The Call for Patriotic Internationalism

If we are guardians of the internationalization of higher education, we are also guardians of the society in which our institutions of higher education exist. 

August 15, 2017

Just after Brexit and the US election The Economist asked whether the world had moved from a League of Nations to a League of Nationalists.  Scanning Europe, it noted that Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit movement, was an early visitor to Trump Tower and Theresa May, the UK’s Brexit PM, was the first head of state to pay an official visit to the new US president in an act of solidarity. In France, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front Party and candidate for the presidency, struck a deep nationalist chord.  She like, Mr. Trump, played to the French voters on anti-globalism and anti-immigration themes.  If elected, she promised a “Frexit.”  In the Netherlands, there was Geert Wilders the leader of the Freedom Party who appealed to voters on anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim themes. While neither Le Pen nor Gilders won, they left an alt-right residual in their wake.

It is not just political parties but larger movements within our societies that need attention.  The “alt-right” movement in the United States has become a political/societal force.  Among its mantras are anti-global and white supremacist views. Its most recent manifestation was in the violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, home of the University of Virginia and sacred turf for the origins of US democracy.  Both Jefferson, the University’s founder, and Madison lived in the area.  The gathering of Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazi and other extremist groups converged there ostensibly to protest the removal of a monument that honored the Confederacy but brought much more with it including chants eerily reminiscent of Nazi rallies.   The Identitaire movement is an important counterpart in Europe with what might be described as a hate agenda regarding migrants and Muslims.  It has connected in myriad ways across northern Europe to right wing political parties that expand its influence.

Harsh Implications for Internationalization

Immigration issues never went away after 9/11 in the US but we did not have an actively hostile environment with a president who has called Mexicans rapists and murderers and promised to build a bigger, better wall or stated that there should be a complete ban on immigration from a list of predominantly Muslim countries.  The tone at the top has created a very negative context for higher education’s multiculturalism and internationalization commitments in the U.S. 

In Europe the EU can claim a remarkable set of higher education initiatives, outstanding among them were programs that fostered internationalization.  Yet the rhetoric of Brexit showed no concern for what it might mean to leave these remarkable accomplishments behind.  Discussion surrounding the extraordinary inflow of refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa has moved from inflammatory words to political outcomes throughout Europe.  Universities find themselves in the middle of this dynamic swirl of words and actions.

In this rhetorical melee, globalism has been painted as infinitely bad for the average citizen and immigration as dangerous along with the demonization of certain ethnic and religious groups.  In all this emotion, facts are essential to support internationalism.  An article in The Washington Post titled The Politics of Globaloney, reminds us of how prevalent this is.  The authors, seeking to show that there is no basis to believe that the US economy was shaped and therefore harmed by globalism, note that US imported goods and services are worth only 15% of its GDP.  Just 5 nations (Sudan, Argentina, Nigeria, Brazil and Iran) imported less relative to the size of their economies.  And despite the cliché that everything in the US is made in China, less than 3% of the money spent in the US goes to China.  These and other related facts about globalism deserve to be repeated in the face of “alternative facts” that are being whipped up to create a climate of isolationism and fear of foreigners.

National political discussions based on alternative facts have consequences.  Words matter and assertions that lead to policies, whether by executive order or legislative action, matter even more.  They have the ability, among other things, to influence and empower hyper-nationalism and they send powerful messages to those beyond our shores with whom we want to forge closer relationships.  Of growing importance for high education’s advocacy of internationalization will be a refutation of baseless assertions and incorrect information.

The narratives that are central to this advocacy are ones that will need to contrast with those that vilify and cast the world beyond our borders as dark and dangerous.

Perhaps of greatest importance, is more involvement by colleges and universities in the discourse about patriotism.  Recent political movements within both the United States and Europe have put patriotism in a very narrow and insular space.  Rather than national pride and loyalty leading to xenophobia, we have an opportunity and an obligation to widen the discussion and to present patriotism in a very different light as part of our advocacy for internationalization.   We will need to show that patriots of the best stripe see global connection and cooperation as essential to our national welfare. 

In making arguments and bringing facts forward, higher education will invariably be drawn into a broader coalition that is challenged not just to defend internationalism but also equal opportunity for all citizens regardless of gender, race or ethnicity; treatment of immigrant populations; fact-based climate science and a free press.  If we are guardians of the internationalization of higher education, we are also guardians of the society in which our institutions of higher education exist.  What is playing out in national context should not be a new version of the Middle Ages.  Walls and moats cannot divide the national from the international.  This understanding should be the cornerstone of our messaging and in saying so it will be our greatest act of national patriotism and advocacy for the internationalization of higher education


Patti McGill Peterson headed the American Council on Education’s Center for Internationalization and Global Engagement from 2011-2016.  She previously served as executive director of the Council for International Exchange of Scholars that administered the worldwide Fulbright Program and is president emerita of Wells College and St. Lawrence University.



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