The brewing popular rebellions against incumbent leaders throughout the Western world—from the United States to Germany to Great Britain to Italy—are, despite their different forms and circumstances, a rejection of post-national leadership so in vogue over the past decades. What increasingly larger swaths of Western electorates are indicating is that they do not want global leaders who seek global solutions to purportedly global problems, are critical of national borders, and are disdainful if not outright fearful of expressions of patriotism. They want national leaders—leaders, that is, who put them, their own nations, above other nations and other concerns.
The difference between global and national leaders does not reside in specific policies, such as free trade or a country’s international role and its military presence abroad. Those are issues over which wise individuals can have reasonable disputes, and often agreement is found across political aisles. It would be simplistic therefore to insist that national leaders, by virtue of elevating their own nations’ interests above all else, espouse commercial protectionism, withdrawal from the world, or an abdication of the use of force. Some do, but not all, the same way that some leaders who seem more concerned about global challenges (usually defined by nouns, rather than actors: climate change, poverty, population growth, and so on) do not in unison support free trade or military intervention and support for allies.
Rather, the difference lies in whom a leader considers his community—the group he seeks to protect and whose welfare he wants to promote.
Political leadership requires discrimination. A leader in charge of a state has to determine whom he will defend and whose welfare he will seek to promote. This is what sustains his legitimacy and appeal, and it is the primary task of a political leader. Much of the current leadership at the helm in the West has, as Peggy Noonan observed, detached itself “from the bottom, feeling little loyalty to it or affiliation with it.”
The globalist temptation is not new, of course.
Sixteen centuries ago, Saint Augustine reminded his readers —and in particular his fellow bishops who undertook many political tasks that the decaying Roman imperial institutions could no longer fulfill—that the episcopate was not an honor but a serious and difficult job. The role of the bishop, and of any political leader for that matter, was to oversee a specific community and not the world. The very term “episcopate,” according to Saint Augustine, defined the role and the limits of leadership:
It is a Greek word, and signifies that he who governs superintends or takes care of those whom he governs: for epi means over, and skopein, to see: therefore episkopein means ‘to oversee’. So that he who loves to govern rather than to do good is no bishop.1
Leaders cannot do good for the entire world. Political leaders cannot oversee the world. They, like the rest of us, have a clear hierarchy of obligations.
For Cicero, the hierarchy was clear: first, one had an obligation toward the immortal gods; second, to one’s fatherland; third, to one’s parents (prima dis immortalibus, secunda patriae, tertia parentibus). Saint Ambrose of Milan, responsible in part for Augustine’s conversion, added “toward all” as an obligation, too, but put it as the very last one, once all the others have been fulfilled.
Post-national leaders throughout the West have subverted this hierarchy, putting “toward all”—the world, the global community—as their main concern, and certainly forgetting about their duty to dis immortalibus, lest they offend somebody.
Claims that under one’s leadership seas will recede and “the planet will begin to heal” (Barack Obama’s nomination speech in 2008) or that “borders are the worst invention ever made by politicians” (European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in 2016) are laughable at face value. More importantly, they betray an arrogant view of political leadership that concerns itself with planetary challenges, rather than national ones, and dismisses the limits of politics demarcated by borders. Such leaders, tempted by a globalist vision, are now generating powerful resentment from those who feel abandoned by them, in their own states.
Undoubtedly, anti-globalist expressions sometimes elevate individuals of dubious character with uncertain qualifications and worrisome slogans. Trump comes to mind. So do several politicians in Europe, from Marine Le Pen in France to Robert Fico in Slovakia. No political side has a monopoly on wisdom and greatness, and reactions to established, elite views tend to swing with dangerous momentum.
But the willingness to discriminate in favor of one’s own state and nation does not necessarily imply that one must be a cold-hearted populist who gleefully shuts down borders or gives nary a thought to the plight of oppressed populations in distant lands. What it does mean, however, is that the first consideration of a national leader ought to be the security and social order of his or her own state. This is the necessary task of political leadership; the rest are luxury—noble, desirable, and generous, but luxury—objectives. Angela Merkel’s mistake in opening Europe’s borders was to assume that generosity toward the mass migration toward Europe would not affect social cohesion and order, seeking a noble pursuit but forgetting about the necessary task of political leadership.
In the end—and this is perhaps the most powerful cause of popular resentment—global leaders oversee nobody but themselves because there is no global state, no global citizenry, no global nation. Their abstract constructs built around “global problems” and “global initiatives” sound noble until a more pressing security concern or threat to social order arises—and then they sound empty and arrogant.
1Saint Augustine, The City of God, trans. Marcus Dods (The Modern Library, 2000), p. 698.