State Department cookie-pushers, Davos dons, Wall Street Brahmins, think-tank worrywarts and the Olympians of the European Union are all fretting about the troubling rise of "economic nationalism" in the West. And, although it pains me to say so, I think the pinstripe crowd is right.
To read the financial and European press, economic nationalism is the avian flu of public policy, spreading the bacillus of protectionism from one society to the next. Last week, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso denounced the rise in "nationalistic rhetoric" in Europe in response to the latest outbreak in France, where Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin blocked an Italian company from taking over a French energy company. De Villepin said he put the kibosh on the plan out of "economic patriotism."
The European debate is much nastier than ours because Europe's problems are so much worse. Europe has an asthmatic economy, a civilizational crisis brewing over Islam and immigration, an aging and shrinking population, and an anemic military establishment. And its reason for existence - the EU - is adrift without a constitution.
But even here in the U.S., the same argument has been raging for years. Companies that outsource jobs or move their headquarters abroad for tax purposes have for some time been called unpatriotic by many liberals and quite a few conservatives. Patrick Buchanan and Ralph Nader have both played the economic patriotism card to the hilt, but even mainstream politicians wax populist on trade. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) demonized "Benedict Arnold" corporations in the 2004 presidential campaign.
This bipartisan anger is, paradoxically, the product of a larger bipartisan consensus on free trade. Hence, those who dissent from free-trade orthodoxy on the left and the right sound remarkably similar. But that consensus is unraveling as formerly unrelated issues - immigration, trade, outsourcing, globalization, national security, homeland security, the war on terrorism - melt together in the fire of populist anger.
The oddly bipartisan flavor of the outrage over the Dubai ports deal is the latest example of the trend. Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) wrote a one-sentence letter to President Bush outlining the view of many Republicans: "Not just no, but HELL NO." Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) is less pithy but even more extreme: "We have to have American companies running our own ports."