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In Further Defense of Nations: A Response to McManus

(AP Photo)

“As such, quiet gratitude rather than arrogant pride is, I believe, the right attitude to take towards the idea of the nation.”

I very much appreciate the opportunity to engage in this dialogue with Matt McManus on nationalism vs. internationalism. I’ve found reading his articles on Merion West has helped broaden my thinking, particularly his critiques of Jordan Peterson from a reasonable non-identitarian left-wing perspective. I’m grateful for his positive comments about both the first piece in this dialogue and my piece on Arendt, loneliness, and totalitarianism. In this piece, I’ll aim to respond to his comments on my article on nationalism. He and I are at different points of the political spectrum: he’s on the Left, and I’m on the Right. The fact that we can engage in this civil discourse about difficult subjects shows that this is still possible today in our increasingly divided times, and that is something to be thankful for.

I was arguing that those who see World War II as the fault of nationalism were wrong when they argued that dissolving the national state was necessarily the best remedy, given the chaos that held sway before 1648, and which risked being repeated.

I’ll start by noting that McManus’s brief summary in three points of my article are accurate, on the whole. He is right in the first point that I have a pessimistic view of human nature, which influences how I view the need for national states. On the second point, while he is right that I followed Yoram Hazony’s arguments about the discrediting of nationalism following World War II, he is mistaken when he says that I had written that the national state is a check to imperial ambitions like that of Nazism. I was arguing that those who see World War II as the fault of nationalism were wrong when they argued that dissolving the national state was necessarily the best remedy, given the chaos that held sway before 1648, and which risked being repeated. The fact that I put the two together in the same paragraph meant that it looked like I wrote what he said I wrote, and I apologize for the lack of clarity on my part. Finally, I appreciate the positive comments in the third point about my criticisms of excessive individualism, which, following Arendt, could lead to the reactionary seeking for community which ends in tribes of immutable identity based in fear rather than affection. This is a discussion which conservatives need to have, as it is something that we, as a society, need to avoid.

I’ll now move on to address McManus’s criticisms of my article, again point by point as he has written them. On his first point, he is right that internationalists after WWII did not have a “beneficent view of human nature.” How could they have, following the horrors perpetrated by the Nazis, particularly the Holocaust? I think there is a difference, though, between those who set up organizations like the United Nations and the first instantiation of what is today called the European Union—and the EU today with its emphasis on ever closer union and erosion of national sovereignty.

As to the need for constraints on state violence through international law, and why repression of individual sovereignty is more admirable at the state than international levels, I will broadly accept his point on this. I do not think states should be able to do anything they want, and when something like the Rwandan genocide or the collapse into anarchy and genocide of Yugoslavia happens, this should be subject to international action. However, there is a difference between that and saying that the idea of the national state itself is illegitimate and should be discarded. I think a balance has to be struck, which itself needs constant dialogue to keep an equilibrium, something not always possible but which needs to be attempted. This is why I am not an isolationist or a hard-nosed foreign policy realist—I believe intervention is sometimes required. This is why I define myself as a “conservative internationalist” in terms of foreign policy. This position believes that freedom should be worked towards incrementally—and that national states are the building blocks of world order. This comes closest for me to a mid-point between realism and neoconservatism, neither of which I find fully convincing on its own.

On to the second point about the discrediting of nationalism following World War II. Again, I find myself in agreement with what McManus has written. I agree that in wanting to create an empire, Hitler and the Nazis had many examples from other European countries to follow, even if Hitler explicitly repudiated the national states in Europe as “misbegotten monstrosities.” I do not defend the record of the various European empires; I am not an imperialist, and I think that empire-building, with the attendant atrocities, is wrong. There is much to be ashamed of in our imperial past. The central hypocrisy over the “Wesphalianism for me but not for thee” that characterized these powers was one reason among many why their empires couldn’t last—and why Woodrow Wilson’s promise of national self-determination after World War I was so revolutionary and so unpopular among the colonial powers.

As such, I agree with McManus that the Nazis’ tendency towards imperialism was thus far from unique. Even taking into account the racialized worldview that was held by those in power in the colonial regimes, what arguably made the Nazis distinct was their explicitly biological view of nations and empire. This descended from racialists like Arthur de Gobineau, down to Oswald Spengler and other German philosophers influenced by the volkisch movement, who viewed the rise and fall of civilizations in biological terms. For these thinkers, humanity was divided into racial and biological groups who rise and fall based upon civilizational vitality, which in turn is fed by racial vitality. I’ve written about this view of humanity in my piece on the Alt-Right.

I’m pleased that we both have similar concerns about the atomizing effects of liberal individualism, and the negative reactions this could increasingly lead to. My worry is that by removing the bonds that hold us together as communities and societies—of which the national state is one of the most important elements—we could see people increasingly turn to tribal politics influenced by increasingly racialized thought on both the far-left and and far-right. This, with its inherent divisiveness, would be a disaster. We, in the West, need to find a way to live together as communities with common points of affection and sentiment, with shared aims for the common good. McManus is right to point out the negative side of the national state. I acknowledged this in my last piece. I do not hold a rose-tinted view of the national state, and I do not believe that it should be the object of worship or excessive veneration. This is unsurprising given my pessimistic view of human nature. I do, however, believe that nations, much like democracy, are the worst option, apart from all the others. As such, quiet gratitude rather than arrogant pride is, I believe, the right attitude to take towards the idea of the nation. I think that nations offer both the best way to engender civility and cut across identities to bring people together in community based on affection rather than fear.

In this vein, I would again like to thank McManus for engaging in this dialogue with me. This kind of debate is needed now more than ever, and it would be good if this could happen in wider society more often.

Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.

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