Nationalism or imperialism? Your choice

Nationalism or imperialism? Take your pick.

These days, empires are called unions, but they’re much the same. The idea of ruling over areas greater than nation states remains.

Sure, under an empire you might still have the semblance of nation states. Most empires did. Puppet governments and rulers were propped up to give a semblance of self-government. But the power lay in the empire’s heart. Rome, London, Moscow, the Vatican and plenty of other cities ruled far more than their home nation.

And it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a benevolent sort of empire. Each empire laid claim to being benevolent and for the benefit of its colonies anyway.

The question is whether we prefer to be governed nationally or internationally. Who do you trust and agree with more?

Yesterday I listened to an EconTalk podcast with a historian who argues that history is better understood by the tug of war between imperialism and nationalism. He argues nationalism is preferable, which of course stops a lot of people from buying his book because it doesn’t sound so good.

But if you present history as a choice between nationalism and imperialism, things are suddenly in a different light. Especially today.

To me, the distinction is that of expansionism or internationalism, not imperialism. Once a nation or institution tries to rule others, you get problems, however that move is motivated.

It doesn’t have to be one nation ruling others. It can be a different sort of power base. Such as ideology for the Soviet Union or royal family politics or religion.

The EU is the textbook case of this. It’s a type of imperial power. It’s trying to rule and dominate nation states with a single set of policies and rules.

According to Yoram Hazony in the podcast, Margaret Thatcher foresaw and argued along these lines in her much derided book called Statecraft, published long after her premiership.

She argued that ceding power into the EU meant creating a powerbase built of a hodgepodge of political values that don’t gel. German, Italian and British political systems and values are deeply different. That’s why, when the British criticise the EU as undemocratic, many other nations are mystified. And when British MEPs get up and strut their stuff in the European Parliament, European MEPs are bewildered by what they say, and how.

Brexit makes no sense to others because the British political values and gripes that drive it are not shared in much of Europe. Europe’s policies sound odd to Brits because they’re foreign.

Many European nations trust Brussels more than their national parliament. When I was in Moldova, this was the key policy issue mentioned for aspiring to EU membership. But Britain does not trust Brussels more than London. And remainers don’t get this distinction. They think the EU is so popular because it is inherently better than national parliaments.

The conceit of the EU is that, if we just design the EU properly, we can come up with a system that is better than any of its European constituent parts. Hazony calls this rationalism.

But as with all things EU related, what you get instead of something rational is an awkward in between that satisfies nobody and doesn’t work functionally. Spaghetti battered fish and chips with Roquefort sauce and ouzo is not better than any of those separately.

I’ve been dedicating the last few months to a book explaining why all this is the case for the euro. But Hazony and Thatcher seem to argue it’s also the case for the EU as a political institution.

One way to think about this is based on the power of trial and error. Designing political institutions arbitrarily never seems to work. Only those that grow organically stand the test of time. They also end up with all sorts of bizarre quirks that look odd to outsiders. But because we know they work, they are superior.

And no, the American example is merely a continuation of the British system, with the founders of the US carefully studying those who understood why the British system worked. Thanks to forming a new nation, the Americans had to put those ideas on paper in a legal framework, but they were not geniuses inspired on the day.

The EU is a violation of all the things that make political systems work. The power of trial and error, a hodgepodge of political systems being boiled down and then cast into a new shape, and an attempt to dominate the nation state.

It’s just the latest example in history of a doomed attempt at imperialism.

Criticism is inherently wrong

Opponents of the EU are derided, but rarely argued with rationally. That’s why it’s so important to cast their views as racist or politically incorrect.

Having travelled the EU quite a bit, I didn’t encounter a nation with a different race to the British, except perhaps the French, so I’ve long been confused by the idea that racism caused the Brexit vote.

Unless of course you’re referring to immigration from outside the EU, which suggests the rest of Europe is about to exit itself too. Meanwhile, Britain seems to welcome people of genuinely different races from quite a few nations.

Back to the insolence of arguing against the EU. It’s the same for their pet project, the euro. When asked a critical question about the functioning of the eurozone’s payment mechanism Target2, Mario Draghi didn’t engage in explanation or argument. He simply said that the euro’s critics just “don’t like the euro.”

There is no reason to just not like the euro for the sake of it. But there are many reasons to criticise it. And those must be debated, not dismissed.

Now I’m a fan of neither nationalism nor imperialism. Why some people want to tell others what to do is beyond me. Whether it’s at the national or imperial level makes little difference to me.

Personally, I enjoy watching people get what they deserve thanks to their own decisions rather than the decisions of their “betters” in Brussels or London. And tripping myself up gives me nobody else to blame. My own blunders also make my wife far more happy than when a government bureaucracy shafts us again.

But as Hazony argues in the podcast, history seems to be a tug of war between imperialism and nation states. The idea of a global or at least expanding zone of influence constantly pops up.

Even the battle between communism and capitalism could be seen this way. And the expansion of democracy and religion. Each system’s proponents are all about bringing its ideas to the rest of the world, whether the world likes it or not.

But nation states are the mechanism of defence that keep coming back to scupper the imperial efforts. Switzerland, the Church of England and city states are examples.

Trying to export your ideas and rule against another’s wishes is the source of the problem. It’s also the ironic part. The imperialists who try to export their way of life usually do so in the name of peace and whatever else they espouse, such as ideology or religion. But instead of peace and whatever they promise, they usually deliver the opposite.

The Middle East isn’t looking so safe for democracy. Vietnam’s nationalists pretended to be communists just to fight off the Americans fighting communism. The Soviet Union starved its Ukrainian farmers alongside silos filled with grain. And China killed off its intellectual class which was supposed to be the one capable of delivering communism. Rome almost got sacked by barbarians.

The point of today’s Capital & Conflict is to put Brexit in a different light. It is just the latest example of the nation state fighting off an empire’s attempt to impose ideas and policies. It’s nothing new. Nor is the controversy.

Until next time,

Nick Hubble
Capital & Conflict

Category: Brexit

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