Is nationalism past its expiration date?
Nationalism can seem outdated. Yet, in the shadow of public debates about global media, global cities, global health challenges, and global communities, nationalism reemerged with remarkable strength. In business, decision-makers have known for a while that they cannot afford to ignore nationalism. It shapes their ability to act, market, strategize, cooperate, and expand. Indeed, the recent wave of nationalist movements – in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Denmark, Russia, Turkey, and China to name just a few – may have come as a surprise to those who expected globalization to displace a sense of national affiliation. But it also made it clear that nationalism is here to stay.
Navigating Nationalism in Global Enterprise (Cambridge University Press, 2023) highlights the deep limits of treating nations and nationalism simplistically as political risk or barriers to global integration. Globalization did not make the idea of the nation obsolete. Rather, it made the idea of the nation more established across the globe. The global world of business is one in which nations and nationalism matter more, not less.
If engaging with nationalism is necessary, how should business leaders do it? With an eye to the future and a sensibility for the past! History can provide a unique lens for understanding today’s nationalism. In part, this is because both devotees and enemies of the current rise of nationalism point to examples from history to legitimize their arguments. But, even more so, the long history of globalization and deglobalization, with its many pendulum swings, helps us reflect on the choices that managers, entrepreneurs, and policymakers face today. For instance, on the eve of World War I, much of the world economy was economically integrated, with the relatively free movement of investments, businesses, and people across borders. This earlier swing towards global integration ended with the rise of nationalist policies during the interwar period, and a different kind of globally integrated economy had to be rebuilt. Today, this history can provide us many lessons for contemporary challenges on nationalism and business.
For example, we learn from this history that the economics of international business are inseparable from the politics and ideology of the global economy. Many business leaders may talk the talk of economics-driven business decisions or global corporate identities. Yet, the politics of nations still shape how they conduct business. To better understand these often silently taken business decisions, I argue that we need to move towards a relational view of international business, in which multinationals are understood as integral players in an evolving geopolitical landscape. Such a relational view considers how multinationals navigate two sets of relationships that characterize nations:
(1) the relationships that define the nation as an “imagined community” (Anderson) with a collective past and an aspirational future and
(2) the relationships that define the nation in relation to other nations which together comprise a constantly evolving mental map of nationalisms.
Recognizing this relational view of international business also expands our understanding of the range of multinational tactics required for skillful internationalization. During their history, multinationals have engaged in a wide-ranging set of activities integral to their strategy for capitalizing on rising nationalist sentiment. These included investments in educational programs, community and stakeholder engagement on firm boards and in governance, new historical narratives to showcase similarities or complementarities with other nations, and the development of intelligence to track nationalist politics and craft effective political responses. Savvy multinationals not only increasingly invested in capabilities to understand national relationships but also shaped them in ways that valorize their products and services and, often, delegitimized their rivals. Geopolitical jockeying – for influence, visibility, alliances, and reputation mattered all through the history of multinationals and never stopped creating novel opportunities.
Recognizing how mental maps of nationalism shape international business allows a more robust way to analyze strategy in the international economy. The nationalist resurgence that has gripped a number of nations over the last few years raises questions about the emerging mental map that will shape global business in the years to come. But what we can learn from the past is that navigating nationalism effectively will require temporal sensibility; a capability to see how the past and present (de-)motivate actions for the future. Given the nature of nations as historically constituted entities, with a past and aspirations for the future, strategists need to see and act upon the historical qualities of nations.
As in the past, the emerging nationalism today will not represent an end to globalization but rather a strategic shift in how nations and multinationals relate to each other in a globally integrated world. The nature of these activities extends well beyond what some scholars have called “non-market strategy.” In fact, politics and political rhetoric are anything but non-market; they are crucial for making the market.