So two weeks ago, I searched the word "nationalist" on Twitter. The results were quite colorful, with expressions like, "Emboldened Racist Moron," —
"White Supremacist Idiot," "Fascist Sock Puppets," —
"Orwellian, Hitlerian, Terrifying." I then searched the word "globalist" and got things like, "Socialist Sell-Outs," "Disgusting Corporate Propaganda," "Elitist Financial Overlords," "Ruthless Cosmopolitan Rats."
Even by social media standards, the words are cruel and disgusting. But they reflect the intensity of one of the most fundamental questions of our times: Nationalism or globalism — what is the best path forward? This question impacts everything we care about: our cultural identity, our prosperity, our political systems — everything — the health of our planet — everything.
So on the one hand, we have nationalism. Collins defines it as a "devotion to one's nation," but also, a "doctrine that puts national interests above international considerations." For nationalists, our modern societies are built on national grounds: we share a land, a history, a culture, and we defend each other. In a big and chaotic world, they see nationalism as the only sensible way to maintain social stability. But alarmed globalists warn us: self-centered nationalism can easily turn ugly. We've seen it with 20th-century fascisms: bloody wars, millions of deaths, immeasurable destruction.
On the other hand, we have globalism. The Oxford Living Dictionary defines it as: "the operation or planning of economic and foreign policy on a global basis." For nationalists, globalism is rapidly deconstructing what our ancestors took decades to build. It's like spitting on our soldiers' tombs; it's eroding our national solidarities and opening the doors to foreign invasions. But globalists make the case that reinforcing our global governance is the only way to tackle big supernational problems, like nuclear proliferation, the global refugee crisis, climate change or terrorism or even the consequences of superhuman AI. So we are at the crossroads, and we are asked to choose: nationalism or globalism?
Having lived in four continents, I've always been interested in this question. But it took a whole new level when I saw this happening: the biggest surge in nationalist votes in Western democracies since World War II. All of a sudden, this isn't theory anymore. I mean, these political movements have built their success with ideas that could mean, down the road, losing my French citizenship because I'm North African or not being able to come back home to the US because I come from a Muslim-majority country.
You know, when you live in a democracy, you live with this idea that your government will always protect you, as long as you abide by the laws. With the rise of national populism, despite being the best citizen I can, I now have to live with the idea that my government can hurt me for reasons I cannot control. It's very unsettling. But it forced me to rethink and rethink this question and try to think deeper. And the more I thought about it, the more I started questioning the question. Why would we have to choose between nationalism and globalism, between loving our country and caring for the world? There's no reason for that. We don't have to choose between family and country or region or religion and country. We already have multiple identities, and we live with them very well. Why would we have to choose between country and world? What if, instead of accepting this absurd choice, we took it on ourselves to fight this dangerous, binary thinking?
So for all the globalists in the audience, I want to ask: When I say the word "nationalist," what image comes to your mind? Something like this? Believe me, I think of that, too. But I'd like you to remember that for most people, nationalism feels more like this. Or maybe like that. You know, it's that thing inside you when you accidentally watch an obscure Olympic sport on TV —
wait — and the mere sight of an unknown athlete wearing your national colors gets you all excited. Your heartbeat goes up, your stress level goes up, and you're standing in front of the TV and screaming with passion for that athlete to win. That's nationalism. It's people happy to be together, happy to belong to a large national community. Why would it be wrong?
You know, globalists, you may think of nationalism as an old, 19th-century idea that is destined to fade. But I'm sorry to tell you that the facts are not on your side. When the World Values Survey asked more than 89,000 people across 60 countries how proud they felt about their country, 88.5 percent said "very proud" or "quite proud" — 88.5 percent. Nationalism is not going away anytime soon. It's a powerful feeling that, according to another study, is a strong predictor of individual happiness. It's crazy, but your happiness is more correlated with national satisfaction than with things you would expect, like household income or your job satisfaction or your health satisfaction. So if nationalism makes people happy, why would anybody take it away from them?
Fellow globalists, if you are like me, you may be attached to globalization for humanistic reasons. And you may take great joy in some of its accomplishments since 1945. After all, major regions of the world have been exceptionally peaceful; extreme poverty rates around the globe are trending down; and more than two billion people, most notably in Asia, show spectacular improvements in their standards of living. But studies also show that globalization has a dark side. And left on the side of the road are hundreds of millions of people in Western middle classes with anemic income growth for more than two decades, possibly three decades, according to some studies. We cannot ignore this elephant in our room. If anything, our collective energy would be better used finding ways to fix this aspect of globalization, instead of fighting this polarizing battle against nationalism.
So now, the nationalists in the audience, I have some crusty, nonbinary nuggets for you.
When I say the word "globalist," what comes to your mind? Out-of-touch, one-percent plutocrats?
Or maybe the heartless, greedy Wall Street type, right? Or maybe people like me, with multiple origins, living in a big, cosmopolitan metropolis.
Well, you remember that World Values Survey that I mentioned earlier? It showed another fascinating finding: 71 percent of the world population agreed with the statement, "I am a citizen of the world." Do you know what it means? Most of us are simultaneously proud of our country and citizens of the world. And it gets even better. The citizens of the world in the survey show a higher level of national pride than the ones that rejected that label. So once and for all, being a globalist doesn't mean betraying your country. It just means that you have enough social empathy, and you project some of it outside your national borders.
Now, I know that when I dig into my own nationalist feelings, one of my anxieties versus the globalized world is national identity: How are we going to preserve what makes us special, what makes us different, what brings us together? And as I started thinking about it, I realized something really strange, which is that a lot of the key ingredients of our national identities actually come from outside our national borders. Like, think of the letters that we use every day. I don't know if you realize, but the Latin script, the Latin alphabet that we use has its origins thousands of years ago, near the Nile River. It all started with a cow just like this, that was captured by a scribe into an elegant hieroglyph. That hieroglyph was transcribed by a Semite in the Sinai into the letter aleph. Aleph traveled with Phoenicians and reached the European shores in Greece, where it became alpha, the mother of our letter A. So that's how an Egyptian cow became our letter A.
And same thing with the Egyptian house that became bet, beta and B. And the Egyptian fish that became daleth, delta and D. Our most fundamental texts are full of Egyptian cows, houses and fish.
And there are so many other examples. Take the United Kingdom and its monarchy. Queen Elizabeth II? German ancestry. The mottos on the royal coat of arms? All written in French, not a single word of English. Take France and it's iconic Eiffel Tower. The inspiration? The United States of America — and I don't mean Las Vegas, I mean 19th-century New York.
This was the tallest building in New York in the mid-19th century. Does it remind you of something? And you may think of China as a self-contained civilization, protected behind its Great Wall. But think twice. The Chinese official ideology? Marxism, made in Germany. One of China's biggest religions? Buddhism, imported from India. India's favorite pastime? Cricket. I really love this quote from Ashis Nandy, who said, "Cricket is an Indian game accidentally discovered by the British."
So these are good reminders that a lot of what we love in our national traditions actually come from previous waves of globalization. And beyond individual symbols, there are whole national traditions that could not have existed without globalization. And the example that comes to my mind is a world-beloved national tradition: Italian cuisine. My friends, if you ever have a chance to go to a superauthentic Italian restaurant that only serves ancient Roman recipes, my advice for you is: don't go.
You'd get very, very disappointed. No spaghetti, no pasta — that really started in Sicily in the eighth century, when it was under Arabian rule. No perfect espresso, no creamy cappuccino — that came from Abyssinia via Yemen in the 17th century. And of course, no perfect pizza Napoletana — how would you make it without the tomatoes of the New World? No, instead, you would be served probably a lot of porridge, some vegetable — mostly cabbage — some cheese, and maybe if you're lucky, the absolute delicacy of that time — mmm, perfectly cooked fattened dormice.
Thankfully, it was not a close tradition preserved by fanatic watchdogs. No, it was an open process, nourished by explorers, traders, street sellers and innovative home cooks. And in many ways, globalization is a chance for our national traditions to be questioned, regenerated, reinterpreted, to attract new converts to stay vibrant and relevant over time.
So just remember this: most of us nationalists in the world are globalists, and most of us globalists in the world are nationalists. A lot of what we like in our national traditions come from outside our national borders. And the reason we venture outside our national borders is to discover these other national traditions. So the real question should not be to choose between nationalism and globalism. The real questions is: How can we do both better? It's a complex question for a complex world that calls for creative, nonbinary solutions.
What are you waiting for?