Having considered the origins of the United States, Australia and Hungary over the past month, it is time to return to the underlying issue of the origin of nations and other communities and the relationship of the individual to community.
In looking at these three examples, we can see that nations originate in the movement of people from one place to another. In the case of the United States and Australia, it was the movement of individuals from different origins to a place and the emergence of a national identity from fragments of other nations that led to the formation of a nation. For Hungary, it was the mass movement of a coherent and self-aware people to the place in which they finally settled that led to the establishment of a nation, even though the Magyar people existed long before the Hungarian nation was created.
All nations, at some point in their history, displace, reshape or destroy another group of people. In this process, which can take years or even centuries, nations form and reform. America is a nation built of people with European and African origins that displaced a large number of other nations. Those nations were collectively called Indians but were actually distinct peoples with unique languages and cultural memories, who also continually displaced each other prior to the arrival of Europeans.
Even in the Bible, we can see a history of displacement of nations, the creation of new nations, and the subsuming of individuals in that matrix. According to the Old Testament, a nation emerges from family. Abraham and Sarah gave rise to a distinct people that victimized and was victimized by others. The nation emerges from core biological relationships and searches for a place to settle. This process is seen as so vital to human existence that God’s relationship to humanity is mediated through the transformation of the family into a nation.
The family and nation are, therefore, intimately linked. Just as the family defines who a child is, so too it defines the nation, and the nation in turn defines the family. When Europeans came to the United States, they came as families or formed families once there, and the emergent power of the national culture was a crucible that shaped these families. There are exceptions, however. African slaves brought to the United States were denied the right to form autonomous families and, therefore, were prevented from developing an organic relationship to the nation, something that resonates centuries later.
In the family, we gain our language and culture, our friends and enemies. But it is in the larger community – the nation – that these things are defined. There are three layers in human existence: the individual, who is born of family and lives within the matrix of family and nation; the family, which creates the individual and transmits the general culture to its members; and the nation, which shapes the culture and confronts other nations to protect the family, sometimes by sacrificing individuals. And all of this occurs in the place in which the nation was created, and that place determines a great deal of the nation’s culture and its enemies.
This model poses a problem for liberal democracy – the doctrine on which the United States was founded. America has two founding principles. The first, and the most important, is the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In elevating this principle to the cornerstone of American society, the United States turned the pursuit of happiness into the central moral project of liberal democracy. In other ideologies, sacrifice and duty to others is at the center. In liberal democracy, it is the individual that is at the heart of the nation.
The second principle is the right to national self-determination. Based on this principle, foreign interference in the right of other nations to govern themselves is viewed as immoral. But the history of humanity is full of such interference – the American Revolution itself was necessary because of the British desire to block the American nation from evolving. Thus, national self-determination is not a moral principle that has been respected or adhered to throughout history.
But this is an old story. The deeper question in liberal democracy is how the right to pursue happiness can be reconciled with an individual’s obligation to the nation. Adam Smith tried to solve the problem by arguing that the individual pursuit of wealth helps nations develop. But that pertains only to economic life. The nation emerges from the bonding together of individuals, and that process creates obligations between them. Those obligations are most extreme when a nation is at war – at such times, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness can be curtailed in the most radical way imaginable.
That creates a moral problem for me. I believe deeply in the American project and in the right to pursue happiness. I also believe deeply in the obligation of citizens to perform their duties as citizens, even to the point of going to war. Since war is endemic to nations, there seems to be a contradiction between the two understandings of citizenship.
There’s a fundamental tension between the individual, the family and the nation. Every human being wishes to be happy. But the nation may demand an individual to sacrifice their happiness, just as a family may require parents to sacrifice their happiness. The desire for happiness would seem to make the family tenuous and the nation almost impossible to create. Yet it is there. It is an objective reality that defines human history. So either liberal democracy’s moral hierarchy is invalid, or the fundamental motivation of human beings must to be seen as more complex than liberal democracy might claim.
This is an important question for my work. The foundation of geopolitics is that place shapes the community, the community shapes the family, and the family shapes the individual. In other words, the individual is a product of powerful forces and is free only in a limited sense. Liberal democracy sees the individual as the fundamental unit of humanity and the driver of history. Both views can’t be true. Therefore, we must make one of three conclusions: liberal democracy is wrong (which would be a tragedy for me), geopolitics does not grasp reality (which I think it does), or the two can be reconciled on some subtler level.
That’s where I want to go. Let’s see if I can get there.