Why nationalism is necessary for being liberal

George Friedman of Stratfor lays out the arguments for nationalism. Liberalism begins with the right of national self-determination. Unless you have a nation in which you have can exercise civil liberties, you do not have civil liberties, you only have empires. Nationalism is not the opposition to liberalism, it is the expression of liberalism. If you do not believe in nationalism, you do not believe in liberalism.

I observe that Friedman is now saying what Bannon is saying. Nations are fighting for their existence and relevance against worldly technocratic elites. If you take away the consent of the governed, you take away liberalism. Nationalism is liberalism.

The contrary view leads to pan-national empires, which are an older way of organizing societies without the consent of the governed. This doctrine used to be peddled by Joe Clark, the former Canadian conservative leader, in the following form:  Canada was a “community of communities”, and not a nation. Such societies could only be governed by panels of technocratic experts.


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I watched both the Friedman talk on nationalism (in Hungary) and Bannon (Oxford Union) and find their arguments threadbare.

Nation states were twice tested: in the interwar period, and now since the fall of the Wall. The overwhelming consensus has to be that they have largely failed to protect citizen rights, provide security, or sustain democracy and the rule of law. Perhaps we will be lucky and Poland, Hungary, and the Czechs will spawn more effective democratic and norm-adhering political parties – but that waits to be seen.

The United States is not a nation state. It is an imperial state, and every step taken to assert American nationalism imperils its place in the world. The abrogation of the TPP left its would-be partners struggling to find some means of countering China by themselves – a feat they cannot accomplish as all members, collectively, are not remotely able to challenge China. In the absence of American leadership, the TPP will crumble and the would be partners will have to make their accommodations with China, likely singly and one at a time.

The refusal of Trump to make any believable commitment to collective security in NATO is imperiling the states on the boundaries of Russia, and giving comfort only to those who are hostile to the human rights based order that is the European Union – the inheritor of 19th century liberalism.

We are coming to see that nation states are not the guarantors of things like the right to vote or freedom of expression, religion, or from arbitrary detention or expropriation of property – quite the contrary. It turns out that it is the agreed upon norms of membership in the EU that are the guarantor of individual rights.

It is important to note that the core members of the EU were never simply or even nation states: UK, France, Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Germany were all imperial states until after WW2, and all have a large residue of their imperial residue in their demography and in their culture. The attempted reversion of the UK to a national state is fraught with existential dangers. Brexit seems to have been an assertion of English nationalism. This has increased the centripetal forces alive in Scotland and Ireland, and may come to revive them in Wales.

As for Bannon, I think he is basically sophomoric. All this business about historical cycles is just horse shit. He hoped Trump could be convinced to be a national-socialist, but it turns out Trump cannot champion those who are losers in American society, and is merely the ugliest manifestation of the oligarch culture that dominates American government and politics.He not only can’t but is not interested in delivering health care to those who risk bankruptcy every time the come down with a bad flu.His appalling attitude toward those who have ever sacrificed for their country belies any interest in anything that is not purely transactional. His crudity is inexcusable when not backed by love for the people who are enchanted by it.

So no.

I have at times longed for a true Canadian nationalism – but that is impossible. English Canadian nationalism would wreck the Canadian political order. French Canadian nationalism seems at one with all the small-minded and illiberal hallmarks of the East European nation states, whose history of failed states succeeded by bit pieces of empires, followed by weak adherence to European norms and, seemingly, now falling into historical patterns of authoritarianism, kleptocracy and illiberalism, with a good dose of hate-thy-neighbourism (especially if your neighbour is a Jew or a Roma).

I don’t think the thesis works. Not sure if either Bannon or Friedman is honest, but I am convinced they are fundamentally wrong and ahistoric in their approach.



I confess, Oban, to a considerable degree of difficulty in figuring out your approach, because you seem to be so against nations, and so much in favour of imperial states. As I know you personally, I know you have the most generous of attitudes towards rights and the extensions of rights. Perhaps you explain yourself most succinctly when you write: “It turns out that it is the agreed upon norms of membership in the EU that are the guarantor of individual rights.”

Not nations. Not states. But norms of membership in a pan-European treaty organization. I think you put up your treasures where moth and rust corrupt. I fail to see, indeed it is impossible, that an organization composed of states could be more liberal, that is rights-abiding and rights-respecting – than the its components, which are states, and its electorates, which are composed of people.

Illiberal people produce illiberal states, and liberal peoples produce liberal states, and it matters not what constitutions say, if the people who are the electorates are not rights-abiding and rights-respecting.

I think the Freidman piece was saying that to be liberal, we must belong to some nation, some group, through which our sovereignty is expressed. All people belong to groups: tribes, nations, something. Not every group wishes to be, or can be, liberal because that is a particular way of belonging. But you cannot be a liberal, says Friedman, if you belong to a non-democratic, unelected empire, over which you have no say. There are liberal portions in an empire. The liberal portions of an empire are the parts or peoples that may elect their governments. The subjects of empires are those people who may not elect their effective – not nominal – rulers.

Thus my first point of objection is that neither empires nor international treaty organizations, which may be the modern form that empires take, are effectively under the control of their subject peoples. Whether the core members of the EU were ever imperial powers is beside any point you might wish to make, unless you wish to argue only that empires are the only true guarantors of rights, rather than nations. The argument is so confusing I hardly know what you intend to argue, but I do not think you mean to say that only former empires are guarantors of rights.

The second point of objection is that political institutions cannot guarantee a liberal political order unless the people who elect them are themselves liberal in some meaningful way. I think you agree with this idea. Hence a lot of your commentary about illiberal states or peoples is true.

The third point of objection is that what you call “the human rights based order that is the European Union – the inheritor of 19th century liberalism” can ever, by its nature and constitution, be the vehicle for the advancement of liberalism, by which I mean a rights-based order. The relationship of the EU to the European parliament is the same as the relationship of the medieval English parliament to the Angevin kings. The Commissioners of the European Union do not stand or fall on the votes of the European Parliament. The EU has reached the same level of democratic rule as England of the 1300s. Most Europeans are realizing this.

All the rest of your objections to Friedman and Bannon is anti-Trumpism which is another argument and not germane to the issues of rights-based orders. I would like to confine the questions to what is discussable.

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