The U.S. remains a world leader — we’re just leading in the wrong direction

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The United States has long prided itself on being a leader in international affairs.

Unfortunately, American influence today is driving us, and many of our allies, off the path of our ideals. Reagan’s “shining city upon a hill” has become a leader in the ideology of nationalism.

The multilateral approach that raised us from post-WWII rubble to the heights of prosperity and security has given way to a cancerous spread of isolationism, anti-immigrant rhetoric and Islamophobia.

I’ve long avoided any hackneyed comparison between current events and the rise of nationalism that spawned both world wars. And yet, there is cause for concern in the decline of democratic values among the U.S. and our allies, and the increase of xenophobic platforms that have a distinctively 19th century flair.

In his annual “state of the world” address on Monday, Pope Francis warned the rise of nationalism, and particularly fear of migrants, threatens to take us back to the dangerous period between the world wars.

The most obvious symptom of this movement is Trump’s election, atop a wave of anti-immigrant fear, Islamophobia and latent racism. But, Trump is hardly the beginning or end of resurgent nationalism.

While Trump was still campaigning, 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the EU. Why? Because fears over immigration, and the inane idea that economic cooperation undermined sovereignty, convinced more than half the country they were losing their British identity.

Post-2016, we’ve seen a strong showing for far-right nationalists in Europe.

Alternative for Germany, long accused of being Nazi apologists, gained seats in parliament on an anti-immigrant, Islamophobic platform. In Austria, the Freedom Party joined Chancellor Sebastian Kurz in a coalition government based largely on (you may notice a theme here) hard-line anti-immigration policies.

Emmanuel Macron handily defeated Marine Le Pen — a French Donald Trump knock-off in a pant suit — but the campaign still was seen as building legitimacy for Le Pen’s hate-spewing, far-right National Front, now renamed the National Rally, and its anti-immigrant platform.

In Sweden — known as a bastion of liberal democratic ideals — rebranded neo-Nazis captured 18 percent of the general election last year.

Hungary’s Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, won a third term on a platform of — can you guess it? — defending the country from Muslim immigrants. Orban once warned of “a Europe with a mixed population and no sense of identity.” That sounds eerily similar to Trump’s July 2018 comments that “Allowing the immigration to take place in Europe is a shame” and “very, very sad,” that immigrants “changed the fabric of Europe … and I don’t mean that in a positive way” and that Europeans “are losing your culture.”

In Italy, two fringe far-right parties formed a coalition government last year focused on deporting immigrants and blaming other countries for their financial woes. Sound familiar?

Far-right nationalists also have made gains since 2016 in Slovenia, Poland, Denmark, Finland, Brazil and the Netherlands.

It would be wrong to pin all this resurgent nationalism on Donald Trump. Complex forces are at work in diverse countries, both within and without our traditional sphere of influence.

But, we must acknowledge Donald Trump’s “America First” nationalism shares some important, and dangerous, characteristics with these other movements. We see power rising out of fear of immigrants, vilification of Muslims, undermining of international alliances and a tendency to blame “the others” for economic woes — real or contrived.

Does resurgent nationalism threaten a return to the insanity that gave us two world wars? I think it’s worth listening to someone who survived that madness to become a leader in our society.

Karl von der Heyden, as a young boy, lived through Allied bombing campaigns in his native Berlin. As an immigrant to the U.S., he rose to be CEO of RJR Nabisco and also CFO of H.J. Heinz and PepsiCo.

In a June 2017 op-ed for “Time,” von der Heyden bluntly warned “nationalism is a path to war.”

He acknowledged it’s tempting to mistake nationalism for patriotism. But, he said, it poses too great a risk — both to democracy and to lives.

“Free trade, immigration and the treatment of refugees will never be perfect — far from it,” he wrote. “But the alternatives of walling off people, as well as trade, are worse. Appealing to ultra-nationalist and xenophobic feelings is playing with fire.”

Surveying the carnage of World War II, the world embraced multilateral approaches to international challenges — including an immense refugee crisis — to avoid repeating the worst war in human history. Those were lessons learned through the loss of millions of lives.

As we move on into 2019, and years to come, we must decide whether we will benefit from those lessons, or drudge further down the old path of nationalism, hatred and senseless war.

I, for one, choose to heed von der Heyden’s warning: “Today’s world cannot afford to forget the lessons learned.”

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