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Debate, Global Political Values

  • and John Gray, Professor of European Thought, London School of Economics and Political Science
November 22, 2001 |
The idea that only liberal democratic nation-states can be legitimate is a late 20th-century error.
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Debate, Global Political Values

Dear Mike
3rd November 2001

Universal values exist, but it does not follow that the world ought to contain only liberal regimes. The sad fact is that universal values conflict with one another. There will always be a variety of legitimate regimes, liberal and non-liberal, because there is no single right way of resolving these universal conflicts. The last thing we need now is another liberal crusade. Instead, we should be thinking with some urgency about rules of coexistence among different regimes and ways of life. The justification of such a modus vivendi cannot be the ideals of our own liberal cultures, but rather the values that are shared by all, or nearly all people. Among these, peace is primary. Without peace, as Thomas Hobbes wrote in Leviathan at the start of the modern period, there cannot be "commodious living." There are -- in Hobbes's celebrated formula -- "no Arts: no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." Here Hobbes describes the condition of a large part of the human species at the start of the 21st century. Today, hundreds of millions of people live in failed or failing states. If the basics of effective government are to exist in regions of the world where states have failed, we -- a coalition that includes Russia and China, plus the western powers -- will have to abandon nation-building in favour of something like the institution of empire. Before we can think clearly about these new realities, we must put to one side the stale debates of the past 20 years. The argument between liberal fundamentalists -- who claim universal authority for their values -- and liberal relativists is particularly profitless. This is a good example of one of the besetting weaknesses of contemporary debate -- a lack of historical perspective. Most of the thinkers who have ever affirmed universal values have not been liberals. One can be an ethical universalist whilst rejecting many liberal values. Aquinas made strong claims about human universal goods and evils, but he was no liberal. The same is true of Bentham and Marx. The idea that we must chose between liberal universalism and mere relativism is nonsense.

Though the theory that ethics is entirely a cultural creation has been defended by philosophers such as Richard Rorty, it should not be taken seriously. Some evils are human universals whose contents don't vary significantly across cultures. Hobbes was right in thinking that the risk of a violent death is a great obstacle to a decent life, but it is not the only one. To suffer humiliation because of one's religion or culture or to be denied access to the basic necessities of life -- these are evils for nearly everyone and they can be just as disabling as the risk of fatal violence. The same point can be put more positively by saying that there are some goods that all human beings need if they are to lead tolerable lives: peace, security, the rule of law, not to mention clean water and medical care. Such a list can never be complete, or beyond reasonable dispute. Even so, the notion that it is bound to be arbitrary, or heavily culturally skewed, is silly. Human beings are not that different from one another. As with other animals, the conditions under which humans thrive can be known with a fair degree of accuracy.

To say that we can know the conditions of a human life which is worth living is not to say we can come up with anything like a universal morality or political system. Still less does it mean that western liberal morality ought to be imposed everywhere. Contrary to liberal fundamentalists, there are many ways of life in which humans can flourish. Can anyone really believe that the highly individualistic type of family life found in some western countries is the best for all human beings? Is it seriously proposed that our ephemeral moral fashions be made law for all of humankind? In matters of personal morality, my own views are liberal, even ultra-liberal. But why should the personal freedoms I value be given the standing of universal human rights, when they belong to a particular way of life? And why should the kind of government I happen to live under be taken as the model for everyone? We should give up the liberal idea that one kind of regime -- a liberal republic, say, or Fukuyama's "democratic capitalism" -- is best for everyone. This is not because values are culturally relative or subjective (the important ones are not) but because, even when they are universal they quite commonly come into conflict with one another, and there is no one solution that is right for everyone. For example, the freedom from discrimination of, say, gays, conflicts with the freedom of association of religious schools not to employ gay teachers.

To have to choose between anarchy and tyranny is a common human experience. Looking to strong government to stave off anarchy may lead to a brutal dictatorship. On the other hand, overthrowing a tyranny may trigger a terrible civil war. There is no way of avoiding these conflicts. They go with the human condition. They are not found only in extreme situations. They occur whenever we have to choose between incompatible freedoms. Should the freedom to use racist speech be protected, as it is in the US, or should it be curbed, as it is in virtually every other liberal democracy -- including Britain? Perhaps unsurprisingly, I tend to the British view that freedom of expression should be limited by other freedoms, such as freedom from racist offence. But the idea that we can come up with an ideal constitution in which such conflicts are somehow conjured away is deeply ingrained. It found a canonical statement in the philosophy of John Rawls, which was once influential.

In the dozen years after the Soviet collapse, western governments signed up to a project of constructing a universal liberal world order. It was a utopian project, partly because the economic theories on which it was based were cranky. But the chief reason the new world order proved to be a delusion was that it passed over the chronic weakness of the state in many parts of the world. It allowed us to treat conflicts in the Balkans, in Africa and in the middle east as if they were temporary anomalies, rather than intractable conditions reflecting deep-seated flaws and weaknesses in states. It encouraged the delusion that the legitimacy of states depends on whether or not they are liberal democracies, when all of history shows that it is their effectiveness in keeping the peace that is crucial. After 11th September, these are realities we cannot evade. We must begin the task of framing terms of peace among peoples and regimes that are not and never will be liberal.

Yours
John

*****

Dear John
4th November 2001

We agree that there are "universal human values" and that it does not follow "that the world ought to contain only liberal regimes." We disagree about the desirability of giving up on "nation-building in favour of something like the institution of empire." I want to defer the second issue until I've responded to the first question you raised.

We are living at the end of a period in which liberalism decayed into libertarianism and democratic republicanism declined into simple "democratism." As recently as a century or two ago, many liberals like Tocqueville, Mill and Acton had doubts about republicanism and democracy, while thoughtful advocates of democratic republicanism like the American Founders took it for granted that republics could be successfully established only in suitable societies. Several of the American Founders advocated constitutional monarchy for France, thinking correctly that the French nation of their time was ill-prepared for republican government. Thomas Jefferson, an admirer and correspondent of the reformist Tsar Alexander, agreed with the philosophes that a country as backward as Russia could only be prepared for republican government by generations of enlightened despotism. The idea that a few free elections, ratification of a universal declaration of human rights, and the opening of a stock exchange could swiftly transform a society with a political heritage of totalitarianism, cultural traditions of religious fundamentalism and an agrarian or socialist economy would have struck most republicans and liberals before the mid-20th century as absurd.

Should we therefore retrace our steps from the crude liberalism and democratism of the present to the more nuanced liberalism and republicanism of the early modern era? No. We know too much for that to be an option. And although most academic political philosophers are reluctant to admit it, thanks to archaeology, anthropology and sociobiology we know far more about human nature than our illustrious predecessors.

A friend of mine who raises dogs tells me that you cannot understand them unless you have half a dozen or more. The behaviour of dogs, when assembled in sufficient numbers, undergoes an astonishing change. They instinctively form a disciplined pack. Traditional political philosophers have been in the position of students of canine behaviour who have observed only individual pet dogs. Although Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau pondered the example of native Americans, the human beings whom most philosophers have treated as typical have been sedentary, civilised people in agrarian or industrial states. The utopias of most political philosophers, from Aristotle to Hegel and Rawls, have been idealised versions of their own polities.

Unlike earlier philosophers, we know that the human species in its present form has existed for about 100,000 years. For nine-tenths of this time, the largest social unit was the extended family. It was only the domestication of grain and livestock that permitted supra-familial politics to be established, by co-operation or the predation of some families.

Politics, in short, is a relatively recent and accidental by-product of agriculture. Human beings, it turns out, are not political animals at all -- if by political we mean adapted by nature for life in complex, sedentary communities much larger than the family. Human beings are familial animals. (This explains why most political systems, including bureaucratic monarchy, theocracy, republicanism, fascism, socialism and liberalism, have been threatened by "corruption," a default social order based on nepotism and kinlike structures such as mafia "families.")

During the long, formative, familial phase of human history, the physical, mental and emotional attributes of human beings evolved for purposes which were quite different, in most cases, than those to which they were put in Aristotle's Athens, Confucius's China, Hegel's Berlin or Rawls's US. The typical human turns out to be more like a premodern Australian aborigine than a Greek patrician, a Chinese mandarin, Prussian civil servant or American professor.

If the latter roles are unnatural they are not necessarily bad. Human abilities that developed for one purpose often can be put to new purposes without harm, and human needs that evolved in one kind of society can be fulfilled as well -- or better -- by novel social arrangements. To realise our natures, we do not need to become hunter-gatherers again. The challenge, you and I agree, is to identify what range of existing and possible societies can meet the innate human needs inherited from the Paleolithic era by equally appropriate yet different institutions.

Societies that are deeply at odds with human nature do not last long, although they may cause immense suffering. Genevan and Iranian theocracy, self-sacrificing fascist militarism, communist economic altruism and the Israeli experiment in communal child-rearing in the kibbutzim -- one might add certain kinds of north Atlantic libertarianism -- are incompatible in the long run with our inherited hominid psychology.

The difficult challenge is to distinguish sustainable social orders that are merely tolerable, from others in which most people (rather than just a tiny elite) have a chance to thrive. A pampered, solitary poodle may have a tolerable existence. But we know, even if it does not, that it is a stunted and pathetic creature compared to a dog that lives among other dogs and is permitted to exercise the full range of canine faculties, in an invigorating artificial environment if not in the wild. In your words: "as with other animals, the conditions under which humans thrive can be known with a fair degree of accuracy."

Although I am committed to north Atlantic liberal humanism, I would suggest that our civilisation, superior as it is to its rivals in many respects, may not pass the test of widespread human thriving, or even social sustainability. Any enduring society must provide for its biological and cultural perpetuation and be capable of deterring and defeating its enemies. Today, every north Atlantic nation, including the US, has too few children to sustain its population without mass immigration. Yet most, including the US, have shown an unwillingness to insist upon the assimilation of immigrants to the degree that is necessary to perpetuate the culture of the dwindling host nation. What is more, if Edward Luttwak is correct, the countries of western Europe, and perhaps the US, are now "post-heroic," debellicised societies, as a result of low fertility rates (parents with only one child tend to be unwilling to see that child risk his or her life in combat).

A smaller global population could be beneficial, and it may be that the automation of warfare will eventually render combat troops irrelevant. Still, I wonder whether shrinking, self-sterilising, increasingly pacifist nations, whose people tend to prefer consumer goods to children and find the idea of killing and dying for their community unthinkable, will not prove to be ephemeral aberrations in world history. If family formation, communal cohesion and martial courage contribute to human flourishing, then many ethnic groups within today's "failed states" have relatively successful societies -- while many of today's "successful states" have failed societies.

Yours
Mike

*****

Dear Mike
5th November 2001

Of course it is true that we know much more about human nature than our predecessors did. Like you, and unlike many liberal humanists, I think the knowledge gleaned from sociobiology about our evolutionary past is of great value when thinking about these issues. As you say, we know now that some types of society can never last for long, and we know why this is so -- they are incompatible with our inherited hominid psychology. It is conceivable that the societies that come within what you call Atlantic civilisation will eventually prove less durable than other, more solidaristic ethnic communities, including some that are living in failed states. (Conceivable, but unlikely. The societies that face a population problem are not those in which fertility is declining and technological innovation accelerating, such as Europe and Japan. They are societies -- like those of the Gulf states -- where population is still expanding rapidly and which remain wholly dependent on depleting natural resources.) None of this is a reason to persist with the peculiar modern project of nation-building.

Evolutionary biology can tell us which types of society are impossible to sustain for long. It cannot tell us which are realistically possible. For that we must look to history. There are now about 200 sovereign states in the world and nearly all of them are imperial relics. Perhaps a dozen or so come close to being well-established nation states. France, the US, Poland, Japan, Iceland, Australia, New Zealand, Italy, Argentina, Chile, -- these and perhaps a few others are sovereign polities underpinned by an homogeneous culture. In Europe most states are makeshifts -- Spain and Britain are multinational artifacts of monarchy, Germany is an experiment in nationhood only just over a decade old, whose future is contingent on that of the EU, itself a sort of co-operative empire (as Robert Cooper argued in the October Prospect) and so on. Beyond Europe, the Russian Federation is what the Russian state has always been -- an imperial structure, housing scores of intermingled peoples -- and there is not the remotest prospect of it ever becoming a nation state.

Much of the history of the 20th century is a history of failed nation-building. State structures in Yugoslavia, in many African states, in nearly all of the states of the middle east and in parts of southern Asia such as Afghanistan were all cobbled up in the wake of empire. In these parts of the world, as in Europe, very few states have become nation states, and it's a safe bet that few ever will.

It is not only that few polities have ever been nation states. History teaches us that even where it has been successful, nation-building has been attended with immense suffering. (In the American case, it encompassed an exceptionally savage civil war.) In most of the rest of the world, constructing homogeneous nations from the patchwork of tribes, clans and cosmopolitan cities is a project as utopian as Genevan and Iranian theocracy and no less destructive of civilised life. For the most part, if history is our guide, nation-building and ethnic cleansing go together. JG Herder is a powerful critic of the cruder sorts of Enlightenment universalism, but his ideal of a world of discrete national cultures has been a virtually unmitigated disaster.

Today there are few ideas more unfashionable than that of empire. It is not only rejected by the liberal intelligentsia in rich northern countries but there is little if any popular support for it either. Even so, I believe that the pressure of events is slowly dragging us back to empire. What else are the protectorates in Bosnia and Kosovo? What else is envisaged in Afghanistan? Where states have collapsed, only quasi-imperial structures offer any realistic hope of peace and security to the people. As the events of 11th September demonstrated, it is a grave mistake for rich, well governed states to think the rest of the world can safely be abandoned to anarchy.

What we need to be thinking about is not nation-building but how to make legitimate that majority of polities that will never be nation states. What sorts of democratic accountability can be built into them? What kinds of economic aid do they require? If the cultural traditions of the peoples concerned diverge sharply from liberal values, how far should they be respected and protected? These are hard questions. We can begin answering them only once we have discarded the dangerous utopian world of nation states.

Yours
John

*****

Dear John
6th November 2001

Where a country with a derelict or depraved state is exporting refugees, terrorists or criminals, other states in self-defence can intervene and establish protectorates. These defensive protectorates have less to do with premodern empires than with temporary great-power interventions in Asia (the Boxer rebellion), 19th-century Latin America and various pirate strongholds in the Caribbean and North Africa. If they do not want to govern indefinitely (and you will find yourself quite lonely if that is what you endorse), the intervening powers will have to establish a stable local order. In some circumstances, this may require the partition of an unworkable multinational state into two or several nation-states.

Although the nation-state is new, ethnocentrism is not and it is misleading to think of premodern societies as indifferent to ethnicity. Even when they welcomed immigrants, premodern city-states like Athens, Venice and Lubeck tended to be more ethnically homogeneous than today's nation-states. The so-called "multinational empires" of the past were all dominated by a single nation -- the Persians, the Romans, the English -- or by ethnic aristocracies, like the German and Magyar nobles in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Even in relatively benign empires, the imperial ethnarchy and its collaborators exploited conquered ethnic groups for their own glory, profit and power.

Genuine multinational states, defined as those which are not dominated by one ethnic group, are inclined toward paralysis because the constituent nations fear their rivals will capture and abuse the power of the common government. Stable multinational states therefore tend to be either dictatorships, like the former Yugoslavia, in which an impartial despot like Tito acts as a pouvoir neutre above the contending groups, or "consociational" democracies like Switzerland, in which the minimal powers of the central government are exercised according to an elaborate ethnic power-sharing scheme.

While many kinds of states can keep the peace, the accumulation of demanding new tasks by the states of technological societies has given nation-states an advantage. Both public education and modern bureaucracy require a national language instead of an imperial lingua franca like Latin or Mandarin. And in democracies, rulers and ruled must literally speak the same language.

State-sponsored capitalist development has been most successful in countries like the post-civil war US, post-1871 Germany and Meiji Japan, which, during industrialisation, had a hard-edged nationalism which was not only cultural but, unfortunately, racist as well. In a multinational country, any ambitious programme of economic development may be vetoed by the nationality least likely to benefit. Indeed, Czechoslovakia broke up because of economic disputes between Czechs and Slovaks.

Then there is the welfare state. It is surely no coincidence that the states with the most generous systems of redistribution have been homogeneous nation-states like Sweden and Japan, whose postwar corporatism was a kind of welfarism. It is also no coincidence that Switzerland and Singapore have based their welfare systems on compulsory self-insurance, in the absence of a sense of social solidarity rooted in a common ethnocultural identity.

It could be argued that the only contemporary multinational state with a successful government that has been both strong and activist is Singapore. But Singapore is a city-state in unique circumstances with remarkable leadership. In any event, the fad of devising intricate ethnic power-sharing deals for failed multinational states like Bosnia, Kosovo and, now, Afghanistan, suggests that today's US and European diplomats want to make the world safe, not for Singaporean statism, but for Swiss cantonisation. Certainly this is better than anarchy and tyranny. But if you believe that economic growth, universal education and a social net require not just a minimal peace-keeping state, but an activist government that draws on deep reserves of popular legitimacy, then a strong nation-state is to be preferred. If Hobbes were alive, he would argue that, in today's conditions, one-headed dragons make better Leviathans than hydras.

Yours
Mike

*****

Dear Mike
7th November 2001

No single form of government is feasible, or legitimate, everywhere. The idea that only liberal democratic nation-states can be legitimate is a late 20th-century error. Now, as in the past, the legitimacy of states turns on how far they meet vital human needs. It is the failure of the Taleban state to keep the peace, secure prosperity and give recognition to the cultures and values of its citizens which undermines it legitimacy -- not its failure to conform to the norms of a liberal nation-state.

Nation-states may have some advantages over multinational states and empires, as you say -- but I think the balance of advantage is patchier and has more to do with historical circumstances than you allow. In particular, I am unconvinced that nation-states have any built-in superiority in foreign policy and war.

Whether nation-building is desirable is a question of time, place, and circumstance, not a matter of principle. Of course you are right that ethnocentrism is nothing new. At the same time, self-governing nation-states have always been exceedingly rare -- and they always will be. China may develop into one -- but it is doubtful that India will (or should) and it is certain that Russia won't. Is there anyone who imagines that the middle east can be made into a series of self-governing countries, in each of which the state is identified with a cultural majority? As a way of transcending or accommodating ethnocentrism, self-governing nationhood is a non-starter in much of the world. For better and for worse, the future of large portions of humanity lies in various kinds of multinational state.

The undoubted success in nation-building of countries such as the US cannot be used as model in the rest of the world. A more modest, piecemeal approach is needed, with peace as the overriding objective. In some regions, that will mean defensive protectorates. In others it may mean long-term alliances with established imperial powers such as Russia. Except perhaps in China, the era of nation-building is pretty much over. In most of what Colin Powell has called the post-post-cold war world, peoples are too intermingled, territories too contested, too many states derelict and the world too dangerous for nation-building to be a realistic option. As a result, hesitantly, unwillingly, even unwittingly, we are inching our way into a new age of empire.

Yours
John

*****

Dear John
8th November 2001

We disagree more about de jure sovereignty than we do about de facto power. The result may be much the same, whether ethnic self-determination takes the form of national sovereignty or the autonomy of an ethnic region within a multinational federation. In each case, whether the territory is inside or outside the borders of a single state, there is a substantial degree of correlation between ethnicity and territory.

The complete separation of ethnicity from territory within a unitary state is an idea that has been discussed ever since Bauer and Renner, before the first world war, proposed this as a solution to the nationalities problem in the Habsburg empire. Inspired by the Ottoman millet system, with its different authorities for Muslims, Christians and Jews, such non-territorial ethnic federalism would subject all members of a nationality to the same ethnic government, no matter where they lived and worked. The relationship of native American communities to the US federal government is based on something like this arrangement, and in Russia there is a similar proposal for granting partial autonomy to the Roma. The devil is in the details. If ethnic self-governance is limited to language, culture and religion, then its goals could be accomplished more easily by private institutions of civil society. On the other hand, if each ethnic group were separately taxed to maintain its own public services and entitlements, this kind of ethnic federalism might well provoke pogroms. Imagine the resentment that would exist among the impoverished non-Chinese majorities in much of southeast Asia, if the affluent diaspora Chinese were separately taxed for their own exclusive, yet official, ethnic health care services and pension plans. Perhaps this is why the idea of non-territorial ethnic federalism appeals more to political theorists than to politicians.

As far as the informal pattern of power politics is concerned, you may well be right that we are "inching our way into a new age of empire." Power, wealth and cultural influence remain concentrated in a handful of states. For the foreseeable future, world politics will remain hierarchical, whether humanity is divided by law into several hundred nation-states, a smaller number of multinational states, a handful of blocs, an informal global hegemony or a formal global federation. Justice across borders will continue to depend on the all-too-rare coincidence of the needs of the weak with the interests and the capabilities of the strong. Where the fates of many nations are at stake, prudence on the part of statesmen is more important than consistency. On this you and I are in complete agreement. Even more than in domestic government, in world politics the best is the enemy of the good.

Yours
Mike

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