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June 18, 2003

The End of Politics
by Mark Lilla

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Post date 06.17.03 |Issue date 06.23.03 Email this article. E-mail this article


Somewhere in his writings Leo Strauss remarks that the Jewish problem is the political problem in nuce. This pregnant remark was meant to invite two sorts of reflections. One, the most obvious, concerns the historical fate of world Jewry, from the biblical age down through the Diaspora and the establishment of the state of Israel. The other, less obvious, concerns the light that Judaism as a social fact sheds on our understanding of politics more generally. Here Strauss had in mind what he called the "theological-political problem," which he saw as the unavoidable tension between political authority and divine revelation. But the Jewish problem is significant in a third sense, too. For how nations or civilizations cope with the existence of the Jews can, at certain historical junctures, reveal political pathologies whose causes have little or nothing to do with Judaism as such. There are periods when the acuteness of the Jewish problem is a symptom of a deeper malaise in political life and political ideas.

There is little doubt that contemporary Europe is passing through such a moment. It is not the first. Throughout Europe's history there have been periods in which a crisis in political ideas had important consequences for Jews in their relations with other Europeans. The anti-Semitic persecutions of the Middle Ages, which had many sources, also coincided with a disturbance in European thinking about the relation between ecclesiastical power and secular power, between the City of God and the City of Man. The emancipation of the Jews in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries coincided with the epochal shift from absolutism to theories of republicanism and democracy. And the rejection of those Enlightenment political concepts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the name of nationalist, racialist, and anti-modern ideals portended events that will shape Jewish consciousness for all time.

Today Europeans find themselves living in what historians call a "saddle period." One distinct age has passed, that of the Cold War, and an obscure new one has begun. Looking back on the era just ended, one fact is especially striking about the intellectual life of Western Europe, or "old Europe": the omnipresence of political ideologies and passions, and the relative absence of serious political thought, understood as disciplined and impartial reflection about distinctly political experience. There were exceptions to this intellectual collapse, and they are widely recognized and revered today: Isaiah Berlin and Michael Oakeshott in Britain, Raymond Aron in France, Norberto Bobbio in Italy, and perhaps a few others. But due to the overwhelming attraction of Marxism and structuralism in all their variants, the influence of these thinkers on wider intellectual discussions was actually quite limited in this period. What was paradoxical about those schools was that they encouraged political engagement while at the same time absorbing all thinking about political experience into amorphous discussions of larger historical, economic, or linguistic forces. The result was that political action intensified as political thought atrophied.

Viewed in retrospect, the intellectual flight from political thought in Europe now appears as a reaction to, and a means of coping with, the unique conditions of the Cold War. After the disasters of the first half of the twentieth century, Western European politics were put on ice--or at least some of the essential questions were. Economies were reorganized, constitutions rewritten, parliaments and parties reconstituted, social mores revised. But the most fundamental issue for all modern nation-states--the issue of sovereignty--could not be addressed, because neither the European community as a whole nor Western European countries individually were fully sovereign. The concept of "sovereignty" has been given many, even incompatible, meanings over the centuries, but at its core is the notion of autonomy, which in political terms means the capacity to defend oneself and, when necessary, to decide to wage war. In this respect European nations were not sovereign during the Cold War. There were good reasons why that was so, and why for decades Western European thinkers were relieved not to have to think about such matters, and the United States and NATO were relieved to do their thinking for them. It was a prudent arrangement, but in the end it had unhealthy intellectual consequences.

Those consequences have been on public display in two related spheres since 1989. The most important is Continental thinking about the European Union. In the early postwar decades, there was some inspiring talk about a "United States of Europe," but as the decades wore on, the concept of "Europe" came to have little meaning beyond economic cooperation. Over the past decade, though, we have witnessed an extremely uncritical embrace of the idea of Europe among Western European intellectuals generally, and its invocation as a kind of charm against the most difficult political questions facing the Continent today. There are many reasons for this, and they differ country by country. In formerly fascist countries--Germany, Italy, Spain--the idea of the nation-state remains in ill repute, while the blissfully undefined notion of "Europe" inspires pacific, post-political hopes. In France, the idea of Europe is generally seen not as a substitute for the nation but as a tool for constraining German might on the Continent and American influence from across the Atlantic. And for intellectuals in the smaller countries, belonging to "Europe" means the hope of escaping cultural obscurity.

What Europe means as a distinctly political entity remains a mystery to all involved. The wisest European commentators worry about this. They are concerned about what is called the "democratic deficit" in the European institutions of Brussels and Strasbourg. They also wonder how widely the community can be extended, not only in economic terms but, as in the case of Turkey, also in cultural ones. Yet serious reflection about the nature of European sovereignty and its relation to national sovereignty is rare these days, except among academic specialists. And so natural concerns about the future of the nation, and the public debate about it, have been left to xenophobes and chauvinists, of whom there are more than a few in every European country.

It is nothing less than extraordinary that the idea of the nation-state as the locus of political action and political reflection fell so quickly and so silently into oblivion among Western European thinkers in our time. The great exception that proves the rule is France, where passionate appeals to the Gaullist tradition of national autonomy have run up against equally passionate appeals to European and international cooperation, leading to the kind of diplomatic incoherence that was recently put on display at the United Nations. There are some understandable reasons for this development, too. After all, one of the important lessons that Europeans have drawn from their twentieth-century history is that nationalism is always a danger, and that it can infect and eventually destroy liberal democracy.

But what are the serious alternatives to the nation-state as a form of political life? Historically speaking, we know what they are: tribe and empire, neither of which Europeans wish to restore as their preferred form of political association. Between those extremes there have been short-lived experiments with small, defenseless republics and weak, ephemeral leagues or alliances. But for more than two centuries the fate of decent and humane politics in Europe has been tied to that of the nation-state as the dominant form of European political life. And we can see why. If a moderately sized political entity is to attract the loyalty and the commitment of its citizens, it must find a way to bind them together; and among the ties it finds ready to hand are those of language, religion, and culture, broadly understood. Yes, those ties are artifacts of history, subject to manipulation and "invention"; they are not brute facts. But they are, politically speaking, extremely useful inventions, given that only the rarest of states could generate those ties by civic means alone. (Not even the United States or Switzerland manages to do so.) One of the long-standing puzzles of politics is how to wed political attachment (which is particular) to political decency (which knows no borders). The nation-state has been the best modern means discovered so far of squaring the circle, opening a political space for both reasonable reflection and effective action.

It may be that the European Union will turn out to be something new, and beneficent, on the European political landscape. I am skeptical, but it is possible. What is certainly clear, though, is that European institutions have not yet reached that stage, nor do they have the kind of public legitimacy that would permit them to be the focus of political life in terms of action or attachment, let alone reflection. So what is the focus of intellectual reflection on European politics today? The nation is still there, but it must lurk in the background, unacknowledged. To paraphrase the wicked Joseph de Maistre, I have never yet met a "European" intellectual: I have met French intellectuals, Italian intellectuals, and German intellectuals, and I have heard it rumored that there are English intellectuals; but there are no "European" intellectuals. Writers and thinkers still use their national languages, they still absorb themselves in parochial national debates, and they still take rather characteristic national stands on certain issues. Yet all these realities notwithstanding, the idea of the nation-state as a distinct form of political life is simply not an important theme for Western European thinkers at this time. They have, thankfully, stopped trying to answer the question of whether a nation has an "essence"--Renan's famous question, qu'est-ce qu'une nation? But they have also, more disturbingly, ceased to think seriously about the political function of nation-states-- quoi sert la nation?

The debacle of the Balkans in the late 1990s, and Western Europe's painfully slow response to the threats of political collapse and even genocide there, had something to do with this intellectual paralysis. For the first time in fifty years, European thinkers faced a military crisis to which they could have responded, and probably should have responded, without American assistance. But who exactly was supposed to respond? The nation-states of Europe, acting alone or in concert? Or "Europe," the European community, conceived as a coherent political entity? Many European intellectuals were opposed to any intervention, on different grounds, and sometimes on purely pacifist ones, as in Germany. A number of quite prominent thinkers, especially in France, called for intervention on humanitarian grounds, though without much caring what sort of political entity handled the job. As German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, one of the earliest and most vigorous supporters of intervention, remarked in a recent interview, pan-European institutions simply are not yet capable of handling these sorts of crises. And so the catastrophe in the Balkans proceeded for a long time unimpeded. Europeans no longer think of the nation-state as the sole place where foreign policy should be determined and military means chosen, but they are not yet able to treat the European Union as that place. As a result, they have generally ceased to think seriously and responsibly about such matters.

It will be said by some intellectuals that that is because Europeans, given their recent history, have discovered the need to regulate such matters through international law and organizations. But this simply removes the problem to a higher, and far less stable, plane. If the sovereignty and the political legitimacy of the European Union is a complicated business, the moral and political authority of the United Nations or a World Criminal Court or non-governmental organizations is infinitely more so. It is simply a fantasy to think that the perennial problems of politics can be dissolved through progressive juridification or humanitarian aid, which is what some very serious European thinkers, notably Jurgen Habermas, clearly have in mind. The danger is not that thinking so might make it true; it is that no amount of thinking ever will. Wars that involve European nations will happen, sovereignty will be exercised--and European thinkers will simply be less prepared to understand both of those inevitabilities if the fantasy of escaping them retains its grip on the European mind.


It is against the backdrop of this intellectual crisis of sovereignty that the contemporary "Jewish question" in Europe must be seen. For centuries that question was, broadly speaking, one of inclusion: what sorts of people could be citizens and under what conditions, whether religion mattered, whether differences could be tolerated. This form of the problem still exists in Europe, though today Muslims are more likely to be the object of prejudice and violence than Jews are. The battle for toleration as an idea has largely been won; the challenges now are to put it into practice and to understand its limits within each national context.

It is not the idea of tolerance that is in crisis in Europe today, it is the idea of the nation-state, and the related concepts of sovereignty and the use of force. And these ideas have also affected European intellectual attitudes toward world Jewry, and specifically toward Israel. Here there is an extraordinary paradox that deserves to be savored. For centuries Jews were the stateless people and suffered at the hands of Europeans who were deeply rooted in their own nations. The early Zionists, from Hess to Herzl, drew a very simple lesson from this experience: that Jews could not live safely or decently until they had their own state. Those who claim today that the state of Israel is the brainchild of nineteenth-century European thought are not wrong; this is hardly a secret. But the point is often made with sinister intent, as if to suggest that Israel and the Zionist enterprise more generally represent some kind of political atavism that enlightened Europeans should spurn. Once upon a time, the Jews were mocked for not having a nation-state. Now they are criticized for having one.

And not just any nation-state, but one whose founding is still fresh in living memory. All political foundings, without exception, are morally ambiguous enterprises, and Israel has not escaped these ambiguities. Two kinds of fools and bigots refuse to see this: those who deny or explain away the Palestinian suffering caused by Israel's founding, and those who treat that suffering as the unprecedented consequence of a uniquely sinister ideology. The moral balance-sheet of Israel's founding, which is still being composed, must be compared to those of other nations at their conception, not to the behavior of other nations after their existence was secured. And it is no secret that Israel must still defend itself against nations and peoples who have not reconciled themselves to its existence--an old, but now forgotten, European practice. Many Western European intellectuals, including those whose toleration and even affection for Jews cannot be questioned, find all this incomprehensible. The reason is not anti-Semitism nor even anti-Zionism in the usual sense. It is that Israel is, and is proud to be, a nationstate--the nation-state of the Jews. And that is profoundly embarrassing to post-national Europe.

Consider the issue from the perspective of a young European who might have grown up in the postwar world. From his first day of school he would have been taught the following lesson about twentieth-century history: that all its disasters can be traced to nationalism, militarism, and racism. He might even have learned that Jews were the main victims of these political pathologies, and would have developed a certain sympathy for their plight. But as he grew up he would have begun to learn about contemporary Israel, mainly in light of the conflict with the Palestinians, and his views would probably have begun to change. From his own history he would have concluded that nations are suspect entities, that the distinction they make between insider and outsider is immoral, and that military force is to be forsworn. He would then have likely concluded that contemporary Israel violates all these maxims: it is proudly independent, it distinguishes between Jew and non-Jew, it defends itself without apology. The charges that Zionism is racism, or that Israel is behaving like the Nazis in the occupied territories, undoubtedly have roots in anti-Semitism; but frustration with the very existence of Israel and the way it handles its challenges has a more proximate cause in European intellectual life. That cause is the crisis in the European idea of a nation-state.

Anyone who pays close attention to how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is handled in the European press, and even in intellectual journals, will see this frustration expressed on a regular basis. I do not think this can be ascribed solely to European pro-Arabism, just as American press coverage cannot be attributed entirely to the feelings of Jewish Americans for Israel. I am convinced that at a deeper level the differences have something to do with the way Americans and Europeans think about political life more generally today, differences that Robert Kagan has highlighted in his powerful little book Of Paradise and Power. While it may not be true that Americans are uniformly Martian (Woodrow Wilson was not Belgian, after all), Kagan is correct that the European consensus today, from left to right, is thoroughly Venutian in spirit. This causes occasional friction with the United States, but it is a source of fundamental disaccord with the Zionist project. For Zionists today are indeed from Mars, par la force des choses.

Even European sympathy for the Palestinian people, which is understandable and honorable, has an oddly apolitical quality to it. One would think that those concerned about the future of the Palestinians, and not simply about their present suffering, would be thinking chiefly about how to remove them from tutelage to terrorist and fundamentalist organizations, and how to establish a legitimate, law-abiding, and liberal political authority that could negotiate in good faith with Israel and manage Palestinian domestic affairs in a transparent manner. But there is almost no intellectual awareness in Europe of the political obstacles to peace that exist among the Palestinians, nor has there been much encouragement of political reform. To judge by what is written, the European fantasy of the future Middle East is not of decent, liberal nation-states living side by side in peace, but of some sort of post-national, post-political order growing up under permanent international supervision. Not Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat shaking hands, but Hans Blix zipping around Palestine in his little truck.

Anyone schooled in the history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is well aware of the political pathologies of the nation-state and the idolatry that it invites. The legitimacy of the nation-state should not be confused with the idolatry of the nation-state. But for many in Western Europe today, learning the grim lesson of modern history has also brought with it a forgetting of all the long-standing problems that the nation-state, as a modern form of political life, managed to solve. The Zionist tradition knows what those problems were. It remembers what it was to be stateless, and the indignities of tribalism and imperialism. It remembers the wisdom of borders and the need for collective autonomy to establish self-respect and to demand respect from others. It recognizes that there is a cost, a moral cost, to defending a nation-state and exercising sovereignty; but it also recognizes that the cost is worth paying, given the alternatives. Eventually Western Europeans will have to re-learn these lessons, which are, after all, the lessons of their own pre-modern history. Until they do, the mutual incomprehension regarding Israel between Europeans and Jews committed to Zionism will remain deep. There is indeed a new Jewish problem in Europe, because there is a new political problem in Europe.

Mark Lilla

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