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Empire of Liberalism

By: Sumantra Maitra
June 12, 2018

hen asked his assessment of the French Revolution, Zhou Enlai responded, “it is too soon to say.” History moves forward unpredictably. Attempts to forecast or explain its epochal events are proven incorrect more often than not. In 2016, one such epochal year, Brexit’s success and Donald Trump’s election marked the end of post-Cold War unipolarity and globalization, but it also saw the rise of nationalism in Hungary, Austria, Italy, and Poland. The nationalist revivals in India, Russia, and China, which had begun earlier, continued. Yoram Hazony’s new book The Virtues of Nationalism, credits this rise to the “globalists” and their often contradictory and incoherent ideas about what differentiates beneficial and harmful nationalism.

Nationalism wasn’t always seen as a negative. The American left still celebrates the Fourth of July with music and parades, and they once admired Greece, Italy, Poland, and Israel’s struggles for independence. Gandhi and Havel—diehard nationalists—are still considered heroes. It was Churchill’s nationalism that stood against Germany, just as East European nationalism led to the Warsaw Pact’s demise. Assuming nationalism’s evils is a direct reaction to the rise of the Nazis’ ultra-nationalistic rhetoric, and Hazony reminds us not to equivocate between the two: “Nazi Germany,” he notes, “was, in fact, an imperial state, in every sense, seeking to put an end to the principle of the national independence, and the self-determination of peoples once and for all.” In fact, stopping the Nazis required a the combined strength of Soviet and Anglo-American nationalism: “Even Stalin had abandoned Marxist claptrap about world revolution, in favor of open appeals to Russian patriotism…”.

This idea that universal order offers a preferable alternative to nationalism has its origins in Kant’s vision of global, perpetual peace centered in liberal rationalism. Achieving perpetual peace would require dismantling the nation-states of Europe (and elsewhere) in favor of gigantic bureaucratic and administrative global governance and a class of transnational technocrats, who regulate every aspect of life, from food and borders, to health, property, and death. This cult-like commitment to liberal rationalism, Hazony reminds us, has led to some of the world’s most heinous crimes: “In Western history, imperialism is always associated with a rationalist theory of knowledge.”

How is modern liberal internationalism similar to imperialism? Hazony argues that

For all the bickering, proponents of the liberal construction are unified in endorsing a single imperialist vision: they wish to see a world in which liberal principles are codified as universal laws and imposed on nations, if necessary by force.

Thus, a conservative democracy opposed to open borders or LGBT rights may well be dubbed illiberal, autocratic, and on the wrong side of progressive history. In this light, liberal intelligentsia and elites’ aversion to the narrower conservative nationalist governments of Hungary and Poland, or events like Brexit and Trump’s election, makes perfect sense. Any conservative and nationalist aspiration is revealed at the ultimate enemy of internationalist ideology, whether it’s Marxism, Islamism, or liberalism, which aims to erase national boundaries and impose large-scale forced social engineering, aided by institutions and ideologues, with the ultimate goal of dismantling the nation-state.

Any internationalist ideology, insofar as it is detached from circumstances, interests, and history, is universalist: benevolent federalism or pooled sovereignty is impossible. From the perspective of a clan or tribe, any universalist norm will always seem ill-conceived, unjust, autocratic and perverse, yet, as Hazony notes: “the very premise of the empire, which is its concern for the needs of humanity, leaves the unique clan or tribe with no standing to protest.” Asserting particular interests or individual cultural norms and aspirations would automatically clash with the internationalist imperial order and thereby be seen as narrow-minded and contrary to global good. This central dilemma of imperial order—how to crush internal dissent—also limits any internationalist ideology in the long run. Ultimately, every empire faces backlash. The EU, for example, a postmodern empire with a benign marshmallow totalitarianism, will sooner or later have to chart its own course and crush dissent or be torn apart by centrifugal forces from within.

But why should we prefer nationalism over imperial order? Because the nation-state is formed out of tribes and/or citizens who share a common history rather than, or in addition to, an abstract ideology. A healthy, civic nationalism disdains the conquest of foreign nations or foreign people as well as interference in others’ affairs. The Westphalian peace was predicated on a realist understanding of international relations. The nation-state model didn’t eliminate war, but it did establish a global peace based on a balance of power and a mutually assured principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another sovereign state.

German imperialism destroyed the original Westphalian order, just as the post-Cold war liberal imperialism and Kulturkampf led to the current nationalist backlash. The purpose of a balance of power is to ensure that no nation-state or empire grows so strong that it is in a position of making law for the others; its purpose is to preserve a regime’s freedom to make law for itself. Nationalism is more than flag waving; it is the idea that one has the right to plant that flag at the border and man the gates against external interference. Nationalism is self-determination, without coercion by internationalist legality or a foreign economic or military force. Any attempt to nationalism with imperial order is therefore bound to invite backlash, and history will continue to haunt humanity in cycles.