The world has become increasingly interconnected. In some ways, this has benefited us. As the cliché goes, we can drink coffee grown in Columbia, take cheap flights to Mexico, watch Italian cinema on Japanese technology, and buy endless do-dads manufactured in China for pennies on the dollar.
But all this interconnected comes at a price. When the world faces a crisis, such as a pandemic, it means that all the dominoes fall at once, and no one is spared. In the case of the Covid-19 coronavirus, the result has been both a massive public health and economic risk to all countries that are reliant on China and the free movement of goods and labor across borders—which, in our globalized world, is basically everyone.
Yet, the old model of the nation state, for all the inconveniences that it may cause for capitalists and globalists, is a much more self-sufficient and anti-fragile model that will re-emerge out of necessity when there is a big enough crisis. Only time will tell if Covid-19 is the big one that accelerates this trend.
Nationalism promotes economic self-sufficiency.
Right now, the biggest risk of the novel coronavirus is not the chance of infection—statistically, that still remains very, very low, even in China—but the economic impact to global supply chains. With the popularity of “just-in-time” supply chains that reduce local inventory to near zero, most countries on the world will face shortages in medical supplies, drugs, and cleaning products that come out of East Asia, not to mention the possibility of shortages in electronics, automobiles, and just about any manufactured good if the factories in East Asia remain closed over coronavirus fears.
A nationalistic economy promotes more self-sufficiency. It props up local industries, even if they are not as efficient and cheap as foreign ones. It seeks to develop skilled labor within the country, rather than import skilled labor from abroad. And it has the ability to mobilize these forces to produce scarce items, such as masks and gloves, when they are needed.
High-trust nations act more decisively and effectively.
Countries where people speak the same language and share the same culture tend to have more trust in their neighbors and their government. Their government tends to reflect the will of the people, rather than the will of an entrenched minority. In such a nation, even when the outbreak gets bad as it has in South Korea, the people are able to mobilize effectively.
People who are infected restrain their behavior rather than spreading it to the local community. In general, people are more likely to submit to inconveniences in a high-trust nation if it benefits the will of the community. It will be very difficult for our hyper-individualized West to behave like nations that have retained their sense of nationhood. Japan, for example, has closed all schools through April. That might seem extreme, but if it stops the rapid transmission of the virus, it is worth it.
The nation-state is the result of long-term evolution.
The nation-state evolved because it worked. Through the constant strife of history—pestilence followed by war ad infinitum—the nation held strong because the people had a sense of duty toward each other and because they were able to provide the goods and resources they needed internally when times were dire.
Globalization has attempted to do away with all that. But the late 20th century was a fluke of nature, a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity led by the American empire. The chances of us remaining on such a peaceful course forever, especially as America is now rivaled by multiple equal-sized powers, are slim to none. Nationalism is sure to come back, one crisis at a time.