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The Nation-State and Democracy

By 2.14.07

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This essay is the fifth in a ten-part series being published in successive issues of The American Spectator under the general title, "The Pursuit of Liberty: Can the Ideals That Made America Great Provide a Model for the World?"

(Also in The American Spectator's Pursuit of Liberty series: James Q. Wilson's "American Exceptionalism," James Kurth's "America's Democratization Projects Abroad," Norman Podhoretz's "A Masterpiece of American Oratory," and Lawrence E. Harrison's "The Cultural Prerequisites of Freedom and Prosperity," with more to come.)

AMERICAN FOREIGN POLICY WAS set on its modern path by Woodrow Wilson. Attributing the First World War to imperial competition, Wilson concluded empires should be divided into autonomous nation-states, their rivalries brokered by a "League of Nations." Although those nation-states were soon involved in another catastrophic war, American foreign policy remained fixed on the Wilsonian path. The post-World War II settlement was again a settlement among nation-states, with a "United Nations," guided by a well-meaning charter and a declaration of rights, taking the place of the League. Even though one member of the Security Council -- the Soviet Union -- was not a nation-state but an empire, and even though most of those who turned up at the meetings of the UN were sent there by gangsters who bore only a nominal relation to the "nations" that they purported to represent, American foreign policy remained fixed in the Wilsonian groove, and has remained so to this day. Hence the assumption that, because there is a seat at the UN for a place called Iraq, and because that seat has been filled by a petty thug with the title of Iraqi President, Iraq is a nation like any other, whose people are bound by a single national loyalty, and whose problems will be solved by a change of regime.

Meanwhile, the nation-state was undergoing a strange transformation, in the very continent where it had been born. In 1951, under pressure from a coterie of civil servants and politicians who met in secret and whose names are only now becoming known, the "European Coal and Steel Community" was formed. It seemed innocent enough, though the acute observer might have suspected, in the word "community," an agenda that went beyond the topic of raw materials. The Coal and Steel Community was joined in 1957 by the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Commission. Between them these formed the "Common Market" which, despite the odd language, was generally assumed to be a well-meaning attempt to secure free trade and economic stability on a continent that had been ravaged by war.

Half a century later, following a process whose forward movement had been somehow embryonic in those initial "communities," we find a Europe in which the nation-states have lost control of lawmaking, of immigration, of commercial regulations, and of effective sovereignty, in which their parliaments are obliged to adopt a code of law (the acquis communautaire) that now extends to 100,000 pages, not one item of which they can reverse and not one error in which they can correct -- and all for purposes that have never been confessed to and which indeed were hidden within the original treaties as part of a secret plan. The process whereby this plan was advanced, regardless of the perceived national interests of the member states, and regardless of public opinion, has been carefully exposed by Christopher Booker and Richard North in The Great Deception (UK, 2005). The claims made in that book have not been refuted by the Eurocrats, who are in any case now invulnerable to criticism, and therefore in the habit of ignoring it.

Booker and North identify Jean Monnet, architect and first president of the European Coal and Steel Community, as the prime conspirator. Following the horrors of the First World War, Monnet conceived the life-long ambition to create a united states of Europe, as the condition of a permanent European peace. Unlike Woodrow Wilson, who wished to divide the continent into nations and achieve peace through a balance of power, Monnet wished to unite the continent in a new and more self-sustaining empire, though one from which the ghost of nationalism had been finally exorcised. He left public office in 1955 to form the Action Committee for the United States of Europe, dedicated to lobbying on behalf of transnational institutions that would be capable of overriding national sovereignty. This idea was opposed by President de Gaulle, who favored a Europe of sovereign nation-states, and with whom Monnet was at loggerheads during the 1960s. As a result Monnet developed the "Monnet method" of "integration by stealth," in which unification would be advanced step by step without the goal ever being clearly perceived or clearly perceivable.

THERE SEEMS LITTLE DOUBT, now, that Monnet played a major part in shaping the European Union as an instrument with which to destroy the nation-state. But other figures, equally powerful and equally devious, had significant roles. Among them was Alexandre Koj�ve, that wily, mesmerizing nihilist, ostensibly a French refugee from Russian Communism, though recently exposed as an NKVD agent, who advanced to the top of the French Civil Service, there to use his influence in promoting transnational government against the nation-state. Koj�ve helped to set up both the embryonic European Union and the GATT. But he is better known today for his freelance seminar on Hegel, through which he formed the minds and souls of a whole generation of French intellectuals, including Andr� Breton, Georges Bataille, Jacques Lacan, and many others who achieved pre-eminence in the postwar period. In his seminars Koj�ve argued that the need of human beings for equal recognition will lead of its own accord to the "end of history." National boundaries and exclusive communities will wither away, and a bland democratic capitalism will spread like a fungus over the face of all mankind. This thesis, shaped for American consumption by Francis Fukuyama (The End of History and the Last Man), can be read in another way, as a codified admission of the secret plan for Europe's future, which will also be the future of the world.

Unlike Woodrow Wilson, who blamed the First World War on the Empires, the founders of the European experiment blamed that war and its successor on the spirit of the nation-state. A united states of Europe seemed to them to be the only recipe for lasting peace. This view is for two reasons entirely unpersuasive. First, it is purely negative: it rejects nation-states for their belligerence, without giving any positive reason to believe that transnational states will be any better. Indeed, it resolutely ignores the history of the most belligerent state in recent times, the Soviet Union, which inherited all the ambitions of imperial Russia and added to them imperial ambitions of its own. Secondly, it identifies the normality of the nation-state through its pathological examples. As Chesterton has argued about patriotism generally, to condemn patriotism because people go to war for patriotic reasons, is like condemning love because some loves lead to murder. The nation-state should not be understood in terms of the French nation at the Revolution or the German nation in its 20th-century frenzy. For those were nations gone mad, in which the sources of civil peace had been poisoned and the social organism colonized by anger and resentment.

The European Union has tried to destroy the nation-states of Europe, in the belief that there is no peace while there are serious national rivalries; the United States has attempted to deal with the world as though each part of it with a name and a border can be treated as a national unity, in the belief that there is no democracy without the nation-state. The American project for world peace is therefore the polar opposite of that embarked on by the European Union. The question of which policy is the right one goes to the heart of our situation today -- a situation in which, under pressure from transnational forces for which our political systems are not prepared, the Western alliance is being torn apart by the conflict between the American and the European vision of its goal.

IT SEEMS TO ME THAT, whatever the weaknesses in American foreign policy, it is right to take the nation-state as its premise. A nation-state is a form of customary order, the byproduct of human neighborliness, shaped by an "invisible hand" from the countless agreements between people who speak the same language and live side by side. It results from compromises established after many conflicts, and expresses the slowly forming agreement among neighbors both to grant each other space and to protect that space as common territory. It depends on localized customs and a shared routine of tolerance. Its law is territorial rather than religious and invokes no source of authority higher than the intangible assets that its people share. All those features are strengths, since they feed into an adaptable form of pre-political loyalty. However, they also ensure that nation-states are vulnerable at every point to subversion from those with a grand design. What Monnet set out to achieve in Europe was in one sense identical to what Lenin and Hitler had set out to achieve -- to capture the unguarded instruments of social power, and to turn them against the people who had provided them.

The result of Jean Monnet's plan is there for all to see: an unaccountable bureaucracy presiding over a continent that has been cast adrift from its traditional aspirations and historical ties. Europeans have been disenfranchised by the European machine, which has at the same time resolutely refused to address the real problems of Europe's future. Of course, these problems (demographic decline, adverse immigration, the imminent collapse of the welfare state) might have arisen without the project of Union: but one thing is certain, which is that the project has weakened the authority of European governments and put no rival authority in their place. The unaccountable nature of the European institutions, their ability to spend money on themselves and to clutter the continent with their fantasy projects, their endless production of absurd and malicious regulations -- all these things have deprived the EU of legitimacy in the eyes of the European people. But the Union remains, immune to any action that its "citizens" can take, cushioned from all popular resentment by the national governments that shield it from the people. If proof were needed for the proposition that the nation-state is the friend of democracy, and transnational government the foe, then the European Union is it.

But why did things not work that way in America? Why did the experiment in federal government, which has led to an unaccountable empire in Europe, lead to a viable democracy in America? The answer is simple: because American federalism created not an empire but a nation-state. This happened despite the dispute over states rights, despite the Civil War, despite the legacy of slavery and ethnic conflict. It happened because the American settlement established a secular rule of law, a territorial jurisdiction, and a common language in a place that the people were busily claiming as their home. Under the American settlement people were to treat each other, first and foremost, as neighbors: not as fellow members of a race, a class, an ethnic group, or a religion, but as fellow settlers in the land that they shared. Their loyalty to the political order grew from the obligations of neighborliness; and disputes between them were to be settled not by priests or tribal elders but by the law of the land.

The nation-state emerged in Europe as a perceived solution to the religious wars that had blighted the continent in the wake of the Reformation; it offered a political order in which religion would be discounted in favor of a shared attachment to the soil. But its foundation lies deeper than the needs of 17th-century government. All the ways in which people come to define their identity in terms of the place where they belong have a part to play in cementing the sense of nationhood. For example, the common law of the Anglo-Saxons, in which laws emerge from the resolution of local conflicts, rather than being imposed by the sovereign, has had a large part to play in fostering the English (and subsequently American) sense that the law is the common property of all who reside within its jurisdiction rather than the creation of priests, bureaucrats, or kings. A shared language and shared curriculum have a similar effect in making familiarity, proximity, and day-to-day custom into sources of common loyalty. The essential thing about nations is that they grow from below, through habits of free association among neighbors, and result in loyalties that are firmly attached to a place and its history, rather than to a religion, a dynasty, a family, or a tribe.

WE DO NOT NEED reminding that there are many parts of the world which do not benefit from a developed sense of nationhood. This is particularly true in the Islamic world where, with the notable exception of Turkey, most people live in a deeply conflicted situation, being exhorted every Friday to rehearse their membership of an Islamic ummah that recognizes no national boundaries and the authority of no secular powers.

A country like Iraq is not, never has been, and never will be a nation-state. This is not merely because it contains communities that identify themselves in terms of their religious and ethnic allegiance; it is also because for these communities their place of settlement has never been a country, a place defined as ours, where our way of doing things prevails, and which must be defended at all costs if our way of life and web of affections is to survive. Country has always taken second place to religion, family, or tribe. Iraq was carved out of the Ottoman Empire by Western diplomats who imagined, like Woodrow Wilson, that nation-states lie concealed beneath every empire, that national boundaries are already inscribed in the affections of the people, held in place by lines of force that have the same historical fixity as those which created the nation-states of Europe. This piece of wishful thinking is very far from the truth. Even if Iraq were to divide today into three regions, Sunni Arab, Shiite, and Kurd, these would not succeed in becoming nation-states. Authority would still be attributed to family, tribe, and creed above that of country, and in emergencies the people of the resulting territories would still unite behind those old ideas of identity, and not behind the "law of the land."

This matters for many reasons, not the least being that democracy is a form of government that depends upon a national, rather than a credal or tribal, idea of loyalty. In a nation-state the things that divide neighbors from each other -- family, tribe, and religion -- are deliberately privatized, made inessential to the shared identity, and placed well below the country and its well-being on the list of public duties. It is this, rather than any Enlightenment idea of citizenship, that enables nation-states so easily to adopt democracy. In a place where tribal or religious loyalties take precedence, democratic elections, if they occur at all, occur only once.

Of course, even in a nation-state, democracy is not achieved overnight. Democratic government depends upon a pre-existing rule of law and established customs upholding the freedom of individuals and the rights of minorities. Those benefits were historical achievements of the European legal and judicial systems. They preceded democracy and have not been replicated everywhere. Until they are in place, the introduction of elections may merely let the majority loose upon whatever minority provokes its indignation. We see this problem clearly in the Islamic states of the Middle East, where majorities either are kept in place by tyranny, like the Iraqi Shiites under Saddam Hussein, or (when freed from tyranny) look around to assert themselves against their sectarian rivals, like the Shiites in Iraq today. Democracy involves the ability to grant a share in government to people with whom you profoundly disagree, including people of another faith. This is possible only where government is secular, and where nevertheless people revere the process of government as the expression of a shared national identity.

The secular law of Western states has been made possible by territorial jurisdiction, and the territory in question has been defined by permeable but historically vindicated national boundaries. Our political culture has been a culture of the home and the homeland, rather than the faith and the faithful. The British people were until recently brought up on a conception of national history and national identity that promoted mutual trust and solidarity between neighbors. Although religion had a part to play in their political education, it was that of the "Church of England," in which expression it was "England," not "Church," that was the operative term. The American people likewise have been brought up on the narratives of nationhood. God is invoked, but largely as the transcendental guarantee of a nation, a source of blessing that rains down on the land and its people, regardless of their local disagreements over who exactly He is.

THAT KIND OF TERRIORIAL PATRIOTISM has suffered erosion in Europe, not only from globalization, but also from the mass immigration of minorities that do not share it, who define their communities in terms of religion rather than territory, and who do not in their heart accept the authority of a merely secular law. It has suffered too from a culture among European intellectuals who, for a variety of reasons, not all of them bad, have tried to discard national loyalty and to replace it with the cosmopolitan ideals of the Enlightenment. The problem, as I see it, is that cosmopolitan ideals are the property of an elite and will never be shared by the mass of humankind. Moreover, when embodied in transnational institutions, they have an innate tendency to degenerate into the kind of corrupt and profoundly anti-democratic bureaucracies exemplified by the UN and the EU. The nation, suitably tempered and purged of its endogenous excesses, may be the best we can hope for, by way of a pre-political community that can accept the jurisdiction of a purely secular law.

Nevertheless, people often attempt to express what is distinctive about Western democracies in terms of the Enlightenment idea of citizenship. Americans, they say, are citizens, whereas Syrians, for example, are subjects. There is truth in this: but it is important to see that the concept of the citizen, whose relation to the state is not one of passive obedience but one of mutual right and duty, is himself a product of the nation-state. A society of citizens is a society in which strangers can trust one another, since everyone is bound by a common set of rules. This does not mean that there are no thieves or swindlers; it means that trust can grow between strangers, and does not depend upon family connections, tribal loyalties, or favors granted and earned. This strikingly distinguishes a country like Australia, for example, from a country like Kazakhstan, where the economy depends entirely on the mutual exchange of favors, among people who trust each other only because they also know each other and know the networks that will be used to enforce any deal. It is also why Australia has an immigration problem, and Kazakhstan a brain drain.

As a result of this, trust among citizens can spread over a wide area, and local baronies and fiefdoms can be broken down and overruled. In such circumstances markets do not merely flourish: they spread and grow, to become co-extensive with the jurisdiction. Every citizen becomes linked to every other, by relations that are financial, legal, and fiduciary, but which presuppose no personal tie. A society of citizens can be a society of strangers, all enjoying sovereignty over their own lives, and pursuing their individual goals and satisfactions. Such have Western societies been, when organized as nation-states. They have been societies in which you form common cause with strangers, and which all of you, in those matters on which your common destiny depends, can with conviction say "we."

The existence of this kind of trust in a society of strangers should be seen for what it is: a rare achievement, whose preconditions are not easily fulfilled. If it is difficult for us to appreciate this fact, it is in part because trust between strangers creates an illusion of safety, encouraging people to think that, because society ends in agreement, it begins in it too. Thus it has been common since the Renaissance for thinkers to propose some version of the "social contract" as the foundation of a society of citizens. Such a society is brought into being, so Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and others in their several ways argue, because people come together and agree on the terms of a contract by which each of them will be bound. This idea resonates powerfully in the minds and hearts of citizens, because it makes the state itself into just another example of the kind of transaction by which they order their lives. It presupposes no source of political obligation other than the consent of the citizen, and conforms to the inherently skeptical nature of modern jurisdictions, which claim no authority beyond the rational endorsement of those who are bound by their laws. The idea is a beautiful one, precisely because it leaves the messy business of history out of account. But nothing happens without history, and the history behind the citizen is that of the nation-state.

ALL THAT IS IMPORTANT TODAY, as we see the old nation-states of Europe being steadily deprived of their territorial sovereignty. There are nation-states of a kind in South America; India and Japan have each an established claim to nationhood, as do one or two fragments of the British diaspora, such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. But it is more and more apparent that the United States of America is nearly unique among the states that have a seat at the United Nations in being both united and a nation. It is the last integrated nation-state in a world of imperial, tribal, and religious powers. And the growing anti-Americanism in Europe is partly the result of this. Collective antipathies do not, as a rule, arise in response to injury. They arise out of envy, resentment, and a sense that the other has succeeded where you yourself have failed. Europeans see in America an image of their own past, in the days before cynicism and nihilism wiped away their sense of home. They observe a country able to shape its own destiny and laws, and to take an active and eager interest in the affairs of the world. They observe a country trusting its own people, as they once trusted theirs, to rise in the common defense. They see a country that can still confess to its faults and repent of its mistakes, because it is confident in its good intentions.

Of course, not everything about America is good. Europeans are right to question American foreign policy, and right to distance themselves from its frequently na�ve assumptions -- not least the assumption that the world divides into nation-states. They are right to resist the globalization -- which to many Europeans means the Americanization -- of their economies, even though it is a process in which the business elites of Europe are as eager to join as their American competitors. They are right to see American popular culture as a temptation to be resisted rather than a gift to be received.

But these things do not explain the vehemence of their antagonism. This antagonism stems not from what they have and the Americans haven't, but from what the Americans have kept and they have lost. Witnessing the mysterious togetherness of the Americans, even in times like the present when the country is deeply divided over issues of domestic and foreign policy, they recall their own recent experiences and acknowledge that "we too were like that." We too used to make our own laws, elect our own governments, decide who should and who should not reside among us; we too used to join together in our national festivals, adopt our national customs, and salute the national flag; we too used to look on our country, its landscape and its cities, with a sense of ownership, and stand ready to defend them in the face of threat.

Above all, we too were a "we" -- a community of strangers, bound together by our love of the home that we shared. And what has happened to that "we"? Ask the question and Europeans veer away into silence. For this is forbidden territory. National feelings come under that ever expanding category of forbidden passions, which in European Law go by the name of "racism and xenophobia," and which are soon to be extraditable crimes throughout the Union.

The American example reminds us of one of the essential requirements of nationhood, which is a "myth of origins." We in England had such a myth, in the form of the Arthurian legends, which established a claim to the land that could never be defeated, since it was founded in stories that could never be disproved. It worked, partly because those stories located the origin of England in a misty past beyond the reach of rational enquiry, to be understood in terms of the long history that stemmed from it, and not in terms of exact historical events. In America the myth of origins focuses on a precise moment, the moment of the Founding Fathers, heroes who stand higher in the narrative of history than ever they stood in reality, and who bequeathed to their countrymen a text every bit as sacred as the Hebrew Bible or the Holy Koran. And this text is all the more efficacious in the turbulent world that is now emerging, in being both sacred in its origins and secular in its effect. It is a revelation, but a revelation from man, not God. And its principles do not merely enshrine the Enlightenment conception of citizenship, purged of all belligerence and defiance. They unfold a clear idea of nationhood -- of a people committed to each other despite all the differences of doctrine, opinion, and lifestyle that might otherwise force them apart.

ONE OF THE MOST REMARKABLE FEATURES of America in the eyes of a European visitor is the unselfconscious manner in which Americans still rehearse the myth of their origins, and repeat the narrative of their pilgrimage into the modern world. In Europe such things are either scorned as chauvinistic or condemned as another example of that "racism and xenophobia" which is lurking under every bed. Some of our national narratives have been scribbled over and canceled out, like that of the Germans. Others have become stories of class-conflict and oppression, like that now told in English schools, or records of belligerent episodes that never paid off -- like the national stories that no longer appeal to the French. Everywhere we find a kind of repudiation of those fortifying legends on which nations have always depended for their sense of identity. Whether this is the cause of our loss of sovereignty or an effect of it is hard to tell. Maybe it is a bit of both.

But it is certain that the European Union does its best to encourage the debunking of national narratives. The EU-sponsored history textbook, which is now proposed as a basic text for both French and German schools, says little about France or Germany as nation-states, representing their history as a series of unfortunate conflicts on the way to a Union where conflicts can no longer occur. The textbook is consistently anti-American and equates America with the Soviet Union as joint causes of the Cold War and of the tensions that divided Europe. It is also unstinting in its praise for the European Union, as a cosmopolitan project spreading peace and order where the nation-states (the last example of which is America) spread only violence, exploitation, and distrust.

The book is the work of ten learned professors, five French and five German. And I doubt that any of them believes a word of it. But its purpose is that of historical narratives at every time and in every place: to provide a new myth of the past. The EU cannot create a rival identity to the nation-state, unless it can identify itself as something superior to the nation-states. It must become a project of release from the errors and crimes of nationhood. And this means identifying the nation-state as a symptom of the adolescence of mankind, a stage on the way to transnational maturity. And it also involves identifying the last great nation-state in the modern world -- the United States of America -- as an example of what must be overcome, if mankind is to enter into a secure and peaceful possession of its patrimony.

We have heard all that before, of course. It is the message of the socialist internationals, the message with which the Communist Party once seduced the intellectuals of Europe, so that they would lend their weight to the Soviet conquest of their continent. It is the message propounded by the Italian Eurocommunists, who played their own important part in working for a transnational European Union. Like all messages devoted to "the future of an illusion," it needs an enemy in order to recruit its friends. That this enemy should be America, the latest and greatest example of the nation-state, lies in the logic of the case. We should not be surprised, therefore, if anti-American attitudes now occupy the place in European debates that were previously occupied by the anti-bourgeois posture of the French and Italian leftists, and the anti-Semitic posture of their rightist opponents.

WHERE DOES THIS leave American foreign policy? The first conclusion to draw is that America is destined to be increasingly alone in the world. The "democracies" with which the U.S. is allied in Europe are no longer true democracies, since their law, their domestic policy, and -- if things go according to plan -- their foreign policy will soon be dictated to them by committees which they can neither elect nor reject. Those committees will be programmed according to a transnational ideology that is completely at variance with the American vision. Their policy will not be to spread democracy beyond the borders of the European Union, but to extinguish democracy within them. As for the Middle East and Islam, the European machine will continue to appease the Islamists, by denying the religious and cultural tradition of Europe, and abasing itself before the ongoing invasion.

The second conclusion is that the loss will not be America's but Europe's. The European project has imposed upon the nations of Europe a policy of "free flow" of peoples, which has made it impossible to ensure that the people living in its territories share the loyalty of their immediate neighbors. The inexorable movement towards ethnic, religious, and racial conflict has begun, and -- without the nation-state and a strong ideology of nationhood -- there is little hope of preventing it.

The third conclusion is that if, as I have argued, nationhood is a precondition of democracy, it would be better for America to build alliances with genuine or emerging nation-states -- with Japan, South Korea, Australia, India -- than with the European powers. It would be better to work for the democratization of China than for the democratization of the Islamic world. It would be better still to retreat from too much involvement in a world of lunatics, and to build up defenses -- at home. For home is how a nation-state defines itself.

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About the Author
Roger Scruton is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book, How to Think Seriously About the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservatism, has just been published by Oxford University Press.