October 3, 2018


Patriotism, cosmopolitanism and democracy (DANIEL JOHNSON, September 2018, Standpoint)

We have seen how Germany moved from the decayed cosmopolitanism of the Holy Roman Empire to a nation state whose imperial aspirations brought about two world wars, whereupon Germans have returned to the cosmopolitan ideal of a unified Europe. Israel, emerging from the cosmopolitanism of the Diaspora, has reasserted the essential unity of the Jewish people in order to build a nation state, where necessary defying the anti-nationalist Zeitgeist. How, though, does Britain fit into the picture? Although the British are a "united kingdom" of different peoples, the English monarchy at its core is one of the oldest in world. The Anglo-Saxons already had a nation state long before the Norman Conquest. Yet the nature of this nation state was bound to be transformed by the creation of the British Empire, the largest in world history. The mission of this empire, no less unprecedented, was to spread the blessings of limited government and the rule of law across the globe. And indeed, the greatest legacy of the empire -- the United States of America -- is itself both a nation state, like that of the English, and a republic with a mission to preserve and promote life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Also unprecedented was the way in which the British passed the baton to the Americans in the course of the 20th century, not only without conflict, but making common cause against those empires dedicated to the destruction of Western civilisation. 

So the British present yet another trajectory, from nation state to global empire, then reverting to national status. Dean Acheson famously summed up this at times painful process by observing in 1962 that "Great Britain has lost an empire, but has not yet found a role". No wonder that British leaders were tempted to join the European project, with its promise to put an end to national conflict -- though the British people certainly did not believe that they were thereby renouncing national sovereignty. The slow realisation that this was indeed the corollary of European Union only dawned on the British when it became clear to them that they no longer had control of their borders, their laws or their destiny. Brexit marks Britain's historic decision to return to national statehood, with profound implications for Europe too. Indeed, it is uncertain how the balance between patriotism and cosmopolitanism can be restored on the Continent in the absence of a British voice. 

Yet the fact that Brexit was decided by a referendum, with the entire nation sufficiently engaged in abstract arguments about sovereignty to register a vote, does suggest that the solution to the problem must lie in more and better democracy. The nation state has been found by trial and error over the last century at least to be the largest political unit that can be governed by parliamentary democracy. The same is true, surely, for plebiscites of all kinds. The idea of democracy at a continental, let alone a global level, is nightmarish. This implies that democracy is the answer to restoring the balance between the cosmopolitan and the patriot. In a civilised discourse, there should be room for both the Rosenzweigs and the Hazonys, for those who yearn for a religious or intellectual community above and beyond the nation state and for those who find that the two are coterminous. But the only hope of reconciliation between the anywheres and the somewheres, the rootless cosmopolitans and the deplorable patriots, is for both sides to tolerate one another. And that means accepting the democratic verdict. It does not mean paralysing Congress and seeking to impeach President Trump. It does not mean using an unelected Upper Chamber to overturn Brexit. And it does not mean using executive or emergency powers to crush opposition and rewrite the rules, as Presidents Putin and Erdogan have done, and as President Macron might like to do. Democracy alone legitimises the nation state; democracy legitimises the nation state alone. International bodies, inherently non-democratic, derive their legitimacy from their national members. In order to be a true cosmopolitan, one must be a patriot first; but one can only be a patriot if one is first of all a democrat. 

Indeed, the Anglospheric innovation as regards national sovereignty is the requirement that the nation be governed democratically in order to justify said sovereignty.

Posted by at October 3, 2018 6:57 PM