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In other words, the “global community” is a mirage, no more a real human community than an on-line chat room. Our collective identities and loyalties are necessarily local, a consequence of particular ways of life lived in particular landscapes defined in part by their differences from those of other peoples, an existential fact no amount of technological advances can change. This means that we want to be ruled by people who live and speak like us, and whom we can hold politically accountable. And it means that our own national interests will necessarily differ from those of other states, and sometimes those different interests will lead to conflict.
After World War I, the persistence of internationalist idealism institutionalized a fatal incoherence in the Versailles Treaty’s supranational League of Nations. The designers of the League intended it to be the creator and guarantor of global peace and order, and thus avoid the sort of nationalist-driven carnage of the Great War. Yet the League also enshrined the notion of what Woodrow Wilson called “national aspirations” and ethnic self-determination. The two ideals were contradictory, since sovereign nations defined by their distinct identities did not want to surrender their sovereignty or subordinate their particular interests to a body comprising alien peoples that would at times have to pursue aims contrary to those nations’ own. The failure of the League in resolving this contradiction quickly became evident in the two decades between the wars, when it was powerless to stop the escalating inter-state violence that paved the way for World War II. Nor should we be surprised at this failure: as long as there are sovereign, self-ruling states comprising peoples with different languages, cultures, and customs, nations and peoples will collide, sometimes violently.
Yet the failure of the League, along with that of its equally incoherent offspring the U.N., did not inhibit the creation of the E.U., yet another “federation of free states” whose purpose is to subordinate national interests to loftier goals. Yet the incoherence remains and is obvious in the E.U. monetary union, which is made up of sovereign states, each with its own peculiar economic and political interests, histories, cultural norms regarding work and leisure, laws, and fiscal systems. These different customs, different virtues, and different attitudes towards work, leisure, and the good life all derive from the particular histories, geographies, and cultures that define a people and a nation. These differences will not disappear because states share a currency or economic regulations.
The increasingly bitter divide among the E.U. nations is evidenced over the past few years in the elections of leaders skeptical about the leadership of the E.U.’s economic powerhouse and financier, Germany, and its prescriptions about how to solve the fiscal disaster. These divisions increasingly illustrate the continuing power of national identity and culture that always has compromised the whole E.U. project. As Walter Russell Mead succinctly put its, “Club Med doesn’t want to live under German rules and Germany doesn’t want a Club Med currency. Club Med can’t make Germany underwrite the Club’s lavish lifestyle and Germany can’t make Club Med live by German rules.” That’s because Germans, French, Italians, Greeks, Spaniards, and the rest are all profoundly different peoples, and no amount of internationalist mirages can change the reality of those differences. Like that iceberg in 1912, the cultural and nationalist peculiarities of the E.U. countries are the stubborn and unchanging realities with which the E.U. project is destined to collide.
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