Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Reading Notes: Jeremy Rabkin's "Law Without Nations?"

In the introduction to his new book Law Without Nations? Why Constitutional Government Requires Sovereign States,

Jeremy Rabkin describes the aim of his volume as follows: “to explain why American constitutional traditions make it hard for the United States to embrace schemes of global governance which find so much favor in other countries, particularly in western Europe”.

Underscoring why this approach to current transatlantic disputes might be of particular interest, he writes: “it is ultimately the Constitution that makes the United States a nation”. This phrase – which will, I think, seem more or less self-evident to Americans – nonetheless gives cause to pause, since precisely in its self-evidence it highlights the chasm separating the essentially political conception of nationhood underlying the American order from the “völkisch” or ethnic conception that has been and remains fundamental in Germany and is becoming increasingly prevalent throughout Europe. Not only would the claim that “it is ultimately the Constitution that makes Germany a nation” not be self-evident – though it only came into being in 1949, the current Federal Republic of Germany, nonetheless, considers itself to be the legal successor of the 2nd or Wilhelmine German Reich, which pre-dates even the Weimar constitution – but the very phrase would in German seem not entirely colloquial. In the sense of nationhood proper to German tradition, it is fundamentally “the” Germans (or “the Americans” or “the Czechs”, etc.) that are a nation. This is shown by, among other things, the large interchangeability in German usage of the Germanic word Volk and the Latinate Nation (see, for instance, Fichte’s famous Addresses to the German Nation [Reden an die deutsche Nation]. Germany is – “merely” – a state. (And, in still more remote traditions, it not even that, but only the territory traditionally or predominantly inhabited by “the Germans”.)

The undermining of constitutional government by what Rabkin calls “Eurogovernance” might have something to do with the retreat of the political conception of nationhood before the “völkisch” conception that is so conspicuous in Europe nowadays. For political nationhood is, in effect – and as Jeremy Rabkin’s remark suggests – a function of constitutional government. The “people” or “nation” in a political sense is just the totality of those who under a given constitution are entitled either to exercise legitimate authority or to select those who do. As Rabkin’s presentation makes clear, however, “Eurogovernance” more closely resembles (and seemingly draws its inspiration from) imperial schemes of government (i.e. in the medieval European sense of “imperial”) that subject a multiplicity of “peoples” – hence, necessarily, “peoples” in a “pre-political” or, in effect, ethnic sense – to a common authority of which they are not the source.

Jeremy Rabkin’s book will be of great interest to all Europeans (and others) of good faith who want to discover the principled basis for the American rejection of contemporary European “multilateralism” – an expression which has become, in effect, just a buzzword for Eurogovernance writ large and applied to the entire planet. (In the literal sense of the expression, American foreign policy is, of course, already “multilateral”, notwithstanding the fact that the leading continental European powers – i.e. those powers who most frequently accuse the US of “unilateralism” – have not of late been privileged partners.) It is especially highly recommended for Americans who want to understand better what they stand to lose if they take the path of least resistance – i.e. the path recommended with increasing virulence by most of the leadership of the Democrat Party nowadays – and concede to European demands for the US to join European-inspired "global governance" schemes like the Kyoto Protocol or the International Criminal Court.