Rise of Economic Nationalism in the U.S. – Whither Globalization?

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The year 2016 has become a watershed year in U.S. political history owing to the sensational Presidential Elections held that year in which the Republican nominee, Mr Donald Trump, emerged victorious. His campaign pivoted on the slogan Make America Great Again, reflecting his favour for an economic nationalist shift in the American political outlook. From the start of his tenure, this shift was aggressively manifested in his policy decisions, particularly in the realms of foreign trade, immigration and the environment. What was notably striking, however, was a continued resort to the sentiment during the Presidential Elections of 2020, not just by Mr Trump – who was seeking another term, but also in the electoral strategies of his rival from the supposedly opposite end of the political spectrum, the Democratic nominee, Mr Joe Biden. This continuity is believed to be indicative of an ailing nerve of popular frustration against the ramifications of globalisation that the Republican Party had successfully identified and the Democrats dared not ignore again. 

The trend of inward-looking politics in the backdrop of globalisation can be interpreted to be a resurgence of Economic Nationalism in the U.S. The term refers to “a set of practices to create, bolster and protect national economies within the context of world markets.” [1] Also called Economic Patriotism or Economic Populism, it is associated with protectionism, exercised through instruments such as tariffs, dumping of exported products at prices below domestic prices, subsidising domestic firms, forced transfer of property from foreign owners to nationals, counter-trade restrictions, indigenisation and localisation of personnel and rejection of foreign products by consumers for reasons other than quality or technical suitability. This must be understood as opposed to Globalisation, which implies “entrenched, regularised and enduring patterns of worldwide interconnectedness”. [2] A very explicit recent example of this phenomenon other than in the U.S. is Brexit 2020

While all nations always act in their national interest, economic nationalism in the present context implies an aggressive pursuit of narrowly defined national interest. In the liberal, global order where it is not feasible for any economy to sever its connections with the global market, this involves an inward-looking approach which may hamper bilateral and multilateral relations of the concerned nation. 

Indicators of Economic Nationalism in Recent U.S. Policies

This creed of politics has been characterised by ‘the obsessive search for “fair trade” and reciprocity’. [3] At its core is a criticism of the self-congratulatory narrative of ‘American Exceptionalism’ that has supposedly created an exceptional ‘burden’ of responsibility that the country has had to shoulder at the cost of its own national interests. Some Trump-era policies reflecting this perspective include the executive order ‘Buy American and Hire American’,  withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, imposition of Import Tariffs, renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), reduction of support to the WTO, increased border security, ending the diversity visa lottery, executive order ‘Protecting the Nation from Terrorist Attacks by Foreign Nationals’, rolling back some 98 environmental regulations, America First Energy Plan, withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord, amongst others.

While President Joe Biden has only been in power for over a year now, one can detect an economic nationalist undertone to his policies, even though the intensity, aggression and confrontational character may have reduced. The executive order ‘Ensuring the Future is Made in All of America by All of America’s Workers’, non-reversal of the protectionist trade policies, not appointing judges to the WTO, and tightening ‘Buy American’ federal rules, serve as examples. 

Making sense of the trend 

American history since the 20th century shows that sentiments of economic nationalism have usually thrived during phases of economic and social insecurity. But many scholars agree that ‘economic nationalism is not so much about the economy as it is about the nation‘. Populism and otherisation intensify in situations of vulnerability when political consciousness regarding a perceived threat is generated, manipulated and heightened in several aspects to account for a crisis.

In the contemporary context, one can locate the causality of economic nationalism in the repercussions of hyper globalisation. Deep-seated inequities and a “tyranny of merit” [4] has emerged in the new technocratic knowledge economy, and outsourcing of production has triggered an employment and wage crisis for the American workers. The liberal State has been unable to offer a support mechanism in the welfare domain. Politically, the New Right identified this gap, mobilised popular frustration and offered a protective regime, simultaneously fanning tremendous populism and a politics of hate in the country, the Capitol riots of 2021 is a symbol of it. Further, despite cosmopolitanism being in sync with the imagination [5] of the American nation as it was known until lately, which may not be true for many developed European nations, the American society has nonetheless grown many fissures as increased trans-border mobility of people and cultures has triggered a psyche of economic and social insecurity in several parts of the country. 

This trend received a circumstantial push with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020 that caused havoc, shortages and anxiety for several months. An outcome of this insecurity was an increased emphasis on the rhetoric of self-reliance in several countries. The U.S. too witnessed an increased appeal of economic nationalism, and several aspects of the Build Back Better plan reflected this inclination.

An interesting perspective in this regard is also posed in eminent IR scholar Benjamin Miller’s work How ‘making the world in its own liberal image’ made the West less liberalMiller contends that the rise of illiberal tendencies in Western democracies is an unintended outcome of the Western project of spreading liberalism across the world — of both its successes and failures. The success at liberalising the Chinese economy, thereby facilitating its exponential growth and emergence as a rival global power; and the failure at institutionalising liberal democracy in the West Asian and Middle Eastern countries, triggering fundamentalism, civil wars, refugee problems and insecurity in the West. The Chicago Project on Security and Threats in conjunction with the National Opinion Research Centre, conducted nationally representative surveys in the summer and fall of 2021. It concluded that the people who participated in the Capitol riots were largely not the unemployed or deprived fringe elements of the society, but several of them were well-established White men driven by the narrative of White declinism and the Great Replacement Theory

Economic Nationalism and the Future of the Global Order/Globalisation 

It is ironic and astonishing that Economic Nationalism has seen a rise in the country that has been the cradle and the flag-bearer of liberalism since the Second World War, and particularly since the 1990s. Globalisation and deglobalization appear to be competing forces today, each seeking to engulf the world order in the 21st century. If one observes the key developments in the international system, it would appear to be oscillating between the two forces constantly. It is, thus, difficult to make conclusive statements at this point regarding which of them would supersede the other and what role would individual nations like the U.S. play in this regard. In fact, in a multipolar world, it is pragmatic to not expect either one to establish a blanket dominance (attempted by Francis Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ narrative) [6] anytime soon but to persistently try and balance the negatives of each with the positives offered by the other. What seems to be a very promising prospect emerging from this situation is that American declinism is an opportunity for enhanced democratisation of global politics. Emerging powers of the Global South such as India, it appears, will have a critical role in moulding the course of these forces in the coming time. 


  1. Pryke, S. (2012). Economic Nationalism: Theory, History and Prospects. Global Policy, Volume 3 (3), 281-282. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1758-5899.2011.00146.x
  2. Held, D. and McGrew, A. (2003). The Global Transformations Reader. Blackwell Publishing Ltd. 
  3. Bhagwati, J. (1999). A Stream of Windows- Unsettling Reflections on Trade, Immigration and Democracy. New Delhi, India: Oxford University Press
  4. Sandel, M. (2020). The Tyranny of Merit- What’s Become of the Common Good?. UK: Penguin Publishing. 
  5. Anderson, B. (2016). Imagined communities. Verso Books.
  6. Fukuyama, F. (1992). The End of History and the Last Man. New York: Free Press. 

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