Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The rise and fall of patriotic internationalism

What was patriotic internationalism? A precious but ultimately unstable amalgam of patriotism and liberal internationalism that defined popular support for American foreign policy from about 1940 to about 1990. There is still a large residual of it even now in American life. But the liberals who once were the exemplars and promoters of patriotic internationalism are today largely defined by nostalgia, if not paranoia and hysteria -- now that modern liberalism is dead and liberals are a beleaguered minority.

Patriotic internationalism is the recognition of the unique legitmacy of national self-rule, combined with the realization that no nation can go it alone. Historically, it was defined by World War II and the Cold War and had its roots in the failure to create a robust international order in the interwar years. Such an international order was successfully created after 1945. It was flawed in certain ways, but it worked, at least as far as the "old Core" (Japan, North America, Western Europe) went. The attempts since 1980 to extend it were only partly successful: it was most successful in Asia and eastern Europe, less so in Latin America, mostly a failure in Africa, and a total failure in the Middle East. A key problem in the last two areas is the lack of robust, sovereign nation-states. In one case, the weakness is due to tribalism; in the other, due to a volatile mix of tribalism and religion. In those areas, no one tried very hard either.

Since the end of the Cold War, although it makes many Americans unhappy, America has drifted into a new moralistic nationalism that oscillates between isolationism and unilateralism (confused with religion or imperialism by some people who should know better -- it's neither). Europe has drifted into a covertly imperial project of sacrificing national sovereignty to an illegitimate supernational entity, the European Union. The EU is not a truly international treaty organization (like NATO). It's an attempt at laws imposed from "above" (super) nations, not "in between" (inter) nations. (See here for more about illegitimate forms of "super"-national law -- and the parallel need for constitutional self-policing of foreign policy. This point is somewhat dated by now-acknowledged dead-end of EU governance and the Supreme Court's Hamdan decision [PDF] and consequent Congressional action in response.)

There is a real need to clear the air of the confusion and obfuscation surrounding nationalism. Nationalism is the opposite of imperialism. Nationalism is not fascism; fascism was an exceptionally violent and illiberal form of imperialism. Here's a further clue: the opponents of fascism were nationalists: Churchill, Roosevelt, Stalin (when faced with German invasion), De Gaulle, Adenauer, and various anti-fascist resistance movements. The fascists, like Hitler, Mussolini, Tojo, were not. The nationalist character of the European anti-fascist movements gave a unique panache to colonial independence movements. European countries had resisted fascism in the name of nationalism; so too they had to recognize the legitimacy of national aspirations of the colonial peoples they ruled.

The collapse of America's uniquely blended traditions of patriotism and internationalism, in both liberal-internationalist and conservative-realist forms, is spreading across the political spectrum. For an example of the retarded regression of the Democrats, read Sebastian Mallaby at the Washington Post. See Clay Risen at the New Republic (requires subscription) for the gyrations of Republicans no longer committed to free markets, but shameless and destructive protectionism. Since the end of the Cold War and the first Persian Gulf war, the American news media has also cut back drastically on what it invests into foreign coverage.

Everywhere, not just in the United States, political elites are abandoning the common good in favor of pandering to narrow, parochial interests. The parallel politics is a provincial narcissism, tending towards conspiracy theories, with the local and the obscure blown up into cosmic significance.

Others have noticed. Mark Lilla just published an interesting but flawed essay in TNR on this subject (requires subscription). According to Lilla, America was sleepwalking through the 80s, woke up in 1989, then went to sleep after September 2001. Lilla deploys this analysis in support of a false evaluation of Clinton's presidency. The phenomenon Lilla is pointing to is real, but he seriously misunderstands it.

After a very troubled decade in the 1970s (a decade that, in some ways, never ended in Europe), America slowly came back to its senses in the 80s, reaching a state of full awakeness between 1989 and 1991, after which it went into a deep sleep of indifference to the outside world. Clinton's 1992 election slogan ("It's the economy, stupid!") and Perot's hostility to free trade reflected a larger swing against foreign involvements, represented by the sudden intense hostility of both elites and the larger public to Bush Sr. Clinton's second term did feature a significant return to foreign policy concerns, but only in a half-blind, groping fashion and with neither party showing more than tepid support or interest. America's descent into political triviality continued, climaxing with the Lewinsky scandal. The next period, from 1998 to 2001, might be called the period of troubled sleep; the first signs of opposition to globalization and the America-dominated unipolar world appeared following the 1997-98 global financial crisis. Americans barely noticed, since their economy continued to suck in the world's savings, buy the world's surplus output, and import the world's ambitious poor as immigrants. After the 9/11 attacks, America came back fully awake. The awakeness lasted somewhat longer than a year. What put us back to sleep were the 2002 mid-term elections and the second Iraq war. Since late 2003, American politics has turned back towards self-referential triviality, powerfully reinforced by the electronic media. The Iraq war and the controversy surrounding it are mired in this self-referentiality. The real quagmire is at home.

The new force that fills the vacuum left by the decline of liberalism and the marginalization of conservatism is moralistic nationalism. It naturally tends toward isolationism, but when foreign intervention is necessary, it swings towards unilateralism. It distains both liberal internationalism and conservative realism. Domestically, its natural tendency is towards hyperactivist big government, not traditional conservatism - less Reagan, more Nixon. But its style is echt-Baby Boom: pop culture, not bookish or intellectual; less substance, more posturing and attitudinizing; less Friedrich Hayek, more Ann Coulter.

The real problem here may be the Baby Boomer generation itself, which is nothing if not narcissistic -- it's a defining generational trait. (I emphatically include Bush Jr. in this characterization.) To the narcissist - if he pays any attention to the world at all - everything in the world is about him, especially everything negative.

POSTSCRIPT: If you want to read what's wrong with foreign elites, with their insistent and myopic recycling of anti-American mythology - fully awake before September 2001, contrary to the revisionist history now peddled by Bush critics - see here for a reminder from Anne Applebaum.

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