The nation-state is the best insurance for liberty.
IN THE PAST, freedom was often conceived as an attribute of persons. The free man could exercise free thought and free will. He was the opposite of the slave—of the man enslaved by others, or the man enslaved by his passions, his superstitions, his bodily needs. Today we more often think of freedom as an attribute of places. We refer to a free country” or a “free society” or (as the Second Amendment to our Constitution puts it) a “free state.” To view it this way implies that freedom is not so much a challenge one must live up to as a place to which one can move. In fact, tens of millions of people have moved from tyrannical states and empires over the past three centuries in search of better lives. And almost always they moved to free nations.
If freedom has a natural home in the modern world, therefore, it is the nation-state: the legal entity that claims sovereignty within a bounded territory, and which can grant freedom within that territory through its law. It is very hard to imagine the survival of freedom in a world that has left the nation-state behind.
YOU CAN SEE the point most easily if you think about the most commonly discussed alternatives to nation-states. Start with world government. Today the phrase sounds somewhat quaint, a sort of Edwardian fantasy from the fountain pen of a faded seer like H. G. Wells. But Wells was still writing on this theme on the eve of the conference that drafted the UN Charter in 1945. As late as the early 1950s, the World Federalist Society—dedicated to promoting some version of Wells’s science fiction vision—included in its ranks prominent members of the U.S. Congress. In the mid-1960s, the World Federalists were even able to persuade Chief Justice Earl Warren to address their convention (where he spoke in praise of the UN).
The most obvious objection to world government was stated in medieval times. The Florentine poet and thinker Dante Alighieri offered a utopian vision for earthly government, lauding, in his tract De Monarchia, the peace and prosperity that would follow when the entire world submitted to the rule of one empire. The work was denounced by the Church: Dante assumed, his clerical critics argued, that divine attributes (such as omniscience and absolute benevolence) could be found in mere earthly rulers.
The objection remains valid. What makes for freedom is not the extent of government or its lack of national boundaries, but the way in which government is exercised. If there were a world government, why wouldn’t it simply end up as a world tyranny? In modern times, the most respected philosopher to embrace something like world government was Immanuel Kant. And Kant insisted, in his plan for a world peace federation, that the federation must limit its role to maintaining peace among nations, each of which should be an autonomous republic, under its own internal rule of law. (That is why Kant called the federation he proposed a “League of Nations.”) Other plans for world government, such as those of the socialist and communist “internationals,” have brushed all such considerations aside.
But Kant’s vision too is defective. For if a world authority has enough power to guarantee every nation against its enemies, it must be more powerful than any of its component nations. So what power could compel it to limit its reach? Suppose a particular state thought the federation was exceeding its rightful role. Could that state withdraw from the peace federation? If so, wouldn’t that undermine the hope for uniting all states in one global peace federation? If not, wouldn’t that leave the federation to keep expanding its powers, despite any objections from individual member states? Or would a universal peace federation simply transfer the old threat of war between states into a new threat of civil war within the universal federation?
Good questions, even today. The UN Charter, as formulated in 1945, envisioned a limited, modified version of the peace federation. The Security Council was to have military forces on call, including an international bomber command for quick action. As these provisions were adopted only a few weeks after the firebombing of Dresden, one may assume the delegates had some fairly severe “action” in mind, at least as an ultimate threat.
Nothing of the sort ever developed, of course. Even when the end of the Cold War brought talk of a “new world order,” there were not many voices urging that the new order be entrusted with an international bomber force, for the very reason that any international force would reflect the priorities of its most determined members. The UN has never endorsed military confrontations to end tyranny or even mass slaughter. The UN sat passively on the sidelines while 800,000 Tutsis were slaughtered in Rwanda in 1994. When NATO launched its bombing campaign against Serbia in 1999, to end murder and repression in Kosovo, it acted without UN sanction because Russia and China vetoed proposals for UN authorization. Even in Afghanistan, where the UN did authorize military action in 2001, the forces that actually overthrew the Taliban regime (and have continued to fight on behalf of the new democratic government) were supplied by the United States and a small number of our NATO allies. Such examples show that an international force can uphold the concerns of free nations only if controlled by free nations.
In short, either a world authority has dominant force on its side or we remain in a world where lesser powers have the last word. Today, almost all those powers are territorial states. The European Union, which claims to transcend national differences, has turned out to be of little relevance on great issues of war and peace. All its members have endorsed the war in Afghanistan, but some EU nations (notably Britain, Poland, and the Netherlands) have cooperated with U.S. military efforts there, while others (notably France and Germany) have refused to allow their troops to take part in the fighting.
France and Germany tried to mobilize opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but Britain and a majority of other EU states joined the U.S. coalition. In some EU states that originally supported the war, elections brought new governments that decided to withdraw their troops from the coalition (as with Spain and Italy). In other countries (such as Britain, the Netherlands, and Denmark), elections confirmed public support for governments that continued their military commitments in Iraq. The EU, as such, has contributed little more than background noise. When it comes to vital questions of war and peace, states can make hard decisions, while transnational entities merely engage in discussions.
Of course, not all territorial states are democracies. Multinational empires have found it particularly hard to maintain democratic governments. In the late 19th century, when most states in western Europe had developed parliamentary forms of government, the Austrian Empire tried to join the trend. Representatives from different ethnic communities not only could not manage to form stable majorities but could not manage to keep their disputes from descending into actual violence in the parliament building. So the empire was ruled by bureaucratic decree until it finally collapsed into separate national states. The old Soviet Union managed to keep “captive nations” under its rule by ruthless repression until it, too, collapsed into separate national states in 1990. Fear of separatist movements— combining with others to overthrow the government or trying to leave the country and taking their part of its territory with them—remains a motive for repression in a number of countries today, most notably China. Even democratic countries have sometimes found it hard to conciliate ethnic differences, leading to the actual breakup of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia in the 1990s and persistent demands for independence or at least greater autonomy in Quebec.
How much simpler if all people could be satisfied by the same international standards! And if the United Nations could solve the problem of conflict between nations, why not also remove the grounds for conflict within each nation by assuring all people everywhere of the same human rights? The UN Charter accordingly included vague references to “promoting human rights” among the UN’s fundamental goals. Over the past 60 years, the organization has indeed promoted dozens of human rights standards. Some are quite proper (such as provisions for “freedom of worship”), some are vapid (such as provisions guaranteeing the right to vote, without mentioning the right of rival parties to field competing candidates), some are silly (such as requirements to ensure that jobs held by women are compensated in accord with their “worth”).
The world’s worst tyrannies have readily ratified these conventions—and eagerly taken their part in “monitoring” compliance and deflecting scrutiny away from themselves. In a forum that gives the same participation rights to tyrannies and free nations, “human rights” protection has never maintained a steady focus on the worst tyrannies. So the UN has contributed almost nothing to the advancement of freedom in the world. Even in Europe, where a regional Convention on Human Rights was established by Western nations and counts a solid majority of Western-style democracies in its membership, Russia has been a member in good standing since the 1990s—and seems to have been restrained not at all in its subsequent slide toward authoritarian rule.
In short, just as we still rely on nation-states for international security, we must still rely on national governments to protect individual rights. Your freedom still depends on where you live.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
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It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
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H/T to National Review Online