Gideon's Blog

In direct contravention of my wife's explicit instructions, herewith I inaugurate my first blog. Long may it prosper.

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Sunday, June 23, 2002
I finally got around to reading the second half of Yoram Hazony's piece in Azure (T'chelet in Hebrew) Magazine: On the National State. To remind my vast numbers of readers who have nonetheless failed to memorize all my old posts, Hazony is making an argument that a system of nation-states is (a) the most stable form of international order; (b) the order most conducive to individual liberty; (c) biblical in origin, and (d) particularly necessary for the Jewish people. Given that none of these contentions are generally accepted nowadays, it's a provocative argument, and one worth looking closely at.

The essence of the first two parts of the argument boils down to some combination of the following. First, liberty depends on order, so an anarchic or feudal state is ultimately a poor defender of liberty, as banditry becomes the rule rather than law. By the same token, liberty depends on the ability to radically dissent by leaving the polity, and in an imperial or (in the extreme case) a world-state, there is no space beyond the reach of the state, and therefore no way to leave the polity. So far, so good. He then goes on to argue that the national state is the only political order where entities that possess a monopoly of force have natural limits to the exercise of that force. Basically, the argument is that the nation-state's natural boundaries end where the nation ends. France ends where the French do, and the Germans begin. By contrast, an Imperial state has ultimately no natural limits to its ambitions, and an anarchic or feudal state has no real borders, or borders that are in constant flux based on the strength of authority.

Now, this is a highly dubious proposition. First, Hazony is surely aware that all borderlands are, at least potentially, lands of dispute. Alsace? Dansig? Texas? Kosovo? Kashmir? Samaria? Nations do not have neat borders; peoples move over the line of national control one way and the other, and in many border regions there is legitimate dispute about whose "national" territory we're talking about. The fact that the nations involved do not generally dispute one anothers' existence (though they do that too, in some cases) does not impede them from bringing terrible violence to bear over disputes that Hazony would say are "peripheral."

But there is a deeper problem with Hazony's analysis. What is a nation? How is it to be distinguished from a mere people, for example? If, after all, every group that thinks itself distinct is entitled to a national home, flag, currency and army, well, we're going to rapidly descend into a world of tens of thousands of "states" looking rather more like the vestpocket principalities of the old Holy Roman Empire than like the sort of thing Hazony is describing. For this reason, Hazony resorts in the second half of his article - devoted to explaining why a Jewish national state is a good idea as a specific case of national states in general - to a distinction between "historic" and "non-historic" nations. The former are particularly "deserving" of national states; the latter may be doomed to vanish if they are unable to assert their historicity.

This sounds mostly like an ex-post-facto justification for the nation-states that exist (and for the non-existence of those that do not). Is Poland a historic nation? The Poles certainly think so, and looking back at the past 100 years it would be hard to argue that the Poles did not make a significant impact on history. Indeed, a Polish pope and a Polish labor leader were among the most crucial figures in the final stages of the struggle to end Soviet Communism. Sounds pretty historic to me. But from the vantagepoint of 1850, say, the Poles would have looked like a rather un-historic people, a nation who had wielded power in medieval days but had contributed little to science or the arts and was destined eventually to vanish, divided as it was among Russia, Germany and Austria. In our day, the Kurds - who have never had a state of their own, although they made a significant impact on history within the Arab world as both mercenaries and rulers in both Egypt and Iraq - may yet get a state of their own. Will that make them historic in Hazony's sense for the first time?

Hazony recognizes this problem, and so he identifies the historic nations as those that embody an idea of enduring power. This is still something that can only be known with hindsight, but it at least gives us some criteria for identifying - or arguing about - peoples who "deserve" a state but don't have one (and, I suppose, peoples who have one but don't deserve one, necessarily). But in making this identification, he undermines a key argument from the first part of his article: that the national state has natural boundaries. Because ideas, after all, have no natural boundaries, and it is a fact that the great historic nations of Europe have all sought and built empires, and defended these on the grounds of the advancement of their sublime ideas.

Hazony would like to have it both ways. He'd like to argue that a system of national states is orderly because each individual nation would pursue its own sublime idea within its own boundaries, and respect the boundaries of other states. This might be true in a world composed entirely of such states. But what of the areas inhabited by "un-historic" peoples? Will these not always be temptations to conquest by the historic nations? The fact that this is precisely what happened in the 19th century should give Hazony at least a little pause before confidently asserting that nationalism is conducive to peace.

Nonetheless, I think there is something useful in Hazony's analysis. I would adjust it as follows:

* A truly great national state embodies something beyond mere ethnic identification. This is what distinguishes the ethnic states created after World War I, for example, from the great historic nations of modern history.
* Ethnic states have an insuperable problem with minorities, who can never fully identify with the nation and therefore are a constant irritant to the national majority. If these minorities are themselves represented by another national state, this affords them some protection from abuse by the majority, but by the same token makes them vulnerable to the change of being a 5th column when their nation and their state come into conflict.
* By contrast, the truly great historic nation-states, those that embody an idea, are able to absorb minorities and make them part of the nation. This process, however, changes the nation, so that its character is far more subject to change than those of peoples who have not become historic nations.
* Because of this capacity, the great historic nation-states are all potential empires. They all have, within their constitutions, the basis for an expansionist ideology that would absorb other peoples by conquest and not only through immigration.

There have been a number of historic nations in the modern period. I would identify three that are archetypes, however, each of which represents a different strategy for becoming a historic nation. They are: France, America and Britain.

The French model is the most familiar. France is unquestionably a national state, a state identified with a nation. But that nation has proved amply able to absorb diverse peoples, and France - more than any other power - has managed to maintain an essential imperial system well past the age of imperialism. France has done this successfully because what holds France together is French culture, and French culture is subject to central control. French language, French cuisine, French art - all the essential elements of French culture are both highly malleable and subject to outside influences and highly centralized and managed. The same is true of the French state and the French economy, both of which have proved highly adaptable while subject to very strong central control. This culture is eminently exportable; in a very real sense, one may become French in a way that one cannot become British or German. Becoming French means accepting what is the center and what is the periphery, and accepting that the center will rule. These are ideas, the center and the periphery, more than groups of people; and they are certainly not distinct ethnic groups. The French Revolution's offer to the Jews - for the Jews as individuals, everything; for the Jews as a people, nothing - still stands, not just for the Jews but for Roumanians and Senegalese and Moroccans. Not all immigrant groups or conquered peoples can accept the offer, but for many the offer works, and because it works the French national state is successfully imperial.

The American model is reasonably well-understood as well. American culture is highly malleable because it is subject to almost no central control. The center in the American model is textual. More than anything else, what has held the American people together is the American written Constitution. That document, and the ideas it embodies, are the substance of our national arguments and the glue that holds together a highly diverse people. It is not so much a matter of the document ordering our public life in a way that we can all get along with each other, though it is that. It's our fidelity to the document, to the idea of it even more than to its words, that hold us together as a nation. The Constitution is, essentially, the American Republic, and our fidelity to it is our fidelity to the nation. New Americans do become acculturated Americans in fairly short order, and one way they do this is by assimilating the ideas of the Constitution - whether of popular sovereignty, or free speech, or self-defense - into their very being. Because the Constitution can always be extended to new lands, the American system is potentially imperial as well - and has been imperial in practice in the sense that America, originally a strip of land along the east coast of North America, has expanded to assimilate lands across the continent and into the Pacific, and peoples living there and arriving from other lands who, in total, far outnumber the descendents of the British settlers who founded the country.

The British model is the least understood. Britain is itself a collection of peoples: English, Scot, Welsh, Irish. London may be the center in Britain, but not in the sense that Paris is the center in France; no one in Glasgow thinks that London tells them what is true and what is beautiful - and, more to the point, no one in London thinks this either. There is no British Constitution nor a clearly explicable British idea. And it is very hard to become British; even peoples who are British are distinguished from one another, and the British loathing for foreigners is legendary. Nonetheless, Britain has managed not only to militarily subdue much of the earth's surface, but to export Britishness to many of these conquered lands. How is this? I would venture to argue that Britain is the prime example of the medieval model being successfully updated to the modern age. What holds Britain together is its class structure, and what holds the class structure together is the monarchy. And what holds the various British peoples together is fidelity to that monarchy, as any reader of Henry V can see. Without the monarchy, Britain would fall apart into its constituent peoples, and would either cease to be a historic nation or would become another nation entirely, something more like the Dutch or the Germans; either way, it would lose its distinct genius.

Hazony's project is ultimately to provide a justification for the Jewish state. The leaders of that state all operate on the assumption that a national state means something on the ethnic model - a state identified exclusively with an ethnic group rather than an idea originated by that group. For this reason, Israel would have a very difficult time assimilating its Arab and other non-Jewish citizens even in the absence of the current situation. This is not a unique difficulty; most of the world's states have similar ethnic conflicts. But that is not a reason to be complacent. If Israel is to seek a model from the three I have identified (assuming these are comprehensive), in order to successfully assimilate non-Jewish peoples into the Jewish nation-state, which is it to be?

I would argue that the model must be the British one, for the simple reason that it is very difficult to become Jewish or British, whereas it is relatively easy to become French or American. The ideas that emanate from the Jewish people are themselves derived from the Jewish religion, from the experience at the Red Sea and at Sinai and the national effort to make sense of that experience through the ages. That is not something another people can take on; only unique individuals can do so. To deny this fact about the Jewish people is simply to deny reality, and nothing will be accomplished by doing so.

In thinking about structuring its national state, Israel needs to think about how to relate to its minorities more successfully than the typical central European state has done. That means thinking about what is to be the center that all the constituent peoples are faithful to. Jewish culture is inseparable from Jewish religion, and the Jewish constitutional text is the Torah and the Talmud. These will not do for the law of a democratic state that was all Jewish, much less for a state with non-Jewish minorities. While I would not suggest seriously that Israel adopt monarchy as a solution, it is worth investigating the British model further and what could serve as a plausible analog for Israel: a central institution that, while Jewish in origin, would be symbolic of the nation as a whole and could serve as an object of fidelity for its non-Jewish population as well as the Jewish.