Saturday, September 22, 2007

Ilya Somin on potential breakup in Belgium

The redoubtable Ilya Somin, over at Volokh Conspiracy, has a post here on articles speculating on the possibility of a breakup of Belgium into its two major ethnic and linguistic parts. The post goes on to discuss the virtues, and limits, of federalism. A couple of quick thoughts in no particular order.

1. Federalism tends to work best where there are more than two ethnic/linguistic groups in play. Binary federalism tends to feed into a zero sum game. I have sometimes thought (on no actual evidence whatsoever) that the prominence given to native peoples in Canada represented, apart from Canadian guilt spasms over past behavior, a rather clever ideological move to broaden the federalism discussion from two to three, and with the addition of Canadian style multiculturalism, a melange of everyone - every one his own minority - so to water down the nature of conflict by introducing so many of them. Canada has gone rather whole hog for the idea that to be Canadian is to be a minority, thus watering down the very idea of being a minority, at least a French-speaking Quebecker. The confusion introduced has the very great virtue - from the standpoint of Candada's governing elites in Ontario at least - of committing the management of all those many mini-conflicts into the hands of federal authorities.

2. It has been widely remarked, of course, that supra-federal structures such as the EU facilitate breakup along ethnic and linguistic lines because people inside the dissolving nation state feel less risk of civil war. This is particularly true of minorities left within the now dissolved nation state - the supra-federal structure will protect them from ethnic cleansing. The potential costs of dissolving are reduced, and from the standpoint of the supra-federal structure, it has the virtue of creating entities smaller than nation-states that are quite dependent upon it politically. This conception of the Roman empire reduplicated within the EU, with relatively homogenous ethnic and linguistic units inside it, has deep roots in Carl Schmitt - and I don't mean this here in order to tar this idea with the brush of Schmitt's reactionary collaboration with the Nazis, but it is historically true of this strand of intellectual thought within Europe. It is also not very compatible with genuine labor mobility within the empire - Poles moving to France, etc.

3. A test of federalism is not merely its ability to hold together a country, but its ability peaceably to oversee its breakup. The great example is the breakup of Czechoslovakia; if there is any example that is relevant to Belgium, that is it.

4. My own first practical encounter with pressures to breakup was in Yugoslavia in the middle 1980s, under Tito still, and long before it had fallen into civil war. I was monitoring the place for Human Rights Watch, and in Slovenia began to perceive that "progressive" opinion in each of those places had reached the conclusion that Slovenia was forced to pay for the impending disaster in Serbia and Kosovo, both in money and in conscript troops. They didn't want to get involved in the dispute between the Serbs and Albanians - and they understood very early on that ultimately, that was the fight, not with the Croats. They also didn't want to keep paying the costs of the Yugoslav wealth-transfer welfare state, believing correctly that it imposed serious costs on the standard of living in Slovenia. The Slovenes opted out of Yugoslavia on a combination of (a) washing their hands of the rest of the Yugoslav conflicts, (b) having maintained, very, very fortunately from their view, a homogenous population that had not accepted into Slovenian territory large numbers of Albanians or Serbs, (c) a completely hard headed economic calculation that the rest of Yugoslavia was an economic albatross around Slovenia's neck.

5. My other early encounter with Yugoslav separatism was at the very beginning of the Serbia-Croatia phase of the war. Indeed, in retrospect it must have been one of the very first armed encounters, if not the first. Human Rights Watch's experienced and wise Helsinki Watch director, Jeri Laber, and I, along with a Croatian intellectual who was unusual for being simultaneously a liberal humanist human-rights universalist but also a Croatian nationalist who favored separation, were out visiting places outside of the main cities that were going through waves of panic. We had been at a couple of Serb nationalist speeches in various rural places in Serbia, and we were now going through Croat villages. The big issue at the moment was the status of arms deposited at the local police stations as part of plans against an invasion either by the Warsaw Pact or NATO - now those arms would wind up fuelling the ethnic breakup, if the particular governments of Croatia, etc., could lay hands on them before the Yugoslav Army could seize them. Anyway, we wound up in one village where no one seemed to be about at all. Our Croatian companion suggested we simply wait - so we did. The villagers came back in small groups several hours later - they had gone to hide in the forest because, they explained, they remembered the ethnic slaughters and burnings of villages in the Second World War. I naively thought at the time that they were a bunch of peasants repeating their grandfathers' actions - the Yugoslavia I knew was an urbane, highly modern, politically relaxed place - whatever had happened in the past, it was way too civilized ever to behave like that again. It was as inconceivable to me as France and Germany going to war again. And boy was I wrong, of course.

But while we waited, I had a long conversation with my Croatian friend. His commitment to the universalism of human rights was real, and so was his belief that it was completely compatible with an independent Croatia. Which is true; the baseline human rights he supported wholeheartedly applied whether to Yugoslavia or to Croatia. But I asked him what was so important about an independent Croatia. Indeed, I quizzed him closely about what exactly he believed that a Croatia could do independently that he thought it was important to do now. I asked if he thought it was crucial that Croatia have an independent army - only, he said, to protect against the Serbs, but for that he preferred the UN or the then-EC because they would be neutral as against both Serbs and Croats. I asked if it was in order to control the economy - so that, as Slovenia had concluded, it would have control over its own economic destiny and not be forever subsidizing basket cases further south; he told me that Croatia was too small to be economically successful except as part of a larger economic unit, preferably the EC, and anyway he understood perfectly that Croatia needed to be economically integrated with Serbia. I asked whether it was that most traditional of sovereign state functions, the emittance and control of a currency - at which he looked genuinely shocked and said, you must be joking - turn control of a currency over to the rapacity of the government, no, no, no, the currency must be controlled by the EC, otherwise there would be hyperinflation within three years. Surprised by this point, I ran down the list of pretty much everything that a sovereign state would consider to be the crucial matters of sovereign control - defense, monetary policy, the economy, etc., etc. only to find that everything that I associated with sovereignty was to be controlled by an outside body, the EC, because he didn't trust his compatriots with anything internal, and he feared war with Serbia if there wasn't an outside body in charge of everything external.

A little exasperated, I asked him if there was anything that he thought Croatia should actually control on its own in the name of sovereignty. He said, yes, of course - language, language education in the schools, sponsorship of culture, and television. It all came down to culture - precisely those attributes of culture than a large and genuinely sovereign state more or less takes for granted. It was all about the promotion of Croatian language and culture, and the EC could, and should, control the rest. Echoes of Schmitt were in my head. As for the sizable Serb minority, they would be protected by universal human rights along with a protective regime of minority rights enforced by the EC. It was a very humanistic dream of how to have a relatively homogenous, culture protecting national enclave within a larger empire - and the whole dream fell apart, before the EC could take it all in, in war that broke out in earnest a few weeks later. It was also a peculiar conversation to be having in an empty Croat village where the inhabitants were hiding from the spectres of WWII ghosts that turned out to be not ghosts of atrocities past but ghosts of atrocities to come.

6. The model which many ordinary Muslim immigrants aspire in Europe and, over time perhaps, in the United States is not that of liberal integration, but instead communalism. It nicely fits with the multiculturalism of today's post-liberal West, whether the Netherlands or the United States, that isn't interested in integration, either. The model for many Muslim immigrants of how different groups should fit together is Ottoman. It makes good sense - it is what they came from, in a larger historical sense and, to give it its due, it was a pretty good model over a pretty long time of how to manage an empire with many different peoples and a dominant, but not exclusive, religion. It has the virtue, from the standpoint of immigrants, of putting core parts of one's identity, religion and ethnicity, or more precisely in the West's multiculturalist reinterpretation, religion as ethnicity, at the center of everything. It reinforces identity in a strange land, and it does so in a way that seemed to work back in the semi-golden past of the homelands.

It is also profoundly illiberal, however - a point that seems to bother not at all either large swaths of immigrants or the multiculturalists, including, amazingly enough, the human rights organizations, organizations that would be better described in their ideology as multiculturalists using the language of rights rhetorically (and in the law) to bludgeon opposition to what is really a post-liberal programme. Multiculturalism used to be, in the West, a language of patronization, as well as a conveniently if only superficially a liberal language for those not interested in undertaking the much harder work - because it requires a certain unapologetic cultural coercion - of liberal integration. Multiculturalism is today the language of fear, how elite managers seek cover for policies based, no longer on its patronization of, but on its fear of a population who, if told 'no' about anything that might be construed as religious, doesn't merely shout what it has been taught is the sum total of democratic liberal citizenship - "discrimination!" - but is distressingly prone to add, implicitly or explicitly, "And behead the enemies of Islam."

The fact of multiculturalism will have an effect on federalism in other places, such as Belgium or, for that matter, Canada. What those effects might be is quite uncertain, however. But multiculturalism and its chief client at this moment, various Muslim populations in the West, will necessarily effect calculations of what breakup might mean in places like Belgium.

6. Breakup is favored by many Western intellectuals, or a federalism so loose as to be a "soft" breakup. Iraq, of course, is the chief example. But the most learned and smartest scholar I know on questions of ethnic groups in conflict, Duke's Donald Horowitz, has written repeatedly of how it is that breakup of nation states on ethnic grounds quickly becomes a source of war. Horowitz's classic Ethnic Groups in Conflict is still required reading on this subject, and I strongly recomment his recent Wall Street Journal essays warning of what breakup might well lead to in Iraq, which are excerpted on this blog if you search.

7. The sovereign nation state still seems to me to be the best level - as between the homogenous mini-state or the empire - in which the conditions of liberalism can obtain - the levevl of interaction in which interests and universal values can best be mediated to include both. It avoids the false universality that so many imagine they find in pure cosmopolitanism - the 'citizen of the planet' stuff that so many of my law students, for example, entirely and unselfconsciously cocooned in the security and economic benefits of large nation states, imagine for themselves - while avoiding the chauvinism of unmediated and unchallenged particularity, either ethnic or religious, of the mini-state. Elite hostility to the large democratic nation-state - the only working model of liberalism and, quite possibly, the only political model in which liberalism can, however imperfectly, be realized - has always been mysterious to me and only explained, finally, on grounds of elite interests.


Nathan Wagner said...

Isn't much distaste for nation states in the tradition of the reaction to the world wars and the threat of the Cold War? That is, it follows from the belief that nationalism is a prime cause of conflict and that, if it were possible to mitigate or subsume nationalism - at least as a motivating fixation of governments - wars would be fewer.

The original question put was not, "How do we safeguard minority culture?" nor even, "How do we guarantee rights in the Enlightenment tradition?" but rather, "How do we prevent the disaster of modern armed conflict?"

That the organizational and intellectual heirs of this line of thought are apt to answer new questions with the old solution may be due not to something so base as elite interest but instead to run-of-the-mill intellectual rigidity. Nationalism is the enemy of peace and everything that is good, and it always will be.

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