Today is the most important day in European politics since November 9, 1989. That was the day the Communist Party boss in East Germany announced the end of its border controls over West Berlin, triggering the events that led to the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
On its face, today’s vote in Great Britain is a referendum on that nation’s membership in the European Union. But it’s really about much more than that. Today’s vote is a referendum on the dominant ambition of post–Cold War leaders in the West, which has been to form a global commercial empire legitimated by a commitment to human rights.
This spring, Foreign Affairs ran a short, programmatic article by Kishore Mahbubani and Lawrence Summers, “The Fusion of Civilizations: A Case for Global Optimism.” The title is a deliberate revision of Samuel Huntington’s much-talked-about 1996 book, The Clash of Civilizations. It reflects a globalized, technocratic optimism. Muhbubani and 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 European Union serves as a prototype for this global vision. Its rationales are twofold and interlocking. The E.U. promises greater economic prosperity. With that prosperity comes greater economic interdependence that will, in turn, promote peaceful cooperation on a continent long wracked by wars between rival nations. Over time this economic interdependence and continent-wide peace will lead to a sense of European solidarity.
Should British voters opt to “Remain” in the European Union, this project will continue. In spite of road-bumps and setbacks, the elite consensus will remain intact: The best future for Europe involves a gradual supersession of the nation-state by European-wide institutions.
The strengthening of this consensus will, in turn, encourage global optimists like Mahbubani and Summers. They think the best future for the world involves greater economic integration, stronger international institutions that regulate the global marketplace and resolve regional conflicts, and a global regime of human rights.
To put it pejoratively, if “Remain” wins today, we will continue down the path toward a global technocratic empire animated by a materialist culture in which authority flows to natural-science, economics, and technical disciplines (and ideologies) of social management—all of it baptized in the holy water of human rights.
By contrast, the vote to “Leave” opens up the possibility of a different future, one in which national identities are renewed rather than “fused.” There are no optimistic programmatic articles, of the sort Mahbubani and Summers penned, describing this future. That’s because the impulse to opt out of ever-greater union reflects an intuition, not a rational plan. The intuition is that loyalty, not prosperity, is the foundation of a healthy society. To my mind, it’s a sound intuition.
In his massive history of the world, City of God, St. Augustine distinguished between the peace of the city of man and the peace of the City of God. The former’s peace is negative. It’s an absence of violence made possible by the sword of the sovereign that stands ready to punish. By contrast, the City of God enjoys a peace born of unity in a common love of God, and of others in God.
The technocratic empire desired by globalizing enthusiasts does not put the accent on punishment (though we’ve seen how political correctness can co-opt human rights and use the power of law to enforce conformity). Instead, the peace they promise comes from our shared desire for wealth. Prosperity induces peace.
This, however, is also a negative peace, not a positive one. And as St. Augustine wrote, the city of man is constantly agitated by fear. The same holds for a technocratic empire. It’s a fragile regime that encourages us to live for the sake of a promised prosperity that may not come. And even if it does, it might not satisfy us.
By contrast, national loyalty participates in the ennobling power of love. It binds people together, echoing in a small way marriage vows: for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health. The peace it brings is more durable, more trustworthy. For this reason, a vote to “Leave” is not a “leap into the unknown,” an irrational risk for the sake of misty-eyed nostalgia for a bygone era. It reflects a sound judgment about human affairs. Life is full of unexpected challenges, some dire. One is wise, therefore, to lay up a storehouse of shared experiences, shared history, and shared loyalty to endure the difficult times—together.
These days we hear a great deal about “resilience.” That’s a quality that nations possess, as Great Britain herself demonstrated in 1940. As Poland demonstrated by enduring nearly two centuries of dissolution. As Germany demonstrated by venturing the great risk of reunion after the Cold War—as Germany may again demonstrate by absorbing unprecedented numbers of refugees. A technocratic empire lacks resilience. It depends on the conceit of the technocrats who imagine they can guide humanity toward prosperity and peace.
I’m hopeful that Great Britain will vote to “Leave.” To my mind, the twenty-first century will require renewed loves, renewed loyalties, renewed solidarities. We need to recapitalize, not financially, but socially. The reasonable thing to do is to renounce the grand plans laid out by men of reason and to face the storms the future is sure to send our way with roots that run deep.
R. R. Reno is editor of First Things.