The turn to nativism hinders international education

Words are the fundamental building blocks of communication. Imprecision in the use of language creates confusion and misunderstanding. For example, in the ongoing debate about the potentially negative impact of the United States presidential election on international education, I’ve seen a number of colleagues misuse certain key words, thereby muddying the rhetorical waters.

In their article of 11 November entitled "Now we face the (temporary?) end of American internationalism", Philip G Altbach and Hans de Wit wrote that with Donald Trump as president “the United States will join the growing list of countries with hard-right, nationalist, anti-globalist and xenophobic governments. This list today includes countries like Hungary, Poland, the Philippines and, in some respects, Turkey.”

Since nationalism is not a recent phenomenon in the United States and there’s nothing to indicate that any of the other countries are nationalistic, using the dictionary definition of the word, do they mean nationalist or nativist?

A week later, Rahul Choudaha wrote in a well-intentioned piece entitled "International educators build bridges, not walls" that “with Trump as the president-elect, the core beliefs and practices of many international education professionals have come under stress. After Brexit, the American presidential election has again shown nationalism, protectionism and disengagement win in times of fear and desperation.”

This misnomer appeared yet again in Bruno Morche’s recent article entitled "BRICS need to capitalise on West’s turn to nationalism" – in reference to the United Kingdom and the US.

In all three articles the authors confuse nationalism with nativism, and make the false assumption that nationalism is on the rise in the US with the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president.

Nothing new

Nationalism is defined as "loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups". (It is the italicised part that distinguishes it from patriotism.) In the US context, think of the statement “America is the greatest country in the world” and the chant "USA, USA, USA!” or “We’re #1!”

Nativism is defined as "the policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants" and often goes hand in hand with xenophobia. Nativism and nationalism are by no means mutually inclusive. The distinction is important. For example, it is possible to be a patriot (as opposed to a nationalist) and a nativist.

So, while I would agree that "protectionism and disengagement win in times of fear and desperation", US nationalism is nothing new. In fact, Trump's opponent, Hillary Clinton, whom Choudaha mentions in the lead paragraph as someone who urged her fellow US Americans to vote for a leader "who guides the country to 'build bridges, not walls'", is a US nationalist by any definition.

Clinton played the nationalist card in an August 2016 speech at the National Convention of the American Legion by professing her belief in the USA as the greatest nation on Earth with a moral obligation to be the preeminent global leader. The red, white, and blue sentiments later appeared in a TIME essay entitled "Why America is Exceptional".

US exceptionalism

While there's little doubt that the majority of Trump supporters are nationalistic, the same can also be said of most Clinton supporters, reflecting the world view of most of their fellow citizens. Nationalism is, after all, the ideological glue that unites most US Americans who otherwise have little in common with each other in what is a deeply polarised country.

Most recently, Elizabeth Redden took on this issue in an 11 January 2017 article in Insider Higher Ed entitled "No Certificate of Global Citizenship", which says "Amid turn toward nationalism, global educators consider their work". Again, I would argue that the 'turn' is not toward nationalism, which clearly predates Trump’s election, but toward nativism, the result of populist anger about the negative effects of globalisation.

Nationalism has become a part of the United States’ political DNA that transcends conventional labels. Missionary nationalism has also been one of the cornerstones of US foreign policy, characterised by a string of imperial misadventures, including the destabilisation and overthrow of foreign governments, invasions, occupations and war.

It is exceedingly difficult to “build bridges of mutual respect and trust around the world” when their government has pursued policies that are based on American exceptionalism, the notion that the US is a “shining city upon a hill” (a Ronald Reagan misquote of a 17th century statement by John Winthrop) rather than “a mortal nation among other nations” (to quote Anatol Lieven), and that US Americans are “the peculiar, chosen people – the Israel of our time” (Herman Melville).

That is the dark and ominous cloud under which US international educators have been toiling for generations, a situation that will probably not get any worse, but is unlikely to improve, under the Trump administration.

What the United States desperately needs is more patriots and global citizens (the two are not mutually exclusive) and fewer nationalists. The golden question is how to transform the latter into the former. Can this be accomplished through education and training, or are there other factors at play that make this impossible?

The most important task is to debunk certain cultural myths, proving the 'commonsensical' to be nonsensical and revealing ostensibly 'eternal truths' to be falsehoods. The ultimate goal is for young US Americans to see their country as it really is, both domestically and overseas – the good, the bad and the ugly, not through the rose-coloured glasses of cultural myths rooted in nationalism.

Mark A Ashwill, PhD, is managing director of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City in Viet Nam that works exclusively with regionally accredited colleges and universities in the United States and officially accredited institutions in other countries. He served as country director of the Institute of International Education in Viet Nam from 2005-09. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam.