What Remains: On the European Union
This multifaceted erosion of sovereignty is a momentous change, and it’s based on a radical alteration in attitudes toward the state and bureaucracy over the past thirty years. In its various nineteenth-century incarnations, internationalism was pre-eminently a movement to restore sovereign power to the peoples of the world and those who governed in their name. Its approach to the nation-state and its institutions was almost entirely positive. The originary moment of 1919 saw the goal of the League of Nations as a world made “safe for democracy,” a goal understood—in an imperial idiom—as a society of sovereign polities. After 1945, the United Nations promoted the creed of sovereignty more widely, more adamantly and more deeply. Nazism’s assault on the sovereignty of small nations was repudiated and, in Europe, democracy was restored, while colonialism’s denial of sovereign rights around the world was also castigated. The state was rendered sacrosanct; international boundaries were mutually recognized in Asia, Africa and Europe; and the meaning of democracy itself was broadened to promote, in the words of the UN Charter, “social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” International institutions enabled states to survive and flourish, and as the civil services expanded rapidly, states enabled their citizens to flourish as well.
In the construction of this system of sovereign nations, no power played a more important role than the United States. Washington never had complete control of the process, of course, and there were compromises on all sides. After 1945, welfare states grew faster and economic nationalizations went farther across the globe than American policy-makers might have wished, for example, while trade liberalization proceeded more slowly. But these points of disagreement and tension were not decisive. The American Century at its apogee coincided with the heyday of national planning in the third world and the welfare state in Europe. American foundations funded roads, medical services, libraries and schools, and American social sciences—from midcentury macroeconomics to modernization theory—provided legitimation for this expansion of state capacity around the world. Countries gradually became reintegrated into a global trade network, but capital movements remained restricted, and in general people made money from producing and exchanging goods rather than from money itself. As late as 1971, it was assumed that conditionality would not work if demanded by the IMF because client states would permit no interference in their internal affairs.
Between the mid-1970s and the early ’80s all of this changed, as the United States ceased to support a version of liberalism embedded in strong domestic institutions. Confronted with an unforeseen challenge to reshape the rules of the international order in a way that gave priority to the needs of the developing world—the third world’s New International Economic Order—the United States reacted by moving against the old midcentury conception of the enabling state on several fronts: international human rights activism saw the state as tyrant and mobilized global civil society against it; the World Bank and the IMF exploited the crisis-prone character of the new financialization of the world to redraw the boundaries of public and private sectors in vulnerable debtor countries. As governance replaced government, welfare nets frayed, and income and wealth inequality rose sharply. Formal structures disintegrated and informal economies—black markets, smuggling and crime networks—flourished, leaving only the ubiquitous concept of the “failed state” itself as implicit acknowledgment that states really were rather important. In turn, the threat of state failure rationalized invasions and occupations that returned swathes of Africa and parts of the Balkans to rule by international executive. This was in no sense a reversion to the emancipatory perspectives of mid-nineteenth-century internationalists but rather the crafting of a “leaner, meaner state” in one country after another across the world, dissolving society in the name of the individual, using international organizations as handmaidens and new paradigms—the efficient market hypothesis, the “responsibility to protect”—to provide intellectual rationalization.
If the cumulative impact of this process on the idea of sovereignty hasn’t much bothered mainstream American observers, that is partly because it has been moralized and turned into something virtuous, and partly because it has happened less here than anywhere else. The United States remains the exceptional power, able more than any other over the past half-century to exempt itself from otherwise universally binding international commitments and obligations, its untrammeled sovereignty jealously guarded by Congress. Combining the language of universalism with the status of the exception has allowed American values and influence to spread at relatively little internal cost in terms of policy constraints. And this freedom has actually increased with the shift from a world of formal treaty obligations—a world that had always made Congress unhappy—to one of informal rules and norms, which the United Sates has been well positioned to craft. Only on the American right, burning with fears of eroding sovereignty and the implausible specter of world government, is there a glimmering of what the stakes may be when the American era finally ends.
In his 1991 bestseller The New World Order, for instance, televangelist Pat Robertson warned of the malign forces conspiring to take over the world in the name of virtue. A few years later, an apocalyptic thriller of the coming end times, the Reverend Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind, hit the bookshops, and it prominently featured the Antichrist in the shape of a handsome, articulate and charismatic young secretary general of the United Nations. Nicolae Carpathia is a man of violence masquerading as an apostle of peace, a ruthless Romanian who intends to use the UN to establish a global totalitarian dictatorship.
Some who particularly disliked the idea of a more powerful United Nations were reminded alarmingly of the prophecies of H.G. Wells. In his 1933 fantasy The Shape of Things to Come, Wells had foretold the eventual triumph of world government, calling it “manifestly the only possible solution of the human problem.” The book had described a decade-long war in Europe, a devastating plague and the near collapse of civilization—a lengthy descent into chaos that is only halted once an English-speaking Dictatorship of the Air smashes the world’s organized religions and establishes an era of worldwide stability. A few years later, as the war he had anticipated erupted in Poland, the British novelist called on readers to fight for the better future that a New World Order would usher in. “Countless people…will hate the new world order…and will die protesting against it,” Wells had written in the first months of the war. “We have to bear in mind the distress of a generation or so of malcontents.”
In the first US presidential campaign of the new millennium, right-wing candidate Pat Buchanan recalled these words: “Well, Mr. Wells,” he declared, “we are your malcontents.” Buchanan’s nationalism was extreme, as his 0.4 percent of the vote suggested. But even before the victory of George W. Bush, there was no mistaking the American public’s coolness toward the United Nations or the mauling given to international organizations whenever their funding was debated in Congress. The new president also turned his back rather publicly on his father’s multilateralism. “Thank God for the death of the UN,” wrote a Bush adviser, the neoconservative Richard Perle, in March 2003, as the bombs rained down on Baghdad.
More than the passing of time separates The Shape of Things to Come from the world of Tim LaHaye, Pat Buchanan and George W. Bush. The technocratic assurance of British imperial modernism forms a striking contrast to the libertarian anxieties of the fin de siècle American heartland. If one exudes confidence in the capacity of government and institutions to define problems and find solutions, the other sees in big government at home and abroad the always present threat of totalitarianism. To be sure, plenty of people in Wells’s day thought his ideas were farfetched—every bit as farfetched as most Americans find the talk of black helicopters and a New World Order engineered by a conspiratorial global elite. Since the tragic fiasco of Iraq, US foreign policy has returned to multilateralism, reluctantly during Bush’s second term and more decisively under Barack Obama. Yet the basic trajectory is real enough: we have moved from an era that had faith in the idea of international institutions to one that has lost it.
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