Why has identity politics become a major theme of our time? What happened to globalization? And has the West simply lost the plot?
To illuminate these and a few other questions, we turned to three people who have examined similar issues throughout their careers.
From In My Father’s House (1992) to The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity (2018), Kwame Anthony Appiah has been thinking and writing about identity politics in Africa (his paternal home), Europe (his maternal home), and the U.S. (his home by marriage and long residence) for three decades.
Carnegie Corporation of New York board member Lionel Barber has been a student of modern history — Germany’s in particular — since his undergraduate days at Cambridge. His work as a journalist took him across Europe and the United States; since 2005 he has been editor of the Financial Times.
The discussion was moderated by former Carnegie Corporation of New York media fellow Scott Malcomson, who has reported on nationalism and empire around the world since the mid-1980s (as well as serving in government).
The conversation took place at the Corporation’s headquarters in New York. What follows is an edited transcript.
You could say that in Britain, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish have always had a sense of a double life. They know what it is to be both Scottish and British, or Welsh and British, or Irish and British, or to be Irish and not want to be British. They have a clear sense that England was the default identity.
— Kwame Anthony Appiah
SCOTT MALCOMSON: Was Brexit an instance of identity politics?
LIONEL BARBER: It certainly wasn’t about economics, because any serious discussion of economics would have ended in a different result.
MALCOMSON: Do you think that the economic arguments made on behalf of Brexit were of great importance to the people voting for Brexit, leaving aside the quality of the arguments themselves?
BARBER: I think that the so-called Remainers, led by the then-prime minister, David Cameron, made the fatal mistake of assuming that they could win the referendum through a rational argument, and they misunderstood emotion and identity politics. The idea that you could have several identities — you could be English, British, and European — was never addressed.
KWAME ANTHONY APPIAH: There was always this thing that a lot of Britishness has always been defined against the continent. The English, the Irish, the Scots, and the Welsh have that in common.
BARBER: Part of what was going on here had to do with the rise of Englishness, which hadn’t been a very important political identity in the British Isles.
MALCOMSON: And there weren’t any political parties that openly, or even covertly, at least since the Second World War, tried to fuel that sense of Englishness or of British nationhood. It was not part of what political parties did.
APPIAH: No, and one has to remember that in the immediate postwar period, the emotionally conservative position, in the small-C conservative sense, had to do with Empire. It had to do with Britishness and being connected with a wide world of English-speaking peoples, especially the white Commonwealth, but the Commonwealth more generally. That notion of Englishness was a notion of Britishness. One of the things about Englishness — I have an English mother — is that it’s not something you theorize or talk about very much. It’s a given.
Within the European Union, however, England is an entity. It’s viewed as distinct from Scotland because the Union has all these regional policies, and so England became differentiated from the other parts of the British Isles because European thinking is that there are regions as well as countries.
BARBER: The country itself has become more fragmented. The Scottish independence movement also accentuated or triggered a greater sense of awareness of English identity.
APPIAH: You could say that in Britain, the Scots, the Welsh, and the Irish have always had a sense of a double life. They know what it is to be both Scottish and British, or Welsh and British, or Irish and British, or to be Irish and not want to be British. They have a clear sense that England was the default identity. Also, people watched African Americans in the United States discovering pride in being African American and thought, “Hey, we don’t have anything like that here, so we should develop something like that.”
I also think a lot of identity politics amounts to saying, “Hey, we’re going to do whatever it is that those guys don’t like.” So the fact they’re all telling us we should stay in the European Union, or saying Muslim immigration isn’t bad, or that we shouldn’t build a wall across the southern border — that makes it attractive to the kind of identity that’s reacting against that, to pull the trigger.
One of the really striking things in Hungary is the nearly complete absence of Muslims. You can arrive at identity politics based on a conception of an enemy who isn't actually there.
— Scott Malcomson
Honor Among Nations
BARBER: That brings us to immigration, which was a very important factor in the referendum. We know that the Labour government under Tony Blair [ca. 2004–5] did spurn the chance to say, “Well, actually, we’re not going to open up the doors completely. We’re going to wait.” Instead they said, “Look, we’ll have a few tens of thousands from Central Europe.” In fact, we got 500,000 to 600,000 Poles who came because the British economy was thriving. It certainly brought economic growth, but certain communities — not in London — like Peterborough were overwhelmed, the social services were overwhelmed, and it wasn’t talked about enough. People would just say: “Immigration is a good thing.”
Interestingly, there also were places in England that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit but which are virtually untouched by immigration. The Brexit vote was almost the fear of immigration. There was some very effective advertising and campaigning, particularly by members of UKIP, the populist right-wing UK Independence Party.
MALCOMSON: I was in Hungary recently and there was an official emphasis on the Christian identity of Hungary and how that was part of a larger European Christian identity. The counter-example was Islam, and one of the really striking things in Hungary is the nearly complete absence of Muslims. You can arrive at identity politics based on a conception of an enemy who isn’t actually there.
APPIAH: Yes. A lot of the counties in the U.S. that voted for Donald Trump, presumably endorsing his anti-immigrant attitudes, are counties with almost no immigrants at all. So those voters never met people of the sort they were supposed to be worried about. And London may be the center of England, as well as Britain, but the English countryside is central to the image of Englishness …
BARBER: Yes, a “green and pleasant land.”
APPIAH: Yes, green and pleasant, William Blake’s Jerusalem, all that stuff. If you think of those places going away, or being filled with Poles or Muslims or something, you think, “We really are losing something.” It’s the sense in England that there is a real England and that it’s under threat. Well, these spaces will change. After all, they are not as they were when Blake was writing, so they’ve always been changing. The small towns in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire were made rich by the wool trade in the Middle Ages, which depended upon connections into France and into the Muslim world. They’ve always been affected by the world, but they didn’t have a lot of people from the world showing up in their town or in the village. Nor did anyone propose that there should be a mosque in Tetbury or even in a big place like Stroud.
MALCOMSON: In Hungary there were many decades of experiencing government from Moscow replaced after only a heartbeat of independence with government from Brussels. The foreign arrivals were associated with the idea that control over who does and who doesn’t get to live in Hungary is not going to be in Hungarians’ hands, and the government went to great lengths to make this association as tight as possible: it’s going to be in Brussels’ hands. So some Hungarians’ emotional reactions to the Soviet Union are similar to their reactions to the European Union.
BARBER: That sense that “We’re not in control of our borders” is important. All these unknown people are coming, not just from Central and Eastern Europe, but also from North Africa and the Middle East. This is about security and the fears about that, as well as identity. The other side of the coin, which I think is not irrelevant, is another economic argument: that the best people are leaving the country, they’re going to the West, and the country is being diminished.
APPIAH: Another thing populist nationalism draws on is that sense that the task of the party or the leader is to raise us up again in the eyes of the world. Not being in control of your own policies and territories is associated with disrespect. This resentment of historical losses is also very much behind the responses of Muslim radicals around the world. Something is shared between Hungarian nationalism and Islam, the sense that “We’ve been put down in the world and our task is to bring ourselves back up, but internal enemies are going to get in the way.” So the idea becomes that we have to purify the nation or to purify Islam in order to do this big project — to bring Islam or Hungary or wherever back into a place of honor in the world.
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MALCOMSON: In 2016 I did a very informal sampling of what we might call establishment opinion, and it was that Brexit wouldn’t happen, and Trump would never become president. So was that a failure to see the strength of identity politics or was it a failure to understand globalization from the point of view of people not in the establishment? Or are those the same thing?
BARBER: At its most basic, it was the views of people who were not prepared to make the effort to travel outside London. For the FT’s coverage of Brexit, one of my colleagues had a great idea: bring back five foreign correspondents and send them to the corners of the country. To a man and woman, they all came back saying: It’s going to be Brexit. And most of us didn’t believe it, which is pretty shocking.
MALCOMSON: That is certainly cause for some reflection.
We were out of touch. We also failed to grasp an essential truth about globalization, which is its emotional effect.
— Lionel Barber
BARBER: We were out of touch. We also failed to grasp an essential truth about globalization, which is its emotional effect. Back in the 1980s, a lot of people worried about the impact of the free movement of goods. What would that do to brands, like Dijon mustard in France? Actually, this turned out to be trivial. Then they worried, in the wake of the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s, about what the free movement of capital could do in terms of economic disruption, high unemployment, and economic shock. But the really visceral thing is the free movement of people, because that gets you into identity politics. So that’s where immigration is such a powerful weapon being used by politicians, by Trump, by the Leave voters in the Brexit campaign. The media just went rational and missed these emotional points. I definitely missed Brexit. I think also that many people in the media found Trump’s personal conduct offensive and missed a very basic point about him as a candidate, which is, like it or not, that he was offering a positive, very clear message, which was “Make America Great Again,” and he was in his own way offering a message of hope, which was not true of the deeply flawed Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton. There were all these signals which people missed, mainly because of an excess of rationality and groupthink.
APPIAH: Most people in the intellectual world simply couldn’t understand why everyone couldn’t see what an awful president Trump would be, and they weren’t interested in finding out why anyone might find him an attractive candidate. And so we had from the media just little bits of evidence — he was getting big crowds and they were pretty enthusiastic, and the lines that got the biggest applause were about things that seemed completely idiotic as policy. Everybody who knows anything about walls and borders knows that’s not the best way to reduce migration. Everybody who was following it knew immigration from Mexico was actually in decline. And so on.
Trump was so not their kind of person. They just couldn’t imagine him in the White House. There was a failure of imagination, a failure to think what it might be like to be someone for whom these were attractive ideas, and to think about why.
BARBER: This is about failure to recognize that Donald Trump was challenging a stale consensus, a complacent consensus that said we need to get involved in conflicts around the world; we need to trade with China. That view is about managing, it’s about accommodation. But his very clear America First is very powerful. It was from the gut, and while we may find that offensive or irrational, it had and has real appeal for people in the Midwest who depend on manufacturing jobs — real jobs, by the way, not financial engineering; middle-class jobs that are disappearing.
APPIAH: Some of those communities that went to Trump had voted for Obama. They were not historically Republican. That shift, I think, is late in coming, because the betrayal of that class of people has been going on for a very long time. The fact is that most of the financial rewards of globalization have gone to a very small part of the population.
MALCOMSON: Within the U.S., yes; but not within China, for example.
APPIAH: Yes, and that’s one of the reasons you can’t be against globalization — in the very same period, massive amounts of people have been taken out of poverty around the world.
MALCOMSON: That’s such a good example of an argument that makes a lot of sense to us and people we know, but what you see in the stressed parts of Europe and the United States is: “Yes, but.”
Economic nationalism is a response. Whether it’s a creative or even an intelligent response is another set of questions. But two-plus years ago, you either didn’t talk about globalization or you talked about it in positive terms. In the Clinton campaign, for example, globalization was the default position. It was assumed there was a rational globalization that would take care of economic issues on its own, so that politics could occupy itself with other things, like identity. I think some identity politics is a reaction against a kind of power grab by globalization, as well as by …
APPIAH: The people who profit most from it. Well, I agree. But I don’t think it’s the right response. A better way of doing it would involve some fine tuning, saying let’s have a basic structure of international trade that’s relatively open, but let’s agree that there are winners and losers in every market system. Then we need to think, nation by nation, about securing the interests of the people who lose in our countries, and to think about arranging the system to minimize the number of such people.
Signs of the Times (clockwise from upper left-hand corner): Activists in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest rally against Hungary’s construction of an anti-immigrant fence on its border with Serbia, July 2015 (“Jesus is also an immigrant”); counterprotestors greet a demonstration against Islamophobia, Richardson, Texas, December 2015; hundreds gather in Warsaw, Poland, during an anti-immigration demonstration, February 2016 (“Islamic immigrants will liquidate women’s rights”); a supporter of PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) displays an anti-NATO sign during a protest in Dresden, Germany, January 2017; a delegate holds up a sign during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, July 2016; a campaigner attends a UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party) pro-Brexit event in Birmingham, England, May 2016. (Photos: Mehmet Yilmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images; John Moore/Getty Images; Anna Ferensowicz/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images; Omar Marques/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images; Jeff Swensen/Getty Images; Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty Images)
It may hurt some to say this, but there is a kernel of truth in what President Trump is saying about the way globalization has worked. If you look at the trade relationship between China and the U.S., there’s no question that this has not been a level playing field.
— Lionel Barber
The China Price
BARBER: It may hurt some to say this, but there is a kernel of truth in what President Trump is saying about the way globalization has worked. If you look at the trade relationship between China and the U.S., there’s no question that this has not been a level playing field. People forget that America and the other Western countries consciously decided to give China an extra margin for maneuvering in 2001, when it joined the World Trade Organization, by treating it as a developing country. China likes to emphasize at times that it still has tens of millions of people living in poverty in the countryside. But the other side of China is highly competitive in traditional manufacturing industries.
Now, the interesting thing, and I think it’s relatively new, is a change of mind in the American boardroom. They see a threat from China in technology, in the way China wants to become number one in artificial intelligence. Corporate America is concerned about Chinese competition, so they do want to reset the rules of the game. They don’t support tariffs but they sure as hell support a tougher stance in dealing with China. That is why economic nationalism goes far beyond where it first appeared in the globalization debate.
MALCOMSON: I was recently looking at trends in foreign direct investment in the 1960s and ’70s. After 1958, as currencies became convertible between the United States and Europe, the U.S. invested steadily in Europe, still in some ways recovering from the war. The U.K. also invested on the Continent. By the early 1970s, two-thirds or more of global ODI — overseas direct investment — was within the Euro-American sphere, and there was a huge amount of technology transfer from the U.S. — and to some extent from the U.K. — to the Continent. The West was in a virtuous circle of investing in itself in a sort of mini-globalization, with relatively free technology transfer. That was no doubt partly because it didn’t seem like technology transfer. It seemed more like building companies across the Atlantic that would naturally share technology because there was no point in not doing so. As with China until recently.
BARBER: Well, you can’t draw a comparison between the two, in my view, because first of all, China’s internal market is on a different scale. And secondly, we are now talking about serious technology advancement. What the Chinese are doing now, and the way they’re thinking about artificial intelligence, bears no comparison to American investment into machine tool companies in the 1960s, or that kind of thing. I just think that when you look at China, where it has come from, the speed of its growth and technological advancement and its ambitions — they may not be stating it explicitly, but this country wants to be Number One.
You shouldn’t get rid of a leader unless you are pretty damn sure you can put in something better that will include public order. That’s the great thing states are for.
— Kwame Anthony Appiah
Saving the State
MALCOMSON: Let’s switch to Africa for a minute. The continent in many ways is expanding economically but is nonetheless at a low level in manufacturing and services compared to Europe or the United States, or indeed China. The European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently laid out yet another plan for Europe to solve what it sees as its immigration problem, and that’s by investing in Africa in a way that would reduce migration.
Is that possible to do, and do you think Europe will actually do it? Or is the idea a psychological vestige of globalization’s vision, the proverbial win-win?
BARBER: One of the most important factors in changing the flow of immigrants was what looks now to have been a very mistaken decision, to destroy the integrity of the Libyan state. I mean, Libya under Moammar Qaddafi was the great European security buffer in North Africa.
APPIAH: He was very important in the African Union.
BARBER: He was, yes. This is a very important point in terms of European security and controlling the refugee flow. My second point is that the notion that Germany was somehow open for refugees was a real trigger point. This wasn’t just about Syrian refugees. It was open day, so to speak.
So what can we do to help the growth of an African middle class, where people actually feel that there is enough political stability on the continent that they want to remain, and that they have economic prospects? You could argue that in the last five years the political record is not actually too bad. If you think of what happened in Gambia, or in South Africa with Cyril Ramaphosa coming to power and toppling Jacob Zuma, for example. What happens to Nigeria is very, very important, and what happens to Kenya; it’s also interesting in Ethiopia. The politics doesn’t look too bad.
MALCOMSON: I would add, since I was just in Ethiopia, the importance of Ethiopia’s making peace with Eritrea, in terms of European immigration. Eritrea is a small country but it’s an outsized contributor to African migration to Europe.
BARBER: That’s a very important point.
APPIAH: I think these stories remind us that it’s perhaps not super helpful to think of migration as mostly economic. People want to stay home, and if home is okay, they’ll stay. When you get, as we have now had in Ghana, a generation of political stability, with elections where different parties are coming back and forth and no soldiers show up and say “Sorry, we don’t like that”; with a little bit of oil money — those sorts of things have changed Accra astonishingly. It really looks like a modern place now, and it has all the problems of modern places, like impossible traffic.
The challenge is political as well as economic, and in a way that’s deeply connected, because you can’t get economic development in northern Nigeria while Boko Haram is there. Being helpful to the people who are doing the right thing, and rewarding them symbolically, can be very useful.
Still, I don’t think anybody has a real answer to the fact that the African continent hasn’t really participated yet in this huge global removal from poverty that is the great achievement of this millennium so far. Figuring out how to bring Africa onto that path is a serious problem, and I think that Juncker is not helping if he gets people to think this is just a matter of building factories or something. It’s not.
BARBER: We also need to be not so West-centric. China is investing an awful lot of money in Africa. You can debate whether they’re contributing to debt to encourage a slightly subservient relationship, but they’re important players in economic development. So are the Emirates.
MALCOMSON: It’s a mixed bag, because in Somalia and Libya, you have external Muslim actors who simply pick their preferred local fellow Muslims to support. And other proxies from other powers are doing similar things.
APPIAH: In Libya, it was a very complex set of intertribal deals that Qaddafi was managing in order to create a functioning Libyan state. You could put your kid on the bus in the morning and she’d show up at school, and then the bus would show up in the afternoon, and your kid would get home. “First do no harm,” the Hippocratic principle, is really, really important in international interventions, and I think one of Hillary Clinton’s great errors was to encourage the destruction of a functioning state.
BARBER: I think we do have to put our hands up, though, because the British and the French were in the front row on that. If the United States had said to the British and French, “Look, this is a terrible idea,” it’s conceivable that it would not have succeeded.
MALCOMSON: The Obama administration did seek a greater role for the main European players in global governance decisions, and the experiment just didn’t work out.
BARBER: It certainly didn’t. We couldn’t even conduct the war. We ran out of shells! Frankly, when historians look back at the way the Americans and the European allies made judgments on how to deal with the various Arab uprisings, they will see that in each case they overcorrected from the last time and massively underestimated the costs of intervention and of what would happen afterwards.
MALCOMSON: That was always Sergey Lavrov’s point, based on the Libya experience.
APPIAH: But we don’t know what Russian policy would have been if the NATO countries had been more sensible. You shouldn’t get rid of a leader unless you are pretty damn sure you can put in something better that will include public order. That’s the great thing states are for.
Maybe what we’re experiencing is partly a bursting of what we might call the Blair-Clinton bubble, the assumption that bad government is what stands between people and good government, and that if you remove a bad government then things will work out for the best. That sort of worked in Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991, but not so much anywhere else.
— Scott Malcomson
MALCOMSON: Maybe what we’re experiencing is partly a bursting of what we might call the Blair-Clinton bubble, the assumption that bad government is what stands between people and good government, and that if you remove a bad government then things will work out for the best. That sort of worked in Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991, but not so much anywhere else.
BARBER: This also touches on a certain Western arrogance in politicians like Tony Blair. They dressed up interventionism as the “responsibility to protect,” but that underestimated how much you would need to put the state back together if you really broke it. We’ve seen this on numerous occasions now. Blair overinterpreted the success of the intervention in Sierra Leone, for example, which essentially was gunboat diplomacy updated to 2000.
I remember meeting Blair in Jerusalem in 2012 to do an interview, five years after he stepped down as prime minister. I talked about Iraq, and the most interesting thing he said was, “We underestimated the forces of religion and ethnic tribalism in this conflict.” Well, frankly, the so-called cheese-eating surrender monkey, also known as President Chirac — I was there at the time in 2003 — this is what the French were saying in 2003, and the French know these countries.
MALCOMSON: You could probably quote any number of people in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in that way. Either they are prejudiced or they have deep historical knowledge, depending on your point of view. This was also true of the administration of George W. Bush; I discussed it with him and with Condoleezza Rice, and they both connected the prejudice against black and African self-government to the “freedom agenda” in the Middle East.
The idea was that history no longer defined people, so they would be capable of a kind of universal freedom. This is a very old American idea, and indeed a very old idea period, and we are now seeing it disappear, although not perhaps deliberately or explicitly. It’s the end of that post-’91 moment when there was a consensus: A) that globalization was rational, and B) that historic ethnic content is merely a nice thing to have, rather than a critical shaper of people’s worldviews. The Trump-Brexit dispensation after 2016 has buried these ideas.
APPIAH: Societies are very complicated. Things work for reasons that are very hard to figure out, and stopping them from working as they are because you think you can do something better is usually a mistake. It’s usually the case that even if you can get to something better, it turns out to be much harder than you thought.
MALCOMSON: So, Lionel, we’re favoring a Burkean gradualism, then?
BARBER: I’m absolutely in favor of reforming in order to preserve, as Edmund Burke said. Also, it’s worth pointing out that the military forces are often lambasted as being cautious, but they are a bit more serious and modest about what an imposed change can achieve. And again, this is not about just the intervention. It’s about what comes after.
Conversation recorded at Carnegie Corporation of New York’s headquarters in New York City on September 13, 2018.
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