Thursday, February 15, 2018

Nationalism, xenophobia and the EU

Damir Marusic, the executive editor of The American Interest, has an essay in the journal called The Dangers of Democratic Determinism 02/05/2018, in which he addresses the current state of democracy in Europe in particular. He has a useful observation about the EU, which he reasonably describes as "a largely undemocratic bureaucracy that talks in the lofty language of a post-national political community grounded in a set of universal Enlightenment values."
As Tony Judt remarked, historians and statesmen have invoked several recurring themes in describing those years in Western Europe: “Europe’s recovery was a ‘miracle’. ‘Post-national’ Europe had learned the bitter lessons of recent history. An irenic, pacific continent had risen, ‘Phoenix-like’, from the ashes of its murderous — suicidal — past.” These themes constitute a hopeful and morally redemptive narrative, especially for West Europeans who in large numbers had acquiesced to German occupation and had collaborated with the Nazis right up until liberation. Judt notes that Hitler managed to administer Norway with only 806 German overseers, and that 35 million Frenchmen made little trouble for some 1,500 German officials and 6,000 German civilian and military police. It was humiliating on a grand scale, even before these nations began to grapple with their complicity in the Holocaust.

The way in which these stories were used is also significant. Judt pointed out that a kind of ahistorical determinism related to these redemptive myths was built over time into the project of European unification. To oversimplify a bit, a set of trade treaties had set up an increasingly complex bureaucracy that had started to encroach on national sovereignty. It needed legitimation to continue doing so. “[T]he real or apparent logic of mutual economic advantage not sufficing to account for the complexity of its formal arrangements, there has been invoked a sort of ontological ethic of political community,” Judt wrote. “Projected backward, the latter is then adduced to account for the gains made thus far and to justify further unificatory efforts.” [my emphasis]

This is a broad narrative, of course, with many variations. But such narratives are necessary and often constructive in a larger, normative sense. Every political community has to have them.

Each such narrative privileges some information and values over others, and some historical events over others. Which mean they can have the effect of hiding or distorting historical realities that don't fit in with the broad line of the narrative. In this case, one of the historical realities that the narrative obscures is that the United States put a great deal of pressure on western European nations, West Germany and France in particular, to make some concrete moves toward unification. But recognizing that aspect of the story does not have to diminish the very real accomplishments of European leaders and publics in achieving what they have in the European project.

Marusic also desribes the dominant narrative of the Cold War for the US this way: "the Soviet challenge was quickly understood in Manichean terms, with American foreign policy driven by a form of secularized Protestantism." A reasonable enough broad description, though clearly the intensity of that perception ebbed and flowed with time and events. And, "Where it could, it sought to impose a version of the American Creed onto the world it encountered."

He uses the term "democratic determinism" to cover both the optimistic EU narrative, the Cold War US narrative, and the Western narrative on the post-1989 transformations.

Since the number of countries in Europe falling into the first category increased after 1989, "After 1989 and the fall of global communism, this narrative became turbocharged - triumphalist and self-certain." Presumably here he means "global communism" to refer to the USSR and the allied eastern Communist countries, and Yugoslavia, as well.

It's when he comes to how he understands the dominant narrative in the post-1989 period in eastern Europe that I become more reserved about his framework. He is reacting to xenophobic nationalism as a growing political force, even a currently dominant one in Poland and Hungary. And he argues that in eastern Europe, liberal democratic institutions were always primarily understood as being for the benefit of the dominant ethnic group.

Here he is making a broad judgment based on the history of nationalism in that area. The Russian Empire was known as the "prison house" of nations because of the various kind of national groups contined with in it: Georgian, Kazakh, Uzbek, Ukrainians, Chechens, Poles, to name some of the examples more familiar to Americans. Jews were also a major ethnic/national/religious grouping in the Russian Empire which was often a party to disputes with other such groups, most notoriously in the infamous pogroms . of the late nineteenth century.

The Ottoman Empire was also a large collection of national groupings with Turks, Turkmens, Armenians, Greeks and others, with a variety of languages, religious affiliations and cultural traditions. The Greek revolt against Ottoman rule in the 1820s (???) generated considerable sympathy in the West. The British poet Lord Byron died in Greece fighting on the side of the Greek revolt. It was over the foreign policy position of the United States on the Greek revolt during the Monroe Administration that occasioned the often-quoted remark of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams that the US does not go abroad in search of monnsters to destroy. As the Ottoman Empire weakened in the latter half of the 19th century, Russia and the Habsburgs competed to snatch parts of the declining empire. And movements for national independence gave birth to the Balkans Wars of the early 1900s, a bloody preview of those in the last decade of last century.

The Habsburg Empire, whose last incarnation was the Austro-Hungarian Empire with a "dual monarchy" arrangement (Austrian and Hungarian). The Habsburgs were the dominant dynasty for centuries in the "Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation," which was declared dissolved in 1806 after Napolean's armies had effectively pummeled it. Winston Churchill's famously grumped that it had been neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. Whatever measurements Churchill was applying in that judgment, the Holy Roman Empire successfully adjusted to the new nation-state system set up by the Peace of Westphalia in 1648. Including Habsburg rulers of Spain that presided over the non-inconsiderable Spanish colonial possessions in the Americas.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire is sometimes cited as a precursor of the European Union as a functioning multicultural, multilingual political unit. And it did survie the end of the Holy Roman Empire by just over a century. But in many ways, it was dysfunctional, with chronic political conflicts and the 1848 upheavals. Frustrated democratic aspirations with intensely mixed with drives for national independence or greater rights for Czechs, Slovaks, Slovenians, Ruthenians, Galicians, Ukrainians (also), Poles (also), Hungarians, and even Austrian Germans, who were lumped in for years with others as part of Cisleithania, essentially the non-Hungarian part of the empire. And it also included a not-inconsiderable population of Jews.

All three of those empires were heavily involved in eastern Europe. The First World War emerged in signficant part from the competing interests of those three empires in the Balkans.

Marusic cites an essay by economist Branko Milanovic on the particular important of the desire for national independence by countries in the Soviet bloc in comparison to the desire for Western-style liberal democracy. I won't go into Milanovic's particular arguments here except to say that I'm not convinced that they are as heterodox as Marusic takes them to be.

Marusic goes farther, though:
The purpose of Milanovic’s essay is narrow: to show how dif??cult it will be to compel these recalcitrant countries to accept migrants anytime soon—maybe ever. But the essay’s deeper implications are striking, and help illuminate one of the blindspots plaguing democratic determinists. The discom??ting truth is that some amount of ethnic nationalism is not just tolerated, but accepted as completely legitimate by many voters throughout Eastern Europe.

Unlike Milanovic, a democratic determinist sees 1989 primarily as an ideological triumph, and understands the values that underpin it as universal and indivisible from the proper functioning of a modern state. If 1989 is thought of as a successful democratic revolution, then much of the politics of the past ten years in Eastern Europe can only be seen as backsliding. Someone like Viktor Orban, who has selfconsciously positioned himself as a kind of soft nationalist, is seen as inherently illegitimate — a symptom of political decay.

But insofar as Milanovic’s model is correct, an “Easterner” listens to the incessant complaining coming from democratic determinists in Brussels and bemusedly scratches his head. His legitimately elected leaders are merely protecting values dear to him and his country from a bunch of messianic foreigners preaching an idealistic universalism he’s never signed up for, and that he doubts exists. He just doesn’t see what the big deal is.
This sounds too much like resignation in the face of xenophobia for me to feel comfortable with this formulation. Extreme nationalism doesn't affect only internal politics. It encourages foreign aggression as well.

Also, EU countries including Hungary and Poland have serious international commitments to NATO and to the European Union. In both western and eastern Europe, leaders of EU countries have tended to treat the EU as a free-trade zone whose political commitments don't need to be taken especially seriously. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken a regrettable approach to the EU of using it to maximize short-term national advantages for German and for her own neoliberal doctrine of austerity, even in the face of the Great Recession.

The EU gives Europe its best chance of coping reasonably with immigration challenges that are not going away, though they will have more and less acute phases. And the current EU solutions which rely heavily on dumping the problems onto Turkey and Greece, and to a significant extent on Italy, have practical consequences and serious moral implications, too. And all EU countries are failing their commitments and responsibilities if they don't accept more refugees on a regular basis and reject xenophobic policies and actions.

Our current US President is certainly not going to let xenophobia in other countries deter him from taking whatever policy he finds most convenient for his family business. But a more sensible and pragmatic Administration - I hope we have one sooner than later - may want to undertake a very practical re-evaluation of NATO commitments. And part of that new look would surely include a review of relations with Turkey, both because of its authoritarian trend and its commitment to allies in the aftermath of the Syrian civil war who are on opposite sides of those backed by the US. But a realistic re-evaluation of NATO could also raise the question of whether we should have a major security alliance with countries that reject basic democratic values, human rights, and international law.

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