There is a reason the governments of United States, Britain, and France are all paralyzed at this moment by national division. The reason is simple: these symptoms are the battle of our time: the battle between supranationalism, on the one hand, and reliance on the nation-state on the other, as the top-level organizing framework of human politics.
Each case manifests a slightly different facet of the issue. In France, thousands of the people turn out week after week to protest economic policies that have been imposed in service of “climate change” collectivism. These policies, adopted at the behest of the EU, are making it steadily more impossible for Frenchmen and women to earn a living and keep their lives going on a middle-class basis.
For climate-change policy, which seeks to impose universalist “solutions,” that’s a feature, not a bug. President Emmanuel Macron has been willing to make minor adjustments, but is unwilling to go further and assert that France should decide these things for herself, rather than being obliged to comply with EU policy.
The French protests, frequently troubled with extracurricular violence from radicals both left and right, are ritually dismissed in the media as evidence of a horrifying extremism. Actual video footage of numerous protests tells a different story: a story of the most ordinary-looking middle-class people from all races and backgrounds turning out across the country, waving the flag of France and singing “La Marseillaise” in unison. But for the mainstream media, there is no civil debate on collectivist belief systems. Anyone who doesn’t agree with the collectivist catechism, on climate change or other matters, is simply an extremist.
In the UK, government business ground to a halt in the last week as Parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s negotiated Brexit deal with the EU. The deal is a very bad one for the Brits, leaving them on the hook for the most onerous obligations of EU membership, while excluding them from the marginal relief of “benefits.”
Notably, these benefits are only beneficial inside the artificial enclosure of EU compliance. Outside of that artificial policy boundary, they aren’t beneficial in any absolute sense. In the absolute sense, as British voters declared in the 2016 Brexit referendum, national independence is better.
The May government barely survived the ensuing no-confidence vote, mainly because abandoning the nation’s future to a Labour Party that has become apoplectically radical is unthinkable. But May has had many months to negotiate a better, good-faith Brexit deal, and clearly isn’t going to do so between now and the end of March, when the UK will in theory crash out of the EU with a “hard,” no-deal Brexit.
Committed Leavers are facing a no-deal Brexit with equanimity. But both Leave and Remain now have contingents demanding a fresh Brexit vote, each hoping to establish momentum for a decisive outcome.
Curiously, meanwhile, the May government seems to exist mainly to string this problem along and not bring it to an orderly conclusion. May won’t negotiate a better deal, won’t (or can’t) put muscle into ramrodding her party to support what she has negotiated, and won’t step down. Through triangulative deduction, one has to conclude that she’s about being against a better Brexit deal for the UK.
Effectively, she’s been buying time for uncertainty and paralysis. That’s the situation the UK finds itself in at the moment, unable to unite and move in a decisive direction. The principle that the UK “should” remain in the EU isn’t winning, by any means – but neither is the principle that the UK should be able to reassert national independence and repudiate membership in the supranational collective.
The battle, in other words, continues. It hasn’t been won or lost yet. The same is true in the United States, where the primary symptom of battle is the government shutdown. The shutdown is over funding to expand the coverage of a border barrier. And the reason it can’t be resolved is that the Democrats (along with some Republicans), who have voted for stretches of the very same barrier in the past, are afraid that the current president will actually use it to enforce the U.S. border.
The shallow media coverage of this issue focuses on Trump’s personality and the antipathy many politicians have for it. The thesis is that these politicians oppose things they’ve supported in the past because of Trump Derangement Syndrome.
But that shortchanges their (in some ways rather feral) understanding of what’s going on. They see clearly that if Trump gets more stretches of wall, he will in fact do what previous presidents have not: shut down – to an unusual level of effectiveness – the illegal migrant flow across the U.S. border.
Instead of tacitly cooperating with the principle that people should be able to wander in and out of the country without any obligation to comply with American laws or honor American civic norms, Trump would do the opposite.
Not only that, he is committed to closing down foreign labor – used legally as well as illegally – as a relief valve for the misguided federal policies that have been pricing American labor dysfunctionally for decades now. It’s our own government’s regulatory ukases that keep Americans out of work and incentivize businesses to import foreign workers, and Trump is pushing back against that.
It takes government to enforce prohibitions that keep the people out of work: a government that envisions universalist control of economy, trade, business, labor, and the cycle of people’s working lives. Such visions of universalist control, with their intolerance and one-size-fits-all solutions, are articles of faith for left-wing collectivism, like the climate-change belief system. To enforce them so effectively that there is no hope of escaping them, it is necessary to subjugate national sovereignty, so that no nation can embody such hope and promise.
Tiresome government impasses: This is the war
Trump is messing with all of that – because he was elected to. Declaring independence from universalist leftism is what his voters wanted. As with the French Yellow Vests and the Leave contingent in the UK, the media therefore routinely depict Trump voters as racist, fascist xenophobes. This of course is not true. It’s wartime propaganda.
That’s because the domestic divisions and paralysis of government in these three great Western nations are the war today’s world is fighting. We aren’t waiting for a “war” to start. We are in it. The inability of the governments to settle the question and move on is the fight being waged.
We can fervently hope, as I do, that the war remains political and not kinetic, ritualized by the mechanisms of government and politics. I have wondered in recent years how we will find a way to reject collectivist enforcement without shooting at each other, and without having uncharted territory to flee to, which were the solutions of Europe over the centuries since the legacy of Rome began to collapse. Perhaps we are seeing the answer.
If, that is, we can indeed win out against collectivism through political processes. History would not make us optimistic about it. Up to now, we have faced great crises of philosophical disagreement with the relief valve of territory to expand into – and yet we still have shed blood in both civil wars and cross-border strife. Today the relief valve of territory is no longer there, or at least not without conquest that most of us would find morally repugnant.
Party like it’s 1648
If we looked for a model to organize around, we might revert to the very one universalist collectivism is trying to kill: the Westphalian commitment on the purpose of nation-states. The Treaty of Westphalia ended a long period of wars waged under the excuse of religious disagreement – not by achieving victory for one point of view, but by committing to a modus vivendi based on a valuable institution, the nation-state.
The point of the Treaty of Westphalia was not that religion is ugly and divisive, or that it must be subordinated to the political. The point was that the armed force of the nation-state, which is useful and does good service for the right purposes, must not be used to enforce universalist philosophies or settle their irreconcilable disputes.
The Westphalian commitment is that universalism will not take precedence over national sovereignty. Instead, national sovereignty will protect nations from movements for overweening universalism.
In 1648, the conscious commitment to this principle helped end the wars of Catholic and Protestant monarchs on the European continent (although the effect was not immediate). In the Napoleonic era, it was instrumental in beating back Bonaparte’s encroaching supranational vision: a hybrid of Roman imperial concepts and French revolutionary declarations.
The Westphalian commitment to respect for national sovereignty was also a key enabling factor for the success of the United States, once we established the “national” and “sovereignty” conditions. America is not possible without Westphalianism.
And in the 20th century, it was the continued commitment to the Westphalian nation-state that allowed the free West to face down ruthless, radical, universalist Communism, even though the latter expanded with each decade into more and more territory, and became equipped with vast conventional armies, nuclear weapons, and seats in the United Nations. The UN was useless for defeating state-armed Communist aggression. It was a specific group of nations acting in their own right, led by the United States, that achieved that goal.
In 2019, the confrontation is in some ways harder to discern than in earlier centuries. It isn’t between nations; it’s within them. Urban “elites” align with each other across borders, the leaders of the biggest cities consciously identifying not with their compatriots from the hinterlands but with the leaders of foreign megalopolises. Conversely, many of the people outside the “elite” circles, wherever in the world they are, take to the streets cheering America’s Donald Trump. His brand of politics cares about them.
The nation-state is what makes the protection of liberty and rights possible. Undermining the nation-state is the project of today’s universalist collectivism, and the government crises in the U.S., UK, and France are visible signs of that battle being waged. This is not a battle over theory or mere programmatic choices. It’s a battle for the future of mankind.
The war requires an intentional, affirmative conclusion
If we are to have liberty and hope in that future, the battle must be won for sovereignty and the protection of rights. But the good news is that there is a model for moving forward on it, without the need to fight until everyone is dead. The model is the “Treaty of Westphalia” commitment to respect national sovereignty instead of fighting to make sure only one side of each proximate philosophical dispute is left standing.
Given the tendencies in the hearts of men, the Westphalian commitment requires recommitment over time. With the sovereignty-versus-universalism rift pervading all aspects of our politics and culture, we’ve reached a watershed we haven’t seen since 1648. We’re not some antiseptic citizenry of enlightened good guys today, standing outside the Protestants and Catholics of the 17th century, pointing fingers; we are the Protestants and Catholics. Some of us are willing to live and let live. Others – including some mainstream politicians, pundits, academicians, and the media, almost all of them on the left – are ready to burn dissenters at the stake.
We can’t be outside our own moment. We can only pretend we are, by focusing on foolish, unimportant things and being angry at people who point out reality. But the solution we need, in a practical sense, is a simple one. Give up the war against national sovereignty, and recommit to sovereignty instead. Lay obligations on it, as the Treaty of Westphalia did, and centuries of practice since. Require accountability of it. But let it do its job – and the problems manufactured by making war on it will subside.