Nationalism “quite resilient” in pandemic

Marco Rubio defines resilience as “the defining trait of an American…[how] we persevere through difficult circumstances and arrive triumphant on the other side.” In this feature piece, Sallie challenges this definition and shows that resilience cannot be synonymous with nationalism.

Does resilience mean business-as-usual? This is the Sherburne County (Sherco) Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant owned by Xcel Energy, in Becker, Minnesota. Coal has been used by US President Donald Trump as a symbol of the resilience of “American Greatness.” Which, as we will see, is not so great nor resilient. (Photo Source: Tony Webster, Flickr)


In an April 20th op-ed for the New York Times entitled, “We Need a More Resilient American Economy,” Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) defined resilience for the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic: “Americans are a resilient people. We persevere through difficult circumstances and arrive triumphant on the other side.” He continued that, “Though I believe resilience is the defining trait of an American, I also believe it has been absent from our public policy for too long.” Resilience, according to Rubio, is both inherent and created, a struggle and a triumph, an identity and a need.

Later, Rubio would accuse China of taking away America’s resilient economy. In his op-ed, Rubio reduces resilience to a nationalist myth, using it to make up a new national identity and to sow hostility of other nations and peoples.

Resilience is currently a hot topic in the world of marine affairs. Studying the use (and misuse) of the word in other contexts – like our current pandemic – can help us learn about pitfalls with the term and critically assess what someone really means when they talk about resilience within our discipline(s). In marine affairs,  the term is generally used to describe systems: for example, the perseverance of cultural systems like Indigenous worldviews, and the strategies small -scale fishers can use when participating in certain economies.

Resilience is a term that was first used to describe ecosystems. Use of the term first originated in ecology in the 1960s and early 1970s. In a 1973 paper, ecologist C. S. Holling described resilience as that which “determines the persistence of relationships with a system and is a measure of the ability of these systems to absorb changes…and still persist.” In other words, based on Holling’s definition, ecological resilience is the ability of an ecosystem to withstand shock while still maintaining function. Since then, aspects of resilience thinking have been adopted by social scientists, economists, and politicians alike. Rubio himself speaks about the buffers and flexibility a nation needs to withstand shock. 

But who provides the buffers and flexibility in this version of resilience? Who bears the brunt of it? Rubio tells the story of the “American community” overcoming COVID-19 as a whole. But this story obscures the fact that not all American people are affected by COVID-19 in the same way, and that strategies and policies for coping with these effects cannot be a universal, general prescription of “resilience.” Nor should the risks they take in remaining in frontline jobs because of systemic poverty be labelled as such.

COVID-19 cases among King County, WA residents by race and ethnicity as of 05/01/2020.

COVID-19 – as well as other natural and man-made disasters – does not affect everyone in the same way. In King County, communities of colour are more vulnerable to the virus. Vulnerability, which is often discussed as the antithesis of resilience in disaster risk and management research, arises when communities do not have sufficient capacity or resources to cope with disaster. Source: Seattle Public Health Infographic 

Rubio isn’t the only one espoused to this vision of resilience. Any national narrative of strength and resilience relies on the pain of vulnerable communities. Consider Futaba, a Japanese town four kilometres down the road from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. Futaba, which was evacuated in 2011 following the Tohoku earthquake, is now to be reconstructed as a tourist town and was to serve as the location for the first leg of the torch relay of the (now-postponed) 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The aim of re-opening Futaba is to show the world how well the nation of Japan has recovered since Fukushima’s nuclear meltdown, but this myth of recovery and a return to strength is predicated upon the concealment of the loss and displacement of Futaba’s residents. 

A haiku slogan that says, “Nuclear energy has a bright future” in Futaba, Fukushima Prefecture, Japan, circa 2013. It was left in the town after residents were evacuated in March 2011. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)


The reopening of Futaba is the Japanese government’s attempt at showing the strength of Japan’s recovery by performing “business as usual.” But this kind of return is only one aspect of resilience. Going back to the Marco Rubio op-ed, we can see that Rubio’s thinking gets at another aspect. That is, once a system passes a disturbance threshold, it can arrive at a new steady state. A resilient system, once it arrives at that new steady state, can adapt, reorganise, and grow in those new conditions. In Rubio’s words: “But the society that follows should not be what it was before…We need a new vision to create a more resilient economy.” Rubio envisions America arriving at a new steady state.

But is this new steady state that new? US President Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign is openly about getting back to an old steady state, but it makes similar arguments and moves to what Rubio thinks of as “new.” In 2016, Trump made the promise to promote coal and coal miners and restore them to their glory days, and has steadfastly made efforts to eliminate Obama-era environmental protection policies.

Similarly, the new steady state Rubio envisions focuses on national interest. The key to a resilient economy, according to him, is to reshore supply chains, to create an America independent of other countries’ industries, especially China’s. One of the ways this is playing out in the coronavirus context is the rollback of environmental protection regulations. Under the new rule, which will remain indefinitely in place, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says that it “does not expect to seek penalties for violations …where the EPA agrees that COVID-19 was the cause of the noncompliance.” Interestingly, both this new rule and Rubio’s resilience op-ed asserts that it prioritises the public health and safety of US citizens under COVID-19. Similar to Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” Rubio’s national narrative of strength and resilience relies on the continued exploitation and degradation of (Indigenous) land. Therefore, the variety of resilience and new steady state that Marco Rubio desires – the nationalist variety – is, in fact, very old. It is the resilience and continuation of a nationalist, capitalist, settler-colonial hegemony.

A threshold in between the old and new steady states (symbolised by the troughs). (Figure Credit: Sallie Lau) For more information about thresholds, please see this article by Ocean Tipping Points.


Nationalist resilience narratives often hide and exclude the devastating implications and inequalities that occur. These narratives are also often constructed out of the exclusion or detriment of people who have to face these implications and inequalities: those who don’t fit the national myth, such as migrants and minorities and foreign nationals who do not have, as Rubio put it, the “national DNA.” This can easily lead to the othering of these people, to believe that they need to be kept out of the country in order for the country to remain resilient. In the case of COVID-19, we see this othering in the form of anti-Asian violence and the continued detainment of undocumented people. In the case of climate change, we see it in, for example, the Australian government’’ refusal to admit refugees in order to maintain the illusion that their own country “is improving their resilience and adaptation.” 

By thinking that resilience can be increased by excluding people they deem will weaken their country, politicians have, of course, subverted the meaning of resilience. Resilience does not necessarily mean national strength. It means increasing the abilities of communities – especially those made vulnerable by the nation state – to recover from disaster. It means transforming our society to a more equitable steady state through just transitions.

In marine affairs, we are often confronted with questions like “how can we build resilient coastal communities?” and “what is a resilient ocean economy?” To answer this question, we must ask ourselves carefully who we are asking to help build our resilient communities, and we must think critically about what alternative economies or steady states we want to create, and we must question the definitions of “resilience” we are using. In this first feature in a series about resilience, I hope I have demonstrated that resilience cannot be synonymous with the erasure of inequality for the performance of strength. Resilience cannot be synonymous with nationalism.