A libertarian defence of national sovereignty
BY PHILIP VANDER ELST
Three quarters of a century ago, when Britain was fighting for her life and the freedom of Europe, no important body of opinion would have questioned the value of patriotism or the importance of preserving and cherishing our nationhood as a focus of resistance to Nazi totalitarianism. Pride in our heritage, our sense of connection with the past and with the achievements of our forebears, were not only second nature to millions of people in the Britain of 1940, but were widely shared throughout the English-speaking world and helped to mobilise opinion against Hitler. Men and women in the United States and the British Dominions drew strength and inspiration in these years of crisis from their common historical and cultural roots, and these were celebrated in literature and song, on the screen and printed page, from one end of the world to the other. Penguin Books, to cite a typical example, published two anthologies during this period – Portrait of England and Forever Freedom – which are a treasure trove of prose and verse celebrating our Island story. They sing the praises of our countryside and institutions, our traditions and people, in the words of Shakespeare and Milton, Emerson and Whittier, Burke and Jefferson, and countless others.
Today, however, such sentiments strike a jarring note and are generally ridiculed by so-called ‘liberal’ opinion as outdated, narrow-minded, and even (in the eyes of some) ‘racist’. We are told, instead, that the nation-state is an anachronism, and that truly enlightened people should embrace, as a long-term objective, the supranationalist vision of world government. In the meantime, it is argued, rather than clinging nostalgically to the idea of national sovereignty, the preservation of peace and international co-operation requires, in the case of Europe, continued progress towards the establishment of a single supranational European State. To quote the words of Philip Kerr (Lord Lothian), written in the 1930s and prominently displayed in the Visitor Centre of the European Parliament building in Brussels: “National sovereignty is the root cause of the most crying evils of our time and of the steady march of humanity back to tragic disaster and barbarism…The only final remedy for this supreme and catastrophic evil of our time is a federal union of the people.”
This paper accepts none of these assertions. It will argue, on the contrary, that the drive to abolish national sovereignty and create a European State, and the ideal of world government, represent a betrayal of the liberal internationalist tradition and are a serious threat to the long term survival of freedom and democracy. True internationalism does not, like the European Union, seek to create new structures of State power to rule over previously independent nations. Rather, it embodies and expresses a spirit of generous sympathy and co-operation between sovereign countries, based on mutual respect for each other’s traditions, institutions, and liberties. Far from requiring the destruction of patriotism, liberal internationalism recognises the vital role it plays in binding together and sustaining free societies. This paper will also argue that the widespread belief that nationalism is the “root cause” of war and “the most crying evils of our time,” is historically inaccurate, philosophically confused, and politically naïve. And finally, to counter the common charge that ‘Brexiters’ and other opponents of European integration are anti-European xenophobes, this paper will argue that contrary to decades of propaganda from the EU and its supporters, the true glory of Europe, and the secret of her creativity and dynamism as a civilisation, has lain in decentralisation and diversity rather than in size and empire.
The link between patriotism, nationhood, and internationalism
To begin to understand the libertarian internationalist case for patriotism and national sovereignty, travel back in time to a political meeting on an autumn day in late Victorian England. There, in a speech at Dartford, in Kent, on 2nd October 1886, Lord Randolph Churchill emphasised the liberating role Britain had played in European history since the 16th century:
“The sympathy of England with liberty, and with the freedom and independence of communities and nationalities,” he declared, “is of ancient origin, and has become the traditional direction of our foreign policy…It was mainly English effort which rescued Germany and the Netherlands from the despotism of King Philip II of Spain, and after him from that of Louis XIV of France. It was English effort which preserved the liberties of Europe from the desolating tyranny of Napoleon.” And, “In our own times,” he concluded, “our own nation has done much, either by direct intervention or by energetic moral support, to establish upon firm foundations the freedom of Italy and of Greece.”
Had he not subsequently died at such a tragically young age, Lord Randolph could have completed his 1886 summary of Britain’s liberating role in European history by noting that together with her allies, and under the leadership of his own son, she freed the European continent from the scourge of Nazism and Fascism in 1945.
Some years before that speech of Lord Randolph Churchill’s in Dartford, a similar note was struck by an older Victorian contemporary, J.R. Wreford (1800 – 1881), who wrote a famous poem containing these memorable lines:
“Lord, while for all mankind we pray,
Of every clime and coast,
O hear us for our native land,
The land we love the most…”
Here, then, we have two typical expressions of 19th century British patriotism – a speech and a poem – both of which testify eloquently to the fact that love for one’s own country in no way implies a lack of regard or sympathy for the cultures, institutions, patriotic loyalties or interests of other nations, just as our love for our families does not prevent us developing good relationships with our friends and neighbours, or indeed with strangers. That this should be the case ought not to surprise us, despite all the politically correct globalist and pro-EU propaganda about the supposedly ‘selfish’ and ‘bigoted’ nature of ‘nationalism’.
Whilst it is true that human sympathy and feelings of solidarity are naturally strongest when they reflect a sense of common interest and identity rooted in shared values and a common heritage, it does not mean that they remain confined within those limits. We first develop our sense of connection with others within those “little platoons” about which Edmund Burke, the father of British Conservatism, waxed so lyrical in the 18th century – that is, within our families, localities, and regions. But then, by a natural process of experience and discovery, we go on to perceive our links with a wider community and learn to identify with the country and nation whose language and culture plays such a key role in shaping our minds and lives. If, in addition, we have grown up in a liberal democracy like Britain, we also learn to identify with other societies which share our commitment to liberty and the rule of law – especially if, like Australia, New Zealand, Canada or the United States, they are linked to us historically as former colonies. Human sympathy, in other words, grows naturally out of a widening circle of association, and the very fact that we love our country and are proud of its achievements and traditions, helps us to appreciate the patriotic sensibilities and feelings of other nationalities, and can bring out the best in us rather than the worst.
Patriotism is a noble sentiment compatible with other loyalties
As British Conservative philosopher and statesman, Arthur Balfour (1848-1930), put it long ago in his 1913 lecture on ‘Nationality and Home Rule’:
“The sentiment of nationality is one of a group of such sentiments for which there is unfortunately no common name. Loyalties to a country, a Party, a constitution, a national sovereign, a tribal chief, a church, a pact, a creed, are characteristic specimens of the class. They may be ill-directed; they often are. Nevertheless it is such loyalties that make human society possible; they do more, they make it noble. To them we owe it that a man will sacrifice ease, profit, life itself, for something which wholly transcends his merely personal interests. Therefore, whether mistaken or not, there is in them always a touch of greatness. But it has to be observed that the kind of loyalty we call patriotism, though it expresses a simple feeling, need have no exclusive application. It may embrace a great deal more than a man’s country or a man’s race. It may embrace a great deal less. And these various patriotisms need not be, and should not be, mutually exclusive.
It is therefore no coincidence, that this Scottish and British patriot should have felt a generous sympathy for the national aspirations of the Jews after centuries of suffering and exile. It is not strange that he should have lent his name to that famous declaration of 1917 (the ‘Balfour Declaration’) promising British support for the re-establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.[i] Nor is it surprising, as that quote from Lord Randolph Churchill revealed, that patriotic 19th century liberal England openly defended and supported the emerging liberal and national movements in Italy, Greece and Belgium, as an earlier England had fought side by side with the Dutch against the imperial armies of Philip II of Spain in the latter half of the 16th century. It was patriotic empathy, a belief in liberty, and a sense of reverence and gratitude for her matchless heritage, which moved Byron (1788 -1824) to participate in Greece’s struggle for independence from the tyranny of the Ottoman Empire. That was the spirit which inspired such famous lines as these, from his poem, ‘The Isles of Greece’:
The mountains look on Marathon –
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dreamed that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persian’s grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.
Not only, then, is it absurd on a theoretical level to regard patriotism and loyalty to the nation-state as the chief cause of hatred and conflict between peoples and countries, but it is also historically illiterate. With the exception of tribal conflicts within primitive communities and continents, more wars have been caused by religious and ideological divisions and by the dynastic ambitions of powerful monarchs and princes than by the forces of popular nationalism. The wars of the Middle Ages in Europe, for instance, were usually either family quarrels between contending monarchs related to each other by blood or marriage, or struggles for power between these monarchs and their rebellious barons, or between the Pope, representing the Church, and the Holy Roman Emperor or some other secular ruler. Later on, the earthquake of the Reformation ushered in a century and a half of bloody religious strife between Catholics and Protestants, whilst Central Europe and the Balkans were the scene of a recurring conflict between Islam and Christianity, echoing in its fierce intensity the costly battles in Palestine between Christian and Saracen during the early Crusades.
It is therefore not only untrue to portray nationalism as the inevitable or principal source of division and armed conflict in the world; it is also unfair, since some wars have actually been provoked by attempts to suppress rather than advance the cause of national self-determination. As one modern historian and critic of European integration, Dr Alan Sked, has pointed out:
“…nationalism has many advantages: it reconciles classes; smoothes over regional differences; and gives ordinary people a sense of community, pride and history. European nationalists are themselves seeking precisely those benefits from ‘The European Ideal’. It is therefore ironic that they should blame nation-state nationalists exclusively for war. For a strict account of modern European history would show that it was largely the refusal of supranational, dynastic states – the Ottoman, Habsburg and Napoleonic empires – to allow for national self-determination which brought about wars. Likewise, in the twentieth century, it was the Kaiser’s bid for world power…and Hitler’s racial mumbo-jumbo which led to world conflict. In short, it has been the apparent redundancy of the nation-state and the yearning for continental power-bases which in previous centuries has more than once led to the negation of ‘European Civilisation’.[ii]
Tyranny, not nationalism, common factor behind most wars
Here we come to the real heart of the matter, which is that the chief cause of hatred and war is not the existence of national diversity and sovereignty, but what the Bible describes as ‘fallen’ (or in secular language, imperfect) human nature. “Out of the heart come evil thoughts”, said Jesus in the New Testament (Matthew 15:19), so when flawed human nature is tempted and corrupted by excessive concentrations of power, the inevitable results are as disastrous for international relations as they are inimical to peace and freedom within individual countries. What this suggests, then, is that the true lesson of history, as Dr Sked’s analysis implies, is that it has been the appetite for power and dominion of tyrannical rulers and oligarchies, which has been the common factor behind so many wars. Furthermore, the bloodiest of these conflicts have been those where that predatory desire for power has been reinforced by intolerant and aggressive ideologies that have had nothing to do with patriotism or nationalism in the ordinary sense.
The millions who died, for instance, in the great European and world conflagrations of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and in those of our own more recent and terrible 20th century, were the victims of revolutionary Jacobinism, Bonapartism, National Socialism and Communism – of movements and ideologies which transcended ordinary national loyalties and appealed instead, or as much, to race, class, hero-worship, or utopianism. Consequently, the second great lesson they teach us is precisely the opposite one to that drawn by European federalists and other advocates of supranationalism and world government. Far from being the key to opening the Pandora Box of war, national sovereignty and loyalty to the nation-state is one of the essential pillars of a free and peaceful international order, since it represents an institutional structure and a focus of sentiment which is decentralised, and therefore an effective obstacle to the construction of transnational totalitarian power blocs and ideologies. Moreover, by inculcating a love of country in the hearts of men and women, patriotism and a sense of shared nationhood helps to motivate people to defend their inherited rights and freedoms, and so mobilises powerful emotional forces against actual and potential oppression. What else saved Britain in 1940, motivated the Resistance movements in Nazi occupied Europe, and eventually defeated Hitler? What else motivated the people of Poland to resist Soviet and Communist tyranny when their country lay imprisoned behind the Iron Curtain during those long and dark years between 1945 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989?
Whilst it may be understandable that many sincere advocates of the European ideal of ‘ever closer union’ fail to see the link between patriotism and freedom, and pride themselves on what they believe to be their superior motivation and knowledge of history, it is nonetheless ironic that they seem unaware of the degree to which their supranationalist vision of a European State disregards the insights of one of the greatest of all European political philosophers.
More than two hundred years ago, that great figure of the French Enlightenment, Montesquieu (1689 – 1755), drew attention to the way in which, unlike Asia, the geography and topography of Europe erected natural barriers to despotism because they favoured the physical dispersal of nations, and therefore the decentralisation of power. As he put it in his famous treatise, De l’Ésprit Des Lois:
“In Asia they have always had great empires: in Europe these could never subsist. Asia has larger plains; it is cut into much more extensive divisions by mountains and seas…in Europe, the natural division forms many nations of moderate extent, in which the ruling by laws is not incompatible with the maintenance of the state…It is this which has formed a genius for liberty, that renders every part extremely difficult to be subdued and subjected by a foreign power.”
It is hard to imagine, reading those words, that Montesquieu would have failed to welcome Britain’s historic 2016 Referendum vote to leave the European Union, with its encouragement to other European citizens to resist the illiberal goal of ever closer European integration.
Sovereignty, liberty and the problem of mass immigration
The connection between national sovereignty and liberty is highly relevant to the perennially vexed and controversial issue of immigration. Politically correct ‘liberals’ always imply that the desire to restrict immigration is morally suspect or reprehensible because it supposedly stems from a xenophobic dislike of foreigners, and is therefore bigoted and racist. Even when political pressures force them to acknowledge people’s legitimate concerns about the impact of mass uncontrolled immigration on schools, hospitals, housing and transport, they do so reluctantly, always wanting to change the subject to the need for more government action to create jobs and improve public services. Yet whilst it is obviously important to combat racists and welcome the positive contributions made by so many immigrants to our economies and societies, there is a strong and principled moral and libertarian case for acknowledging the right of individual countries to control their borders and the flow of migrants seeking to cross them.
In the first place, it should be obvious that a country’s right to control its borders and restrict immigration is an essential component of its national sovereignty. If it is not allowed to determine who is or is not permitted to cross its frontiers and settle within them, or become one of its citizens, it cannot maintain its distinctive national character or preserve its political independence. Consequently, if we value an international system in which political power is decentralised, we should recognise that mass uncontrolled migration threatens its institutional and cultural foundations, and should therefore be curbed.
A second and related argument is that liberal democracies cannot preserve their sovereignty, cultural unity, political institutions, and liberties, if they open their doors to too many migrants whose cultural affiliations, beliefs and values are fundamentally at variance with those of a free society. This truth is particularly relevant to the vexed and politically sensitive question of mass migration from the Muslim world, especially within the context of the global rise and spread of radical militant Islam.
As the annual reports of international human rights monitoring organisations like Freedom House (based in New York) regularly reveal, most of the Islamic world is blighted by religious intolerance, sectarian violence, and political tyranny. Despite some welcome progress in some countries in recent years, women remain largely second-class citizens, freedom of thought and speech is non-existent or heavily restricted, and the rights of religious and ethnic minorities are generally trampled under foot. Some two million Christians, for example, have been driven out of their Middle East homelands over the past 20 years [iii]. But the greatest victims of all, of Muslim violence and intolerance, have been and continue to be other Muslims. According to a 2007 study by American Harvard-trained scholar and Middle East expert, Daniel Pipes, and Professor Gunnar Heinsohn of the University of Bremen (where he heads the Raphael-Lemkin Institute for Comparative Genocide Research), “some 11,000,000 Muslims have been violently killed since 1948, of which 35,000, or 0.3%, died during the sixty years of fighting Israel, or just 1 out of every 315 Muslim fatalities. In contrast, over 90% of the 11 million who perished were killed by fellow Muslims.” [iv]
To highlight these facts, and the difficulties they pose for European countries struggling to control immigration from the Muslim world, is not to indulge in Islamophobia or to deny the fact that most Muslims currently living and working in western countries live at peace with their neighbours and contribute to our societies. It is simply to draw attention to what is nevertheless a genuine political and cultural problem widely acknowledged by liberal Muslims and human rights activists.
In March 2007, for example, a brave group of Muslim writers and intellectuals came together at a ‘Secular Muslim Summit’ in St. Petersburg, Florida, USA, and issued a freedom manifesto called The St. Petersburg Declaration. This declared amongst other things that: “We see no colonialism, racism, or so-called ‘Islamophobia’ in submitting Islamic practices to criticism or condemnation when they violate human reason or rights…We demand the release of Islam from its captivity to the totalitarian ambitions of power-hungry men and the rigid structures of orthodoxy…” [v] In a similar vein, the liberal Muslim Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society declares in its mission statement that “We believe that Islamic society has been held back by an unwillingness to subject its beliefs, laws and practices to critical examination, by a lack of respect for the rights of the individual, and by an unwillingness to tolerate alternative viewpoints or to engage in constructive dialogue.” [vi]
Against this background, is it really ‘racist’ or illiberal for western governments to seek to limit the entry into their countries of large waves of migrants which, because of the places and cultures so many of them come from, will inevitably include a potentially growing minority of Muslims who advocate sharia law, do not recognise freedom of conscience or speech, treat women as inferior beings, and feel no loyalty or attachment to their non-Muslim host communities? Even if one ignores the growing threat of Islamist terrorism, and the ease with which its practitioners and supporters can now enter Europe in the guise of economic migrants or asylum seekers, are not existing and settled Muslim immigrant communities as threatened by the rise of radical Islam as the rest of us – especially young liberated Muslim women seeking higher education and a choice of husband and career?
The link between national sovereignty and personal freedom
The libertarian case for national sovereignty concludes, finally, with the observation that since peace, harmony and wealth creation primarily depend on the voluntary co-operation and enterprise of private individuals, organisations, and businesses, that is, on all the myriad relationships, activities, and institutions of civil society outside the State, a peaceful and harmonious world requires that the coercive power of government be kept to a minimum, and maximum scope be given to personal initiative, effort and creativity. That may seem a utopian dream given the frailty of human nature and the prevalence of so many false ideas and ideologies, but such a world is more likely to become a reality (at least in part) if its existing free societies retain (or regain) their sovereignty and independence, trading freely with each other and co-operating, on an inter-governmental basis, in defensive alliances and the pursuit of common solutions to regional and global problems. In such an international environment of competing tax systems, centres of power, and legal jurisdictions, connected to each other by free trade and travel, and all the panoply of modern communications, private individuals and independent institutions will always have more room to breathe, and greater freedom of action, than if they are imprisoned within a world of monopolistic supranational regional power blocs, or worst of all, some monopolistic system of global government.
The single most important historical fact about the 20th century is that more people, 170 million of them, died in internal repression under tyrannical rulers and governments, than in all its wars combined.[vii] Bearing this in mind, no true friend of liberty should have any hesitation in opposing the misguided idealism of those who believe that abolishing national sovereignty will lead to a better world.
Copyright © Philip Vander Elst, 2016
The Moral Liberal Contributing Editor, Philip Vander Elst, is a freelance writer, lecturer and C.S. Lewis scholar, who now works with Areopagus Ministries. After graduating from Oxford in 1973 with a degree in politics and philosophy, he spent more than 30 years in politics and journalism, serving in free market think-tanks like the Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute of Economic Affairs while writing for Conservative papers on both sides of the Atlantic. A former officer of the Oxford Union Debating Society, Philip Vander Elst is the author of numerous books and journal pieces.
[i] Readers who may question the moral legitimacy of the Balfour Declaration and Zionism in general, should read my web paper, In Defence of Israel: key facts about the Arab-Israeli conflict (32 pp), available at http://www.selfeducatedamerican.com/topics/authors/tml-contributors/philip-vander-elst
[ii] Dr Alan Sked, Good Europeans? (London: the Bruges Group, Occasional Paper 4, November 1989).
[iii] For more details see: op cit, In Defence of Israel, p.26.
[iv] For full details go to http://www.danielpipes.org/4990/arab-israeli-fatalities-rank-49th
[v] To read the full text of the Declaration go to http://www.centerforinquiry.net/isis
[vi] Ibid for further details.
[vii] For fuller details, see: R.J. Rummel, Death by Government (Transaction Publishers, USA, 1996), and The Black Book of Communism (Harvard University Press, USA, 1999).