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Wednesday, March 01, 2017
Tension between nationalism and liberal democracy is not what is haunting us today.
March 1, 2017
By George Friedman
Nationalism and Liberal Democracy Tension between nationalism and liberal democracy is not what is haunting us today.
Nationalism is rising in the Western world, and many view it as the enemy of liberal democracy. The basis of this view is not unreasonable,
as European wars fought from 1914 to 1945 were among the most barbaric
in history. Those wars were fought between nations, many of which had
rejected the principles of liberal democracy. Some saw the proliferation
of nations as causing a rise in tyrannies, destruction of liberal
democracies, and a war fought to recover liberal democracy in Europe.
The view that Europe’s wars originated in nationalism became common,
along with the belief that nationalism gave rise to fascism, and that the preservation of liberal democracy required nationalism’s suppression.
From this, the European Union emerged as a moral project,
along with the idea that a re-emergence of nationalism would return
Europe and Euro-American civilization back to barbarism. Historically,
that may be a persuasive argument. But it fails to understand that
nationalism – however distorted it might become – is the root of liberal
democracy, not only historically, but also morally. The two concepts
are intellectually inseparable.
Berliners crowd in front of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 11, 1989 as East
German border guards demolish a section of the wall to open a new
crossing between East and West Berlin, near Potsdamer Square. GERARD
democracy as a political doctrine arose in the 18th century as a
challenge to monarchy. At the time, monarchies were based on the idea
that kings and emperors had a divine right to rule. Maps of 18th century
Europe, and even before, show the outcomes of this approach. The
holdings of a monarch or lesser nobility were built by war, money and
marriage, and the subjects likely consisted of many nations. Many
nations, in turn, were divided between the different monarchies.
Therefore, kingdoms and nations did not necessarily coincide, and
regimes were not connected to the people, neither in theory nor in
and 20th century history involved the struggle of nations to extract
themselves from monarchies and empires to take their fragmented parts
and make them whole. A European uprising in 1848 was a result of nations
seeking the right to be free from empires. For the most part, they
failed at this goal but succeeded in another: Nationalism became a moral
imperative. Nations emerged from the chaos of World War I after four
empires collapsed. To a great extent, this was due to the guidance of
Woodrow Wilson at Versailles. Then, in 1991, more nations emerged from
the collapse of the Soviet empire. After World War II, as European
empires collapsed, nations – and frequently entities pretending to be
nations – emerged from the rubble to assert their right to national
self-determination. Whatever Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini would
have done, advocates of liberal democracy celebrated the global
emergence of nations that would govern themselves.
nation is a group of people who share history, culture, language and
other attributes. It is the existence of a common identity, a coherent
sense of self and nationhood that make self-government possible, because
it is that sense of self that permits self-government. A random
collection of people without a core set of shared values cannot form a
coherent regime, because nothing would hold the regime together or
prevent internal chaos. The principle of the right to national
self-determination can be universalized, but the practice of national
self-determination must be rooted in the nation. Without this
commonality, a nation could tear itself apart. We saw this happen in
Yugoslavia and when Czechs and Slovaks gracefully divorced. We saw the
chaos of the former European empires as nations once divided from each
other by imperial borders and forced to live together with strangers
were enveloped in constant turmoil. Without people who have
self-identity, the right to self-determination cannot exist. Without the
democracy that flows from it, liberal democracy cannot exist.
democracy makes two core assertions. First, there is a right to
national self-determination. Second, this self-determination must
manifest in a type of popular rule, and the people, in ruling
themselves, have the right to select and approve the form and substance
of government. The important point is that democracy is comprehensible
only through the prism of the nation.
centrality of the nation derives from its irrelevance to the old
regime. Monarchies did not recognize the right of people to rule
themselves, and they didn’t see the concept of a people as important. To
challenge despotism, a political instrument that could be wielded as a
powerful weapon had to be created. From a political point of view, the
only coherent political force to oppose monarchs was the nation. The
American Revolution was the rising of a nation crafted as colonies
against the English monarch. The French Revolution was the rising of a
French nation, as fragmented as it was, against the French monarch.
democracy also has an obvious inherent danger: It celebrates democracy
and liberalism, a system of values that defines the individual as the
moral core and guarantees him liberty. This is the core tension in
liberal democracy. On one hand, liberal democracy demands the right of
people to determine their own government. On the other, it demands that
people respect liberalism. In other words, liberal democracy wants the
people to rule, but it insists that if the people understood the moral
universe in which they live, they would always vote a certain way.
tension in liberal democracy is not with the nation, but rather between
democracy and liberalism. If people have a right to self-determination,
then they have the right to elect leaders with values they prefer or
share. The problem is that some people will object to leaders being
selected who violate the principles of liberalism.
battle is between the right of national self-determination on one side,
and a faction of people who are appalled at the path the people have
chosen on the other side. Nation after nation is being torn apart by
those who embrace liberal democracy being usurped by others making
American founders understood this problem and sought to resolve it by
limiting democracy in a number of ways. The most important of these
limitations was the Constitution, and its purpose was to define how the
state works and checks itself, what inviolable rights all citizens have,
and what system would make changing the Constitution enormously
difficult. The issue with a constitution is always whether the people
will respect it and whether tyrants will overturn it.
and liberalism live in dangerous tension with each other. Democracy can
destroy liberalism if the majority wills it. And liberalism has a
tendency to want to limit democracy if it reaches decisions that are
offensive to it. The key to a liberal democracy is a powerful
constitution – powerful in the sense that the people, over generations,
respect it with an awe approaching worship.
point here is that tension between nationalism and liberal democracy is
not what haunts us today. Rather, what haunts us is the tension between
liberal principles and democracy. The only thing that can contain that
tension is a constitution that brooks no challenge. Without that,
everything breaks down. In the end, designing a constitution is the most
fundamental decision a self-governing nation must make. Of course, the
constitution must be worthy of its authority.