Austrian radio (ORF) correspondent to make the following comment: “Once again, it’s about showing how British you are. […]” With the coronavirus, identity itself seems to be above geography. It is bizarre that an invisible border should decide whether children go to school or not.11

Neglect: Who else speaks of the refugees?

In all the measures taken by the Austrian government, however sensible they may be, it is striking that there is hardly any mention of the poorest and most lawless people in society – people who live in refugee quarters in our country, sometimes in very confined spaces, and who are probably particularly at risk in the event of infection. Asylum and migration have receded into the background in media reporting. The misery of refugees on the island of Lesbos – also within the EU – seems to have been pushed out of the daily news now that we are so busy with ourselves. States such as Germany, which until recently had declared itself willing to accept unaccompanied young people and families, have postponed the project. And Austria never wanted to participate in this initiative anyway. Even the urgent appeals by the UN refugee agency as well as by European civil society for the evacuation of the refugee camps in Greece have so far gone unheard.12 In the crisis, national egoism is having particularly fatal consequences. The writer Dominik Barta vividly demonstrates what the lack of citizenship in the case of the Corona crisis means in practice:

“The Milanese citizen who dies of the coronavirus dies in his country, under the hands of exhausted doctors who spoke Italian to him for as long as they could. He will be buried in his community and mourned by his family. The refugee on Lesbos will die without a doctor ever having seen him. Far from his family, he will, as they say, perish. A nameless dead man who will be taken from the camp in a plastic bag. The Syrian or Kurdish or Afghan or Pakistani or Somali refugee will be a corpse after his death, kept in no personalized grave. If at all, he will be included in the anonymous series of statistics. […] Do we Europeans, especially in times of crisis, have a feeling for the scandal of a completely disenfranchised existence?”13  

Boasting: “War” against Corona?

Governments around the world have “declared war” on the coronavirus. China has made a start, with President Xi Jinping’s slogan, “let the party’s flag fly high on the battlefield front line.”14 Some more samples: “South Korea declares ‘war’ on the coronavirus”; “Israel Wages War on Coronavirus and Quarantines Visitors”; “Trump’s War Against the Coronavirus Is Working” etc. And President Macron in France: “We are at war, the health war, mind you, we are fighting […] against an invisible enemy. …] And because we are at war, from now on every activity of the government and parliament must be directed towards the fight against the epidemic.”15 Even UN Secretary General António Guterres believes that this vocabulary should be used to draw attention to the seriousness of the situation.16

This militarization of language, which is not at all appropriate to the cause – the fight against a pandemic – nevertheless has a function. On the one hand, it is intended to increase social acceptance for drastic measures that restrict civil liberties. In a war, we would simply have to accept something like that! Secondly, it also creates the illusion that we can get the virus under control once and for all. Because wars are fought to win them. “We will win, and we will be morally stronger than before,” Macron, for example, who is under severe domestic political pressure because of his social policy, has pompously announced. That the virus has come to stay, and that we will probably have to live with it permanently, he does not say.

Talking about war is like talking about closing down borders. Both also have a symbolic meaning that should not be underestimated. It celebrates a return of state sovereignty. For the globalization of the economy has led to national governments having less and less influence on economic development at home and being unable to offer their citizens protection against declassification, unemployment and drastic changes in life. With Corona, we are experiencing a renationalization of politics and with it a new scope for governments. And so they talk about wars that they want to win and thus proclaim how powerful they are.

Answers: “Political cosmopolitanism”

All the national egoism mentioned above is at the same time matched by a great deal of helpfulness, friendliness and solidarity within society, but also by cross-border support. This willingness to show solidarity has found public expression in various forms. However, the lack of transnational political structures and “methodical nationalism” currently still prevent this willingness to show solidarity from achieving corresponding global effectiveness. In this context, the magnificent worldwide cooperation of medical science in the Corona crisis shows what potential for global solidarity is already available today. And the cooperation of the regions below the state level also apparently works: patients from the severely affected French Alsace were brought to neighboring Switzerland or Baden-Württemberg (Germany).17

It is significant that one of the few who consistently make global policy proposals to curb corona is billionaire Bill Gates, of all people, who already in February (when many of us still hoped to get off scot-free) in an article in the New England Journal of Medicine18 demanded that the rich states should help the poorer ones. Their weak health care systems could quickly become overburdened and they would also have less resources to absorb the economic consequences. Medical equipment and especially vaccines should not be sold at the highest possible profit, but should first be made available to the regions that need them most. With the help of the international community, the health care of low and middle-income countries (LMICs) must be structurally raised to a higher level in order to be prepared for further pandemics. Here the problematic constellation is repeated in an almost classic way, namely that the states – which claim democracy and social justice for themselves – pursue a narrowly nationalistic policy while leaving global engagement to the large corporations (and their interests). Even the Bill Gates Foundation, whose commitment to health issues is undisputed, is partly financed by profits from companies that – produce junk food.19

This means nothing other than applying the democratic principles that apply within our states to foreign policy, in order to replace the prevailing law of the strongest with the strength of law.

In the current situation, criticism of the national special paths may seem like a hopeless moral appeal. But the insights that Corona (once again) gives us are not new. Already decades ago, scientists like Carl Friedrich Weizsäcker or Ulrich Beck propagated the concept of “world domestic politics.” This means nothing other than applying the democratic principles that apply within our states to foreign policy, in order to replace the prevailing law of the strongest with the strength of law. Suitable structures must also be created for this purpose. The German philosopher Henning Hahn calls this “political cosmopolitanism,” which must complement an already existing “moral cosmopolitanism.”20 He is not the only one who advocates the “realistic utopia of a global human rights regime.” In other words: the forces in science and civil society that are working for a democratization of the world society, for global citizenship, are already there. However, they still have too little political weight, even though the former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon tried to convince the states of the world of this orientation with his appeal “We must foster global citizenship” in 2012.21 In our specific case, this means that we must create structures and mechanisms or strengthen existing ones, such as the WHO, outside of times of crisis, so that they can provide global coordination and mutual assistance in the event of epidemics and pandemics. For this is the sine qua non for actually overcoming the “every man for himself” reflex. After all, health experts warned at the latest with the Ebola crisis in 2015 that it is not a question of whether, but only a question of when, until the next pandemic breaks out.22

Learning: “Being there on the planet”

Thoughtlessly we have enjoyed the benefits of globalization. While the climate crisis and political movements like Fridays for Future have strongly reminded us that in doing so we are living at the expense of the vast mass of the world’s poorer people and at the expense of future generations. However, this vague insight has not yet led to corresponding consequences. We do not want to give up our “imperial mode of living” (Ulrich Brand) so easily. But perhaps the current pandemic can lead us to a deeper insight. After all, we have now taken drastic measures in just a few days, while we have been all too hesitant to tackle the fight against climate change. And so the understanding that we need to act together is not new. Even 30 years ago, Milan Kundera warned against the euphoria of the “one world,” which in the final analysis is nothing more than a “world risk society” (Ulrich Beck): “The oneness of humanity means that no one can escape anywhere.”23

Based on similar considerations, the French philosopher Edgar Morin coined the terms “common earthly fate” and “homeland earth.” We must realize that we are dependent on each other worldwide. Today, there can be no more national special paths for the great world problems. If we want to have a future, Morin argued, we cannot avoid a radical change in our lifestyles, our economy and our political organization. Without renouncing the nation states, it is necessary to create transnational and global structures. But – and this is crucial – we would also have to develop a different culture to fill these structures with life. To take the “common earthly fate” seriously, he said:

“We must learn to ‘be there’ on the planet – to be, to live, to share, to communicate and commune with one another. Self-enclosed cultures always knew and taught that wisdom. From now on, we must learn to be, to live, to share, to communicate and commune as human beings of planet Earth. We must transcend, without excluding, out local cultural identities, and awaken to our being as citizens of the Earth.”24

If the corona crisis leads to this insight, then we have probably made the best out of what can be made of such a catastrophe.


About the Author

Retired University Professor Dr. Werner Wintersteiner, was the founder and long-standing director of the Center for Peace Research and Peace Education at the Alpen-Adria University of Klagenfurt, Austria; he is a member of the steering group of the Klagenfurt Master’s degree course “Global Citizenship Education.”


Notes

1 Edgar Morin/Anne Brigitte Kern: Homeland Earth. A Manifesto for the New Millennium. Cresskill: Hampton press 1999, p. 144-145.

2 http://archive.is/mGB55

3 Der Falter 13/2020, p. 6.

4 Cf. also the reference to the sociologist Philipp Strong, who has diagnosed very similar behavior in crises, in: https://www.wired.com/story/opinion-we-should-deescalate-the-war-on-the-coronavirus/

5 https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/18/trump-pandemic-drumbeat-coronavirus-135392

6 Steffen Arora, Laurin Lorenz, Fabian Sommavilla in: The Standard online, 17.3.2020.

7 https://www.wienerzeitung.at/nachrichten/politik/oesterreich/2054840-Deutschland-genehmigte-Ausfuhr-von-Schutzausruestung.html

8 NZZ, 17. 3. 2020.

9 Foreign Policy, 14. 3. 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/03/14/coronavirus-eu-abandoning-italy-china-aid/

10 E.g. Der Tagesspiegel, 19. 3. 2020: „How China is securing influence in Europe in the corona crisis“.

11 Martin Alioth, ORF Mittagsjournal, 17. 3. 2020.

12 To be found for example at: www.volkshilfe.at

13 Dominik Barta: Viren, Völker, Rechte [viruses, peoples, rights]. In: The Standard, 20. 3. 2020, p. 23.

14 China Daily, zitiert nach: https://www.wired.com/story/opinion-we-should-deescalate-the-war-on-the-coronavirus/

1f https://fr.news.yahoo.com/ (own translation).

16 Speech „Declare War on Virus“, 14 March 2020. https://www.un.org/sg/en

17 Badische Zeitung, 21 March 2020. https://www.badische-zeitung.de/baden-wuerttemberg-nimmt-schwerstkranke-corona-patienten-aus-dem-elsass-auf–184226003.html

18 https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp2003762?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_axiosam&stream=top

19 https://www.infosperber.ch/Artikel/Gesundheit/Corona-Virus-Das-Dilemma-der-WHO

20 Henning Hahn: Politischer Kosmopolitismus. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter 2017.

21 UNO Generalsekretär Ban Ki-moon, 26. September 2012, at the launch of his „Global Education First” Initiative (GEFI). https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2012-09-26/secretary-generals-remarks-launch-education-first-initiative

22 https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMp1502918

23 Milan Kundera: Die Kunst des Romans. Frankfurt: Fischer 1989, 19.

24 Morin 1999, as Note 1, p. 145.

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