This article first appeared in Taiwan’s Do Post.
In recent years, we have seen a wave of candidates and initiatives around the world that have been characterized as “nationalist” by both proponents and critics. From President Trump’s victory in the United States and the UK’s passage of Brexit to Jair Bolsonaro winning in Brazil’s recent election. Voters appear to be turning toward promises of independence and national pride.
Accusations have flown in the United States that nationalism is racist, un-American, or discriminatory. In reality, the kind of nationalism we are seeing is more consistent with putting the interests of your own nation first, balanced against the forces of globalism that are perceived as having gone too far to the disadvantage of our citizens.
The opposition that many in America claim to nationalism is that it oppresses the less fortunate - it’s racist, sexist, white-supremacist and anti-immigrant. Following the world wars, the visceral shun of extreme nationalism mixed with militarism was rational. The concept that led to the mass murder of millions of people was one that was not appealing to many.
More recently, the left in America has tried to equate even moderate and healthy nationalism with “white nationalism.” They are not the same thing.
For many countries, national identity is based on a shared ethnicity, language or religion. This is not the case in America. For Americans, national identity is based on a shared set of values - regardless of race, gender, birthplace or religion. Nationalism is a pride in those values, and a desire to do what is best for America to ensure those values live on.
In the 2016 campaign, President Trump accurately identified the desire among many in America to have a President who puts America first. Since being in office, the President has lived up to many of the America-first campaign promises that got him elected.
He has pulled us out of multilateral agreements that his supporters saw as unfair to the United States - think the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the Paris Climate Accords. He has reset the status quo of trade between nations to ensure the United States is not in unfair trade deals - think the trade war with China. He continues to fight to improve our border security and immigration systems. All while the economy has steadily improved and unemployment rates have gone down.
While the left in America attacks the President at every turn - the Republicans and independents who elected him recognize that the President’s actions have reset the United States’ position in the world. Many feel like he is the first leader in recent years who has put the interest of America above the interest of other nations or international organizations, and to many voters, that is a refreshing change.
The nationalist trend that has taken place around the globe can provide a few key lessons for Taiwan. Taiwan’s identity is based on what it is (a free, democratic country) and what it is not (communist).
But more than that, it is important for Taiwan’s leaders to recognize that they must always focus on putting Taiwan first, with a recognition that other countries will do the same. When interacting with leaders like President Trump, pro-Taiwan policies will not be forthcoming simply as a favor to Taiwan because it is a friendly democracy. There must be a clear benefit to the US in making the deal.
This trend brings to mind the phrase “it is not enough to do good, one must be seen doing good.” President Trump has mastered Twitter to communicate directly with voters. His actions are not hidden behind a sea of speeches and press releases, rather, he shares his agenda in short snippets, to show voters that he is putting America first. This lesson rings true for leaders around the world, including Taiwan. It is not enough to work behind the scenes to accomplish policy gains - the voters must see that.
Putting one’s own country first is something that we should want from our leaders. It is a trend that is growing in the United States and around the world, and one that leaders in Taiwan can make use of and benefit from in the future.