One common narrative about the West’s ongoing predicament is that the current revival of nationalism is a foreseeable and potentially helpful corrective to liberalism’s overreach. Pushing the Euro, gay marriage, permissive immigration policies, and the climate change agenda down the throats of reluctant electorates was bound to provoke a reaction. Among conservatives seeking find a positive path forward from the current situation, Yoram Hazony calls for “conservative democracy” as an alternative to liberal democracy, in order to restore “a balance between the principles of limited government and individual liberties, on the one hand; and the principles of religion, nationalism, and historical empiricism [on the other].”
Perhaps it would be facile to question the wisdom of this narrative on the grounds that it is music to the ears of aspiring autocrats such as Viktor Orbán. Leaders of his ilk rally against liberal democracy and “globalism” under nationalist and socially conservative banners not as a high-minded balancing act but simply to entrench their power and line the pockets of their cronies. Yet a more salient question lingers: What does correcting previous liberal overreach mean in concrete terms? And how far is the correction supposed to go?
In areas such as migration the answer may seem obvious. Yet more restrictive asylum and immigration policy do little to distinguish nationalists from centrist political leaders who have internalized the lesson of the 2015 refugee crisis, such as Emmanuel Macron or Mark Rutte. In other policy domains, the “conservative democratic” agenda simply seems dead in the water, for better and for worse. Good luck using government policies to change the secular outlook of Western societies or to scale back the new social norms regarding gender and sexuality in the era of #MeToo and the Women’s March. Even in Catholic Poland efforts by the Law and Justice Party to outlaw abortion were met with an unprecedented wave of protests and subsequently abandoned.
Perhaps most consequential is the idea of scaling back participation in transnational institutions. For a long time, conservatives have harbored a deep distrust of bureaucracies such as the EU and UN. As Hazony puts it, “international organizations possess no sound governing traditions and no loyalty to particular national populations that might restrain their spurious theorizing about universal rights. They therefore see such bodies as inevitably tending toward arbitrariness and autocracy.” Now is the time to fix the problem.
But what exactly does a nationalist remedy to liberal, multilateralist overreach consist of, other than cheering for a hard Brexit and downgrading the status of the EU Delegation to Washington? Erratic trade wars, maybe, or withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and Iran Deal, or leaving this or that UN convention unsigned. But why stop there? Like them or not, the moves of the current US administration have barely scratched the surface of the vast ecosystem of international cooperation built after the Second World War, largely through American leadership.
After all, as Margaret Thatcher put it, “almost every major nation has been obliged. . . .to pool significant areas of sovereignty so as to create more effective political units.” Such a pooling occurs in myriad different forms, including within military alliances, where the stakes are much higher than with any intrusive directives the EU has ever come up with. It also takes place within transnational arrangements with little or no government involvement. What ‘demos’ is IATA accountable to? How about organizations producing technical standards, such as ISO, IEC, or CENELEC?
In short, if one accepts ‘retaking control’ as the operating political principle, it is not clear where one stops. And if such a slippery slope sounds farfetched—after all, we haven’t yet witnessed a wholesale collapse of international cooperation—just consider Brexit as an example. The 2016 referendum did not specify the terms under which the UK was going to leave the bloc. Prominent leavers assured the public that Brexit was going to be a free lunch which would not cause disruption or compromise the UK’s access to the European single market. Very soon after the referendum, however, the debate became radicalized. As of now, nothing but the most extreme form of departure will honor the result of the referendum in the eyes of radical Brexiteers. Any compromises or commitments about the future UK-EU relationship—whether over the Irish border, customs procedures, or regulatory alignment—are seen as jeopardizing the referendum result.
Of course, a no-deal Brexit would inflict massive economic damage on the UK and Europe. But it would also pup the UK in an odd position, unlike any other country in Europe. Whether it is Norway, Switzerland, countries across the Balkans, Ukraine, or Turkey, all European non-members have some formal ties to the EU, in many cases very deep ones. The belief that things will be just fine if all the 40-year links are severed overnight is simply wrong.
The UK arrived at the current junction by embracing the delusion that a country can separate itself completely from a bloc like the EU, yet still reap the benefits associated with membership, most prominently market access. But it is equally delusional to think that the world can somehow return to an international system organized purely around sovereign, self-governing nation-states without foregoing some benefits of globalization.
As an aside, there is also something profoundly ahistoric about the invocation of the nation-state as a somehow natural, pre-ordained form of government from which the world has dangerously strayed. The historic norm, especially across continental Europe, is one of covenantal arrangements, such as the Holy Roman Empire, the Hanseatic League, or the gold standard, which tied diverse polities in loose quasi-federal systems. Even the notion of a “Westphalian system” that supposedly governed the international system since the mid-17th century is an odd one, especially when it refers to the idea of Europe parceled into politically autarchic states. The treaties concluded at Münster and Osnabrück did not usher in the age of national sovereignty as the common myth suggests. Instead, they provided a new constitution for the Holy Roman Empire, a federation that governed much of Europe for a millennium.
It should give one pause that the true heyday of a sovereign nation-state only comes with its most disruptive manifestations in the 19th and the early 20th century, which gave us two world wars and a Great Depression. If the sovereign nation-state is the form of governance that the world needs to urgently embrace, its proponents owe the rest of us an explanation of just how similar catastrophes would be avoided in an international environment free of formal institutions.
Furthermore, to be credible, that explanation needs to take seriously the economic and social reality of our time. One may dismiss Thomas Friedman’s idea of a “flat” world, but the falling costs of transport and communication—and the resulting social complexities—are a reality that transcends national borders. In the past, the legal scholar Gillian Hadfield argues, most corporations acted as self-contained “boxes,” in which decisions were taken by fiat and whose operations were mostly confined to individual countries. Today, companies span vast distances and numerous jurisdictions to such an extent that it is effectively impossible to identify them as “American” or “German.” General Electric operates in 170 countries, IKEA has stores in 37 countries, and the supply and assembly of Apple products occurs in 30 countries.
Toyota famously pioneered the new approach to managing supply chains: Instead of micromanaging every step of the production process, as was necessary in the old corporate boxes, it defined the essential characteristics of components it was buying and allowed its international suppliers to make autonomous production decisions. Today, the production of Boeing’s Dreamliner relies on a network of some 1000 suppliers around the world, organized through highly intricate contract relationships. The emerging economic relationships in this flat global economy are “as difficult to nail down as jelly,” Hadfield writes, especially with a growing number of them existing only in cyberspace. Their complexity, fluidity, and disregard for national borders are already putting a strain on national legal systems which were designed to deal with simpler business models and contractual relationships taking place within the territory of one country.
Doing away with this flattening would make the world dramatically poorer. Segmenting the increasingly fluid and interconnected world into the cocoons of nation-states may not even be technologically feasible in the era of the internet and instantaneous capital flows. Hence instead of yearning for a simpler past, we need our institutions to adapt to the new reality, while preserving mechanisms of democratic accountability.
Finally, how do sovereigntists plan to respond to the curveballs that are bound to be thrown at humankind in the coming decades? In a recent paper, the philosopher Nick Bostrom discusses the various technological vulnerabilities facing the world. Imagine the invention of a cheap and easy way to produce nuclear weapons, or other tools of mass destruction. Alternatively, it is possible that a technology will be developed that will make it impossible to effectively deliver a retaliatory nuclear strike upon warning of an impending attack. Unlike the strategic stability of the Cold War, the incentives would become stacked in favor of a first strike, making the world much less stable. Other scenarios might involve truly catastrophic climate change or a technology that is by default devastating for humankind. A common concern during the Manhattan Project, for example, was that that nuclear explosives could ignite the atmosphere—a risk that was fortunately not borne out.
If such scenarios sound like products of wild imagination, rest assure there is plenty more to worry about, from proliferation and pandemics to international terrorist networks and cybersecurity, from supervolcanoes to asteroid impact. No matter how many walls countries erect, the number of cross-border challenges is going to go up, not down, in the coming years, simply as a result of existing technology and rising incomes in the developing world. Of course, it is not enough to wish, as Bostrom does, for more effective “global governance” to address those problems.
At the same time, however, those who want to correct supposed liberal overreach seem to have even fewer useful things to say, whether it is about providing effective rules to a globalized economy or addressing humankind’s common risks. Unless that changes, the nationalist remedies for liberal and technocratic overreach are bound to be much worse than the underlying disease.