Originally published in TomDispatch.
Once upon a time, the tutelary gods of nationalism and internationalism met for a chat. They had a superb perch above the clouds. From there, they could see everything happening on the Earth below and they set to arguing, as they so often did.
Sophia, the goddess of internationalism, began by proudly pointing to the accomplishments of humanity. “Behold the United Nations,” she said, not for the first time. “See how all the peoples of the world cooperate across borders, languages, and cultures.”
Nikolai, the god of nationalism, whose followers believed that fortified borders and high walls make good neighbors, scowled. “It’s just a talking shop where I see lots of my people getting all up in each other’s faces.”
“Then behold the international charities,” Sophia replied with a smile. “People from one country giving to those in other countries.”
“What a waste of money!” Nikolai retorted. “So much lost to overhead and bureaucracy.”
“It’s 2015,” Sophia said, “and I don’t think I’ve ever seen internationalism looking stronger. The Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, and how about Germany’s decision to accept a million refugees this year!”
“Nonsense!” Nikolai exploded. “Those agreements are farces and just wait for the German backlash. It’s going to be epic!”
Sophia groaned. “You’re incorrigible. I give you one example after another of international solidarity and you dismiss them out of hand. All you do is sit around complaining.”
“Not true,” he countered. “I’ve been roaming the earth, observing current events closely, and I’d wager that your beloved internationalists will give up their vaunted ideology when push comes to shove.”
“A wager, you say?”
“You’ve never put your devotees to a test,” Nikolai responded, rubbing his hands. “If I win, all humanity will be under my thrall. If you win, you can implement world government or whatever other nonsense you favor.”
Sophia considered her sparring partner. Both of them were new to the game. Other tutelary gods — the guardians of ancient cities, deities who presided over mountains and rivers — had been around for millennia. She and Nikolai, twin gods born only a few centuries earlier, had squabbled from the moment of their creation. Arriving just before her, he’d asserted the prerogatives of age and gender from the start.
Now, this infuriating brother of hers was raising the stakes. She briefly considered consulting her fellow deities responsible for peace and justice, but just responded, “I’ll take that bet and, what’s more, I’ll give you a free hand to test humanity with a succession of plagues — up to five scourges. In my heart of hearts, I know they’ll remain true to global solidarity.”
Nikolai was secretly pleased, for in his heart of hearts he’d already devised five plagues sure to be winners. He would show his soft-headed sister once and for all who was lord of the lands that lay below.
A Plague of Politicians
When they next met two years later, Nikolai looked triumphant. “I’ve come back from roaming the earth and everything’s working out in my favor!” he exclaimed, his male pride in full flower. “And it didn’t take much. A few votes here and there and suddenly the Great Blue Wall collapsed.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Sophia responded.
“The U.S. presidential election, dear sister! Surely you registered the victory of Donald Trump last year and he’s already performed so admirably, the purest expression of American nationalism anyone’s seen in generations.”
The victory of Donald Trump had indeed caused her heartache.
“Behold the collapse of your Paris and Iran agreements, not to speak of the glorious wall he’s planning to build on the southern border!” her brother continued. “And it’s not only that, little sister! Behold the victory of the Brexit referendum in England, the growing strength of anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe, the election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, not to mention the rise of my pals Modi, Putin, Orbán, Duterte, and Ortega — all now in office and prospering!”
She calmly considered her bloviating brother. “Has the United Nations collapsed?”
“Well, no, but — ”
“Has international civil society been repressed out of existence?”
“Of course not, but — ”
“And has the popularity of your dear Donald ever risen above 50%?”
“That’s not the point!”
“Oh, but brother, it very much is the point! Your argument rests on passing phenomena. Elections come and go; institutions endure. You’ll have to do better than offer me a set of buffoons as proof of your victory. I guarantee you that the voters will kick them out of office at the next opportunity.”
Nikolai’s face turned beet red. Sure that he would instantly triumph over her with his blitzkrieg electoral strategy, he now saw that he’d have to visit a more serious plague on humanity.
Enter the Pox
Grim as the moment was when they next reconvened, Nikolai was glowing. “All my men are still in office!” he exclaimed. “So perhaps it’s not such a passing phenomenon, little sister. Just to make sure, though, I decided to subject humanity to a physical test. How do you like my little coronavirus? It took only the tiniest of alterations to move it from bat to pangolin to human.”
“Ingenious,” she conceded.
“And you see its impact, right? Where there was once a debate about borders, now every country’s building its own walls to keep the infected out. Better yet, the richer countries are hoarding their medical supplies. You see, sister, in an emergency, everyone turns out to be a hyper-nationalist. And just wait until they develop a vaccine. It’ll be every nation for itself.”
“I beg to differ,” she replied. “There have been extraordinary examples of global solidarity. Shipments of equipment from one country to another. Doctors sharing knowledge. And the future will certainly be like the past. You remember the stories of international care workers risking their lives in Ebola hotspots?”
“Trivial examples,” Nikolai said in his most patronizing tone.
“Perhaps, but you’ve forgotten one crucial point.”
“And what’s that, dear sister?”
“A global pandemic requires a global response. It’s of no use for a single country to vanquish a pandemic only within its own borders. Even now calmer heads are building a cooperative response and internationalism will emerge stronger than ever.”
Nikolai furrowed his brow, but he’d prepared for this moment. “No matter, sister. For behold, I’ve sent a third plague on the heels of the second: the collapse of the global economy. You’ve always sung the praises of international trade, but supply chains are now collapsing, prices are soaring, and countries are refocusing on domestic production.”
Sophia was growing tired of her brother’s conspiratorial fulminations against “globalists,” sometimes siding with the far right, sometimes with the economic nationalists of the left — anything to win an argument. “You know as well as I do that bulls and bears come and go as frequently as politicians in electoral cycles, but the global economy has been a solid reality for more than a century. Yes, it suffered declines after World War I and during World War II that make the present moment look like nothing, but has the global supply chain truly shut down? Are we returning to a barter system? Again, dear brother, you’ve mistaken the trees for the forest.”
“The trees and the forest,” he practically shouted in frustration, “are going up in flames!”
“More importantly, you’ve mistaken my internationalism for rank neoliberalism, something I’ve never backed. If you want to continue this argument, take it up with Hermes who’s presided over commerce for so many more centuries than you and I have been around.”
Nikolai had no intention of arguing with Hermes. His beef was with his sister — and he still had two wild cards up his sleeve.
Trial by Sword
By now, Sophia was a little worried. Maybe she’d been over-optimistic in 2015. Maybe she shouldn’t have given her brother so many opportunities to test humanity. After all, there might indeed be a breaking point.
Trump had truly scared her and remained disruptive, even though no longer in office. Still, she was cautiously optimistic that similar leaders elsewhere would lose their next elections as well.
Meanwhile, the global economy was recovering, as she’d predicted, even if the international community still wasn’t addressing the staggering disparities in wealth within and between countries that had only been exacerbated by the pandemic. No less worrisome, the international response to the pandemic had been nowhere near as robust as she’d hoped. Some countries could boast more than 90% of their citizens fully vaccinated, while less than 1% of the population in the Democratic Republic of Congo had gotten even one shot and the situation in Chad, Madagascar, and too many other places wasn’t much better. Worse yet, new variants of Covid-19 were emerging.
Then, just when she thought her brother might have given up, the unexpected happened, leaving him exultant.
On that fateful day, he burst into her glade, interrupting her lyre practice. “Have you seen the news, sis? My tyrant-whispering has finally born fruit. Russia has attacked Ukraine!”
She gave him a stern look. “Brother, you’re unleashing demons.”
“You see how quickly the world reverts to its elemental passions?” he exulted. “It’s the glorious nineteenth century all over again!”
“There were no nuclear weapons then. You’re putting the world at risk of Armageddon.”
“Oh, don’t overreact, dear sister. You’ll see that this war can enflame nationalist passions quite nicely without ending life as they know it.”
Sophia began to keep tabs on the conflict. With every recent war — Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen — she’d hoped humanity would conclude that nothing justified such suffering. Perhaps the latest outrage would finally tip the balance sheet.
Soon, in fact, she was able to say to her brother, “You miscalculated. The Russian attack has only solidified support for my position.”
“What do you mean?” Nikolai asked, horrified.
“Your man in Moscow could have remained in power until his mortal end. Now, he’s thrown his country into economic peril, even as his geopolitical position becomes ever more fragile. Once, he presided over a veritable Nationalist International. Now, virtually everyone, including old friends in places like Hungary and Poland, is treating him like a pariah. If he’s not careful, he could end up all alone in his own country as well.”
“Do I? Your desperation mirrors his. Your desire to win at all costs has disabled your critical faculties. Tell me, brother, is this glorious war going well for Russia?”
He looked uncomfortable.
“Even if Putin manages to gain control over Ukraine through brute force, it’ll be momentary. Ukrainians en masse have already rejected such an occupation.”
“He absorbed Crimea,” Nikolai responded weakly.
“Although you’re a goddess, you can’t see into the future.”
“No, I can’t. But I can see one thing. You’re coming to the end of your games and humanity has remained my faithful servant.”
“You haven’t won yet! Just you wait!”
She didn’t like the sound of that.
The Ultimate Challenge
The war in Ukraine continued, alongside all the world’s other ongoing conflicts. Nor had the pandemic, the fragility of the global economy, or political extremism disappeared. Sophia believed in her own arguments, but who could look at the planet below and remain truly optimistic?
As she glumly assessed the state of the world, Nikolai crept up and tapped her on the shoulder, a sly expression on his face and a hockey stick in his hand.
“I have no time for games,” she said.
“No games, sister. This is the final plague.”
“A hockey stick?”
“’Tis but a symbol — of the greatest peril humanity now faces.”
“Ah,” she said, the realization dawning on her. “That graph! Carbon emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. But what does a problem that’s been going on for two centuries have to do with our present wager, especially now that your friend’s gone from the White House and the Paris agreement’s back on track?”
“Oh, sister, you know that those are only voluntary commitments that few nations are even paying much attention to right now.”
“It was just a beginning,” she ventured.
“But time’s running out,” he replied with satisfaction. “And climate change is only a symptom of a much deeper problem. Humanity’s exhausting the resource base of this planet, not just fossil fuels but minerals for so-called clean energy. And with every country still asserting its right to expand its economy and burn through yet more resources, forget about clean water or more land to grow food on. Even if some miracle happens and there’s a binding agreement to reduce carbon emissions, it won’t solve the larger resource problem.”
“We can mobilize international pressure to change the growth paradigm,” she countered.
Nikolai folded his arms and looked at her smugly. “More and more conflicts over ever fewer resources? And what will fuel those conflicts, my dear sister? The desperation of nationalism will inevitably overcome the slow and ineffectual efforts of internationalism.”
“Solar panels,” she responded weakly. “Electric cars.”
“Requiring more resource extraction, which will only spur more conflict.”
“The war you started in Ukraine’s pushing Europe to move away from fossil-fuel imports.”
“But not quickly enough. Face it, sis, you’ve lost.”
She took a deep breath. Nikolai’s face had the same look of pride she remembered from their childhood when the wars he’d instigated destroyed the Concert of Europe she’d so proudly created in 1815. She realized it was finally time to tell her brother the truth. She almost felt sorry for him as she exhaled and said, “If I lose, everyone loses.”
“And if you win, everyone loses, too. In your eagerness, you’ve proven one thing: that nationalism’s the ultimate losing proposition. All these years, in other words, you’ve been driving at top speed right down a dead-end street. A deadly pandemic, nuclear Armageddon, planet’s end. I’m sorry, bro, but your philosophy just crashed into a brick wall.”
“You’ve been hoisted by your own arrogant petard.”
In sudden anger, he raised the hockey stick above his head. “You’ve tricked me!”
“No, you’ve tricked yourself.”
He swung the stick in her direction. Her brother being easy to predict, she ducked automatically, pivoted, and wrapped her arms around him.
“Calm yourself, brother,” Sophia whispered in his ear. He was exasperating, but he was family. “Let’s sit back and watch what happens.” Then she added, in a voice filled with sadness, “I may have won our little wager, but you could still score the biggest Pyrrhic victory of all time.”