What Remains: On the European Union
Beyond the borders of the United States, it has become far more evident that international institutions and norms have developed into a means of restricting sovereignty rather than enhancing it—a shift that has surely affected the standing of international bodies and undercut their ability to command continued support. The real-world challenges mount around us in the form of climate change, financial instability, poverty, crime and disease. With the WTO’s Doha Round paralyzed and the World Bank chastened, with the IMF incapable of helping to rectify the global imbalances that threaten the world economy and no single agency able to coordinate the response to global warming, the institutions of international governance stand in urgent need of renovation. Yet the fundamental nineteenth-century insight that effective internationalism rests on effective nationalism remains pertinent. Voters around the world still see their primary allegiance as being to their national state rather than any larger polity—a fact that reflects the continuing role of the state as primary purveyor of public goods, but that many international bodies are loath to acknowledge.
Now we are on the verge of a new era. As Western predominance approaches its end, the prognosticators speculate on what will come next and fret about the waning of American influence over the international system. Yet China in particular has much to gain and little of any consequence to lose from participating in a system designed from the outset to favor leading nations. Like any great power, it will use these institutions to further its own ends, and like its predecessors, it will not always prevail. There is no reason to think that a shift in the global balance need mark the end of the international institutions established in the Anglo-American ascendancy.
Indeed, from the perspective of the question of sovereignty, positive as well as negative consequences may emerge from the decline in American and European financial and political clout. As long ago as 1995, the British political economist Susan Strange argued that “the only way to remove the present, hegemonic, do-nothing veto on better global governance is to build, bit by bit, a compelling opposition based on European-Japanese cooperation but embracing wherever possible the Latin Americans, Asians, and Africans.” Although the prospective lineup now looks different, Strange’s point remains valid. The rising powers—China above all—have little liking for the IMF, at least in its older incarnation, and attach much greater importance to the idea of preserving sovereignty and some space for domestic political discretion. If their influence grows, the institutions the United States created may be brought back under new direction to the principles that originally animated them. A broader array of voices and perspectives will enrich the rather rigid forms of economic thinking that have predominated since the 1970s.
Getting the institutional architecture right is the subject of endless position papers and reform proposals. But there are two kinds of more fundamental change that will need to take place, too. In the current crisis, politicians have essentially acted as underwriters, necessary but still subordinate to the dictates of the financial market-makers whom they hesitate to contradict. More generally, politicians have become policy-makers who listen in the first place to private interests and their lobbyists and try to adjudicate among them. Time will show whether they are any longer capable of governing.
If they are not, the responsibility won’t be theirs alone. One of the reasons for the midcentury popularity of the state and sovereignty was that both had proved themselves in extreme circumstances. Twentieth-century total wars were fought by states that had mobilized entire societies around shared perils and experiences. By creating models of equity, solidarity and sacrifice, they transformed public attitudes in ways that endured into peacetime. Without a comparable transformation in our views about the nature of government, the public good and the role of the state, without developing a new kind of faith in our collective capacity to shape the future, there is no incentive for our politicians to change. They may not be trusted by their electorates—polls show levels of trust plummeting to new lows—but they have no reason to care so long as this lack of trust does not translate into mobilization, resistance and sustained pressure for reform.
For nineteenth-century internationalists, the future conjured up a new dispensation for humankind, a dispensation they looked forward to with a confidence based on their control over a universe of facts: hence Jeremy Bentham’s vision of a perfect system of law that depended on the accumulation of all useful knowledge, or Karl Marx’s path to a communist future through the history of capitalism’s past. To twentieth-century institution-builders from Jan Smuts to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Robert Jackson to Walt Rostow, the future could be planned and tackled with foresight on behalf of entire communities and nations—perhaps even for the world as a whole. Today, when the primacy of the fact is challenged by the World Wide Web—a recent article hails the fact’s death—the future, more important than ever, has been privatized, monetized and turned into a source of profit. An entire corporate sector is dedicated to commodifying and modeling it; our financial markets in general take the future as the determinant of present values in a way that simply was not true a century ago. No one now feels the burden of an essential but unknowable future more acutely than the stockbroker and trader. But this money-driven individualistic future has crowded out an older vision of what the public good might look like.
In the ongoing atomization of society, citizens and classes have vanished as forces for change and given way to a world of individuals who come together as consumers of goods or information, and who trust the Internet more than they do their political representatives or the experts they watch on television. Governing institutions today have lost sight of the principle of politics rooted in the collective values of a res publica, even as they continue to defend the “civilization of capital.” As for the rituals of international life, these are well established. The world’s heads of state flock annually to the United Nations General Assembly. There are discussions of reform and grandiose declarations of global targets, which will mostly go unmet. Politicians, journalists, bankers and businessmen make their pilgrimage to the heavily guarded Alpine precinct of Davos, seeking to confirm through this triumph of corporate sponsorship that a global ruling elite exists and that they are members. Our representatives continue to hand over power to experts and self-interested self-regulators in the name of efficient global governance while a skeptical and alienated public looks on. The idea of governing the world is becoming yesterday’s dream.