Countries with nationalist leaders ‘emulated’ one another’s COVID-19 response

December 11, 2020
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Dec. 11, 2020. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting of the Supreme Eurasian Economic Council via video conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Dec. 11, 2020. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Countries led by nationalist leaders with little else in common have taken policy cues from similar governments in responding to the coronavirus pandemic since the early days of the crisis, according to new research.

In an article published in the Journal of Chinese Political Science in late October, two U.S. professors found that nationalist countries have “emulated” one another’s coronavirus response. While social scientists have long known that policymaking does not occur in a vacuum, and prior studies have demonstrated geographic neighbors and like-minded democracies taking after one another’s policy initiatives, the study marked the first time that nationalist identity was directly tied to policy emulation.

“The idea that nationalism would have this same type of force is kind of a novel idea, because there’s this weird contradiction about international nationalism. Even the name is awkward,” said John Wagner Givens, the lead author and assistant professor of political science and international relations at Kennesaw State University.

This discovery follows the rise of nationalist leaders who’ve now embraced anti-scientific rhetoric about the virus to justify not implementing stricter lockdowns that could be seen as a sign of weakness, Givens said.

Nationalism is generally defined in scholarship as a “malleable and narrow ideology” that is hyper-focused on the perceived value of national membership to the point of excluding certain out-groups such as foreigners, according to Givens and his co-author Evan Mistur, an assistant professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Most notably, this frame fits with leaders such as outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and to some extent U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and others, Givens explained.

“For the American audience, one of the biggest takeaways is that America is not as unique as we think,” Givens told The Academic Times. “America actually fits pretty well into this pattern that we’ve found.”

He noted that while most of the aforementioned countries defined as nationalist do not have very close economic ties or even a similar level of health care, their leaders have often expressed admiration for one another’s nationalist rhetoric and tendencies in recent years, a sign that they may also have their ear on domestic policy.

The study posited that these leaders have been actively looking to one another during the pandemic, often following in the others’ direction. One nationalist leader’s call to close down schools, for instance, may encourage others to follow suit by tying their own decision to another “strongman” figure. 

“In a way, they provide cover for each other, especially when they weren’t willing to ramp up measures early on,” Givens explained. 

“It’s sort of a nationalist version of virtue signaling where you might expect the signaling to yield stricter policies, yet the opposite is true,” he added, wherein nationalists feel more emboldened to decry international cooperative organizations like the World Health Organization, from which Trump threatened to withdraw U.S. funding.

In their analysis, the authors did not find that any one country acted as a policy innovator that clearly set the agenda for the rest of the peer group. For the most part, Givens said, all countries in the study copied other nationalist policies to some extent.

“It’s a bit of a chicken-or-the-egg question, but it’s also a really good empirical question, and one that we didn’t investigate because this is such a compressed timeline,” Givens said. “Because this stuff was happening so fast and we’re talking about relatively small changes in policy, it’s hard to see that there is one particular leader.”

Past studies on cross-border policy diffusion, the idea that leaders look to other jurisdictions for policy direction, typically assume that much of this socialization among leaders occurs through indirect means, such as press reports and official briefings.

However, the recent paper on nationalist policy diffusion found that nationalist leaders, especially Trump, have been in direct communication about similar heads of state that likely shaped their own behavior, though it is unclear to what extent.

“The thing that makes this effective at proving our point is that [Trump] wasn’t on the phone with Canada and Mexico, who are our neighbors, and he wasn’t on the phone with our traditional allies like France,” Givens said. “He was on the phone with a lot of nationalist leaders with whom we otherwise don’t have much in common, like Duterte or Bolsonaro.”

To test their hypothesis that nationalists mirror one another’s crisis playbook, Givens and Mistur deployed a dyadic event history analysis, a common way to measure policy diffusion. 

They also drew data on nationalist states’ responses to the virus from the the Oxford COVID-19 Government Response Tracker and combined it with a more precise index that specifically measures social-distancing policies. 

After controlling for factors like a country’s administrative capacity and geographic position, the paper found that nationalist countries with an “above-average” level of nationalism most emulated the coronavirus responses of other nationalist states. The test also found that this influence is “very robust.”

Givens was “ a little surprised that these results were so strong” relative to another paper he is working on to measure COVID-19 policy emulation among democracies and geographical neighbors, he said, since correlation in the latter paper was expected.

It’s difficult for studies such as these to ascertain the exact motivation or reasoning for policy emulation, Givens said, but he offers some possibilities that could serve as doorways to future research on this phenomenon.

“We absolutely will continue to look at this,” he said. “In terms of future research, another thing we’re really looking at is … are there other areas of policy emulated by nationalists,” and whether nationalist victories in one country embolden a similar faction in another country, he said.

Moreover, the findings of the nationalist emulation research may help to predict future positions of nationalist leaders in later stages of the pandemic or in other developing global crises, such as climate change.

“The [Biden] administration might break some of the chain that’s going on, but this trend is not just about the U.S.,” Givens said. “So there is a concern that there won’t necessarily be the same policy mistakes, but the same system of emulating policy mistakes.”

The study, titled “The Sincerest Form of Flattery: Nationalist Emulation during the COVID-19 Pandemic,” was published Oct. 23 in the Journal of Chinese Political Science. It was authored by John Wagner Givens, Kennesaw State University, and Evan Mistur, University of Texas at Arlington.

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