Rumors out of the White House are that a civil war has broken out between “nationalists” and “globalists” within the administration, embodied in a power struggle between chief strategist Steve Bannon and President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, respectively. The globalists appear to be on the ascendant, signified not only by reports that Bannon’s star is on the wane in the White House, but also by President Trump’s recent reversals on a number of stances taken during last year’s campaign, ranging from the missile strike on Syria he ordered last week to his claim that China is not manipulating its currency and his statement in support of the Export-Import Bank.
I don’t have any special insights into this palace intrigue. Rather, I want to question the supposed contrast between nationalism and globalism shaping the narrative. Very early in the campaign the narrative emerged that the presidential election was a referendum on globalization, with insurgents like Trump among the Republicans and Bernie Sanders among the Democrats representing (in quite different ways) resistance to neoliberal globalization, and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and more establishment Republicans like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio as globalization’s champions. Damon Linker, for example, noted a widening divide between cosmopolitan liberalism and the “new nationalism” based on “particularistic attachments.”
New York Times opinion writer David Brooks even argued that the presidential campaign was a major step toward political re-alignment, with the Democratic Party becoming the party of “those who feel the core trends of the global, information-age economy as tailwinds at their backs” and the Republican Party that of “those who feel them as headwinds in their face.”
The different versions of this narrative, whether they pit the global against the particular or globalization’s winners against its losers, present too simple an understanding of globalization. They portray globalization as a single, powerful force that either carries you along or knocks you down, that one can either sit astride or resist. Recent Catholic teaching on globalization, however, recognizes that even though globalization represents a social phenomenon impossible to completely harness, it can be shaped in ways beneficial or harmful to the common good.
As Pope John Paul II noted in his 2001 Address to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, “Globalization, a priori, is neither good nor bad. It will be what people make of it.” Pope Benedict XVI goes further in his 2009 encyclical Caritas in Veritate, writing, “If globalization is viewed from a deterministic standpoint, the criteria with which to evaluate and direct it are lost. As a human reality, it is the product of diverse cultural tendencies, which need to be subjected to a process of discernment. The truth of globalization as a process and its fundamental ethical criterion are given by the unity of the human family and its development towards what is good” (no. 42).
One of the most common ways of speaking about globalization is in terms of the acceleration and intensification of flows across borders—flows of capital, goods and services, people, culture, information and data, and even diseases and crime. Globalization’s most uncritical cheerleaders have made the mistake of seeing this process of accelerating flows as an unabashedly positive development, but globalization’s opponents make the mistake of thinking that the only way to alleviate the harms caused by these accelerating flows is to stop them in their tracks.
Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing writes that globalization is better understood in terms of “friction,” the contact between wheel and road that produces motion but that can also lead to resistance. Globalization is a continuous series of conflicts, contestations, and negotiations at times leading to the freer flow of products, people, or information, but at others raising barriers. The question is not whether to be for or against globalization, but rather which social groups and movements can be mobilized to shape globalization’s dynamics, and for what ends.
Catholic teaching insists that we should aim toward a globalization based on the dignity of the person, the common good, and the unity of the human family. It also proposes that we should pay special attention to those made most vulnerable by the dynamics of globalization. At the international level this means, for example, strengthening international institutions to regulate the global economy in ways that benefit the poorest nations, such as by putting limits on the free flow of capital or by creating trade agreements with terms beneficial to those nations.
In the context of policy in the United States this means, for example, building communities that welcome immigrants and refugees (while also working to alleviate the violence or economic instability in their home countries spurring their migration) and working to increase the stake of workers in business enterprises.
The war between “globalism” and “nationalism” in the White House is in a way a side show since neither provides real solutions to the frictions generated by globalization. Bannon’s nationalism is a weird blend of white ethnonationalism and extreme conservative (almost libertarian) orthodoxy on economic policy (with the exception of trade) that presents immigrants, Muslims, and the Chinese as scapegoats but offers little that will truly help Trump’s economically and culturally insecure base.
The globalists have little to offer but a continuation of the policies that generated the Trump and Sanders insurgencies in the first place. The real question is whether we can empower communities to both expand the opportunities for their members so that they can benefit from globalization while also harnessing its more destructive dynamics.
Matthew A. Shadle is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. He has published The Origins of War: A Catholic Perspective (Georgetown, 2011). His work focuses on the development of Catholic social teaching and its intersection with both fundamental moral theology and the social sciences, with special focus on war and peace, the economy, and immigration.