The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 17, 2017

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The Death of the Nation-State?
David Clinton (from MA 52 03) - 02/09/11

The phenomenon of globalization rests on the shared desire of all persons to enjoy access to the widest array of goods at the lowest possible price. Manent here is most representative of French thought in fearing the deadening sameness that unrestricted international commerce may bring. Arriving at the lowest common denominator, in this case achieving the globally competitive price level, is incompatible with the care, craftsmanship, and resulting cost required of goods that truly reflect the delightful variety of life across societies; or, as he puts it, “trade, as it becomes generalized and intensified, tends to erase the limited horizons that men need in order to produce the things they wish to exchange.” The World Trade Organization best illustrates the emphasis on lowering the cost of production, above all other policy objectives, as well as the transfer of power from democratically controlled governments to an international body guided by an international law superior to the formerly sovereign state.

For law to conform fully to the imperative of equality, it must enforce rights that are the same for all persons, and it must be applied equally to all persons. The former imperative leads to an ever-extending catalog of universal rights, applied and often authored by supposedly neutral judges rather than by democratic assemblies that might be captured by some citizens and not all; the latter, to the growth of cosmopolitan law, with an attendant enthusiasm for humanitarian intervention and decay in the principle of non-intervention. In all this, there is much that reflects the well-intentioned but never quite fully realized desire to substitute the equality and neutrality of law and administration for the conflict of politics; there is also the assumption (necessary to cosmopolitan equality, though rarely borne out by reality) that all persons everywhere rationally desire the same list of rights and value the peaceful preservation of these rights over any other objective.

Likewise, the “construction of Europe” expands the rights—to travel freely between countries, to pursue a career within any of them, to enjoy the judicial protection of a common list of human rights—equally held by all individuals within the borders>of the Union, but by transferring ever more powers to European institutions marked by the “democratic deficit,” it lessens the ability of those same individuals to deliberate together on the best means of defining and pursuing the good life. Politics of a kind may go on behind closed doors, but democratic politics withers; if nothing of importance is decided by the nation, no particular reason exists to be and to act as a citizen. Someone else will take care of any responsibilities—to enforce a lengthening roster of universal rights approved as such by the European Parliament: the power of the United States; to populate European countries with birth rates that have plummeted well below replacement levels: an increasing supply of immigrants, from the new countries that have joined the Union and beyond.

For Manent, then, a world that has gone beyond the politics that could be practiced under the norms and institutions of democratic nation-states is also a world that has left behind citizenship, patriotism, responsibility, and culture. It is an unattractive, limited, flattened world, that, if it avoids the tyranny of which totalitarian states were guilty in the twentieth century, obviates as well the opportunity for the individuals who live within it to grow into citizens. It is also a world in which, without the grandeur of the country or the principles of one’s regime to evoke loyalty, there is very little reason for anyone to sacrifice much of anything for the sake of any purpose. Humanitarian intervention, for example, will be prompted by feelings of universal compassion, even as it is deprived of the willingness to apply the force that would make it effective.

The author makes clear from the beginning of the English translation of this work that he is interpreting Europe for America, and it is worth briefly considering in conclusion why the attitudes he describes so well are more powerful in the Old World than in the New (though they are not unknown here). One explanation is that despite the fact that his argument is framed in terms of universal trends responding to the desires of humans qua human beings, in reality the historical experience has been different on the two sides of the Atlantic. In Europe, two terribly destructive wars in the fi rst half of the twentieth century discredited national pride as a worthy ideal, the swift collapse of the imperial project in the second half undercut its claim to be making a contribution to the welfare of civilization, and the turn-of-the-century appearance of an international order framed by continent-sized great powers made the states of Europe appear too small to meet the challenges of security and economic prosperity on their own. None of these things has been true to the same extent of the United States.

A second possible answer sits strangely beside Manent’s analysis of the loss of all hierarchy and distinctions: that the United States is a more purely democratic country than its European cousins. For all the claims of social democracy to be more fully equal, and therefore more fully “democratic,” than liberal democracy, in the United States general public opinion has a greater force over public policy than in most of the capitals of Europe. One might find public opinion polls reflecting at least plurality support for capital punishment among Europeans as well as Americans, for example, but only in the United States is that backing from the public at large able to overcome elite opposition to the practice and make it public policy. Likewise, the great unwashed have never demonstrated as much attachment to the European project as have elites; and the furthering of European integration has by and large been undertaken without reference to the wishes of the public, even as >it has constructed a framework of institutions far from democratic in their spirit.

Such transatlantic contrasts mean that, while Manent sees no prospect, and therefore suggests no prescriptions, for reversing the developments he observes and recreating a richer—because more fully political—society in Europe, he does not insist that he is describing the inevitable destiny of the United States. Indeed, he predicts increasing difficulties between the two precisely because an ever-more nonpolitical Europe will press for humanitarian policies without equipping itself with the instruments of power to accomplish its goals on its own, while a still-political America will retain the material and psychological capacity to fight, but will continue to balance compassionate concerns against strategic ones.

If the United States is to have a chance of remaining a nation-state—if, in response to the question in Manent’s title, we are to see the emergence not of a “world beyond politics” but only a region that has abandoned the political self-identification of its peoples as citizens—then Americans will need to appreciate his rich argument, which links sophisticated political thought with immediate and very practical questions of political action. They will need to avoid the peculiarly American temptation to define the United States simply as the bearer of equally universal and abstract notions of right and law, forgetting the needed ballast of a country, possessing a defined territory and a recognized assembly of fellow citizens. Without realizing what is at stake, he implies, the United States could undergo a similar depoliticization. If it escapes that fate, it will owe much to the perspicuity and passion displayed in this volume. In that case, Manent’s warning would not be realized to its ultimate extent, but one can expect that this result would not disappoint him. No doubt he would be pleased to arrive at what he expected to be the funeral of the nation state and find several healthy members of the family standing at his side.

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