In an ironic twist of fate, two decades after Western experts touted various “state-building” and “nation-building” theories and projects as the precondition for democratization and stability in the Muslim world after 9/11, democracies across Europe and North America are now also fast approaching the point at which systemic state failure is no longer a fantasy. After decades of multicultural deconstruction of their nation-states, Western democracies are internally fracturing, and their societal and national bonds are dissolving. Today, thinking about national security in the West means taking stock of the effects not only of the dwindling sense of mutuality of obligation among the citizenry but also of levels of ethnic, racial, and political polarization not seen since the late 1960s. The current fashion for identity politics has advanced to the point that the progressive decomposition of Western nation-states is now a possibility.
While civilizational collapse may still be a long way off, Western democracies face an erosion of the consensus of what constitutes the larger national community, and hence why its members should rally to defend it in an emergency. As internal national bonds weaken, the viability of a Transatlantic solidarity that rests on more than just geostrategic calculations loses some of its luster. A 2015 Pew study offers disturbing insight into the views of Western publics when it comes to allied solidarity: In the polling only Americans and Canadians declared themselves willing to go to war to defend their NATO allies in an Article 5 emergency, and even in these cases the numbers were not that impressive (56 percent for the United States and 53 percent for Canada); by contrast, in no European country was there a majority in favor of meeting the NATO commitment if this meant possibly going to war. The erstwhile belief that there are things across the West that are worth defending has been steadily eroded.
For close to half a century now, the United States and some of the most storied democracies of Europe have framed their key domestic and foreign policies around the foundational premise that democratic governance and systemic stability rest on rightly sized political institutions, normative systems, and the rule of law. And yet democracy is by definition disruptive, and when bereft of a strong overarching concept of a shared national identity that translates into a sense of mutuality and reciprocity across society (and, ultimately, patriotism), it is apt to bifurcate into anarchy and an “ordering impulse” that in extremis will slide into totalitarianism, whether of the left-or right-wing variety. Political compromise, the mother’s milk of Western democratic politics, has been historically possible not just because the norms of democratic discourse and the rule of law have been sufficiently consolidated, but also because there existed a larger sense of belonging to a nation that transcended group interests, thereby suppressing our natural propensity for competition and promoting compromise. In the final analysis, institutions are only as strong as the people who make, structure, and use them. No amount of institutional tinkering can overcome group interests and individual preferences if the larger polity is bereft of a deeper sense of reciprocity and mutuality of obligation.
While the fracturing of societal consensus on Transatlantic solidarity is a key consequence of the balkanization of nations along ethnic lines across the West, the more fundamental process underway threatens to undermine Western nations’ ability to maintain the resilience that is essential to national security. One of the greatest accomplishments of Western democracies has been the ability to absorb multiple ethnicities and confessions while retaining the overlay of a larger national monoculture to serve as the essential framework for democratic processes. However, since the coming of age of the 1960s generation, the overarching concept of a shared cultural affinity as the foundation of national identity in Western democracies—one which can be suffused with multiple ethnic narratives but ultimately remains the key trope defining the values at the center of the idea of citizenship—has been progressively displaced. In a world where national solidarity is increasingly deconstructed by the narratives that have begun to leak into the broader society from their wellsprings in the academy and media, tribalism will ultimately render the nation unable to function not just in the area of public policy, but most critically when it comes to national security and defense. If Western culture is nothing but a mechanism of oppression, what is the meaning of Transatlantic solidarity in a crisis? If our nations are little more than shared legacies of shame and systemic injustice, why risk blood and treasure to defend them?
The larger question in the present moment is this: What happens once multiculturalism and group identity politics run their course? Notwithstanding the growth of international institutions and regimes, the nation-state with clearly defined territorial boundaries remains the most effective way to provide security and, by extension, societal and individual freedom. The national security function of the state remains irreducible. When the nation as such loses the ability, whether by itself or through an alliance, to provide for its security and thereby to shape its own destiny, discussions about rights or freedoms or social justice ultimately become academic.
It is long past time that our societies begin a meaningful national security discussion of both the vital importance of a shared national identity and the inherent dangers of multicultural ideology. The reluctance to address both of these topics stems, of course, from Europe’s history with nationalism and totalitarianism and the calamitous racism and genocide that regimes animated by them produced.
Historically “multiculturalism” has been not an end-game, but merely a transitional phase leading to the fragmentation and eventual disintegration of larger communities. If we do not find the courage to speak to this issue, the balkanization of our nations will continue apace, with an all-too-predictable outcome.