In the wake of the rubble and death left strewn across Europe from the Atlantic to the Volga after two brutal wars in the space of 30 years, it was understandable that many Europeans wanted to severely tame the nation-state in 1945. What a stark domestication could portend, though, was hardly thought about. That supranational governmental organizations could ever threaten liberty, or become distinctly hostile toward national forms of political community per se, would have struck many people as far-fetched in the late 1940s. Political leaders at that time spoke in terms of a community of nations—not an international community.
Today, however, one of modern Europe’s deepest fault lines is associated with the supranational impulse animating the European Union’s bureaucracies and many European political leaders. Far from unifying the old Continent, the EU now draws the ire of growing numbers of people from across the political spectrum. We are light years away from the era in which opposition to the principle and practices of European political integration was limited to the fringes.
Brexit, as Paul Seaton notes in his Liberty Forum essay on the French philosopher Pierre Manent, punctured the aura of historical inevitability that the political class had created around the supranational European integration project. Suddenly that vision seemed less plausible. There were particular events, such as Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to declare Germany’s borders effectively open to any refugee, that pushed some Britons into the pro-Brexit column. Also there was frustration with the EU’s penchant for top-down regulation. If the many pro-Brexit motivations had a common denominator, however, it was surely the desire to reassert national sovereignty.
From the French Revolution onward, there was a rapid acceleration in the tendency to associate sovereignty in Europe with nation-states. In our time, preserving and reasserting national sovereignty over and against supranational institutions has become central to the anti-globalist cause. Europeans such as British free marketers and French Gaullists, who otherwise might differ about important questions, find themselves lining up together against those who might be loosely called “globalists”: those certain that the nation-state has had its day and who are doing their level-best to bury it.
Pierre Manent has emerged, as Seaton’s essay comprehensively demonstrates, as one of the most perceptive intellectual critics of globalism and supranational experiments. One irony of this development is that Manent is about as far removed from the stereotypical Eurosceptic as can be imagined. As a believing Catholic, Manent belongs to a church that has always transcended the boundaries of temporal sovereignty and occasionally engaged in epic struggles with particular nation-states. Most of the Church’s current leadership in Western Europe show undimmed enthusiasm for the European integration project, even if large portions of their flocks are becoming reliably Eurosceptic.
At the same time Manent is, Seaton reminds us, the foremost representative today of Tocquevillian thought in France and Europe more broadly. This enterprise is often associated with the word “liberalism.” The most cursory reading of Manent’s writings soon indicates that he is no reactionary. Yet “liberalism” is a contested term: the European integrationists of all political stripes of whom Manent is so critical invariably insist that the EU seeks to promote and extend what they call “liberal values.”
The power of Manent’s arguments lies in his capacity to draw from Catholic and Tocquevillian sources to formulate his advocacy of the nation-state and underscore the sheer hollowness of globalist political enterprises. Catholicism has always stressed, for instance, the importance of community. It has also affirmed, sometimes strongly, the moral goodness of loving one’s national community, albeit not unconditionally. According to Manent, nations are indisputably a form of community with distinctive histories and roots that evoke attachments from their members which globalists and supranational institutions are unable to generate.
For this reason, those anxious to diminish the nation-state have sought to shift the sense of community from the national to the supranational. Immediately, however, they encounter the problem that European nations like France, Poland, and England are real entities with the type of deep cultural memory not possessed by supranational organizations such as the European Commission (let alone the United Nations).
The Tocquevillian side of Manent’s thought emerges in his attention to the fact that it was the dissimilar historical experiences of nations that imparted distinct characteristics to democracy’s emergence in different countries. That is one reason, as Alexis de Tocqueville illustrated, why the form of democratic culture in America varied from that which he saw emerging in France.
By definition, enthusiasts of globalism cannot imitate national cultures and histories. Hence, they seek to promote a particular normative agenda, one in which phrases like “human rights,” “diversity,” and “tolerance” feature prominently but which have an ahistorical character. The effect is to reduce the practice of democracy in Western Europe (and elsewhere) to a type of proceduralism which further centralizes real power in supranational institutions.
When considered from this Manentian perspective, we begin to understand how globalist projects can threaten community and liberty at the same time. These two concerns are often at odds with each other, but when brought together through the medium of a concern for national sovereignty, they can generate substantive resistance to aspirations to supranational sovereignty or even dreams of world government.
This explains why many British free marketers and those worried about immigration levels (two groups who occasionally do not see eye to eye) could work together in the coalition that persuaded a majority of the people of Britain to vote to leave the EU in June 2016. In this case, the democratic nation-state was understood as that which 1) affirmed and protected people’s rootedness in particular British traditions; 2) preserved their political and economic liberties from a supranational bureaucracy with ambitions of sovereignty; and 3) provided many with a means of expressing their resentment of a political elite that seemed more concerned with its own interests than the nation’s common good. This was enough to override the preference of Britain’s political class, including the then-Prime Minister and the majority of the Tory Party’s leadership, to remain in the EU.
Closely associated with Manent’s vision of the nation-state is his insight that globalist agendas are decidedly anti-political projects. Globalists seek to empty political life of substantive debate by insisting that certain questions have been forever resolved and that particular values—and, more specifically, their interpretations of those values—are not up for discussion.
The immigration issue illustrates how this complex of ideas and expectations works. The reaction of many EU leaders to those who expressed doubts about Merkel’s open borders policy was to label such people as intolerant xenophobes. The same ideas constitute a basis for attacking people’s commitments to particular traditions and national communities as “out of date” or worse, implicitly racist.
To state the obvious truth that, for instance, Islam is clearly not part of Czech, Scottish or Lithuanian history in the same way that Christianity and Judaism form the dominant religious backdrops to these countries’ histories, is to risk being labelled “bigoted” or “against diversity.” In this way, the political and theological dimensions of the national history of Western countries is progressively marginalized, even stigmatized, by globalist advocates.
Manent’s response to these developments is to propose the nation-state as the way in which commitments to ideas such as liberty and constitutionalism can be invested with a depth and distinctiveness that globalism can never provide. In England, for instance, the attachment to liberty and institutions such as the rule of law acquired a particular content because of crucial events such as the Glorious Revolution and documents such as Magna Carta Libertatum. This contrasts with the way that some of the same concepts and arrangements developed in Spain, Italy, or the Netherlands.
Efforts to gradually centralize power in supranational organizations implies ignoring or even doing away with this pluralism. This is not only because of the establishment of supranational courts and legislatures whose decisions standardize the treatment of many issues across nation-states. It is also because creating supranational standards positively requires the top-down suppression of variations at the national level. One of the paradoxes of this situation is that, while EU politicians and bureaucrats speak endlessly of “diversity,” “inclusion,” and “subsidiarity,” EU institutions actually undermine the legitimate pluralism which is expressed through different national institutions, national histories, and national legal systems.
But, some will ask, is there not a risk that Manent’s propositions could reignite the type of political nationalism and economic protectionism that contributed to Europe’s 20th century catastrophes? Isn’t it also true that national cultures are not static? If so, doesn’t Manent’s schema risk facilitating unhealthy nostalgia and anachronisms?
Manent is quite aware of these and other objections. He goes to some length to show that the type of community he associates with the nation-state is not of the blood-and-soil variety. Patriotism and nationalism are not, to Manent’s mind, the same thing. Love of country need not mean contempt for other societies or even in-principle hostility toward global economic integration. Here one is reminded of Charles de Gaulle’s comment that “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism, when hate for people other than your own comes first.”
Likewise, Manent knows that national cultures are always in a process of change. In some cases, they even embody traditions in tension with each other. The classic example is his native France. France is a society profoundly influenced by Catholicism but also by an Enlightenment that drifted in the direction of anti-Christian positions which eventually culminated in unbridled bloodletting against the Church during the French Revolution.
In Situation de la France (2015), Manent acknowledges the clashes between these two traditions, a clash that sometimes parallels France’s Left-Right divide. Nevertheless, he also shows how each is now integral to France’s identity as a nation.
Indeed, Manent’s specific proposals for addressing the problem of Islam in France acquire potency precisely because they can’t be dismissed as just another invocation of the rights-solidarity-diversity-empathy talk which permeates supranational institutions. Instead, Manent draws on France’s Catholic heritage and the Enlightenment tradition to recommend a distinctively French solution that 1) acknowledges the fact of several million Muslims living in France; 2) insists that French Muslims conform their religious beliefs and practices to France’s legitimate expectations; and 3) requires France to revise its tradition of laïcité but in ways consistent with the nation’s specific religious and political heritages—none of which are Muslim.
There are, it must be said, two shadows overhanging Manent’s reassertion of the case for the nation-state, at least in Western Europe.
The first is the comparative weakness in public life of the two primary traditions upon which Manent draws. Few would describe Christianity as a rigorous force, let alone a powerful intellectual element, in most Western European nations today. That is partly because most Western European Christian leaders rarely say anything that conflicts with the secular elites’ sentimental humanitarianism and associated extolling of the supranational project’s apparent merits and alleged inescapability.
The influence of Tocquevillian liberalism is, if anything, even weaker in Europe. The liberalism regnant throughout much of Continental Europe tends to be of the Kantian variety while in Britain it is a mixture of Millian utilitarianism and Keynesian welfarism. Tocquevillian insights have little purchase in either of these worlds.
The second difficulty is that any effort to realize Manent’s vision of the rejuvenated nation-state in Europe would require statesmanship of an order that is simply not evident in Western Europe today—or anywhere else for that matter. General de Gaulle, who looms large in Manent’s writings, enjoyed relative success as President of France because he successfully articulated a vision of a sovereign French nation conscious that it was part of Europe but equally insistent that, as the French nation, it could never be subordinated to a supranational bureaucracy. De Gaulle’s abilities in this regard owed much, Manent and others have argued, to his religious and philosophical formation, his conscious cultivation of particular character traits, his “certain idea of France,” his critical distance from Europe’s political classes, and his sheer erudition as a student of European civilization.
The implied contrast between de Gaulle and today’s professional European politicians is as depressing as it is striking. Many center-Right and center-Left Western European politicians have made the promotion of supranational institutions the enterprise of their careers. For several decades, this has been a minimal requirement for any Western European who not only wants to enter politics but also play a prominent role in government.
This does not encourage creative thinking, let alone challenges from “within” the establishment to the Europhile consensus that dominates the mindset of most Western European politicians and civil servants. The result has been the formation of an increasingly angry and populist nationalism on the (ever-widening) fringes of European politics, while mediocrity and careerism prevail among established political parties that no longer command the sizable and reliable voting constituencies which once assured their dominance of public affairs.
In that sense, the real question overhanging Manent’s effort to revive the case for the nation-state as a living community and political actor is whether it isn’t, in Western Europe’s case, simply too late. If such a project is to take on substantial momentum, it needs to be undergirded by more than just opposition to open borders, anger at the concentration of power in largely unaccountable supranational bureaucracies, and frustration with a pan-European political class that cannot quite hide its contempt for the peoples it governs.
Rather, Manent’s project requires widespread commitment by rulers and ruled alike to the idea that distinct nations are communities worth preserving and—crucially—defending, whatever their particular faults or historical failings. That, in turn, demands knowledge and study of a nation’s past as well as a free choice to assume obligations for its future.
In an age marked by the profound presentism which, Tocqueville stressed, is characteristic of democratic societies, such prerequisites may be beyond most Western European elites and citizens—and, it might be added, more than a few Americans.