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Ben Peterson (MPP '16) on "National Sovereignty, Political Idea of the Year" | Library of Law and Liberty

National Sovereignty, Political Idea of the Year

By Ben Peterson | January 10, 2017 | Library of Law and Liberty

The year 2016 demonstrated the enduring relevance of political ideas. A political idea is distinct from and more fundamental than a stance on a policy or issue. It is a way of understanding political phenomena in light of a worldview. A political idea connects the dizzying array of available facts, forming a coherent vision of what is really happening in the world.

Nearly every political idea involves at minimum three components, corresponding to these questions:

  • What is a good society—in other words, what should the world look like?
  • Why doesn’t it look that way?
  • What would set things right?

Scholars, journalists, and analysts have attributed Trump’s victory, Brexit, and other nationalist advances to the forces of populismdemagoguery, and xenophobia.

As Mene Ukueberuka, reviewing The Shipwrecked Mind, Mark Lilla’s timely new book on reactionary political thought, argues in the New Criterion, there is also a tendency toward explanations that psychologize these movements and their supporters. Far from signifying mere “irrationality,” the global wave of populist nationalism is partly based on an explicit political idea that relates to several of the major events of last year: the idea that national sovereignty matters.

Trump advisor Steve Bannon—“the man with the idea” as journalist Michael Wolff described him—has presented the national sovereignty idea most clearly, if sparingly. The best place to look for his expression of it is a Skype-in lecture he gave for a 2014 conference at the Vatican. In answering the second question above, Bannon in effect summarized his political views, saying:

I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis . . . and it is a crisis both of capitalism but really of the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West in our beliefs.

The “crisis of capitalism” stems, Bannon argues, from the twin corruptions of statist crony capitalism and excessive libertarianism, which have estranged elites from common people. The financial crisis of late 2007 to 2009—which financiers and securities traders caused, but for which none was really held accountable—is a key episode in the story of how corrupt, globalized capitalism favored elites and left middleclass workers behind. Underlying the corruption of capitalism is a “crisis of faith,” an “immense secularization of the West.”

This decline of faith has crippled the West, which cannot summon the will or foresight to prosecute the “global war” against “jihadist Islamic fascism.”

What is the Bannon vision of what the world should look like? He sees his work at Breitbart.com and presumably with the Trump campaign as supporting a global populist movement to resist centralization, which undermines tradition and social cohesion:

The central thing that binds all together is a center-right populist movement of really the middle class, the working men and women in the world who are just tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos . . . people in New York that feel closer to people in London and in Berlin than they do to people in Kansas and in Colorado, and they have more of this elite mentality that they’re going to dictate to everybody how the world’s going to be run. I will tell you that the working men and women of Europe and Asia and the United States and Latin America don’t believe that.

Clearly Bannon has read his Samuel Huntington, the late Harvard political scientist (1927-2008) who castigated “the global elite” as “Davos men.”

Bannon would restore an “enlightened capitalism” that allows for the independence of individuals and families. The necessary condition is the reestablishment of national sovereignty. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberley A. Strassel, he distinguished his vision from ethno-nationalism, insisting he is an “economic nationalist.” Similarly, in his 2014 Skype lecture, he says:

I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing. I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors, and that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States, and I think it’s what can see us forward.

The lament over secularization seems absent from Bannon’s more recent interviews—one wonders to what extent he was tailoring his words for the Vatican audience. In any case, the emphasis on national sovereignty is consistent. In concrete policy terms, he believes economic and cultural protectionism is the way forward, combined with a sense of militant urgency to prosecute the global war against jihadist terror.

To the extent that the President-elect put forth a coherent political idea during the campaign, it was the simple “America First” message that City Journal contributing editor Ben Boychuck identified, and it combines two elements of sovereignty: the sovereignty of the United States as an independent nation-state; and the idea of popular sovereignty. As candidate Trump said in a speech to the New York Economic Club:

Too many of our leaders have forgotten that it’s their duty to protect the jobs, wages and well-being of American workers before any other consideration. I’m not running to be President of the world. I’m running to be President of the United States – and as your President, I will fight for every last American job.

Bannon’s fingerprints are all over this message, which resonated with a huge, predominantly but not exclusively white, chunk of the electorate. Huntington explained why over a decade ago: “The public is nationalist, elites transnationalist.”

In his interview with Strassel, Bannon acknowledged the “racist and anti-Semitic overtones” in some sectors of the American “alt-right” and disavowed them. But dismissing support for national sovereignty itself as merely racist and xenophobic is inadequate for understanding the major political idea of 2016. Instead, liberals and internationally inclined conservatives should debate the fundamental issue that the last year has thrust into the light: the status of national sovereignty in what Niall Ferguson describes as a second age of globalization.

In critiquing the political thought of European reactionaries, Lilla acknowledges in The Shipwrecked Mind that they present coherent—even insightful, at times—political ideas that cannot be wished away or ignored. Cornell sociology professor Mabel Berezin, writing at the left-of-center academic site theconversation.com, similarly notes that European populists have presented concrete policy proposals in response to real problems with how the European Union functions. The New Criterion’s Ukueberuka goes further: “Anthropological studies of Trump supporters and profiles of Europe’s far-right parties cannot fully capture the character of the movement—eventually we will need to reckon with the actual vision of society that they are proposing.”

Sohrab Ahmari, Strassel’s colleague at the Journal, offers an analysis of the “worldwide crisis” of “illiberalism” that is, for my money, the best starting point for understanding the global context of an “astonishing rise of illiberal movements of the far right and far left.” While Ahmari points to three psychological “planks” on which populist movements base their appeal—an idealized past, a sense of grievance, and the allure of more forceful security and economic policies—he is among the few commentators who directly reference the political theorists and activists generating the ideas behind global populism, like French New Right thinkers Charles Champetier and Alain de Benoist.

Writes Ahmari:

Liberalism, Benoist and Champetier argue, has uprooted authentic communities and severed man’s connections with more organic and communitarian forms of being that are the ground of true freedom. Mass migration and the social incohesion it breeds, the economic insecurity and inner alienation we all feel—these are signs of liberal man’s fall from community, according to the authors. The aim of their brand of illiberalism is to restore man to community.

Echoing Huntington’s critique of the “de-nationalization of the American elite,” Ahmari argues that European liberals have unwisely ceded the territory of community and national identity to the far Right:

Voters clearly long for . . . a national culture with a positive content around which to organize political life. European liberal elites want nothing to do with such atavistic superstitions as nationalism and nationhood…Having ceded nationalism and nationhood to the likes of Le Pen, Orbán, and Putin, liberal Europe is now dumbfounded that so many are gravitating toward such leaders and their movements. Much the same could be said about American liberals puzzled by the attraction of Trump’s brand of nationalism.

Liberals and mainstream conservatives can no longer afford to abandon the territory of national sovereignty.

In his recent post for Law and Liberty entitled “The New Nationalism,” Mark Movsesian helpfully defined nationalism as “a political program” that “unites a people with a common ancestry or culture together with a sovereign state” and “rejects attempts to subordinate the state to outside governance.” Movsesian points out that nationalism can be a “benign” or “beneficial” force; the challenge for Western political leaders is to channel nationalist energies toward constructive purposes. This appears to be what Britain’s new Prime Minister, Theresa May, is attempting in her articulation of a nationalist, conservative vision for her country after it leaves the European Union.

There isn’t necessarily a contradiction between internationalism and national sovereignty. As historian Mark Mazower records in Governing the World (2012), Woodrow Wilson saw none, nor did the Italian revolutionary internationalist Giuseppe Mazzini. The ostensible purpose of the organization President Wilson proposed, the League of Nations, was to provide collective security in order to defend national sovereignty and “self-determination.” Likewise, the “sovereign equality” of all nations is supposedly a bedrock principle of the United Nations.

Admittedly, the League and the U.N. have always been ambivalent toward state sovereignty, due to the additional commitment to human rights enshrined in Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Strong support for minority rights and human rights guarantees the infringement of the sovereignty of nations that do not comply with these norms, at least in theory. Still, the “postwar liberal order” that Financial Times commentator Martin Wolf and others warn is in danger of unraveling is based on national sovereignty and depends on the support of strong nation-states, indispensably the United States.

Analysts like Richard Haas of the Council on Foreign Relations have argued that international problems of transnational organized crime, infectious disease, climate change, economic challenges, and large-scale migration necessitate limitations on national sovereignty. But doesn’t global interconnectedness exacerbate many of these problems in the first place? The very need for coordination to meet “global challenges” arises partly as a result of the globalized economy, the relative ease of migration to Western Europe and the United States since World War II, and the generally high level of commercial and cultural intercourse between inhabitants of various countries.

The Great Depression and the recent banking and financial crisis went global because the financial system was internationally linked. As historian Harold James wrote in the Financial Times: “The international economy spreads problems fast.” The erasure of borders between European Union member states has encouraged high levels of refugee and economic migration to the Continent. Weak states, coupled with ease of migration, facilitate the international drug trade and human trafficking. Ethnic diversity and intercultural contact do not always foster good will and cosmopolitan sensibilities; they can also lead to mutual enmity and furtive searches for distinctive cultural identities. This has been especially noted among young Muslims born in Europe, and has also encouraged the “spirit of reaction” in Europe that Lilla discusses.

All this is merely to suggest that while nationalism presents dangers, “globalism” is not without its own liabilities. As Greg Ip, the chief economics commentator for the Wall Street Journal, has argued, the populist supporters of national sovereignty are in revolt against “the collateral damage that breakneck globalization has inflicted on ordinary workers.” And they far outnumber the Davos men (and women).

Huntington’s analysis, of course, did not entail a wholesale rejection of international cooperation. He argued that a nationalist foreign policy based on mutual respect—a genuine internationalism—would better suit a multipolar world than do the “cosmopolitan” and “imperial” approaches that American elites have favored since the mid-20th century.

National sovereignty is the big political idea of the year just ended. The events of the last 12 months should inspire a serious debate on the extent and implications of national sovereignty in the 21st century. As Samuel Huntington believed, and as Prime Minister May has recently reinforced, we must begin in earnest a deeper discussion of the proper objects of political loyalty and the meaning of citizenship —perhaps the most fundamental political idea of all.

Ben Peterson

Ben Peterson, a doctoral student in the Texas A&M Department of Political Science, has also written for the Intercollegiate Review, Public Discourse, Ethika Politika, and the New York Times.