We live in a dissolving age. Institutions, social forms, and traditional authorities recede. To the extent that they endure, they do so under the sign of choice, often reconfigured as economic or therapeutic projects. Man the entrepreneur and consumer is ascendant—or man the wounded, the victim of trauma or injustice. The old idea that we’re most fully realized in sacrifices for the common good exercises less influence over the public imagination. Solidarity is out. For good and for ill, individual achievement, success, and choice are in. The market provides our dominant metaphors of social organization, not the polling booth or town meeting. The “creative class” fires our imaginations, and politicians cast their projects in economic terms. They promise “efficiency” and “innovation.” Social problems are addressed by “social entrepreneurs.” Multiculturalism promises to refill our social lives with rich and diverse substance, but more often than not it leads to a ritual dance of demands and recognitions that promote neither genuine diversity nor a living culture.
As globalism and its doppelganger, identity politics, colonize our imaginations, a moral consensus forms that regards the nation as an impediment to a more just world. Universal human rights become the paradigm of good governance, not traditions of common law or national constitutions that convey hard-won political wisdom. Progressive visionaries propose post-national regimes, some organized around an all-encompassing market, others overseen by benevolent technocrats, or a combination of both. In “The Fusion of Civilizations: The Case for Global Optimism” (Foreign Affairs, May/June 2016), Kishore Mahbubani and Lawrence Summers champion “pragmatic problem-solving” in a “stable and sustainable rule-based order,” undergirded by a scientific, technological, and economic consensus that encourages a “fusion of civilizations.” The globalized international community will lay to rest belligerent notions such as national interest and bring us to an era of universal prosperity and perpetual peace.
Ever richer and ever at peace: The cosmopolitan dream is alluring. We picture a global market overseen by regulators, mediators, and bureaucrats in a system baptized by the holy water of human rights. But the dream is dangerous as well. The capacity for free and effective political action depends upon firm, stable places on which to stand. Bonds of loyalty allow us to resist tyranny, whether in the form of the utilitarian despotism of global capitalism or the universal moralism that regards our traditions as impediments to the realization of true justice. Mahbubani and Summers are hopeful about a post-national future. They are not alone in their cheerful optimism, but it’s a prospect that fills me with dread.
The nation is a realm of givenness, not choice. We are born into a nation, which is why we speak of fatherlands and motherlands. The newcomer marks an exception, not the rule. We use the term “naturalization” to describe the process by which those who arrive from the outside become citizens. They choose, in a certain way, to be “born again.” Peoples can be overrun by invaders and thus remade, as were so many in Europe during the first millennium. But nations composed of different peoples have never long endured. They often end up as failed states torn apart by tribal, ethnic, or religious strife. Only empires are able to rule over a diversity of peoples. No clear-eyed observer will be deceived by the silly notion that the United States is multicultural. America is remarkable because it sustains a national culture that assimilates immigrants and takes possession of their children. This culture has many facets, but it takes on a distinctive shape and manifests a genius that’s admired and resented (sometimes both at once) by those from other parts of the world.
We’re often blind to the givenness and particularity of American culture because we’re a people under the sign of choice. Our Ellis Island myth reflects our national culture, which is one of invention and re-invention. It’s not coincidental that transgenderism has become prominent in America, not just in our political battles, but also in the media. Someone like Bruce Jenner fulfills the American dream. He’s a Jay Gatsby figure, refusing to allow even DNA to stand in the way of his aspiration to be whatever he wants to be. For this reason, a distinct and widespread American mentality can imagine that there are no longer “peoples,” only individuals, and when the rest of the world wakes up to this deep and liberating truth, everyone will be American. The post-national age will be the American age. This explains why a progressive American internationalist such as Lawrence Summers finds no contradiction between promoting American interests and encouraging global structures that limit American sovereignty.
Closely related is the conceit that America is an “idea” rather than an ongoing national project with a particular history. Our founding documents call us to live in accord with the laws of nature and nature’s God. By this way of thinking, our nationality is “humanity.” To be human is to be American. This mentality explains, in part, our recent foreign misadventures. George W. Bush’s administration imagined itself bringing freedom to Iraq (and by extension to the rest of the Middle East), confident that, released from the grip of a tyrant, ordinary people will become American, or at least friendly to America. The same holds true for our leading role in global capitalism. We’re confident that the free flow of capital, goods, and labor will Americanize the globe. There’s something true about this conceit, as French (and other) critics of the “Anglo-Saxon” political economy recognize. But it is only a half-truth, as China is proving to the rest of the world. And, as is often the case, seductive half-truths are more dangerous than simple falsehoods.
The reality of our global power compounds our American blindness to the dangers of an eroded national identity. Americans designed, ran, and dominated the international institutions launched after World War II: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade that became the World Trade Organization. The global institutions we could not control, or turn to our interests, we neutered. The United Nations provides the most obvious example. After the fall of the Soviet Union, our supereminence has become even more extreme. The world’s central banks may diverge in particular policies, but their outlook is unified by economic theories and monetary practices developed in the United States. A striking number of today’s prominent central bankers cycled through MIT as graduate students or postdocs in the 1970s. The global economic system may not be an American one, but it is an Ameri-centric one. The same is true for higher education more broadly. We’re in the midst of a “harmonization” of university education around the globe, one keyed to the increasingly technocratic American system. Harvard, Yale, and Stanford are global brands. It’s no wonder that the humanities are being eclipsed. The cultural particularity they represent impedes global dominance.
For these and many other reasons, the typical American, whether liberal or conservative, too easily takes an optimistic view. He allows that a globalized future may entail the weakening of the nation-state, but this does not trouble him. In all likelihood, the post-national future will revolve around the United States. We’re the global archetype and the indispensable center. Should things misalign with American interests, we have a powerful military with which to threaten, cajole, and, if necessary, destroy the recalcitrant and uncooperative.
Over the last few years, I’ve come to realize that post-national, American-led globalization represents a realistic vision of the future, one endorsed, to one degree or another, by many, perhaps most, of the people who populate the financial, academic, media, and political establishments in the United States and elsewhere in the West. This should make my patriotic heart swell with pride, but it doesn’t. Such a future will revolve around a certain class of Americans, a technocratic elite, rather than America as a people. And it will be an empire.