Man isn’t at all one, after all—it takes so much of him to be American, to be French, etc.—Henry James to William Dean Howells
Woodrow Wilson was sleepless in Paris.
The president was awake all that night in 1919 because, he told his doctor the next morning, “my mind was so full of the Japanese-Chinese controversy.” An American president was attending a conference to end a war that began in Belgium and raged mostly within 220 miles of the English Channel. Yet Wilson’s sleep was troubled by Sino-Japanese relations. According to historian Margaret MacMillan in Paris: Six Months That Changed the World, Wilson was worried about “what Japan was getting in China, right down to the composition of the railway police in Shantung. (They were to be Chinese with, where necessary, Japanese instructors.)”
“Where necessary”? America’s president was struggling to measure the necessity of the Japanese component of the Chinese railway police. Such worries were enough to give a man a stroke—and may have done so.
I hope to trouble your sleep with a worry related to what Wilson was doing in Paris. My worry is the assault on the nation-state, which is an assault on self-government—the American project. It is the campaign to contract the sphere of politics by expanding the sway of supposedly disinterested experts, disconnected from democratic accountability and administering principles of universal applicability that they have discovered.
All this is pertinent to today’s headlines, for a reason that may, at first blush, seem paradoxical. The assault on the nation-state involves a breezy confidence that nations not only can be superseded by supranational laws and institutions, they can even be dispensed with. Furthermore, nations can be fabricated, and can be given this or that political attribute, by experts wielding universal principles.
The vitality of democracy everywhere is imperiled by the impulse behind the increasingly brazen and successful denial of the importance and legitimacy of nation-states. This denial is most audacious in Europe. But because many of America’s political ideas arrive on our shores after auditioning in Europe, Americans should examine the motives and implications of European attempts to dilute and transcend national sovereignty.
When the Cold War ended, my friend Pat Moynihan asked me: “What are you conservatives going to hate, now that you can’t hate Moscow?” My instant response was: “We are going to hate Brussels”—Brussels, because it is the banal home of the metastasizing impulse to transfer political power from national parliaments to supranational agencies that are essentially unaccountable and unrepresentative.
President Kennedy, in his inaugural address, proclaimed America unwilling to permit “the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed.” Today there is a slow undoing of the elemental human right of self-government, accomplished by the attack on a necessary concomitant of that right—the sovereignty of the nation-state.
Europe’s elites—and, increasingly, America’s—favor a “pooling” of sovereignties in institutions insulated from accountability to particular national constituencies. To understand the long, tangled pedigree of this movement, return to Paris in 1919.
Because Wilson, unlike his French, British, and Italian counterparts at the Versailles peace conference, was a head of state, he was given a chair a few inches taller than Clemenceau’s, Lloyd George’s, and Orlando’s. Not that Wilson needed that slight physical augmentation of his moral self-confidence; a former college professor, Wilson remained a pedagogue. “I am,” he once said, “going to teach the South American Republics to elect good men!”
In Paris, pupils for this professor came from far and wide. Or tried to come. Historian MacMillan reports that “the Koreans from Siberia set out on foot in February 1919 and by the time the main part of the Peace Conference ended in June had reached only the Arctic port of Archangel.” However, some pupils were already in Paris when the conference convened—such as a 29-year-old Vietnamese working in a hotel kitchen: Ho Chi Minh.
Many advocates of subjugated peoples and nascent nations came to Paris, drawn by the magnetism of the central Wilsonian principle: self-determination. What exactly Wilson meant by that was a mystery to, among others, Wilson’s secretary of state, Robert Lansing, who wondered: “When the President talks of 'self-determination' what unit does he have in mind? Does he mean a race, a territorial area, or a community?” Nineteen years later, Hitler championed Sudeten Germans, using Wilsonian language about the right to ethnic self-determination.
There was a vast carelessness—an earnest carelessness—in the Versailles conference’s rearranging of the world. Historian MacMillan, who is Lloyd George’s great-granddaughter, says that in 1916, he mused: “Who are the Slovaks? I can’t seem to place them.” Three years later, he was helping place them in a new—and perishable—nation. Not until 1918 had Lloyd George discovered that New Zealand is east of Australia. When, in Paris, he dramatically spoke of the Turks retreating eastward toward Mecca, Lord Curzon sternly corrected him: the retreat, said Curzon, was toward Ankara, not Mecca. Lloyd George breezily replied: “Lord Curzon is good enough to admonish me on a triviality.”
Laconic Arthur Balfour, who rarely seemed deeply stirred by anything, was angered by the spectacle of “all-powerful, all-ignorant men sitting there and partitioning continents.” Harold Nicholson told his diary: “How fallible one feels here! A map—a pencil—tracing paper. Yet my courage fails at the thought of the people whom our errant lines enclose or exclude, the happiness of several thousands of people.”
Several thousands? Many millions, actually. The maps were large, the pencils busy. Observers described the Big Four and their experts on their hands and knees crawling on the floor around maps too large to fit on any table.
Turkey was on the conference’s agenda but was not auspicious clay for the experts to mold. Its recent rulers had included one who went mad and another who was so fearful of enemies that, when he desired a cigarette, he had a eunuch take the first puff. In polyglot Turkey, for the dockworkers in Salonika to function, they had to speak half a dozen languages. Never mind. Those experts in Paris, crawling on their hands and knees around those big maps, would fix Turkey in due time.
When French officials invited Wilson to tour the scarred moonscape of the Flanders battlefields, he angrily refused, saying that the French were trying to arouse his emotions. Pure reason, he thought, must prevail. Yet Wilson may have included in his Fourteen Points the restoration of Polish independence because at a White House party in 1916 he had been stirred by the pianist Paderewski’s rendition of Chopin.
Speaking to Lloyd George’s mistress, Frances Stevenson, over a luncheon plate of chicken, Clemenceau said: “I have come to the conclusion that force is right. Why is this chicken here? Because it was not strong enough to resist those who wanted to kill it. And a very good thing too!” What shaped Clemenceau’s dark realism was life on a continent that included such countries as Albania, in parts of which one man in five died in blood feuds.
A story, perhaps apocryphal but certainly plausible, recounts that, when Wilson asked Clemenceau if he did not believe that all men are brothers, Clemenceau exclaimed: “Yes, all men are brothers—Cain and Abel! Cain and Abel!” Clemenceau did say to Wilson, “We [Europeans], too, came into the world with the noble instincts and the lofty aspirations which you express so often and so eloquently. We have become what we are because we have been shaped by the rough hand of the world in which we have to live and we have survived only because we are a tough bunch.”
Now, fast-forward to today.
Most of the political calamities through which the world has staggered since 1919 have resulted from the distinctively modern belief that things—including nations and human nature—are much more plastic, much more malleable, than they actually are. It is the belief that nations are like Tinkertoys: they can be taken apart and rearranged at will. It is the belief that human beings are soft clay that can be shaped by the hands of political artists.
In the 85 years since 1919, many more than 100 million people have perished in violence intended to force the world into new configurations. The violence has served ambitious attempts at social engineering—attempts to create racial purity or a classless society or the New Soviet Man. Compared to this savagery, today’s attempts to produce a new political architecture in Europe may look harmless.
Today, European elites believe that Europe’s nations are menaced by their own sovereignty. These elites blame Europe’s recent blood-soaked history on the nation-state itself—including democratic states. For this reason, the European Union is attempting to turn itself into a single entity without sovereign nations—a federal entity, but a single political entity under a new constitution. The intended effect of the proposed constitution is to dissolve Europe’s nation-states, reducing them to administrative departments of a supranational state. Its capital: probably Brussels.
In the hundreds of pages of the EU’s proposed (and so far, rejected) constitution, you will find, among much else, the stipulation that “the physical and moral integrity of sportsmen and sportswomen” should be protected. A sweet thought, that. But what in the name of James Madison is it doing in a constitution?
The proposed constitution guarantees that children shall have the constitutional right “to express their views freely.” That will make family dinners and bedtime in Europe litigious affairs. The proposed constitution bans discrimination based on birth—but does not say how to square that ban with the existence in the EU of seven hereditary monarchies. The EU’s constitution decrees that, to protect the environment, “preventive action should be taken.” That sentiment may seem merely vapid—until some judge discovers that it requires vast regulatory measures of his devising.
It used to be said that libraries filed French constitutions among periodicals. The EU constitution will before long seem as dated as a yellowing newspaper, because it gives canonical status—as fundamental rights elevated beyond debate—to policy preferences, even to mere fads, of the moment.
The aim of the proposed constitution’s more than 400 articles is to put as many matters as possible beyond debate. Beyond the reach of majorities. Beyond democracy.
Article Ten of the EU constitution says: “The Constitution, and law adopted by the Union’s Institutions in exercising competences conferred on it [sic], shall have primacy over the law of the Member States.” Queen Elizabeth has asked for a briefing on the potential implications of the EU constitution for her role as supreme guardian of the British constitution.
British Europhiles simply deny the undeniable. They deny that the EU constitution will accelerate the leeching away of sovereignty from national parliaments. On the Continent, enthusiasts of the proposed constitution acknowledge the leeching away—and say it is a virtue. For them, what is called the EU’s “democracy deficit” is not an ancillary cost of progress; it is the essence of progress.
The histories of America and Europe have given rise to markedly different judgments about democracy and nationalism. Americans have cheerful thoughts, and Europeans have dark thoughts, about uniting democracy and nationalism. Hence Americans and Europeans have different ideas of what constitutions should do—ideas that lead to different valuations of international laws and institutions.
Americans believe that a democracy’s constitution should arise from, and reflect the particularities of, that nation’s distinctive political culture. Europeans’ quite different idea of constitutions implies a bitterly disparaging self-assessment. Their idea of what constitutions are for is a recoil from the savagery of their twentieth-century experiences. The purpose of their constitutions is to contract radically the sphere of self-government—of democratic politics.
American constitutionalism speaks with a Philadelphia accent, in the language of popular sovereignty: “We the people of the United States . . . do ordain and establish. . . . ” European constitutionalism speaks with a Parisian accent—the Paris of the eighteenth-century philosophes, of timeless and universal truths, defined by intellectuals and given, as gifts from on high, to publics expected to accept them deferentially.
And note well this: the spirit of Europe’s trickle-down constitutionalism was the spirit at work in Paris in 1919, where a coterie of experts rearranged the continent—and even the Chinese railway police—according to the coterie’s abstract principles and reasoning. The 1919 spirit of trickle-down lawgiving is alive in Europe today. When a European committee wrote a constitution for Kosovo, the committee—which included no member from Kosovo—wrote the constitution after visiting Kosovo for just three days.
Well, what need was there for Kosovars, or for knowledge of Kosovo, if abstract speculation by elites has revealed timeless truths—truths that can gain nothing from being consented to by the masses? Indeed, what need is there for variations among nations, or for experimentation by nations? In fact, what need is there for nations?
So, here comes the supranational entity: Europe. Trouble is, the prerequisites of a real political community include a shared history, culture, and language. Thus the phrase “European political community” is oxymoronic: there are many democratic nations in Europe, but there is no single European demos. How can there be, with (soon) 25 members, 25 distinct national memories, more than 25 durable ethnicities, 21 languages, and annual per-capita GDPs ranging from $8,300 in Latvia to $44,000 in Luxembourg?
On the rare occasions when the electorates of European nations are allowed to vote on some step toward a European superstate, they say no. Swedes recently said no, regarding replacing their national currency with the euro, and all that implies in terms of the dilution of control of their destinies. Virtually all of Sweden’s cosmopolitan classes—the entire political, commercial, and media establishments—advocated a yes vote.
When the Swedes obdurately said no, the German newspaper Die Welt sniffily blamed “a certain provincial eccentricity of Swedes.” Well, yes—if to be provincial is to prefer one’s own institutions and the traditions, customs, and mores that are both the causes and effects of those institutions.
Denmark has also said no to the proposed extinction of its national currency. The British, if asked, would say no, so British elites flinch from permitting a referendum. What do Sweden, Denmark, and Britain have in common? Charles Moore, former editor of the London Daily Telegraph, explains that each of the three has a “well-ordered and continuous historical polity. . . . These are countries that have a strong belief in the reality of their political culture. They do not have a history in which their whole previous set of arrangements was discredited by war or fascism or revolution.”
In contrast, Germans seek to submerge themselves in Europe to escape German history. The French exalt Europe as something in which to submerge Germany. Italians contemplate the submergence of their political culture and think: good riddance. For Spaniards, the loss of sovereignty to a European superstate is a price willingly paid for a rupture with a past recently stained by Franco, fascism, and civil war.
Democracy and distrust usually are, and always should be, entwined. America’s constitutionalism and its necessary corollary, judicial review, amount to institutionalized distrust. But although Americans are said to be suspicious of their government, they actually are less deeply wary of their government than Europeans are of their governments.
Scott Turow, the American lawyer and novelist, sees evidence of this difference in the sharply divergent American and European attitudes about capital punishment. It is, he says, exactly wrong to interpret European opposition to capital punishment as evidence of Europe’s higher civility. Rather, says Turow, European democracies have a history of fragility and “have repeatedly been overwhelmed by dictators.” So “the day seems far less remote when another madman can commandeer the power of the state to kill his enemies.” In fact, “American opinion about capital punishment is subtly dependent on the extraordinary stability of our democratic institutions.”
I suggest that there is a similar explanation for the sharp contrast between the European enthusiasm for expanding the reach of international law and institutions at the expense of national sovereignty, and America’s more chilly and suspicious stance toward such laws and institutions. It is not quite fair to say that international law is to real law as professional wrestling is to real wrestling. But international law—so frequently invoked, so rarely defined—is an infinitely elastic concept. Who enacts, who construes, who adjudicates, and who enforces this law? Hobbes said: “Law without the sword is but words.” But law backed by the sword—by coercion—must be legitimized by a political process. Americans wonder: How does that legitimation work for international law?
It is said that international law is the consensus in action of the “international community.” Well, now.
The attempt to break nations—and especially our nation—to the saddle and bridle of international law founders on the fact that the “community of nations” is a fiction. Nothing can be properly called a “community” if it jumbles together entities as different as Saudi Arabia and New Zealand, Japan and Sudan, Italy and Iran, Norway and Libya.
The American Revolution was, at bottom, about the right of a distinctive people, conscious of itself as a single people, to govern itself in its distinctive manner, in nationhood. Here was a great eighteenth-century insight: popular sovereignty is inextricably entwined with nationality.
The nation-state has been a great instrument of emancipation. It has freed people from the idea that their self-government is subject to extra-national restraints, such as the divine right of kings or imperial prerogatives or traditional privileges of particular social classes.
Certainly Americans will not passively watch their nation’s distinctive ideas of justice be subordinated to any other standards. Most Americans are not merely patriots; they are nationalists, too. They do not merely love their country; they believe that its political arrangements, and the values and understandings of the human condition that those arrangements reflect, are superior to most other nations’ arrangements. They believe, but are too polite to say, that American arrangements are not suited to everybody, at least not now. These superior American arrangements are suited to culturally superior people—those up to the demands made by self-government.
And yet, my sleep is troubled by this worry: there may be a subtle kinship between—a common thread in—two ideas that are currently having large consequences. One is the un-American—and increasingly anti-American—idea that the nation-state is both dispensable and dangerous, and therefore that nations should increasingly be subordinated to international laws and the arrangements of the “community of nations.” The other idea—one suddenly central to America’s international exertions—is that nations are mechanical, not organic things. And therefore a can-do people with an aptitude for engineering—people like Americans—can build nations.
These ideas share a dangerous lack of respect for the elemental, powerful impulses that produce nations. Both ideas have a Wilsonian flavor. They shaped the American president’s participation in Paris in 1919. And they shape the behavior of Wilson’s nation 85 years later.
Do I seem anxious? Perhaps. But an English skeptic once said he wanted to carve on all the churches of England three cautionary words: “Important If True.” We must inscribe those words alongside some of today’s political utterances.
Last July, Prime Minister Tony Blair, addressing a joint session of the U.S. Congress, said: It is a “myth” that “our attachment to freedom is a product of our culture,” and he added: “Ours are not Western values; they are the universal values of the human spirit. And anywhere, anytime people are given the chance to choose, the choice is the same: freedom, not tyranny; democracy, not dictatorship; the rule of law, not the rule of the secret police.”
That assertion is important. But is it true? Everyone everywhere does not share “our attachment to freedom.” Freedom is not even understood the same way everywhere, let alone valued the same way relative to other political goods such as equality, security, and piety. Does Blair really believe that our attachment to freedom is not the product of complex and protracted acculturation by institutions and social mores that have evolved over centuries—the centuries that it took to prepare the stony social ground for seeds of democracy?
When Blair says that freedom as we understand it, and democracy and the rule of law as we administer them, are “the universal values of the human spirit,” he is not speaking as America’s Founders did when they spoke of “self-evident” truths. The Founders meant truths obvious not to everyone everywhere but to minds unclouded by superstition and other ignorance—minds like theirs. Blair seems to think: Boston, Baghdad, Manchester, Monrovia—what’s the difference? But Blair’s argument is true only if it is trivial logic-chopping. That is, when he says “ordinary” people always choose freedom, democracy, and the rule of law, he must mean that anyone who does not so choose is therefore not ordinary. There are a lot of those people in the world. We are at war with some of them in Iraq.
President Bush recently said something that is important—if true. And perhaps it is even more important if it is not true. He denounced “cultural condescension”—the belief that some cultures lack the requisite aptitudes for democracy. And the president said: “Time after time, observers have questioned whether this country, or that people, or this group are 'ready' for democracy—as if freedom were a prize you win for meeting our own Western standards of progress.”
Well. Multiculturalists probably purred with pleasure about this president’s delicate avoidance of anything as gauche as chauvinism about “Western standards of progress.” His idea—that there is no necessary connection between Western political traditions and the success of democracy—is important.
But is it true? Today his hypothesis is being tested in Iraq, where an old baseball joke is pertinent. A manager says, “Our team is just two players away from being a championship team. Unfortunately, the two players are Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.” Iraq is just three people away from democratic success. Unfortunately, the three are George Washington, James Madison, and John Marshall.
Iraq lacks a Washington, a universally revered hero emblematic of national unity and identity. Iraq lacks a Madison, a genius of constitutional architecture, a profound student of what the president calls “Western standards of progress” and a subtle analyst of the problem of factions and their centrifugal, disintegrative tendencies. Iraq lacks a Marshall, someone who can so persuasively construe a constitution that the prestige of his court, and of law itself, ensures national compliance.
Iraq lacks a Washington, a Madison, a Marshall—and it lacks the astonishingly rich social and cultural soil from which such people sprout. From America’s social soil in the eighteenth century grew all the members of the Constitutional Convention and of all the state legislatures that created all the conventions that ratified the Constitution.
So, Iraq in its quest for democracy lacks only—only!—what America then had: an existing democratic culture. It is a historical truism that the Declaration of Independence was less the creation of independence than the affirmation that Americans had already become independent. In the decades before 1776 they had become a distinct people, a demos, a nation—held together by the glue of shared memories, common strivings, and shared ideals. As John Adams said, the revolution had occurred in the minds and hearts of Americans before the incident at Concord Bridge.
Now America is engaged in a great exercise in nation-building. America invaded Iraq to disarm a rogue regime thought to be accumulating weapons of mass destruction. After nine months of postwar searching, no such weapons have as yet been found. The appropriate reaction to this is dismay, and perhaps indignation, about intelligence failures—failures that also afflicted the previous American administration and numerous foreign governments.
Instead, Washington’s reaction is Wilsonian. It is: Never mind the weapons of mass destruction; a sufficient justification for the war was Iraq’s noncompliance with various U.N. resolutions. So a conservative American administration says that war was justified by the need—the opportunity—to strengthen the U.N., a.k.a. the “international community,” as the arbiter of international behavior. Woodrow Wilson lives.
It is counted realism in Washington now to say that creating a new Iraqi regime may require perhaps two years. One wonders: Does Washington remember that it took a generation, and the United States Army, to bring about, in effect, regime change—a change of institutions and mores—in the American South? Will a Middle Eastern nation prove more plastic to our touch than Mississippi was? Will two years suffice for America—as Woodrow Wilson said of the Latin American republics—to teach Iraq to elect good men? We are, it seems, fated to learn again the limits of the Wilsonian project.
There are those who say: “Differences be damned! America has a duty to accomplish that project.” They should remember an elemental principle of moral reasoning: there can be no duty to do what cannot be done.
What is to be done in Iraq? As Robert Frost said, the best way out is always through. We are there. We dare not leave having replaced a savage state with a failed state—a vacuum into which evil forces will flow. Our aim should be the rule of law, a quickened pulse of civil society, some system of political representation. Then, let us vow not to take on such reconstructions often.
Four decades ago I arrived at Princeton’s graduate school, where I was to spend three happy years. I did not then realize that the 1910 decision to locate the graduate school where it is had been a momentous decision for the twentieth century—and perhaps for the twenty-first as well.
Princeton’s decision to locate the graduate school away from the main campus was made against the bitter opposition of the university’s president. He often was bitter when others failed to fathom the purity of his motives, his disinterested expertise, and the universality of his principles.
Having lost the argument about locating the graduate school, Woodrow Wilson resigned as Princeton’s president and entered politics. Two years later, he was elected America’s president. Just nine years after resigning from Princeton, he was sleepless in Paris, troubled by America’s responsibility for fine-tuning the Japanese component of the Chinese railway police.
Wilson’s spirit still walks the world. That should trouble our sleep.
(Printed in City Journal, Winter 2004).