European Dreamin’: Democratic Astigmatism and Its Sources

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It is a truism to note that there are multiple cosmopolitanisms. In my view, cosmopolitanism is a genus containing species of rather different sorts. Cosmopolitanism has marked moral attitudes, political life, philosophical thinking, and religious aspiration for millennia. Perhaps each epoch,

though, hosts its distinctive versions. This essay takes aim at a widespread contemporary type, one characteristic of advanced democracy. It looks at this cosmopolitanism’s European incarnation, but America harbors this form of dreamy antipolitical thinking as well. It may be easier to assess critically when looked at from afar.

While present today, this cosmopolitanism is not simply a contemporary phenomenon without antecedents and roots. But recent events gave it opportunity and impetus; they put wind in its sails. The collapse of Communism in 1989–1991 was decisive in this regard. With the end of the bipolar, superpower-structured world, a type of democratic humanitarianism saw its opportunity in Europe. It came more and more visibly to the fore, making its bid for ascendancy and hegemony. One could see it at work in the heavy-handed ratification of the Maastricht Treaty, as well as in the show trial of Slobodan Miloševic a decade later (in which, however, he refused to play his assigned role).

I first saw it on the European scene with the assistance of French thinkers. In the post-9/11 period, I translated two books that dealt centrally with the phenomenon. One was by the political philosopher Pierre Manent, the other by the philosopher Chantal Delsol.1 Earlier works by them had talked about the mind-set in question, so I was already more than a little aware of the form of ideological thinking they descried and dissected.

Other Americans observed much the same thing. What follows is something of a compte rendu of the descriptions and diagnoses of the troubling mentality by three well-known American thinkers, Robert Kagan, James W. Ceaser, and Mark Lilla, who are situated at different points on our political spectrum. It ends, however, with Manent’s deeply critical engagement with what he calls a “post-political illusion” prevalent in Europe today. His philosophical analysis is at once more penetrating and more damning than the Americans’. Because of its French provenance, the thought that it is only Americans who find European humanitarian utopianism troubling can be laid to rest.

In bringing together these authors, I hope to present a specimen, or at least elements, of what a productive transatlantic intellectual alliance might look like today, as both democratic continents seek to orient themselves reasonably and effectively in the world. That orientation, I believe, must always be some form of the political perspective (the phrase is Manent’s). The political perspective is a way of looking at the human world that, as Tocqueville said, does not ignore the views of partisans but tries to see farther than they and hence to refine them. It recognizes the harsh, sometimes intractable, realities that all too often circumscribe human hopes and action, while also being cognizant of the opportunities for, and higher motives of, individual and collective action. Aristotle and Thucydides gave classical expression to this point of view.

We democratic Westerners, despite all our differences from the ancient Greeks, continue to be specimens of Aristotle’s zoon politikon. As he famously said, we are political animals because, and when, we seriously employ our faculty of logos, of reason-giving discourse, to talk about life and the good life (Politics 1.2, 1252b29f.), when we seriously “put speeches and actions together” (Nichomachean Ethics 6.1126b10ff.) to form koinonia, community. I bring these four thinkers together to form a transatlantic dialogic community of sorts, one revolving around the necessity and nature of the political dimensions of human life.

This is not to imply that they see eye to eye on everything.2 Manent disagrees with Kagan’s liberal internationalism, for example. And Manent and Ceaser are stouter proponents of the nation-state than the other two. These differences, however, make the commonalities of their critiques even more striking. And if the reader should observe that what follows is very much a one-sided dialogue, a sustained critique of an absent interlocutor, in my defense I would invoke another Greek thinker, Socrates. For he has taught us that an essential part of political philosophy consists in bringing to light and dissecting the worldview and characteristic motivations of representative individuals, especially those that bid fair to rule. In our advanced democratic times, this means attending to hyperdemocratic views and aggressively progressive souls.

Here, therefore, are four analyses dissecting contemporary democratic humanitarianism in Europe. They all are at he service of political thinking, that is, serious human thinking about what we in fact have in common, as well as what we can and should put together to form humanly viable orders. As Aristotle indicated at the end of the Politics, this begins with territory and population, then ascends to military instruments and organization. One might call these “the material and martial aspects” of political life. The contemporary European Union of twenty-seven nations is woefully undecided in the former areas and dangerously ill-equipped in the latter. All our thinkers point out the real-world consequences of failing to provide oneself with shield and sword, as well as of failing to think seriously about when and how to employ them.

Political life, again according to Aristotle, goes beyond these necessary ingredients and centrally involves shared but debatable notions of justice and nobility. In critiquing contemporary European humanitarianism, none of the pro-political thinkers aim to foreclose real debate or to deny legitimate differences of opinion concerning the right and the estimable, as well as concerning war and peace. Far from it. But they do agree that it is necessary today to escape from paralyzing illusions about what already is achieved in the world, or what can be achieved by human beings and communities.

Having escaped the totalitarian illusion, democratic peoples need to be liberated today from another tempting illusion, the humanitarian. Insofar as it is antipolitical, it is deeply antihuman. One might therefore call this humanitarianism “humanism, falsely understood.” In view of the martial deficits alluded to above, one might also call it “cosmopolitanism, dangerously misunderstood.”

Euphoric Breezes and Dark Clouds

 I begin by briefly recalling for the reader the events that circumscribed, and the conflicting moods that characterized, the post-1989 situation. This sets the stage for the analyses that follow. The period 1989–1991 witnessed the collapse of the Soviet empire and the release of central European countries from communist rule. As a great symbol, first the Berlin Wall came down and then Germany itself was reunited. These marvelous events happened in a breathtaking manner that seemed to be compelled by the spirit of the times. In these ways and others, the developing post-cold-war European reality often had a surreal character to it, and euphoria coursed through multitudes’ feelings and leaders’ discourses alike. Realist political analysts and practitioners were often confounded. Adding to the remarkable mix, the 1991 expulsion of Saddam Hussein from Kuwait by an American-gathered and -led coalition seemed to inaugurate a New World Order of multilateralism and of American servant-leadership.

But there were clouds on the horizon even then, and such euphoric hopes were disturbed early and late. The 1990s opened and closed with what many deemed atavistic ethnopolitical troubles in the Balkans, troubles to which European leaders for the most part responded dilatorily. Having learned from the first inadequate response, America under Bill Clinton once again, at the end of the decade, exercised hegemonic leadership through the instrumentality of NATO (and not the United Nations) to address the messy problem on Europe’s southeastern flank. The Dayton Accords—what could be more American than Dayton!—seemed to confirm Madeleine Albright’s characterization of America as the indispensable nation.

Even Hubert Vedrine’s double-edged term hyperpuissance, which was coined to characterize America’s unique status, recognized some such role. Then came 9/11. After immediate expressions of solidarity, important Western European leaders and the Bush administration found themselves failing to see eye to eye on the nature of threats, as well as strategic objectives and appropriate manners of response. Donald Rumsfeld infamously referred to Old Europe. President George W. Bush more tactfully referred to a coalition of the willing, which did not include France or Germany. The state of things was dramatically symbolized and enacted in the back-to-back presentations of Colin Powell and Dominique de Villepin at the UN Security Council.

Power and Weakness

Robert Kagan earned the honor of making more than journalistic sense of the situation by providing an analysis that went beyond particular administrations and personalities, whether in America or France or Germany. His June 2002 Policy Review article “Power and Weakness” impacted discussion on both continents with remarkable force.3 Its vivid formulations immediately became current: Americans are from Mars, Europeans from Venus. Europeans live in a Kantian paradise of peace; Americans are compelled to live and operate in an Hobbesian international state of nature. And so on.

Broader analysis underlay these striking statements. Kagan sketched the peripities of European and American strategic and diplomatic history, as Europe and America shifted places and perspectives on international order. One partner—America since 1917—had acquired great power status, and the other, Europe since World War II, had lost it. Each, Kagan suggested, might learn something about the other’s current point of view from its own past.

Even more provocatively, he provided a contemporary structural analysis of Europe and America in material, ideological, and “interested” terms. By material he meant the possession of military means and the ability, as well as the will, to project them. Hard power was a currency still possessed by the United States, while Europeans had transferred the post-cold-war peace dividend into social welfare programs and made a virtue out of necessity by preferring to exercise soft power. As Kagan perhaps exercised diplomatic tact himself, the European military weakness of the title was more directly called impotence in the body of the argument. While Kagan spent some time dissecting the “psychology of the weak,” which played an important role in European risk-assessment, he also paid Europeans the tribute of attending to their minds and expounding their ideology concerning international order and the legitimate role of force therein.

By ideology Kagan meant the ideals, principles, and normative perspective on international order and the use of force therein informing the different actors.4 And by interest he meant the distinctive world orders that powerful nation-states preferred versus the type that weaker nations naturally would hope for or, in Europe’s case, hope for and demand. Lilliputians prefer a world in which Gulliver either doesn’t exist or operates at their command. Gulliver, in contrast—even a Gulliver like America, undeniably committed to values and norms of liberal civilization—has and perceives an interest in an international order that allows him to exercise his independence and to maximize his strategic advantages. Weakness dreams of one sort of world, one in which international law and norms govern, in which multilateralism is the primary mode of foreign affairs, and in which carrots rather than sticks induce rogues and recalcitrants to better behavior. Power, in contrast, can live in and, truth be told, embraces, another sort of world, one that recognizes and rewards its liberty of action.

What is remarkable, according to Kagan, is that the dream of the weak has become Europeans’ post-cold-war reality. They have achieved a world historical “miracle” of genuine regional security based upon mutual transparency and habits of pacific settling of differences. Military conflict and war between European states is simply inconceivable. For various reasons, including the guilt-ridden desire to expiate their colonial and imperial pasts, many now want Europe to be the model of peace and security for the rest of the world.

Unfortunately, however, America stands in the way because of its ongoing commitment to state-agency and national sovereignty, not to mention its ability and demonstrated willingness to exercise force at the service of independently judged national interests. Thus emerged another of Kagan’s striking phrases: Europe’s new mission civilisatrice finds in its erstwhile cold-war ally the greatest obstacle to the worldwide expansion of its vision of international order. Not Saddam Hussein (or Islamist terrorists) but the United States is the real obstacle to an international order of law, security, and peace a l’europeen. So believe many Europeans.

Having laid out these sharp structural and ideological contrasts, Kagan concluded with a rather vapid appeal for mutual understanding. America should be more humble in dealing with Europe, more sensitive to Europe’s reduced status on the world stage, and more appreciative of the important contribution a pacified Europe makes to world security and peace. Few would disagree with these counsels, but even fewer would think they change the basic structural situation laid out by him. Europe, on the other hand, should . . . well, Kagan didn’t really say what Europe should do in acknowledging and accommodating America’s different status and its commitment to older notions of sovereignty and political agency. The hard edges of his analysis thus remained. As one can well imagine, Kagan’s article immediately became a major point of reference for domestic, as well as international, discussions about transatlantic relations. Many other analyses followed Kagan’s effort. A few, we could appreciate in retrospect, had anticipated it.

 Relegating the Nation-State to History’s Dustbin

The political scientist James W. Ceaser was one of the prescient predecessors. A month before Kagan’s bombshell, Ceaser published a short but penetrating analysis of American-European relations entitled “America’s Ascendancy, Europe’s Despondency: Why We Horrify Them, and They Exasperate Us.” It appeared in the politically center-right periodical The Weekly Standard.5

It opened practically: “A gulf is opening between our two continents, and the responses are not just temporary or political. Deep-seated trends in Europe, quite apart from President Bush’s particular policies, all point to a growing ambivalence about America and its position in the world” (italics added). Like Kagan, Ceaser affirmed that it is necessary to understand the reasons for European ambivalence, so that one can respond intelligently. He offered two sorts of reasons. The first is correlated with American ascendancy itself and involves the fact that Europeans have to look up to America. They too often find themselves dependent upon, or bypassed by, America: In Caeser’s words, “It sometimes seems that the only thing Europeans fear more than American failure is American success. American setbacks may endanger Europe’s security and economic well-being, but American victories injure Europeans’ pride, forcing the painful acknowledgement that the great issues of world politics pass through Washington, not Paris, Berlin, or Brussels.”

With this tart synthetic comment, Ceaser began to supply what Kagan’s analysis presupposed but did not explicate, a concept of politics as such. Ceaser has his own understanding of men’s political nature and the nature of politics. Pride is a component of both, as well as security and

economic well-being. Politics’ alpha is security and their omega, he says later, is meaningful political life, with meaningfulness sometimes attaining great heights. (Economic well-being, one might infer, has an important middle-range niche.) Not all political issues are created equal; some are greater than others; some even impact world politics.

Within this framework, Europeans’ ambivalence vis-a-vis America is understandable and even indicates something of a political attitude on their part. Being jealous of a hegemon is a political sentiment. This chastened pride, however, is not all that is at work in European ambivalence, according to Ceaser. Other factors are present in Europe that bear upon Europeans’ thinking and judgment. There are deeper causes than their pride. These include certain “postnational, postmodern ideas” that advanced Europeans use to judge the contemporary scene and which they are at work implementing at home and abroad. These move in a different, decidedly antipolitical, direction.

To see this requires historical perspective and some philosophical learning. While Ceaser himself is a learned scholar, at this juncture he invokes the work of Pierre Manent. Manent’s magisterial work of political philosophy, Cours familier de philosophie politique, had appeared the year before and amply provided what was required.6 Chief among the philosophical notions he supplied was the idea of political form, different ways of organizing peoples’ political lives. These run a gamut from tribes, cities, and nations to empires. Europeans are leaving one political form, the nation-state, but what they want to put in its place leaves much—much that is political—to be desired and determined.

Europeans and Americans currently have “different views of the source of ‘agency’ in world politics.” History puts this in perspective: “For centuries it was recognized that the primary actor in international affairs was the nation-state, aided at the fringes by semi-permanent alliances and international organizations.” Today, though, this view is no longer dominant in Europe. Quite to the contrary; for some time now European elites have been engaged in dismantling the sovereign nation-state and denationalizing European life. To be sure, this demoting of state and nation takes place within the context of an apparently even greater political endeavor, the construction of Europe. Appearances are deceiving, however, and the process needs to be scrutinized.

The construction is based upon certain presuppositions. First among them is a certain ideational deconstruction: “Before the European Union can be ‘constructed’ (whatever it may ultimately prove to be), not only existing nation-states, but also the idea of the nation-state itself, must be called into question” (italics added). Now, if the nation-state is subordinated in Europe and its very legitimacy called into question, what is its status in the international arena? Can it be delegitimated at home and recognized as legitimate abroad? Hardly. It follows that Europeans would tend to look askance at America, the nation-state par excellence.

We are back with Kagan’s analysis. Ceaser, too, deems it necessary to delve more deeply into the European ideas about politics and international order that seek to replace older ones. Together, they possess a certain coherence. Whether they can stand the predictable tests of reality, especially the harsher realities of world politics, is a separate question.

One idea consists in a distinctive representation or interpretation of history, especially European history since the nineteenth century. Another involves a certain reconceptualization of war and war-waging. In brief, history is seen as progressive, as a necessary or inevitable movement toward a benign telos: “European theorists and their American followers speak of the death of the nation-state and the movement to some new form of international organization as if it were a sure thing” (italics added). An essential component of this progressive view of history is the belief that major war is a thing of the past.

History’s movement can be, perhaps needs to be, helped along. Europeans, accordingly, “have been the partisans of globalization in the realm of security, where they have sought to combine the protection offered by international alliances with low defense spending for themselves.” Whether the guiding projection of history is inevitable or assisted, central to it is the notion of the disappearance of major war. For this to occur requires the eradication of the enabling conditions and causes of major war, including most importantly the sovereign nation-state. “In the judgment of advanced Europeans today, the nation-state system has proven an abject failure.” As a culpable cause, the nation-state must be dethroned, if not dismantled, and its fueling sentiment nationalism exorcized.

As for the limited security threats that remain, such as outbreaks of recrudescent nationalism or tribal warfare, they can be handled by international peacekeeping operations under the United Nations or other international organizations. And to complete the scheme of necessary means and definitive ends: “This internationalization of security would be supplemented by various international courts, all situated in Europe, which would resolve conflicts using evolving norms of international law.”

The complete ideational package is clear enough: The nation-state may continue to be a unit of human existence and even collective agency but it is to be strictly subordinate to international norms, institutions, and interests. “Above all, mobilization for war must not rest on any national principle.” All this is history’s will and agenda. As nineteenth-century European nation-states considered themselves to be the peak and vanguard of human history, their chastened and wizened twenty-first-century descendants ride its crest in a totally different direction. They have become lawful, moral, and pacific, and the world should—and will—follow the same path. This, Ceaser calls “the new internationalist paradigm.” The parallels with Kagan’s analysis are again striking.

At the end of his analysis, however, Ceaser sketched a critique of this internationalist outlook. In brief, it is that while this conception of affairs applies to the European theater, the rest of the world is different. Powerful states and even superpowers exist and will continue to exist—not all of the American sort. State rivalries and conflicts will, too. “It [is] clear that rivalries among states—including superstates such as China—would continue to pose the traditional problems of international politics.” How would internationalist Europe handle a provocative China? Would it repair to the UN Security Council, on which China sits? Has it indicted China before an international court for its deeds in Tibet?

The recent historical record had not been reassuring in this regard. When the United Nations proved “inadequate or unavailable” in the Balkan crisis, a new security regime operating under NATO was brought in, purportedly “keeping American force under alliance control.” This, however, amounted to “a shell game” whose purpose was to conceal the principal actor, the United States. When utopian dreams confronted harsher political reality, hypocrisy resulted. Ceaser thus goes beyond Kagan’s sympathetic understanding of the European difference to point out the systematic distortions that inhere in the utopian vision and the political posturing it systematically engenders. Manent will lay out even more.

Fantasies and Their Causes

Ceaser’s basic criticisms were echoed a year later by another American political theorist, Mark Lilla. Lilla wrote of “The End of Politics” in Europe in the center-left journal The New Republic.7 Not mincing words, he spoke of European fantasies. For example, “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.” Rivalry, conflict, and war are inevitable; they are among the perennial problems of politics. It is a sign of dangerously deranged thinking to believe otherwise.

Older moral-political wisdom better counseled: si vis pacem, para bellum. Like Kagan and Ceaser, Lilla saw the need to delve into the character of this remarkable mind-set, and he provided important additional elements via an analysis of how this state of mind came to be. Like Ceaser and Manent, he made the nation-state, understood as a distinctive sort of political form, central to his analysis. “It is the idea of the nation-state, and the related concepts of sovereignty and the use of force” that are “in crisis in Europe today.”

Lilla’s main method is that of contrast. Most fundamentally, he contrasts serious political thought with political pathologies, intellectual collapse, and fantasy. His norm is “serious political thought, understood as disciplined and impartial reflection about distinctively political experience.” In the light of this norm, he considers two periods of intellectual life on the Continent. During the cold war, Marxism and structuralism dominated; they “absorb[ed] [almost] all thinking about political experience into amorphous discussions of larger historical, economic, or linguistic forces.”8 The distinctively political could not come into focus.9

Ten years on after the collapse of Communism, in Lilla’s judgment things had not significantly improved. Europeans have generally ceased to think responsibly about matters of war and peace, law, morality, and politics. To understand the current intellectual myopia, however, another factor beyond intellectual fashions needed to be recognized: the eclipse of European sovereignty during the cold war. During this long period, European countries were either under Soviet rule or dependent upon the United States. In either case, their sovereignty—their capacity for independent judgment and action in matters of war and peace—was severely compromised. It would have taken a mighty effort of imagination and foresight to continue to think about national sovereignty in those circumstances. By and large, this was lacking.

And since nature abhors a vacuum, it occasioned a number of unhealthy intellectual consequences, which lasted even into the postcommunist period when European countries regained independence. Among these today is “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.”10 In its turn, “the blissfully undefined notion of ‘Europe’ inspires pacific, post-political hopes.” We are now in the realm of European dreaming. Postpolitical is the key term in the foregoing. Like Ceaser, Lilla has a normative notion of the political. Generally, one can say that for him politics, on one hand, respond to certain human needs, while, on the other, they generate certain conundrums to which the political association must respond. Human beings need political life as the site and focus of communal attachment, legitimate authority, and effective action in the world, as well as to engage in serious reflection on the human scene. While being a necessary and elevating response to these human needs, politics also generate problems of their own. This ambiguity must be acknowledged and embraced, for these problems will always exist in some form or another.

Accordingly, the eternal travail of political life must be taken up by each generation. Many in Europe, though, wish otherwise. In the light of his concept of politics, Lilla maintains that “the nationstate has been the best modern means discovered so far [of addressing these human needs and conundrums], opening a political space for both reasonable reflection and effective action.” On the other hand, one of the lessons that Europeans have drawn from their twentieth-century history is that national allegiance is always a danger, that it can infect and eventually destroy liberal democracy. There is truth to this. Many, however, make it the whole truth and, as it were, throw the baby out with the bathwater, finding no distinctions among nationalism, national identity, and patriotism. All vital allegiance to the particular, to la patrie, is threatening; hence the call and efforts to construct a cosmopolitan Europe.

But “what Europe means as a distinctly political entity remains a mystery to all involved” (italics added). In particular, serious reflection about the nature of European sovereignty and its relation to national sovereignty has been rare since the formation of the European Union (a few academic specialists excepted). Thus, while there may be a democratic deficit in the current configuration of the European Union, more fundamentally and ominously, there is a political deficit, a grave lack of political thinking and of appropriate political instrumentalities, including military means, on the European/EU scene. Lilla’s hesitant judgment was that while “it may be that the European Union will turn out to be something new, and beneficent, on the European political landscape . . . I am skeptical.”

Among his reasons for skepticism were (as with Ceaser) the debacle of the Balkan the late 1990s and Western Europe’s painfully slow response to the threats of political collapse and even genocide there. Why the tardiness? “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.” Europeans are politically and conceptually betwixt and between.

The lack of serious political thought is found again, in a significantly aggravated manner, in a complementary view found among intellectuals. “It was said by some intellectuals that Europeans, given their recent history, have discovered the need to regulate such matters through international law and organizations.” Lilla detects the same sort of juridical internationalism as do Ceaser and Kagan. He, however, can barely contain himself in responding to this view, containing as it does an apparently infinite amount of folly or presumption. “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 so.” The cognitive status of this view is so low that it requires a designation—fantasy—reserved often for the delusional. It is the antithesis of serious political thinking. Gesturing toward an intriguing but undeveloped notion of the perennial problems of politics, Lilla brusquely retorts: “It is simply a fantasy to think that the perennial problems of politics can be dissolved through progressive juridification or humanitarian aid.” Here, dismissive scorn took the upper hand from analysis.

Remarkably, the political philosopher whom Ceaser invoked, Pierre Manent, had earlier employed a similar term in describing a proposed international regime of law. He referred to a widespread “illusion” that informs the minds and stirs the passions of many of his fellow Europeans. He, however, gave the democratic-humanitarian illusion a good deal of analysis. He thereby wins the palm for the earliest as well as philosophically deepest study of these features of the contemporary European scene. To him and his thought we now turn, that is, to political philosophy.

The Empire of Law

At the beginning of the penultimate chapter of A World beyond Politics? Manent summarizes the guiding thread and main thesis of his book-long investigation into the contemporary European democratic world: “Since the beginning of this book, I have underlined what seems to me the major trait of the present world, to wit: a tension between, on one hand, what some will call ‘the old order,’ others ‘the natural order,’ of politics and, on the other, the project and hope for a new order, one that is metapolitical or post-political, a new order of a unified humanity.” Manent is much closer to the former view, but this does not exempt him from dispassionately analyzing the latter view. To begin with: “There are two principal ways of conceiving a metapolitical Humanity, a Humanity having overcome or surpassed its political condition. This can be a humanity organized according to law[;] this can be a humanity living in accordance with morality. A humanity living according to morality is a humanity living in respect for human dignity.”

One chapter is devoted to “The Empire of Law” and another to “The Empire of Morality.” We will be able to consider only the first sort of empire, according to which laws protecting human rights would reign supreme over both domestic and international affairs. It is with real regret that I pretermit his discussion of contemporary democratic morality.11 His discussion of imperial law, however, bears upon the fundamental issues of European depoliticization and of war and peace that our previous analysts engaged and found Europeans intellectually and militarily unequipped to handle.

Manent’s philosophical dissection considerably advances these themes. First, however, there is a matter of terminology and translation. The French word in the title of the chapter is “droit.” The word droit is somewhat difficult to translate into English. Marc LePain renders it “law,” which is quite standard. A closer reading of the chapter, however, reveals that it is primarily a certain kind or understanding of law that Manent has in mind. It is law (droit) insofar as it is based upon rights (droits) and is at the service of rights—natural rights, the rights of man, human rights. It is a distinctly democratic conception. Therefore, at the risk of awkwardness, I will render it “law-and-rights” in order to keep the two connected concepts together. A number of contemporary judges certainly do, those who claim to rule directly in the name of this fundamental stratum of democratic justice and morality. To law-and-rights we now turn. Manent begins phenomenologically.

From Phenomena to Situations, Minds, and Hearts

That is, certain legal or judicial phenomena in Europe catch Manent’s eye and attract his philosophical attention. Operation Clean Hands in Italy, the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzon, and certain recent arrets from the French Conseil constitutionnel figure on Manent’s list, while one easily could add others from the European Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court, and elsewhere. Looking at Mani pulite from Paris, Manent observes that “Italian judges changed the political map of their country without the Italian people being consulted at any point.” They thereby “effected a political revolution.” Such a revolution assuredly commands the attention of the political philosopher. Among other things, it indicates despotic potentials in judicial hands, perhaps even a new ruling jurisprudence. Judicially attempted revolution appeared elsewhere as well. While installed in Spain according to its democratic constitutional system, in 1998 Baltasar Garzon attempted to exercise a truly international jurisdiction,one that refused to honor a political decision of Chilean democracy and which called upon British judicial brethren to help effect. This is remarkable on many fronts. What does it indicate? Where might it lead? As for his native France and its (imperfect) equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court, the Constitutional Council, he sees “profound changes . . .these past years.” In this period the Council had “acquired powers,” effectively“ breaking with the French constitutional tradition, in fact with both [France’s] rather antithetical, constitutional traditions—the republican, revolutionary, ‘pro-legislature’ tradition and the consular, ‘revisionist,’ or Gaullist tradition which reinforces the executive.” What is going on here and abroad? Do these judicial revolutions happen in a vacuum? Or are they rooted in something deeper?

While there doubtless are many particular causes, upon reflection all this points toward a broader contemporary phenomenon, that of “law-and rights (le droit) claiming to be the sole regulator of society” (italics added). Of course, to put matters this way is to personify law. The real referent is elsewhere, in the French people, their increasingly antipolitical thinking, and their increasingly depoliticized situation. The French case responds to the new political and moral situation of the democracies. They more and more “reject political authority as such—and thus the two powers which politics principally make use of, the legislative and the executive.” As for the French themselves, they “more and more envisage social life in a juridical perspective taken in a broad sense, i.e., as having to be more and more exclusively organized according to the rules of law-and-rights, administered or guaranteed by judges or quasi-judges.” While this attitude and endeavor has several contributing factors, one is immediately noteworthy. It comes from a “moral demand which is as strident as it is vague” (italics added). It is the demand that human rights and dignity be universally recognized, immediately applied, and unconditionally enforced.

This, it is held, is the judge’s supreme duty, more than even his or her sworn constitutional duty. Both Manent and the adherents of this morality note that it—or moral legalism—in principle requires “the destatification and the depoliticization of the rules of social life.” Basic rights are not to be captive to the vicissitudes of legislatures or the discretion of executives; their protection must not be restricted to national borders. “We envisage a world in which law-and-rights would be guaranteed without the means of the nation-state.”

As a political philosopher who takes the adjective political with normative seriousness, what does Manent think of this? “Among the illusions that tempt our laziness, none is more present today than that law-and-rights ought to be, and more and more will be, the sole regulator of social life. It is urgent to bring to light the vacuousness of this illusion.” Illusion, sloth, vacuity—these are pejoratives of a high order. Analysis and political counsel, not simple dismissal, however, characterize Manent’s response. On one hand, he instructs his French and European readers as to where their ideas come from; on the other, how they conflict with political reality understood in terms of its necessities and challenges, as well as its opportunities and possible nobility. To help him, he enlists Tocqueville and the original articulators of liberal constitutionalism, Locke and Montesquieu.

First of all, according to Manent, what is an illusion? “In the broadest sense, and it is thus that I understand the term, an illusion is a representation tied to a desire.” It has ideational content and emotional motivation. We enter into the realm of what one might call democratic social psychology. There are antecedents to this sort of investigation in Plato and Tocqueville, among others. As we saw above, current European democratic psychology specifically includes “not only the desire that law-and-rights reign, but that they reign alone” (italics added). As we also saw, this is a major component of a yet broader democratic conception, that of a virtually unified humanity. So the illusion’s positive components at this stage are the view and project of a unified humanity living subject to a legal order jealously protective of human rights and dignity.

Now, this image and this desire did not spring from contemporary democrats, as Athena did from Zeus; they have antecedents and roots of various sorts. To begin with, modern democracy itself is “inseparable from the perception, as if self-evident, that there is something like Humanity.” Tocqueville in particular noted this central facet of democratic society and psychology. We should pause here a moment, because here we encounter a central element of Manent’s analysis: the dynamically developing nature of democracy.

Tocqueville’s Prescience

In 1982 Manent published Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy.12 Tocqueville taught him that a new form of democracy, what we call liberal democracy, cannot adequately be comprehended by traditional liberal categories (the individual, civil society, and the state). Beyond them, enveloping them, it is a dynamic social-spiritual order possessing a distinctive nature. That nature contains certain essential elements, structures, and active tendencies. These include such distinctive social-spiritual phenomena as individualism, materialism, and civic apathy. This is well-known Tocquevillian teaching.

Less well known is that Tocqueville counseled the practice of a political or statesmanly art to counteract these natural democratic tendencies. The ones we listed above, for example, all sap democratic citizens’ civic selfawareness and self-governing capacities. Tocqueville accordingly extolled the American framers’ wisdom expressed in the Federalist Papers and at work in  American federalism. They had wisely combined centralization with decentralization, and their institutionalization of aristocratic elements was a great boon to the fledgling republic. (He also went beyond them and theorized the essential contribution to American liberty of the township as well as the master science of democratic liberty, the art of association.)

Manent’s appeal to his fellow democratic Europeans, that they recall their own political natures and make provisions for the political conditions of human existence, echoes Tocqueville’s. Like Tocqueville as well, he does not merely exhort but also analyzes, so as to instruct democrats about the precise nature and sources of their intellectual blind spots and untoward sentimental impulses.

Tocqueville saw such efforts as necessarily Sisyphean, though, as they go against democracy’s powerful tendencies. Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. and Delba Winthrop summarized the thought with the lapidary phrase “democracy democratizes.”13 By this they meant that, unattended and uncurbed, democracy will absorb and recast after its own image and likeness more and more of human life, with humanly ambiguous and politically deleterious results. In his earlier Tocqueville work, Manent faithfully followed Tocqueville’s lead and extrapolated the spiritual evisceration and civic enervation of democracy’s built-in (and hence ineradicable) tendencies lead. This terminus ad quem provided him with a template through which to view actual democracy’s progress in reshaping itself and its members. Over the years, he has tracked the unfolding of democracy’s nature in various countries and through historical time. “The Empire of Law” continues this longtime effort.

Thus, at the beginning of the chapter, Manent puts today in a wider democratic context and affirms that “in sum, it is natural that societies born under the sign of the rights of man should end by explicitly placing law-and-rights at the center of their action as well as their consciousness, that they end by wanting to be societies wholly governed by law-and-rights” (italics added).14 Democracy democratizes.

More Kantian than Kant

In addition to Tocquevillian insights into democracy’s nature, one could further note that much of nineteenth-century European thought developed, in one way or another, a related humanitarian thought, that the human race itself is increasingly connected and interconnected; humanity is increasingly living a common history. European colonialism and imperialism, as well as the development of international commerce and the export of European universalist ideas, contributed to this notion. This complex has been called the dawn of universal history. On the plane of theory, one can mention the names of Kant, Hegel, and Marx, but Comte and Nietzsche also come to mind. Kant, for example, wrote about “the idea of a universal history from a cosmopolitan point of view.”

It is not surprising, then, that Manent speaks of “our Kantian consciousness” in this connection. In important respects Europeans are Kant’s progeny, as well as democracy’s. Kant is the philosophical originator of the idea of humanity living under sovereign law, respecting the rights of all human beings. For example, “in a vivid formulation, Kant already wrote in 1795: ‘Nature wills in an irresistible way that the supreme authority would finally revert to law-and-rights.’” It was he who “sought with the greatest tenacity the means of overcoming the political and human order that presupposes and includes war, in order to arrive at ‘perpetual peace.’” Qui vult pacem vult regnum aut imperium legis cosmopolitae.15

There are differences as well as similarities between Kant and contemporary Europeans. In telling ways, Europeans are more Kantian than Kant. Kant eventually opted for a federation of free or republican states that would form a model for other countries to imitate and serve as an initial core of peace-loving states others could join. Political sovereignty or independence, however, both within the federation and without, were expressly recognized by Kant. This was demanded by morality itself, that is, out of respect for the capacity for self-government of human beings and collectivities. Sovereignty of this sort, however, is denied by the newest legal internationalism.16

The Religion of Humanity

Nor is this the only telling difference between Kant and contemporary Europeans. Here we broach the important, if controversial, issue of the theological significance of democratic humanitarianism (what some have called atheistic humanism).17 Kant himself had recourse to the concept of Providence in explaining the course and meaning of the human adventure, in articulating the telos of humanity.18 Areligious Europeans do not and cannot. Nor is this the only distancing of contemporary Europeans from the founding faith of Europe.

In chapter 1 of A World beyond Politics? Manent argues that insofar as they adopt modern science as the highest form of reason and a specifically modern notion of liberty as the proper understanding of human freedom, contemporary European democrats are effectively atheistic.19 A subsequent chapter, “The Religion of Humanity,” then discusses the full-blown expression or concept of the self-deification of mankind. Manent points out that the father of positivism, Auguste Comte, was the self-proclaimed first high priest of this humanitarian religion. According to Comte, the theological and metaphysical epochs of Western mankind were to give way to the final positivistic period. Manent sees this thought, shorn of its Comtean trappings, present on the contemporary scene. As such, democratic humanitarianism has deeply theological, or antitheological, resonance. Other former lodestars of Western humanity have been dimmed by it as well, starting with any normative notion of nature.

Unlike Kant, we, Manent reports, “would hesitate to say that ‘Nature wills’ this or that”—especially the final triumph of law, the cosmopolitan regulation of humanity—since nature has become more than problematic as any sort of a moral-political guide for mankind. The scientific distinction between facts and values, for instance, presupposes that nature, in Joseph Cropsey’s phrase, is “a moral blank.”20 On the other hand, Manent states, “There is no doubt that we will (voulons) that ‘the supreme authority would finally revert to law-and-rights.’” Will now joins with desire: the volitional side of democratic psychology expands even as its subjects, democratic human beings, continue to reduce their stock of normative authorities.

One should again credit Tocqueville with foreseeing this repudiation, by individuals and peoples subject to democracy’s dynamism, of any authority above mankind. He explicitly argued that democratic human beings would be hard pressed to locate intellectual authority in anything but public opinion and, tendentially, in humanity itself.21 Nothing above humanity, and no human authority claiming to speak in its name, is congenial to the thoroughly democratic mentality.

Binding tradition becomes mere information, while authoritative institutions such as the Catholic Church will become increasingly isolated in democratic society. On the other hand, Tocqueville’s discussion of democratic historians, intellectuals who credit the historical process as the greatest Whole or Agency known to democratic mankind, indicates that he was aware of yet another authoritative possibility in democratic times.22 In Manent’s judgment, a number of his contemporaries have sworn allegiance to it. “Many among us are convinced that history’s movement leads us irresistibly in this direction.” What emerges from this democratic-theological excursus is a certain complex of ideas revolving around Humanity and History (as well as attendant volitional components). Humanity is understood as significantly self-contained and on the verge of being harmoniously unified under law.

History in turn is understood as irresistible, yet most benign. The two are brought together in the thought of imminent (and immanent) reconciliation and culmination. In other words, there is an eschatological horizon within which many contemporary democrats think and act. As we will see soon enough, it particularly is at work in contemporary thinking about war and peace and the thoroughgoing “legalization” of both.

The Ought and the Is

Already, though, we can better appreciate the subtle Kantian categories in Manent’s initial formulation of this view. As you recall, it holds that “law-and-rights must be (devoir etre), and more and more will be (sera de plus en plus), the sole regulator of social life.” The ought and the is (or will be) are combined in this view. Moral imperative joins with historical necessity. It will be convenient to employ this distinction in the next sections of our exposition. It is not that between domestic and international, although Manent employs this distinction as well. Judges both domestic and international claim to base their extraconstitutional actions on solid democratic bases, upon the moral basis of all democratic constitutions: human rights and dignity. They thus claim to directly obey and enforce the ought at work in democratic consciousness.

It is in the area of the use of force, of military means, that History comes to the fore. To be sure, it is a History in which morality plays an essential role, including the role of being historically realized. Not just any morality will do, though. The requisite morality is emphatically egalitarian, humanitarian, and pacific. It is a democratic morality that maintains that in principle there are no truly serious human differences, differences that in fact could, or arguably should, lead to conflict and war. Furthermore, it is a democratic morality that sees political authorities and military instruments as principally at its service, while it is at the service of human dignity and human rights, of human unity and world peace. All this requires an essential reworking of political authority and politics themselves. It also requires a thoroughgoing moral transformation of humanity. The latter is so extensive, however, that even Manent’s contemporaries have their “hesitations and perplexities” about it.

Human-Rights Despotism

With these distinctions in mind, let us turn to Manent’s discussion of moral judges, then of thoroughly moralized and law-abiding peacemakers. The former are firmly in the grip of the democratic passion for immediacy. Justice must be done now, constitutional forms and legislative hesitancies and compromises, that is, outmoded limits to the realization of justice, be damned.

For many today, “the power of judges is ultimately based not only on the laws of the particular nation, not even on its Constitution, but on what is the principle of the laws and the Constitution, to wit: the ‘rights of man’ and the idea of ‘humanity.’” “Brushing aside local laws, received customs and international conventions and treaties, they increasingly claim to speak immediately in the name of humanity and its rights.” Theirs is an unconditional jurisdiction—no circumscribing or qualifying features—because it appeals to the true basis, human rights and dignity, and to the widest subject of law and judging, humanity wherever it may be found.

Such judges, however, have forgotten Locke’s sobriety, not to mention his political and constitutional wisdom. He was devoted to the protection of individuals’ rights. But he knew that protection was a complex matter and that men and societies were about much more than the legal and judicial protection of individual rights. Political authority or government needs to reflect and address these complexities. Hence he developed a complicated constitutional and political scheme.

A number of judges and legal theorists today have simplified the rights protection problem, however, and tend to make it the sole or chief political task. But their simplification itself has many attendant serious difficulties. Manent sketches three, falling under the rubrics of arbitrariness, despotism, and war. Against their own intentions, contemporary proponents of the “government of judges” reintroduce elements into the social and human world that they hope to eliminate. Bringing these untoward consequences to their attention is one important way that the political philosopher can bring them up short and, perhaps, move them to reflect upon the inadequacies of their views.

First of all, rights, while “doubtlessly more noble,” are much vaguer than national laws and constitutions. The oft-observed judicial expansion (or creation) of rights and sharp, unresolved debates over them in legal and other circles indicate as much. In the new optic, it is up to the individual judge or court to determine whether X is a right and whether Y’s right to X has been violated or not. Evolving standards are really no standard. Nor does cross-jurisdictional consultation and (purported) consensus really address the subjectivism involved. Apart from constitutional forms and legal traditions, apart from democratic legislatures’ specifications, judicially determined rights are infected with an increasingly palpable arbitrariness.23 This, however, is “precisely what [modern] regimes wanted to prevent against by instituting the control of constitutionality.” While the first, this is not the only contemporary judicial sin against liberal constitutionalism.

Arbitrariness paves the way for despotism, because “a power that discovers that it can act arbitrarily, does not delay in using and abusing this latitude.” The infamous phrase “our robed masters” comes to mind. But Manent is particularly keen to bring to the attention of his readers a third difficulty that risks coming to the fore in the foreseeable future. It is, as it were, his own diwcovery; at least people haven’t yet sufficiently reflected upon it. It is the return of the state of nature. That condition, we recall, consists in the absence of an acknowledged legitimate arbiter of human disagreements. Absent such, each individual has the right to judge and punish violations of rights, transgressions of the law of nature. The social contract in liberal theory was intended to establish just such an umpire (along with sovereign legislative and executive powers).24

Certain contemporary judges, however, in their zeal for justice contravene this wider conceptual and governmental scheme. They claim to be the final, that is, sovereign, declarers and protectors of human rights and dignity. They can authoritatively pronounce upon human rights even  without express constitutional authority, even against expressed democratic will. But one might ask, why should they be the only ones engaged in the enterprise?

That is, if judges’ primary justification for such immediate and unconditional jurisdiction is human rights and their defense, what in principle is to exclude anyone else from claiming the same? Nothing, really, except for the nonnormative circumstances of individuals’ wills and means. Judicial power in the older understanding came from, and came with, a more complex framework of nature and convention, which included the sovereignty of a particular people, a democratic delegation of powers, and intricately separated powers, each making its essential contribution to the protection of individuals and their rights and of society as a whole. If judges sever themselves from this understanding (which continues to empower them today), what is to bar anyone else, whether at home or abroad, from doing the same? In other words, “the [new understanding of] the power of judges risks leading us back to the state of nature” in which everyone is a judge of rights and their violation. As Manent reminds the reader, “this is another name for the state of war.”

Disinterested Respect?

We thus are led to our final topic. As before, Manent began by listening carefully to the distinctive discourse of the times surrounding war and peace, war-waging and peacemaking. President George Herbert Walker Bush spoke of a New World Order in connection with Operation Desert Storm, while the State Department regularly posted its list of rogue states, malefactors and troublers of the peace such as Libya, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea. They did not fit into this new order. And in a remarkable instance of the dog that did not bark, the NATO military intervention in the conflict between Serbia and Kosovar Albanians at the end of the 1990s was not declared to be a war; many termed it a humanitarian intervention, a morally dictated response to ethnic cleansing and other crimes against humanity.

This newspeak bespoke new ideas and attitudes about legitimate violence and peace, about international law and military action. Manent set about studying the implications of the change of paradigm. And once again the application of Kant’s thought shed important light on contemporary attitudes.

He began his analysis with the phrase with which many wish to replace the term war in the lexicon of legitimate interstate violence: international police action. What does it entail, lexically or conceptually, to replace soldiers with police forces, war with policing? A simple reflection is quite revealing: “To put it in a word: today people suppose, without always being conscious of it, that states can be motivated to act, in particular to act militarily, out of a pure respect for law, a respect detached from their particular state interest. If military action is an action of international police, those who conduct it have no more particular interest in this action than, within states, the police who arrest a murderer or bank-robber. . . . They are perfectly disinterested.”

It is again in terms of Kantian thought that Manent draws out contemporary implications, invoking the famous Kantian dichotomy between morality understood as disinterested respect for law and interests as human goals characterized (and tainted) by selfish particular motivations. From individuals it is extended to collective individuals, to states. Their military action is to be moralized in this distinctive sense. At this early juncture, Manent contented himself with posing an apparently rhetorical question: “Can one imagine that states will be more and more likely to conduct themselves on these principles, foreswearing therefore this motive, interest—the national interest—which until now has been generally admitted to be legitimate?” Now, as it happens one can imagine this state of affairs, since it is an ingredient in the image of a metapolitical or postpolitical Humanity that informs many Europeans’ discourses and initiatives. However, the transformation required for such a thoroughly disinterested condition cannot but boggle the mind.

Peace’s Presuppositions

So much so, that even Manent’s contemporaries are daunted by such a requirement; they hesitate, perplexed before it. But then they press on, in large part because of specific assumptions they make about the world and the times. He lays them out: ‘We have never been closer than we are today to peace[;] it must be there (devait etre la); peace is the natural order of mankind[;] no national interest or political difference justifies taking to arms.” These presuppositions especially come to light when they run up against recalcitrant reality, when actions that have been a priori delegitimated occur, as they do.

Language is again telling. The agents that ought not to be are called “rogue states,” or “troublers of the peace”; when they violate the law of peace, they are termed “criminals.” Against the background of definitive peace, they stand out as aberrations and anomalies. They therefore need to be “brought to justice” (the phrase is telling); once that is done, the inherently pacific order of mankind will blossom. “Now, this presupposition is tautological,” observes Manent (while others might call it a petitio principii, a begging of the question). In either case, “if we suppress in thought all the troublemakers, what in fact remains if not peace and tranquility?”

However, in so presupposing, then excising as need be, we “simply forget to think about the next troublemakers who will not fail to arise.” Something is wrong with a position that generates a systematic failure to account for that which will inevitably arise. This tautological treatment of inconvenient facts does indicate that this mind-set is somehow aware of perforations in its pacific viewpoint; it recognizes the need for some sort of effort at overcoming such anomalous recalcitrants. But it steadfastly continues to see this need, and to place these anomalies, in the horizon of a definitive peace that imminently will be. In other words, it thinks eschatologically. In this recourse to quasi-religious categories, the desperate straits to which the insistent expectation of peace can lead become visible. Both logic and faith are traduced.

Christian hopes for final peace, for a new heaven and a new earth, are based upon belief in the Word of God. Democratic humanitarians cannot avail themselves of these theological grounds. Nonetheless, they retain some of what pleases them in the Christian worldview, but they discard the rest. This, as we said, is both unreasonable and unfaithful. However, the pressure to do so is considerable. In the reworked democratic optic, what is at stake in disposing of each successive disturber of the peace is enormous. At stake is what we might call (with apologies to Pascal) the “grandeur of humanity without God.” Their defeat would usher in the advent of the true, that is, this-worldly, reality of heaven on earth.

In borrowed religious language, “we suppose that the ‘end times’ have arrived and that after a ‘final battle’ we will enjoy the golden fruits of peace.” The human adventure is near an end, at least in this decisive sense: the definitive achievement of peace. We today have the privilege and task of bringing the eschaton to pass. Manent continues, “We therefore anticipate these ‘last times,’ we anticipate the peace to come, and we act as if it already existed.” It admittedly is difficult to keep one’s balance in such pregnant, expectant times. However, with the imaginary peace-cart in this way put before the imaginary final battle-horse, the real horses and riders (the actual belligerents, the real stakes and character of the conflict, etc.) are systematically misunderstood and miscast. A recent episode was available to illustrate this predictable distortion of reality.

A Paradigmatic Case

Manent draws on Charles Peguy’s idea of a cas eminent, a paradigmatic case, a particular instance that reveals more than simply itself. The sixtynine consecutive days of bombarding of Serbia by NATO airplanes gave him ample opportunity to reflect upon one such event. NATO’s action, in his judgment, was the first significant military operation conceived as a humanitarian intervention. As such, it was especially revealing of the new way of conceiving military action.25

War itself was not declared, a fact to which we will return. But much high-minded moralistic and dire catastrophic talk was uttered before the fighting. “Western councils were obsessed with the pure idea of ‘humanity,’ on one hand, and the pure idea of ‘crime against humanity,’ on the other. Our leaders seemed incapable of thinking or saying anything without the assistance of this contrast.” Nor was the discourse simply about the Serbian and Albanian protagonists, with the former cast as demonic, the latter often as angelic.

“We placed ourselves at the pinnacle of all the virtues,” observed Manent, as neither executioners nor victims”26 but as those who were simply engaged in “the pure fight for justice.” Europeans were disinterestedly humanitarian, their brothers’ keepers. Now, not just the skeptic but a person with only a passing knowledge of the complexity of human motives might object that this humanitarian discourse was but a fig leaf to cover a multitude of unavowed motives. Manent does not simply disagree: “All sorts of different interests certainly boiled in the cauldron of our deliberations.”

These interests were the aspects of political reality that continued to impinge upon otherwise humanitarian consciousness. They would include understandable worries about regional instability, refugee populations, and untoward examples given to other leaders and countries; longtime historical, cultural, and diplomatic ties; a desire to show European countries’ ability to handle their own affairs; and so forth. Genuine political thinking would have acknowledged them and tried to knit them together into a coherent whole of objectives and means.

Such, however, was not to be. Humanitarian ideology and a deep decline in the capacity for genuinely political thinking conspired to cast Miloševic as incarnate evil, as a potential latter-day Hitler, and the KLA (the Kosovo Liberation Army) as unimpeachable freedom fighters. Onto the stage of this morality play we entered. Here Manent’s analysis becomes, if possible, even more sharply pointed. I count at least six items on his litany of at-the-time shameful perverse effects.27 His thesis statement sets the tone: “This action allowed one to observe all the ambiguities, of which some run the risk of being truly catastrophic, of humanitarian action.” It is urgent, therefore, to dissect the abuse of humanitarianism as a substitute for political action. “It cannot but have perverse effects and end up serving particular agendas.”

First of all, the United Nations was bypassed. Why is this perverse? The United Nations in principle represents humanity in its ensemble; it therefore is the natural organization to authorize such action. But because of the makeup of the Security Council, alternative ways had to be taken. Elementary rules of international law were disregarded.

The massive bombardment of a country, week after week, was not declared war. But if these are not acts of war against a sovereign state, what are? The failure to declare war was a moral-political lie of great amplitude: Manent asserts, “We lied, and we lied to ourselves about what we were doing.” The straightforward and honorable position would have been to say we were waging war for reasons at once moral and political. Instead, a simply “moral” posture was adopted. Even the enemy, Milošević himself, was degraded by these evasions, as were the undeclared belligerents themselves. “I find it morally odious, even when the enemy conducts himself in an inhuman manner, to refuse him this minimum of recognition which consists in calling him an ‘enemy’ and declaring war on him. In the name of humanitarianism, we sunk into inhumanity.”

Having introduced the category of the morally odious, Manent turns to an aspect “yet more odious” of the bombing campaign. “War, which is a terrible thing, in a certain way ‘repairs’ its own immorality by a form of morality, by the fact that all those who take part in it risk their lives.” This, however, was not the case with the American-led NATO forces. They bombarded from the skies and did not fight on the ground, and in fact they were ordered to avoid coalition casualties above all else. In this way, the moral architecture of the enterprise collapsed. Manent’s conclusion is deeply sardonic: “The NATO action marked a progress in, and brought a refinement to, moral posturing.”

This, however, is inherent in the motive of the action, pity for others’ suffering. Compassion is a sentiment that is very ambiguous. It supposes that we perceive the other suffering but on the condition that we also feel that we ourselves escape the suffering. “We experience ‘the pleasure of not suffering.’” Hence, a world that exalts compassion at the same time exalts the sentiment and the desire not to suffer. When an action has a strictly humanitarian motive, it renders sacrifice very difficult. One wants one’s succouring of others to occur at little or no cost to oneself. Happily, another component of modern democratic psychology, a reliance upon technology, was available to help resolve this constitutive conundrum of compassion. Our enormous superiority in military means allowed us to inflict harm on the oppressors without endangering our own pilots and crews. The high-altitude bombing of Serbian infrastructures, with its significant collateral civilian damage, thus became the very emblem of humanitarian war, which is “war without any human communication with the enemy from whom we remain separated by our compassion and our technical means.” Perhaps wishing to interject something of a positive note in the course of his analysis and critique, Manent did venture the thought that perhaps European publics were in the process of discovering that the “dialectics of humanitarianism” produce, at least in certain circumstances, the contrary of what is intended. At the very least, one could note that the bombing, which initially was widely approved by European governments and populations, eventually gave rise to many hesitations, regrets, and even reproaches among those who had approved it. Humanitarian enthusiasms were forced to confront what they had wrought and thus to experience other sentiments. Reflected upon, they might point the way to more sober moral-political thought.

Some of these regrets occurred “during the fact”; some came after the fact when people and leaders had to ask, What now? In Manent’s judgment, the gravest political consequence of this refusal to recognize that one was engaging in war was the extreme difficulty in securing the peace. Peoples who did not want to live together were told they had to. This was because we had not considered what was politically feasible for human beings who, after all, “have the right not to be angels.” The moralistic optic through which things were viewed ruled out the compromises and deals in terms of borders and partitioning and new forms of authority that diplomatic savvy or common sense might suggest.

Almost a decade later, Kosovo Albanians took things into their own very human hands and declared their independence. Humanitarian-inspired peacekeeping, UN resolution 1244, and years of unsuccessful negotiations finally engendered, and had to confront, the return of the political.28 Tellingly, the former coalition allies expressed various reactions—politically motivated reactions—to this emphatically political decision. Some accepted it, some hailed it, and some decried it. All had their complex, understandable reasons. Next to none were based upon humanitarian considerations or impulses.

This recent turn of events is yet more evidence to support Manent’s thesis in A World beyond Politics? that, because of a hyperdemocratic worldview and attendant utopian hopes, contemporary Europeans find themselves living a debilitating tension between an older order of politics and the project of a postpolitical world. Moreover, it supports his judgment that political circumstances, including the form of government, remain decisive for men and societies. The capacity to think and act politically therefore remains an imperative for the European political animal.


I would be the first to acknowledge that primarily critical analyses, while sometimes necessary, are frequently unsatisfying. Are they fair to the target? Do they hide weaknesses in the critical criteria? What is the positive alternative? These questions are legitimate. At another time I would be happy to engage them.

This essay, however, has had a more restricted set of purposes: to bring together the strikingly convergent analyses of well-known thinkers and through them to bring to light for critical inspection the worldview and presuppositions of a distinctive sort of democratic mentality. As we went through the critiques, I tried to indicate topics and categories that any serious reflection upon the contemporary European scene should consider.

These include such basic topics as one’s understanding of politics, the relationships between law, morality, war, and peace, and the trajectory of the democratic adventure within human history. Central to the issues raised was the relationship between democracy, politics (including war and peace), and legitimate and illegitimate hopes concerning both. I believe—and certainly hope—that any reader would profit from considering such topics through the lenses provided.

To be sure, I am more than a little sympathetic to the critiques. I believe they hit a real target. As the critics have tried to argue, much is at stake in the debate. The truth about man’s political nature and the reality of the erosion of civic life in Europe, the nature and proper exercise of reason itself, especially in connection with politics and history, and even the purity of the Christian faith—all these important matters are implicated and, if the critics are to be believed, at risk in Europe. Given their importance, we American democrats would do well to look at them in the European mirror. At a distance, and through the revealing medium of others, we might gain some insights into democracy and politics, reason and faith, that could translate into American self-knowledge.



1. Pierre Manent, Democracy without Nations? The Fate of Self-Governmentin Europe, trans. and with an introduction by Paul Seaton (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007); Chantal Delsol, Unjust Justice: The Tyranny of International Law, trans. and with an introduction by Paul Seaton (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2008).

2. The greatest range of differences obtains between Manent and Kagan. In terms of particular judgments, (1) Manent, as we will see, opposed the NATO bombings of Serbia in the late 1990s, whereas Kagan was a proponent; (2) Manent was opposed to the invasion of Iraq (not Afghanistan) after 9/11 on prudential grounds, whereas Kagan approved. In terms of general propositions, (3) Kagan has made his peace with the transnational-internationalist European Union; Manent is an opponent of the post-Maastricht trajectory of the EU. (4) Manent is a critic of two opposite forms of hegemonic “democratic universalism,” while Kagan’s liberal internationalism tends to involve Western democracies in the democratization project.

3. Rather quickly the article was inflated into a somewhat expanded book: Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (New York: Knopf, 2003), 112 pages.

4. In fact, Kagan spent considerably more time analyzing the dominant European perspective than an American one.

5. James W. Ceaser, “America’s Ascendancy, Europe’s Despondency,” Weekly Standard 7, no. 35 (May 20, 2002), available at Content/Public/Articles/000/000/001/235nzhek.asp. Subsequent quotations in this section are from the same source.

6. Pierre Manent, Cours familier de philosophie politique (Paris: Fayard, 2001). The book was translated into English and appeared as A World beyond Politics? A Defense of the Nation-State, trans. Marc LePain (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2006). For my review, see Review of Politics 69, no. 4 (Summer 2007: 1–6. Five years after Cours familier, Manent updated his analysis of contemporary Europe in La raison des nations: Reflexions sur la democratieen Europe (Paris: Fayard, 2006). It was translated and appeared in English as Democracy without Nations? The Fate of Self-Government in Europe. In between the two, an important article, “The Autumn of Nations,” was published in Azure 16 (Winter 2004): 32–49. For Manent’s most recent thinking about political forms and the Sonderweg of Europe, see Les metamorphoses de la cite (Paris: Flammarion, 2010). His fascinating account of his intellectual itinerary appeared at the same time: Le regard politique (Paris: Flammarion, 2010).

7. Mark Lilla, “The End of Politics,” New Republic, June 23, 2003, available at Subsequent quotations in this section are from the same source. In the article, Lilla refers to Robert Kagan’s “powerful little book Of Paradise and Power.

8. I add “[almost]” because Lilla explicitly excepts a handful of thinkers, Raymond Aron and Norberto Bobbio among them, from the generalization.

9. In connection with Lilla’s broader point, the reader should consult James W. Ceaser, Reconstructing America: The Symbol of America in Modern Thought (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1997). In this tour de force of intellectual history, Ceaser incisively critiques various Continental modes of thought that purport to comprehend the political realm of reality in nonpolitical categories, whether from below (economics, race, even geography) or above (culture, History, “metaphysics”). Deftly employing Publius, Tocqueville, and Leo Strauss, Ceaser provides illuminating alternatives—what he calls traditional political science and political philosophy—to these apolitical and antipolitical modes of thought.

10. Cf. Manent’s presentation of such an “Idea of Europe” in Democracy without Nations? 7, 34.

11. This morality is a melange of rights divorced from any notion of normative nature, dignity understood as radical autonomy (but without any of Kant’s original rigor), and subjective values or identities, the softened, democratically filtered residues of Nietzsche’s and Max Weber’s more pointed and “pathetic” characterizations of human beings.

12. Pierre Manent, Tocqueville et la nature de la democratie (Paris: Juilliard, 1982; Fayard, 1993); English translation: Tocqueville and the Nature of Democracy, trans. John Waggoner (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1996).

13. Harvey C. Mansfield Jr. and Delba Winthrop, introduction to Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 2000), xviii.

14. The French word conscience contains the intriguing combination of consciousness, that is, mental self-awareness, with moral standards and judgment: conscience. Both are implied in the passage.

15. While the sentence is mine, the thought is Kant’s. It apes (and gently mocks) Kant, who had a fondness for Latin aphorisms.

16. For a similar analysis of the differences between Kant’s thought and contemporary thinking, see Delsol, Unjust Justice.

17. The classic study is Henri de Lubac’s The Drama of Atheistic Humanism, published in 1944.

18. See “Perpetual Peace (First Supplement: On the Guarantee of Perpetual Peace),” in Immanuel Kant, Perpetual Peace and Other Essays, trans. Ted Humphrey (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), 120–22.

19. Manent writes of “the effectual and dynamic truth of modern liberty, to wit, that man is the sovereign author, in fact and by right, of the human world. He is and ought to be [sovereign]. The world, in any case the human world, ‘society,’ does not have for its author God, or the gods, nor nature, but man himself. This fundamental truth of our condition, which in former societies was hidden and as it were buried, becomes visible in democratic societies. Democracy puts on stage and to work this human sovereignty.” Manent, A World beyond Politics? 3. Manent adopts the final formulation from Claude Lefort. In considering Manent’s presentation of the atheistic presuppositions of what he calls modern liberty and modern democracy, American readers will think of the American Declaration of Independence with its fourfold invocation of God and note our different theological-liberal democratic conjugation.

20. Joseph Cropsey, “Liberalism, Nature, and Convention,” Independent Journal of Philosophy 4, no. 1 (1983): 21.

21. See Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, part 1, chap. 2, “Of the Principal Source of Beliefs among Democratic Peoples.”

22. Ibid., chap. 20, “Of Some Tendencies Particular to Historians in Democratic Centuries.”

23. For comparable analyses, see Delsol, Unjust Justice; and John Bolton, “Courting Danger: What’s Wrong with the International Criminal Court,” National Interest (Winter 1998–1999), available at

24. For Manent’s treatment of Locke’s constitutionalism, see “Locke, Labor, and Property,” in Pierre Manent, An Intellectual History of Liberalism, trans. Rebecca Berlinski (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1995), esp. 47–52.

25. “In fact it [the intervention in Kosovo] was the first great example of the type of action that claims to transcend politics in order to act solely in function of humanitarianism.” Pierre Manent, “La tentation humanitaire,” Geopolitique 68 (January 2000): 9.

26. The well-known phrase is from Albert Camus.

27. At this point I turn to Manent’s analysis in “La tentation humanitaire.”

28. For details and analysis, see Christopher J. Borgen, “Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence: Self-Determination, Succession, and Recognition,” ASIL Insights (American Society of International Law) 12, no. 2 (February 29, 2008) (available online). Cf. Borgen’s statement “Kosovo presents a quintessential ‘tough case,’ demonstrating the ways in which the political interests of states affect how the international law is given effect.”


This article was originally published with the same title in Lee Trepanier and Khalil M. Habib, ed., Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Globalization: Citizens Without States (University of Kentucky Press, 2011), 305-37. The book can be purchased here.

Paul Seaton

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Paul Seaton is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at St. Mary’s Seminary and University. He specializes primarily in French political thought and has written on and translated several contemporary French thinkers, including Pierre Manent, Chantal Delsol, and Philippe Beneton.