As we girded for war against Iraq, many conservative talk show hosts, pundits and bloggers were preoccupied with another nation perceived as hostile to American interests: to wit, France. French jokes quickly displaced ridicule of Bill Clinton as fixtures of right-wing humor; French products were showing up on as many boycott lists as Dixie Chicks CDs.
In a sense, this is nothing new. France has been irritating conservatives at least as far back as Edmund Burke, whose Reflections on the Revolution in France was not exactly a Valentine to the Jacobins. The French have also built a welfare state that may be parsimonious by Scandinavian lights, but is still lavish enough to make the average liberal Democrat look like a piker.
The offense that gave birth to "freedom fries" and "freedom toast," however, was France's implacable opposition to the use of military force against Iraq. Rather than side with U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac insisted that his country would veto any United Nations resolution authorizing force. So the U.S., Britain and their allies are now waging war without any formal sanction from the U.N.
There has been a great deal of commentary on what this means for the U.N., the international order, America's role in the world, the war etc. etc. But how does it relate to the National Question?
Russia and China were also threatening to veto any war resolution. Both have recently had troubled relations with the U.S.–remember the spy plane incident with the latter and the Cold War with the former? Both are far more repressive regimes. Vestigial conservative anti-communism alone would seem to make the Russians and the Chinese more compelling villains. Yet Reuben sandwiches are not covered with "freedom dressing." Those in the mood for shrimp lo mein do not go pick up "freedom takeout."
Why has all the outrage, particularly on the right, been against France?
Because France, unlike Russia or China, is part of what used to be called the "Free World." It is quintessentially Western. The Beltway Right is committed to what Howard Sutherland and others have rightly called the half-truth of propositionism–the notion that America is not merely a nation, but an idea. Propositionists have similarly come to believe that the West is essentially this idea writ large. J.P. Zmirak traced this view's origin back to the Cold War, when a universally accessible ideology was needed that could compete with communism.
Of course, the values that propositionists cite–liberty, private property, equality under the law, free enterprise–are indeed political achievements of America and the West. But these achievements are the products of specific cultures, institutions and histories - not simply created out of whole cloth by wise political theorists. Even within the West they evolved differently. To cite just one example: the concept of negative rights that is central to the traditional American understanding of liberty is rooted in the Anglican-Scottish Enlightenment, which differs from the French Enlightenment concept of rights.
"Old European" disagreement with America angers those conservatives who believe that France and to a lesser extent the other major European opponent of the Iraq war, Germany, derive their freedom from agreement with the American/Western idea.
But nation-states are not uniform. It should come as no surprise that America, with its British roots, has more in common with Australia and Britain than with France. Moreover, the breakdown over the war with Iraq, even within the West, is not over abstractions. It is over perceptions of concrete national interests.
Despite soaring rhetoric about liberating the Iraqi people, the Americans and British are acting mainly out of concern for their own security interests. [VDARE NOTE: We hope!] The French and the Germans are acting both out of their own perceived economic interests and a desire to affect the balance of international power in ways favorable to them–through a united Europe–and less favorable to the U.S.
The first Persian Gulf War was often described in terms of a new world order and an empowered U.N. But the current war more accurately reflects the divisions and differing interests of nation-states.
Far from being finished, the nation-state is proving itself to be a more durable and important actor on the global stage than the supranational organizations championed by those the Hudson Institute's John Fonte calls "transnational progressives."
The nation-state lives. It is still the source of significant political and ideological differences. What lessons ought neoconservatives and other propositionists learn?
First, that these differences mean that immigration can alter a nation-state's political consensus. Far from confirming American values, uncontrolled immigration can potentially undermine the very propositions with which the propositionists equate their country.
Not only does France have historical, geopolitical and economic reasons to oppose a U.S.-led war with Iraq, but it also has admitted vast numbers of Muslim immigrants from its former colonies and elsewhere. Its reluctance to support the U.S. is just one clear example of the political impact immigration can have.
The second lesson: national attachments are rarely purely abstract - and often not even purely material. Nations are like extended families. We do not love our families because they are richer than their neighbors or committed to nobler ideologies. We should therefore not expect that immigrants will necessarily assimilate–and those living in other countries will necessarily love us–purely because of our economic prosperity and inspiring pro-freedom ideals.
The nation-state endures - and anyone who wants to come up with a realistic model of understanding the world had better incorporate that fact into it.
W. James Antle III (email him) is a senior editor for Enter Stage Right and a contributor to a number of other webzines.