Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Blair, the Nation, and Liberal Interventionism


One more thing I want to add here, and then I'll let it alone (for a while anyway). Yesterday, I wrote that Blair was "the liberal nationalist cause's greatest ally." This needs some further explanation, since in many ways Blair seems anything but a "nationalist" as traditionally (that is, stereotypically) understood. According to this understanding, nationalists are those who defend their nation, right or wrong, and despise international entanglements as threats to their sovereignty and identity. Clearly this doesn't fit the Blair which Anne Applebaum described as "a British prime minister who has enthusiastically taken his country into every multilateral institution he could, signing up to everything from the European Convention on Human Rights to the Kyoto protocol to the International Criminal Court. Blair's wife is an international human rights lawyer; Blair's own lawyers have spent the past few weeks earnestly discussing which U.N. resolutions would make war in Iraq 'legal.'" It is wrong, however, to assume that a concern for international legality somehow shows a distrust in, or dislike for, the role of the nation in "organizing the world," as it were. Blair is very much a communitarian in the sense that he fully agrees with the proposition that all which is virtuous and moral about human civilization is the product of particularity: that is, relations of trust, commerce, dialogue and development which are grounded in particular places, particular times, and particular peoples. In a speech Blair gave in Tübingen, Germany back in 2000, he talked about the challenge which globalization poses to the creation of "communities of values," values which he considered to be clearly, though not necessarily uniquely, religious:


"The inevitability of globalisation demands a parallel globalisation of our best ethical values; not a distilling or unnecessary uniformity of the rich values that make up our communities of faith. But the basic premises of our faiths; solidarity; justice; peace and the dignity of the human person are what we need in the age of globalisation. Traditionally, these were religious values. But we now know, through several quite different disciplines, that they are universal values. Economists call them 'social capital.' Evolutionary biologists call them 'reciprocal Altruism.' Political theorists call them communitarianism or civil society. Each of these phrases stands for what is really a quite simple idea – that what gives us the power to survive in a rapidly changing environment are the habits of co-operation, the networks of support, our radius of trust. And we learn those habits in families, school congregations and communities. It is there that we learn the grammar of togetherness, the give and take of rights and responsibilities, where we pass on our collective story, our ideals, from one generation to the next. Without them, society is too abstract to be real. Community is where they know your name; and where they miss you if you’re not there. Community is society with a human face."


It might be easy to dismiss this as quaint gemeinschaftliche rhetoric, one of the typical props of what is essentially a social nostalgia or antiliberal conservatism. (In the discipline of political theory, this charge has been made frequently, and just as frequently responded to; consider Stephen Holmes's polemic The Anatomy of Antiliberalism, and these critiques of his work here and here.) But in Blair's case, I think it is fair to say that he has joined his communitarian convictions to an old Whiggish liberal tradition, going back to Gladstone: that of the nation as an exponent (and exporter) of ideals. That Blair thinks highly of his country is indisputable; consider the sort of "nationalist" language he has regularly preached to his own Labour party, long supposedly an enemy to patriotism:


"Don't tell me that a country with our history and heritage, that today boasts six of the top ten businesses in the whole of Europe, with London the top business city in Europe, that is a world leader in technology and communication and the businesses of the future, that under us has overtaken France and Italy to become the fourth largest economy in the world, that has the language of the new economy, more brilliant artists, actors and directors than any comparable country in the world, some of the best scientists and inventors in the world, the best armed forces in the world, the best teachers and doctors and nurses, the best people any nation could wish for. Don't tell me with all that going for us that we do not have the spirit to meet all the challenges before us. For that is another choice; confidence or cynicism. All we need is the confidence to make the right choice for the future. Just as we did in the party so, on a larger scale, the same is true for Britain. We are on a journey of renewal....But the purpose of our journey is not to lose our values as a nation: but to make them live on....We are in a fight and it's a fight I relish. For it is a fight for the future, the heart and the soul of our country."


Sure, you could say again: just more Reaganesque boilerplate. Wrap yourself in the flag. But how much easier, today, would it be for Blair to wrap himself in the flag while saying, as he always has please note, that "Britain stands for the rule of law and the international order"--and mean, by saying that, that he will not support the United States in its planned invasion of Iraq? Given current polls in Britain, that strikes me as a far more reasonable, far more plausible way for an elected politician to so wrap himself. But he hasn't said that; instead, he has argued that the case against Iraq as a potential threat to peace is strong enough, that the humanitarian need is profound enough, and that the possible outcome is worth pursuing enough, that he will align his country's military with the United States's in order to see this war through. And he has argued that as a responsibility which the British nation has to the world. This is not some sort of imperialism hiding behind complaints that the international community didn't respond to one's self-interested pleas (no, that's what we fear about Bush); this is the conviction that the international community is--or at least ought to be--the shared product of nations bringing what they have (interests, yes, but also aspirations and values) to the table, rather than some transnational ideology which floats free of any specific incarnation. Global action on the environment, on the proliferation of nuclear weapons and other WMD, on all sorts of issues, requires the investment of nations which see themselves as obliged, by their own (communitarian!) values to intervene in the world. As a liberal nation (indeed, in many ways the historical home of liberalism), Britain is impelled, Blair believes, in an arguably religious sense, to respond to threats to the liberal order. This was Gladstone's ideology, and Woodrow Wilson's too. It isn't without its faults and drawbacks: it is often condescending, often self-righteous, often resistant to internal criticism (all of which perfectly describe Wilson, a good man who was also aristocratic, racist, and profoundly close-minded), which is why I believe that the faith which animates it requires serious (preferably Herderian) reconsideration. But the alternative, in my view (with sincere apologies to my libertarian friends who believe life is best left uninterfered with and all this is hogwash), is to let Hobbes's world become a self-fulfilling prophecy: since there can be no morality without the sovereign, and sovereignty exists only through a desperate, self-interested pact, the world must remain morally shapeless (except perhaps in the most minimal way) until and unless fear drives it towards accepting the rule of a single, imperial force. The growth of international law and institutions, Blair obviously believes, puts the lie to this world: it is not inevitable, there can be moral progress through national cooperation. But that cooperation must be national, not premised upon procedures and conferences which, simply because they exist, have absolute precedence over the various embedded, particularist values which make them meaningful in the first place.


In the long run, assuming the liberal nationalist theory is true, and that technology or other forces are not going to bring into (or haven't already brought into) existence a global "public sphere" within which Habermasian rules of discourse replace national expressions, then Blair's stand, whatever it may cost him (and also assuming whether, when all is said and done, this is the right cause to make such a stand regarding--remember that not all liberal nationalists are in agreement with this policy), can only do his nation and the world some good. As James Bennett put it:


"That Blair takes the same stance as an American president is neither opportunism nor coincidence, but rather an expression of the underlying shared Anglosphere values. What makes Blair difficult to understand is that he is more of a Gladstonian than the sort of Labourite we have been familiar with over the past century. The Gladstonian tradition in Britain is a political expression of a wider moral tradition that has been one of the distinct temperaments of the Anglosphere for centuries. As such, it has a political cousin in America, the Wilsonian tradition. It is characterized by the moralization of political issues, the assignment of a didactic and improving role to government, the enshrinement of reason and law as a process for resolving both domestic and international disputes, and a crusading side that refrains from force. Refrains, that is, until the offending party has demonstrated a moral depravity that identifies him as an obstacle to progress, in which case, Wilsonian/Gladstonians are then willing to commit overwhelming force in chastisement and correction....One of the many ironies in this situation is that here Blair is being a more consistent backer of the international order and the United Nations than his critics on the left, and on the European Continent. It is exactly the same motivation that leads Blair to criticize America for failing to ratify Kyoto that causes him to support Bush on Iraq. Even more ironic is that the same motivations that lead Blair to cross swords with Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder over Iraq are the same that lead him to be such an ardent Europeanist. Blair's modern-day Gladstonian vision of moral purpose in international affairs leads him to equally pursue the global legitimacy of the United Nations and the regional legitimacy of the EU. This seemingly strange but actually quite understandable alliance is bringing an awareness of a change that has been in progress for the past decade: Britain's return to a substantial status as an international actor."


As a student of Herder, with his focus on language as the defining core of both national identity and moral reasoning, I've been intrigued by this concept of an "Anglosphere," the idea that English-speaking nations (and those heavily influenced by them) share a heritage which may position them in jointly bringing something moral to bear on the world. Certainly whatever this "something" is, it shouldn't be reduced to mere cover for the American way of life: as should be clear, Blair may stand beside Bush, but he stands beside him on an (I hope not entirely) different pedastal, and Australia and Canada have their own takes on the question of Iraq as well (pro-Bush and anti-Bush, respectively). Regardless, perhaps there is a silver lining to this war: that it will force upon Europe, and the United States, a re-evaluation of those international forums which Blair, and historically the United States, has invested so much; an evaluation which may lead to a clearer sense of how nations (and perhaps emerging supra-national entities, like the EU or even the "Anglosphere") should identify with them, and hence with one another. If that happens, it will be because of Blair's example, not Bush's. A close friend of mine, an editor at a leading conservative magazine in the United States, e-mailed me and some friends after Blair's speech in the House of Commons yesterday, confessing that he wished he was our president. If some conservatives in America feel that way, then perhaps the liberal nationalist cause can be served through (or despite) Bush after all.