Belmont Club

The last nation

The sentries their vigil keepIn the days after the fall of the Berlin Wall it was possible to think that history, in the sense of a competition between systems, had stopped. The idea was expressed in the phrase The End of History, which implied that there was no conceivable challenge to the triumph of the liberal democratic system. The future would consist of refining the system to the last decimal place. But if 9/11 did not throw the proposition of the End of History into doubt, then the recent Russo-Georgian war has. When did the End of History End? At what point did the project lose steam? Del Shannon asked:

As I walk alone, I wonder
What went wrong

Philip Bobbitt (I’ve fixed the link) has an idea: the calm 1990s marked a time when the old order ended. That obscured the fact that a new one had not taken its place. One history had ended. But a new replacement history had only just begun.

After 1990, perhaps the West’s greatest problem was the integration of the post-Soviet states into a global legal and economic order from which they had long been isolated. Some promising steps were taken but an American-inspired programme of rapid privatisation in Russia undercut all this. It impoverished the Russian people while selling off national assets to corrupt privateers. …

the developed states began to move from the constitutional order of nation states, which had fought the Cold War, to market states. In Europe, the EU began to evolve away from a super-nation state toward a more flexible congeries of national enclaves … In China, the embrace of free trade, private investment and market pricing were similar events. Elsewhere, sovereign wealth funds created further harbingers of this new order. A global system of human rights norms was given martial effect in the former state of Yugoslavia, another event that reflected this dramatic evolution of states.

But not in Russia. There political and economic leaders — and their Western advisers — confused the market with the market state, creating a vast criminal enterprise that more resembled the Mafia than the multinational corporation. In such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that the nation state has come roaring back. …

The essence of Bobbit’s argument is that the West now lives in a world ‘beyond the country’ — in a globalized economy, in a world in which the old values — some would call them prejudices — no longer bind. However, not everyone followed suit. Some parts of the world had been left behind. Not every nation was willing to go into voluntary liquidation; not every set of values was willing to set itself aside. And the conflicts we observe are the consequences of that imperfect shift. September 11 and the Russo-Georgian war proved that neither the concept of religion nor nation is wholly dead. Del Shannon’s question of what went wrong is answered by John Lennon’s.

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace

What went wrong is that someone forgot to tell Osama Bin Laden that religion had been abolished; and someone similarly forgot to tell the Russians, South Ossetians and Georgians that there are no more countries. If 9/11 was a visit from the 8th century, Russia’s incursion into the near abroad was blast for the 19th century past. Bobbitt thinks that Putin will not be able to roll back the trend toward the market state; that form of polity that lives upon a globalized, intertwined planet. And the way forward, he argues, lies in strengthening International Law and creating institutions which will admit the hold-outs.

[Putin] will not be able to reverse the ultimate trend toward market states; this new constitutional order is too formidable an innovation meekly to give way. Indeed the Russian tactic of granting vast numbers of Ossetians Russian citizenship — which gave it the legal pretext that it used to intervene — is at bottom a market state manoeuvre which encourages multiple juridical identities. But the hope that the transition away from nation states could be done without bloodshed in Europe has been dashed. The end of the first era of globalised constitutional transformation has come with unpredictable consequences because war, as Clausewitz told us, has its own momentum. I should be surprised if there were no further violence in Georgia.

But if it is Bobbitt’s judgment that Putin’s resistance is futile, he like Osama bin Laden will give it a try. Bobbitt’s thesis that the market state will replace the traditional one is intelectually appealing, but it suffers from one weakness. Events since September 11 and the invasion of Georgia demonstrate that the only effective riposte to national expansion is the instinct to national self-preservation; that all that stands in the way of radical Islamic culture is a self-conciously Western culture. Very few people will be willing to stand up to Russian armor or a suicide bomber for the idea of the International Law. At an emotive level, it is still the notion of home, family and group that provides the motivation to sacrifice. In Macaulay’s words:

To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his gods,

Lennon would not have understood. The problem is that the only bar to a militant faith and an expansionary nation is another throwback: and that is why both are effectively opposed by the one great power on earth enough residual faith and national self confidence left to hang together. If Philip Bobbitt’s market state future ever comes into being, it will be behind the protection of the last nation. The core problem that advocates of a stateless, post-national and faithless world face is why anyone should fight for it. A world where there is “nothing to kill or die for” is fundamentally helpless to defend itself.

In a video conversation about the Georgia conflict with Jonah Goldberg, Robert Wright described the attitude of “liberal realists” governing international involvement as being in part about whether it would advance the rule of international law or not. Thus the good thing about expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait during Desert Storm was that it enshrined the principle of territorial inviolability. But there is something slightly delusional about expecting nation states to expend treasure and lives in order to wither away. Can a supranational association of market states ever come into existence without the emergence of an international elite which owes allegiance to no nation but to the world itself? Or put another, no allegiance but to itself?


Tip Jar.