Dr. Ford’s July 4, 2011, posting on this site – “On Sovereignty” – elicited much substantive feedback. Several readers wrote to offer varying degrees of challenge or agreement, resulting in a number of e-mail exchanges over the following days. This posting seeks, in a sense, to bring other NPF readers into these exchanges by editing, revising, and expanding various reader comments into a full-blown colloquy – taking the form of a dialogue that did not actually occur, but might have done so, based upon the opinions expressed in e-mails to NPF. (Note that the names of contributors, as given here, bear no necessary relationship to those of the readers who originally wrote in.)
I’m skeptical, Chris. Let’s put you on the spot and see if you have the courage of your convicitons. Would you say that the secession of the Southern States from the U.S. Union in 1861 was an expression of the kind of “voluntary nationalism” you articulated in your July 4th essay? If so, would you say that President Abraham Lincoln’s decision not to accept this secession – and to fight to sustain the Union, in a war that cost the lives of more Americans than any other in history – was an expression or the result of volk nationalism (whether legitimate or otherwise)?
I’m going to pile on. Under a voluntarist concept of sovereignty, was it right or wrong for the South to secede?
I certainly should have seen that question coming. Well, as I indicated, a voluntarist must presumably find secession to be permissible in theory. But details matter. Democratically-chosen secession from an authoritarian state would be a comparatively easy case. It gets a bit more complicated, however, if one is talking about seceding from a democracy, though in principle this should be possible too. Secession must be legitimately (i.e., democratically) chosen, which within a broader polity that already has democratic legitimacy means it must presumably also be lawfully chosen pursuant to the preestablished rules of that system.
What does this mean for the claim to nationhood advanced by the Confederate States of America? I would argue that their case isn’t as difficult for a voluntarist to reject as they probably would have argued it. It’s hard to depict it as some kind of vindication of the ideal of popular sovereignty to enslave a chunk of the population – thus denying them a role in the critical ruler-choosing and sovereignty-formation process – and then claim your own sovereignty on the basis of a purported right to do this to them. That sort of secessionist logic, I would think, falls apart in mid-stream. By modern standards, the North was not a paragon of liberal voting rights, of course, but I can’t see a defensible voluntarist case for the South’s position under those circumstances.
Well, let me push you a bit more. For a more current analogy, should Southern California or large chunks of Texas be allowed to rejoin Mexico – in a kind of demographic Reconquista – on the basis of populational affinity?
Good question. What implications would voluntarism have for ongoing U.S. immigration debates? Would you agree that an unauthorized intrusion into a sovereign state – whether it has been founded on principles of volk- or voluntarist nationalism – should not be allowed to set aside the decisions of political association made by those legitimately present in the state? Or would a voluntarist have to accept the preferences of all the people actually living somewhere, on grounds that refusing to acknowledge the reality of this population (or changes in it) would be an affront to voluntarism, amounting to the effective displacement of voluntarist legitimacy with a kind of neo-volkism?
My instinct would be that legitimate sovereign democracies have the prerogative (attendant to sovereignty) of setting their own admission criteria vis-à-vis outsiders. It would be an affront to their sovereignty for other people to sneak in unlawfully and use such unlawful presence to try to change the sovereign bargain by claiming a right to political participation. But I also see that if things progressed beyond some point it would be, shall we say, at least a bit awkward for a voluntarist to demand adherence to a political arrangement that most actual residents abhorred and which corresponded not at all to their sense of politically-salient identity. We’re nowhere near being at that point, but it’s nonetheless an interesting theoretical question.
Here, as elsewhere, I don’t see voluntarism as offering easy answers. I think it offers ones that are more palatable – on several grounds – than does volkism, but it’s very hard to make any easily-articulable theory reliably provide simple responses to the kind of complicated scenarios the real world likes to throw at us. It’s hard to squeeze reality cleanly into conceptual boxes, and I certainly don’t claim that voluntarism provides a Unified Field Theory for human political life. I do think it offers a better conceptual starting point for struggling with issues of nationhood, sovereignty, and legitimacy than do the available alternatives, but I freely concede that no theory can probably offer more than a mere starting point for such discussions.
Let me then toss some more complications at you, Chris. I thought your “On Sovereignty” essay was an interesting piece, but I vigorously dissent.
To my understanding, nations can and almost universally do arise from shared experiences and histories, which tend to reflect ethnic groupings that do have substantial coherence. You call that volk nationalism (although I’m not a big fan of that term because of its connotations), and describe it as confused and problematic, but I think it can be quite real. The English and Irish, I think, have such a deeply-rooted and coherent identity. The Japanese and Koreans also seem to. (One could go on. Not all modern nations can claim such roots, but some clearly do.)
Nor am I arguing that such volkist identity – as you would put it – is always the best, let alone the only, basis for national legitimacy and sovereignty. America, Canada, and some other countries provide counterexamples to such an assertion. But deep, organically-grown ties are certainly possible, and can be a powerful foundation for nationhood. And even with countries like the United States, moreover, some might argue that for our experiment to succeed, we must still create the simulacrum of the kind of coherence that “volkists” celebrate through a shared culture. (I think Samuel Huntington made many convincing arguments on this.)
Moreover, as a conservative, I follow Edmund Burke in paying deference to how things happen to have happened, as it were – and how nations have cohered over long periods of time. I am deeply skeptical of highly rationalistic forms of community that seek to supplant these inherited senses of community rather than simply to mellow and complement them. The voluntarist notion of sovereignty you describe has something of that Enlightenment artificiality to it. As elegant as the theory might look on paper, mere “voluntary” affiliation alone can only offer a partial account of human communities and affiliations. The family, for instance, is in its essence not a voluntary association.
Your passing comment about world government was also something of a red flag for me. I do not want to live under a world government, however benevolent it might be, because I see the differences in culture around the world – and how they manifest themselves in the political and social autonomy of various societies – as being crucial to a flourishing world society. I see no need to homogenize, and much danger therein.
I think I disagree with you, in these regards, much less than you imagine. Perhaps I was not clear enough about how I saw voluntarist sovereignty working. There clearly are countries around the world – you mentioned the English, Irish, Japanese, and Koreans – the people of which tend to have powerfully-felt senses of nationhood that go back a very long way and to a great extent grew up organically well before any political system did or could actually ask them to make any kind of an explicit national “choice.”
Don’t take my essay as suggesting that there is anything intrinsically illegitimate about those who feel a volkist identity coming to act on it by forming themselves into a nation and exercising sovereignty. Once upon a time, in European usage at least, “sovereignty” just referred to an attribute of an absolute ruler: his prerogative to have his own way within a particular jurisdiction, answerable to no higher earthly law. It had essentially nothing to do with the characteristics or affinities of a population, and peoples with varying ethno-cultural senses of “self” were divided up and passed around like party favors as rivalrous royal Sovereigns adjusted and readjusted their territorial holdings through various expedients of marriage or conquest.
As the political world came to look increasingly to what these populations actually felt in order to ascertain what the right boundaries were, however – and as some rulers worked to make such feelings of territorial selfhood correspond more closely to the territories they happened to end up with – there did indeed develop some pretty powerfully-felt national selves. I see nothing inconsistent with voluntarist notions of sovereign legitimacy to recognize such groups as the nations they feel themselves to be. Put another way, a voluntarist would presumably find it appropriate to recognize such nations precisely because they feel themselves to be.
The stability of such identities over time simply underlines the propriety of such recognition, for it suggests that these peoples’ sense of “selfhood” is extremely solid. Indeed, such solidity may be a special boon for the voluntarist, for it allows a grounding of such nations’ sovereignty in voluntary affiliation while mitigating the danger that voluntarism could produce – with apologies to fans of the 1993 Bill Murray movie of that name – a kind of unstable Groundhog Day sovereignty subject to periodic revision according to the affiliational whim of the populations in question. When a group’s sense of national selfhood is deeply rooted, it will tend not to change according to the enthusiasms of the moment. A voluntarist would permit sovereignties to be adjusted as the underlying senses of self change, of course, but for “deep” identities of the sort we’re discussing here, this would happen only infrequently, reducing the instability and unpredictability in international politics that voluntarism might otherwise allow.
All of which sounds like it would be pretty congenial to Burke. I can certainly see how he might be horrified at the prospect of moment-by-moment revisions in the basic cast of characters making up the international system, but I’m not sure he’d be too happy with the ideology of natural and unchanging volkism either. I would think Burke best read not as an appeal to some transcendent, transhistorical permanence – for that is the kind of ideological a priorism that he would surely abhor – but rather as a wise admonition not lightly to meddle with the community patterns that have developed over time.
That could be seen as a kind of prudent voluntarism. As the patterns of our collectively-felt selfhood gradually change, it’s appropriate for the “system” to change with them. A Burkean voluntarism would surely urge us to be careful not to mistake the enthusiasm of the moment for the kind of deep collective choice that constitutes serious nationhood, but would it not also admit that enforced nonchange is wrong as well? Burke, after all, turned out to be fairly sympathetic to the American Founders’ assertions of sovereignty as against King George III. Burkean approaches may be less useful in grappling with the emergent and contested post-colonial world of the last half century – for which one still needs a framework for understanding and evaluating claims to sovereignty, sometimes in the absence of the kind of preexisting identity at issue here – but a Burkean voluntarist would be happy to find deeply-rooted national self-identities where they happen to exist.
Ah, so maybe I misunderstood you. My point is basically that community and legitimacy do not need to arise from voluntarist sources. Indeed, they may actually be unlikely to do so, though a freely-willed community may, in the abstract at least, be best. I don’t think “Englishness” or “Koreanness” could be built purely upon voluntarism, and too much emphasis on voluntarism would tend to undercut those involuntary, ascriptive sources of community that provide many human goods, especially communitarian ones. (Of course such ascriptive qualities need to be fettered by things such as requirements of basic consent, and respect for rights.)
I see the essential Burkean point on this issue as being that many of the goods that we enjoy as a community derive from things that we have not freely or consciously willed, and which may even be connected to – or be legacies of – things we don’t actually want in some respects. In this sense, the Burkean observation is of a piece with the quintessential conservative point about tradeoffs: not all good things necessarily go together. One might like capitalism, for instance, even if it originally arose from a dissenting Protestant culture that some would find stifling and oppressive if living under it today. But while we may chafe at some elements of the resulting edifice, it isn’t necessarily possible to pick and choose from amongst them without imperiling the whole, and thus doing more harm than good. Societies are complex things that have evolved and grown, and they cannot simply be deconstructed at will in order surgically to remove only what we dislike. Such things may turn out to be connected to the things we do like, or the things we simply need.
You won’t get too much argument from me on that.
Conservatives are often loath to try to draw social and political lessons from science, and for some good reasons. Too many often well-intentioned but ultimately counter-productive (or simply oppressive) efforts to reengineer humanity have been undertaken out of the belief that the social engineer has “scientifically” ascertained the rules of human interaction and the magic recipe by which we can compulsorily be remade into ideal persons who will live together in peace, prosperity, and justice. Those believing themselves to have deduced the Right Answer are frequently tempted, in Eric Voeglin’s marvelously ornate phrasing, to try to immanentize the eschaton – that is, to try to achieve some transcendent, heaven-like state of affairs in the present world – by squeezing the rest of humanity forcibly into their mold. Ideas about religion have in the past been the most obvious source of such brutal certainty, but these days one is as likely to hear immanentizing certainties from agenda-pushers who invoke something to do with science.
That said, however, I’ve long suspected that conservatives can learn at least something about socio-political affairs from science – not least from the insights that Complexity Theory seems to offer into the wrongheadedness of assuming that complex adaptive systems, including human society, can be remade to order on the basis of purposive policy inputs. Extremely sensitive to initial conditions and subject to complicated positive and negative feedback loops, behavior in complex adaptive systems tends to defy the linear assumptions and confident predictions of those who would steer them into desirably transformed future configurations by trying to press the right buttons today. (This is by no means to say that it is impossible to build a better future, of course, but my guess is that one is usually on firmer ground with repeated sober “nudges” than with the intoxications of the transformative leap.) There is a lesson from Complexity Science, perhaps, in the limits of science – and perhaps human rationality itself – as a guide to directing society into some desired future mold.
Either way, however, I can see how you might be suspicious of voluntarist sovereignty as yet another clever but dangerously simple idea around which to prescribe behavior in societies that in reality operate according to complex, organically-grown practices and on the basis of innumerable subtle contingencies. But I would urge you, in this vein, to consider voluntarism again, in comparison to its alternative.
To some extent, one might consider volkism to be its own sort of scientistic travesty. The ideology of unchanging, naturally-occurring “peoples” is not an attempt to remake humans into some kind of New Man, of course. It is much more reactionary in spirit than that, and seeks not to transform humanity but to recognize and act on the basis of the assumed fact that some special essence permanently distinguishes various portions of it from each other. Volkism’s transformative aspirations, such as they are, lie more along the lines of seeking to remake the international system on the basis of one particular theory of where the “natural” boundaries ought to lie – thereafter fixing this result in place forever.
In struggling with where to draw these essentialist boundaries, moreover, volkism has historically flirted with some pretty noxious scientisms. (Think of phrenology, for instance, or the pseudo-sciences of 19th-Century race-essentialism.) And even where the science of distinction has been respectable – and here I’m willing to acknowledge the merits of disciplines such as ethnology, linguistics, and anthropology in identifying genuine differences that exist between different populations – volkism has been scientistic in its desire to reify those differences and make them the basis for a reengineered political order, by constructing the state system around them.
Voluntarist sovereignty, in a sense, may help save the notion of nation from such conceits, because while it is happy to recognize differences where they are felt – and where they are felt to be of such salience that they deserve to be made the foundation of global political order – it does not reify them. It does not preach to the populations in question about what the right answer is forever, but looks instead to these populations’ own sensibilities as its guide. In somewhat more Burkean terms, one might even say that voluntarist sovereignty is intrinsically organic.
Hmmm. Maybe. But voluntarism still feels wrong; it smacks of being too easy a theory, and a recipe for too changeable and unstable a political order. That doesn’t mean volkism has a better answer, of course: its a priori certainties are too rigid. The true conservative may be better off shunning any approach that purports to offer a crisp, easy answer in describing and prescribing rules of behavior for our enormously complex world. Our Enlightenment minds want to subject everything to iron laws derived from Reason. The subtlety of reality does not deserve such chains.
By the way, voluntarism is an interesting term. I usually think of it in a theological context, as the concept of the dominance of the human will typified in the late medievals like Ockham and the early Protestants. In this sense, voluntarism stands opposed to the rationalistic theories that assume that reason has more inherent power to compel action. In particular, this old idea of voluntarism applies to the understanding of God: the voluntarists saw Him as being entirely omnipotent, even beyond the Logos, Reason. (Rationalists like Thomas Aquinas sought to reconcile this tension.)
You’re beyond my depth there. I intended no comparison to the medieval theological usage of voluntarism, and it sounds like the basic sense in which they used it may be something almost opposite of my intention. I posit volkist sovereignty being based upon a notion of identity as almost unchosen, or exogenously given: it just is. By contrast, its voluntarist counterpart roots identity in the action of human will, in a choice or feeling of affinity.
At any rate, I’m not arguing that voluntary choice creates the relevant national identity. Politically-salient affinity may develop for lots of reasons, which I would not presume to prejudge. I merely suggest that some kind of choice is necessary to take one particular sense of identity that one happens to have, and transform it into a national one by declaring that this sense has superlative salience as the principal identity around which to organize political affairs. Choice doesn’t have to create the sense of self, but it is needed to recognize it. Some kind of recourse to choice, I would think, is needed to identify a potential national identity as a national identity, instantiating this particular sense of self as the locus of sovereignty.
Yes, good point. One can compare the Holy Roman Empire (or its Habsburg heir) as an example of sovereignty without a strict sense of nationhood – a phenomenon which came only later, in various bits and pieces of the empire, and resulted ultimately in its fragmentation. I suppose one could say there was a replacement of one notion of sovereignty by another. To use your terms, however, that process seems often to have been as much volkist as voluntarist. It’s not clear how democratic all the post-Austro-Hungarian states were, but they certainly seem to have had strong volk-nationalist self-understandings. I understand your points about voluntarism, but it is still is hard not to be struck, in a Hegelian sort of way, by the fact that History has so tightly linked ethnicity with nationhood and nationhood with sovereignty.
For my part, I agree with Chris’ critique of volkism. Though it purports to be ever so “natural” or inevitable a way of categorizing, there really is no obvious way to aggregate or disaggregate people on that principle, at least given historical examples. Germany, for example, aggregated on the basis of a common language, despite significant cultural differences across the Germanic territory. Other states have disaggregated based on what, to an outsider, might seem the most trivial of differences, common language be damned. For a theory that claims such a deep basis in inarguable type of identity, it’s suspicious that there is so little consistency and coherence to volkism in practice.
But let me get back to voluntarism. What I was expecting, as I started to read Chris’ original July 4th essay, was that he would contrast the volk-nationalist organizing principle with America’s own organizing principle: sovereignty based not on shared history, culture, language, or ethnicity, but rather on shared ideals. (That’s the key to the United States’ success as a nation of immigrants.) Off the top of my head, I cannot think of any other state organized quite so fundamentally on this basis. America’s is obviously a type of voluntarist sovereignty, but it’s a special kind.
I agree completely about the very special sort of identity involved in the American project. This is a type of shared identity that really isn’t about “identity” in the conventional sense at all. It is not really about feeling that one is necessarily like one’s fellow citizens – for they may be of a range of different backgrounds, colors, languages, and cultures sufficient to make any volkist’s head spin – except simply in that one shares with them a commitment to a particular set of organizing principles, a set of rules for constructing a polity.
I understand, of course, that this description is an ideal type. There may be all sorts of cross-currents and tensions as the American reality is actually lived, including volkist identities that push in different directions, and even counter-currents of shared ideals contrary to those of the system as a whole. But there’s still enough truth to the characterization – an extraordinary amount, I would argue – to make America a fascinating and valuable counter-example. Particularly given the fact that I put up my “On Sovereignty” essay on Independence Day, I was indeed remiss not to mention this.
But let me switch gears a little. I’m surprised that the feedback on my “On Sovereignty” piece has focused entirely on the implications of voluntarist theory for what are pretty much issues of domestic affairs – that is, what it would have meant for Southern secession in the United States, or whether I slighted the deeply-felt identities of well-established nations. I had expected that the most complaints would actually come from readers concerned about the potential impact of a thoroughgoing voluntarist theory in international affairs, and for international law. After all, it wouldn’t be hard to paint a voluntarist as arguing that dictatorships do not (and cannot) enjoy the status of sovereign states. That could certainly have potentially radical implications, no? I’m surprised no one has complained.
Well, let me jump in, then – though less to complain than to highlight your point. To our credit, in modern times people now think a lot about the duties that states owe to their peoples. This was not a significant factor when the basic framework of today’s system of state sovereignty was established in the 17th Century, nor even when the United Nations was set up. But as we think about sovereignty today, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that sovereignty is a concept that is being redefined, and that the primary duty of the state is to protect people – where real sovereignty resides. This is my view, as well as that of liberal internationalist luminaries such as George Soros and former Senator Alan Cranston, both of whom have written on the subject. Perhaps we should welcome you to our company, Chris!
And such thinking does, indeed, have radical implications, for I think this duty to protect people has international spillover effects: states have a duty to help citizens in other states too, as well as to ensure the viability of the global commons and the ecological systems upon which all people depend. In the security arena, we’ve already seen the development of the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) in international law, set forth by the U.N. General Assembly in 2005 and presently forming the core of the rationale for humanitarian military operations in Libya. But the idea goes beyond preventing dictators from attacking their people. A state must not permit avoidable catastrophes such a mass murder, rape, or starvation. If it is unable or unwilling to do so then others have a right and responsibility to intervene, even with force if necessary.
And to think that liberals decried U.S. neoconservatives as out-of-control interventionists! The head spins ….
For the record – before Johannes lumps me in with the liberal neo-interventionists – I think the kind of voluntarist sovereignty that I was discussing doesn’t go quite so far as “R2P.” If one has the ability to help those who are being oppressed or otherwise facing catastrophe, there may be a moral obligation to do something. But that’s not the same thing as there being a legal one. It’s a whole different ballgame to start requiring intervention!
The actual phrasing of the General Assembly’s 2005 pronouncement on the subject, by the way, is actually quite squirmy on the precise nature of the “responsibility” that all states have to help protect suffering populations. It declares only that countries are “prepared to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner, through the Security Council … on a case-by-case basis … should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities manifestly fail to protect their populations.”
Pledging to be “prepared” to take action, however, isn’t the same thing as being obliged to act, or even promising to do so. (According to the General Assembly, one is apparently also expected to evaluate things on a “case by case basis,” and through the frequently veto-paralyzed Security Council. This offers everyone lots of chances to demur.) All in all, to my eye, this so-called “World Summit” proclamation doesn’t really look like more than just another airy U.N. exhortation to do good things.
Nevertheless, R2P is indeed being thrown around by its supporters as a new concept in international law – sometimes by actually by misquoting the General Assembly by ad libbing new phrasing about how “the international community must take stronger measures” if lesser ones fail. And that’s where I think R2P advocacy gets out in front of the kind of voluntarist sovereignty we’ve been discussing.
To my eye, a voluntarist conception of sovereignty might in certain cases provide what could be called an opportunity to protect – “O2P”? – in the sense that intervening against a dictatorship such as that of Muammar Qaddafi would not be a violation of Libyan sovereignty because that government had no genuine sovereignty to start with. But it doesn’t follow so clearly that intervening in the internal affairs of a democracy would be permitted. (In fact, it might well not be, for that would seem to be a violation of its voluntarist sovereignty.) Moreover, merely delegitimizing the purported sovereignty of dictatorships – that is, making intervention lawfully available against them – is a long way from making it obligatory to intervene.
R2P would go much further than simply delegitimizing the claims to sovereignty made by dictatorships. It would seem to require action where someone needs protection, and would seem – on its face – to be indifferent to whether the target government is one with democratic legitimacy. I’m not comfortable going so far.
Especially given your acknowledgement that it might be immoral not to act to save someone if one has it within one’s power to do so, perhaps you should be comfortable going there.
Anyway, R2P is an emerging norm, and it’s more than just an “airy exhortation” now. U.N. Security Council Resolution 1973 authorized intervention in Libya after discussing “the responsibility of the Libyan authorities to protect the Libyan population.” We’re seeing state practice start to cement the new norm in place.
Resolution 1973 certainly talks about the Libyan government’s obligation to protect its own people, but I think you’ll search the document in vain for any clear endorsement of the idea that other states have a responsibility to protect Libyans, or that such a responsibility allows them to trump Libyan sovereignty. In the Resolution, the Security Council expressed its “determination” to protect Libyan civilians, but there is not clear that it feels obliged to do so.
Moreover, Resolution 1973 makes clear that the Council remains committed to “the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity” of Libya. You could argue, therefore, that that the Security Council is not declaring an exception to Libyan sovereignty on the basis of some “responsibility to protect,” but in fact affirming the sovereignty of the Libyan people as against their government. (Last week, by the way, the United States said it would recognize the Libyan opposition as that country’s legitimate government.) All this may in fact be an endorsement voluntarist sovereignty as I understand it, but it’s not quite what most R2P proponents seem to be talking about.
And let’s not forget that Resolution 1973 also declared the situation in Libya to be “a threat to international peace and security.” That’s what the Security Council needs to say in order to invoke its considerable powers under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, but it seems to undercut the idea that Libya is all about the international community’s responsibility to protect Libyans: authorizing intervention on the basis of the existence of a threat to peace and security between states doesn’t sound much like an argument for the existence of a legal norm of intervention solely on the basis of what’s happening inside one.
I don’t think we’re there yet.
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