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  • Hannah McHugh

Looking Inward: Why we are turning to nationalism to face an international threat

Updated: Apr 27



Coronavirus anywhere is a health threat everywhere. This common threat requires, in so many ways, a common response. Medical researchers must share their expertise and findings so that a vaccine is discovered and disseminated with haste. Adequate supplies for treatment and testing require global supply chains; no one nation can source all they need for this in domestic isolation. Surveillance and control of outbreaks across the world will be needed to protect us all; we have learned that outbreaks don’t respect borders. Our economies are mutually dependent; turbulence anywhere can become a problem for supply chains globally.

Why then, with this in mind, is there such a strong tendency towards nationalistic policy and politicians? Trump has withdrawn the US from the WHO, and is pursuing protectionist economic policies as part of a continued trade war with China. Italy, Spain and Portugal ask the EU where the solidarity is as they have to fight to convince Germany and the Netherlands that the economic threat is truly of common concern. India produces a significant portion of the medicines needed in the crisis yet has stoked the flames of tensions with neighbouring countries. Closer to home, the UK Health Minister is under fire for seeking to lean on international expertise to create a vaccine, whilst also prioritising British citizens for its distribution.

Facing a global crisis by looking inward is, in the best possible interpretation, the least attractive option countries have. Yet, so much about this crisis reinforces the recent emerging waves of nationalism across the world.


The answer to why this is happening lies in the predictable nature of problems of collective action. Such problems present a paradoxical situation in which our rational individual interests and our rational group interests conflict. However, while the trap is set for us we must be cautious and aware that falling into believing a rhetoric that asserts ‘it’s us or them’ is in our collective disinterest. We must see that we can only escape this pandemic together.


Problems of collective action – the prisoners’ dilemma


A collective action problem is a situation whereby all individuals would be better off by acting in coordination, however, they fail to do so because players have a high incentive to pursue self-interested strategies. These self-interests conflict with the cooperative strategy and therefore disincentivise a joint approach. The prisoners’ dilemma is one of the most famous examples of this problem and arises from the literature on Game Theory. This dilemma distils the difference between the potential payoffs for selfishness versus cooperation in many instances. Consider this example:


Two prisoners are accused of committing a crime. The prisoners are made an offer: if one prisoner confesses, whilst another stays silent, the confessor will be released immediately whilst the silent prisoner will serve a sentence of 20 years. If both confess, they will each serve 15 years. If neither confess, they will be released after a few months. They cannot communicate with each other, and therefore do not know what the other will do.


Given that not confessing carries a risk of a 20-year sentence, both prisoners have a self-interested reason to confess. Paradoxically however, pursuing this self-interested reason will lead both prisoners inevitably to a result that is far worse for them than if they had acted together by staying silent. There is a conflict between their individual interests, and their group interests.

There are many collective and individual interests at play in this crisis. In the absence of a supranational state, countries must behave like the prisoners in the sense that they must try to predict what other countries will do.

I don’t aim to fit every and all matters raised here into the rubric of the prisoner’s dilemma, as many games are operating in this crisis. I do however aim show that there are conflicting strategies at play. Some of these strategies pursue an approach marked by international cooperation, and others by nationalism. In many instances, nationalistic policy is in the collective disinterest of citizens everywhere despite appearing to be in our individual interest.

The appeal of nationalism


Why is nationalism so appealing to our individual self-interest as nations?

A catastrophe such as this leads to fear. Nationalism is sold to us as the antidote. Nation states do have financial, organisational and cultural institutions that the international community lacks. The messaging is simplistic and attractive: ‘How could we have come to be dependent on other nations for medical supplies?’ ‘We can only afford to care for our own’ ‘It’s us or them.

These claims are evocative but do not paint a full picture of the factors which apply to the problems they touch upon. No one country could efficiently and cost effectively produce all it needs alone. The dangers of policy goals that appeal to the national sentiments of the majority we know from history can be dangerous. Dangerous not just to the minorities within a country, but to us as a collective. Let’s not forget how closely current measures track the events and trends of history. On behalf of the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England, Gertjan Vlieghe said this week that “If we were the central bank of the Weimar Republic or Zimbabwe, the mechanical transactions on our balance sheet would be similar to what is actually happening in the UK right now.”[1] The political risks which will follow this period are obvious.


Politicians seek re-election, and they have an incentive to deliver electable messages to their domestic audiences. Nationalism is appealing to us when we fear a global threat. Democracy is not enough for us to rely on to prevent nationalistic policies becoming authoritarian and moreover, dangerous in the longer-term. Elected groups may reflect the majority, but they can quickly become a tyranny of that majority. Such tyrannies have historically then taken swift steps to consolidate power with criticism of existing institutions and dangerous claims that not all citizens ought to be entitled to a vote and voice – think how such claims have been whispered among those of us dissatisfied after the Brexit referendum. Think of how governments in recent times have been quick to discredit domestic institutions; such as the US government’s allegations of voter fraud, undermining of intelligence agencies and suggestions that there may be a deep-state operating in US bureaucracy. We should not be deluded that the steps to tyranny are far away.


Nationalist policies do have initial appeal, but the international risks are shared by all. If one country asserts it will prioritise its own citizens upon discovering a vaccine, then all countries will have individual incentives to seek the vaccine first and to act in ways that conflict with international cooperation. A discovery by any research institution is necessary information to researchers everywhere. Non-cooperation on matters such as medical research of a vaccine will slow finding it, and is a risk to every nation. This will be true of so many non-cooperative responses to this crisis.


The World Bank point out that the same is true of protectionist policies towards medical supplies, highlighting that this would ‘cost more, and variety and quality will suffer, as we lose the benefits of scale and specialisation through trade.’ It concludes that, ‘deeper international cooperation will be the most effective vaccine against viral protectionism.’[2]


We lambast those who go to the supermarket to hoard all of the toilet roll; why should we not react the same way towards our governments when they hold onto globally necessary resources?


Our collective interests are the ones that serve us in the long-term


Favouring the domestic economy in the short-term won’t take you far in the long-term. Reducing rates of infection in one country will do little to prevent it’s return in the future if action is not coordinated.

We face the threatening irony that, whilst the pain caused by the conflict of the Second World War led us to a model of supranational coordination and governance, the common threat of COVID-19 may pull us apart again. This would be to the detriment of every nation.



[1] Gertjan Vlieghe was speaking in defence of the stimulus measures announced by the Bank of England in the wake of the crisis and distinguishing the approach taken from that of Germany’s central bank during the money-printing days of the Weimar Republic, or that of Zimbabwe, which suffered hyper-inflation more recently. Emphasis on political risks is my own. https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/-/media/boe/files/speech/2020/monetary-policy-and-the-boes-balance-sheet-speech-by-gertjan-vlieghe.pdf?la=en&hash=D76269239470F000514B5F6AA76500590254DBDC [2] https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/viral-protectionism-time-coronavirus


[3] Image taken by Daria Sannikova


#coronavirus #gametheory #prisonersdilemma #nationalism #internationalcooperation

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