It’s when you read the fine print that alarm bells start ringing. For instance, the logic of the liberal principle I set out above is to undermine traditional nationalism.
The reason is simple. A traditional national identity was important in defining the individual. However, as it was based on ethnicity (a shared ancestry, language, culture, religion and so on) it was something the individual inherited, rather than something he chose for himself.
Liberalism doesn’t want us to be “other” defined in any important way; it insists that we be self-defined. So traditional nationalism eventually came to be thought of as illegitimate within the terms of liberalism.
So what could a principled liberal do? From the start, some liberals replaced a traditional ethnic nationalism with a belief in internationalism. Most, though, have kept to some modified, liberal form of nationalism.
The problem is that such modern forms of nationalism are shallow, shifting and unstable. Usually they are based on the holding of common “values” (invariably liberal ones) to which any person can give their individual consent.
But this means two things. First, anyone can become a member of the nation, which makes membership of a nation less meaningful. Second, the geography of the “nation” you belong to can change radically. There are no limits to potential federations of nations, if all that is required is a shared commitment to liberal values or policy aims.
This is the political background to understanding the “nationalism” of Thomas Barnett, described as “a distinguished scholar” at a policy centre at the University of Tennessee. In a recent article, Mr Barnett had this to say about the war on terror:
We stand for a world connected through trust, transparency and trade, while the jihadists want to hijack Islam and disconnect it from all the corruption they imagine is being foisted upon it by globalization (aka, America’s “plot to rule the world”).
In that war of ideas, I’d still like to see Lady Liberty standing outside the wire instead of hiding behind it, and here’s why: I don’t have a homeland. My people left that place a long time ago.
I don’t have a homeland because I don’t live in a place - I live an ideal. I live in the only country in the world that’s not named for a location or a tribe but a concept. Officially, we’re known as the United States.
And where are those united states? Wherever there are states united. You join and you’re in, and theoretically everyone’s got an open invitation.
This country began as a collection of 13 misfit colonies, united only by their desire not to be ruled by a distant king.
We’re now 50 members and counting, with our most recent additions (Alaska, Hawaii) not even co-located with the rest, instead constituting our most far-flung nodes in a network that‘s destined to grow dramatically again.
Impossible, you say? Try this one on for size: By 2050, one out of every three American voters is slated to be Hispanic. Trust me, with that electorate, it won’t just be Puerto Rico and post-Castro Cuba joining the club. We’ll need either a bigger flag or smaller stars.
Note what Thomas Barnett is saying. He has reconciled himself to the fact that he has no homeland. The fact of homelands is something that, for him, belongs to the past. His modern “nation” is not even a place, but a concept.
As such, membership is open. Barnett expects, and looks forward to, a rapid growth in membership of the United States, with its borders to extend through Latin America.
Barnett has put his understanding of the “nation” more plainly and starkly than most other liberals, but even so it is perfectly in line with accepted policies in Western countries.
Those European leaders who are willing to cede the sovereignty of their own nation to a European Union, and to consider the admission of a non-European country, Turkey, are acting from a similar mindset to Barnett.
So too are the Australian politicians, from all political parties, who recommended the formation of a Pacific Union. These politicians no doubt consider themselves “nationalists” – in the Barnett sense, that is – but are happy to transfer their allegiance to an entirely new, sovereign Pacific state.
The fault lies ultimately in that seductive idea that we should be free to choose who we are according to our own individual will. This has delivered to us a nationalism in which there are no stable ethnic homelands – in which our loyalty is not even to a particular people or place, but to “concepts” which are all too easily transferable, so that nations become peculiarly vulnerable to dissolution within larger federations.
(Hat tip: Steve Edwards for the Barnett quote)