[Originally published at foodforthought.blog.lemonde.fr on August 16, 2017]
The choice to form a united political community, which for so long stood out of reach of the common man and rested upon the fate of battles and on the willingness of kings and emperors to conquer more territory, is now open to popular decisions and choices. Citizens are free to choose the size and shape of their political community. Yet, we rarely do. We regularly amend the laws that govern us but leave intact the polity. Let us take a step back and, by navigating through history, gather clues of why this is so and draw lessons for our future.
Impermanence of socio-political structures
Socio-political structures have come and gone throughout history. City-States, kingdoms, empires, here grouped as « socio-political structures », have risen, grown, shrunk, and fallen. Historically, the issue can be viewed from two angles: from that of a given structure − the change in its geographical reach and the mutations in its forms −, or from that a piece of land − which structure it belonged to throughout history.
Evolution of socio-political structures’ geographical reach
« And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer. »
Although only a misquote from Plutarch’s Moralia1, the citation does well to illustrate the extent that Alexander’s empire had reached. By Alexander’s death in 323 BC, ranging from Greece in the West to India in the East, it was considered to engulf the whole known world. And Alexander’s conquests brought far-reaching consequences, launching a new Hellenistic civilisation East and South-East of the Mediterranean, perhaps never as famously remembered as in Egypt where the resulting Ptolemaic dynasty reigned until the death of Cleopatra three centuries after Alexander’s passing. Yet, what happened to Alexander’s empire? What is left of it today? Following Alexander’s untimely death, the empire simply brittled and broke.
If we seek to bring this closer to home, the Roman Republic, and later its subsequent Empire, is a prime object of analysis, having ruled most of Western Europe and the Mediterranean for centuries and extending, for a time, from Ireland to parts of the Arabian Peninsula. It eventually broke up in two and later saw its Western half dissolve in the 5thcentury. Although historically brief, Charlemagne’s empire also ruled most of Western Europe, for the first time since the Romans, and, likewise, later dissolved into kingdoms. Shortly after, the Holy Roman Empire picked up the mantle and lasted until the beginning of the 19thcentury, meaning that for over eight centuries, most of Central Europe was included, in one way or another, into one political entity. The Austrian and later Austro-Hungarian Empires continued suit for over half a century each.
Other structures, while maintaining a core, drastically changed their nature and their size over time. The case of France is enlightening, as nationalist commentaries would have you believe that « La France » has stood unchanged for two thousand years.2Before France stood Gaul, encompassing much of continental Western Europe, without the Iberian Peninsula. It first took centuries after the fall of the Western Roman Empire for Frank tribes, coming from nowadays Germany, to conquer growing parts of what is today the French metropole and set up what would become France. Over that coalescing process, entire regions would switch hands, not only internally but also externally; Aquitaine, in the South-West, was an English possession for over three hundred years. Later, France developed its colonial empire and held possessions in Africa, Asia, the Americas and Oceania for a century until a painful decolonisation process in the 60s. Staunch partisans of the « Algérie française » showed how attached they were for a land they naturally considered theirs and that we now naturally consider Algerian.
Beyond the geography, the political system also drastically changed. A centralised and increasingly absolutist monarchy for centuries, France was the theatre of a revolution in 1789, became a brief republic, toyed with several forms of government, became an empire, returned to the monarchy, then the republic, then again to empire, then again to the republic under a variety of constitutions.
Elsewhere in Europe, other structures disappeared, absorbed by newer ones, such as the Kingdom of Bohemia or the Kingdom of Prussia, which are now forgotten by most but each featured on European maps for centuries.
And, of course, other continents also give us famous examples of now long-gone political structures — such as the Dahomey Kingdom and the Mali Empire in West Africa, or the Inca Empire in South America — and civilisations — including Sumer, which existed for 2,500 years, and others in Mesopotamia, or the Mayans who populated Central America for over 3,500 years.
Socio-political structures in a given geographical area
Focusing on a given area, we see the same, continuous waves of change in ruling structures over time.
Asia Minor — territory of present day Turkey — saw the rise of several dynasties, including the Attalids and Seleucids, before joining the expanding Roman empire for six centuries. Following a progressive eastward move in the fourth century, the Roman Empire centered on Constantinople, in Asia Minor, which soon became the capital of a new structure — later labelled Byzantine empire — for six centuries. In the 11th century, Seljuk Turks from Central Asia started overrunning the peninsula and, after coming themselves under Mongol rule, their various beyliks were progressively absorbed into the Ottoman empire over the course of the 15th century. It took another five hundred years and the end of the First World War for the Turkish State to appear as we know it today.
Likewise, Persia, its history already rich of 3,000 long years, became, in turn, Seleucid, Parthian, Roman, Sassanian, Umayyad, Abbasid, Ghaznavids, Khwarazmian, Mongol, Timurid, Safavid, Afsharid, Zandiyeh, Qajar and Pahlavi before the Revolution of 1979.
Many similar fast-paced and decidedly amateur historical reviews can be sketched; surely one for each of Alexander’s conquered provinces and, truly, one for each of the corners of the world. The purpose of these exercises, and the reason for so many examples, is to remind us that many were the socio-political structures that ruled parts of the world for long periods of time, that men took for granted, and are no more. Let us bear in mind that each of these names spans at least dozens of years and, more often than not, one or more centuries. Let us remember that every name in these lists encompasses millions of individual lives; men and women who were born, lived and died under these regimes, were attached to them, fought for them and to preserve them.
Modalities of evolution for socio-political structures
Through historical developments, these structures changed. Military reasons first come to mind. Kingdoms and empires would grow gradually stronger and larger until they lost to a stronger foe, leading to border changes or complete disappearance; others would come to lose to a weaker one, after having progressively withered away internally. Civil strife could lead to a break-up of large ensembles or in drastic reorganisation. Other exogenous factors can also come into play. A string of bad harvests could substantially weaken a State and jeopardise its future. A new ideology — democracy, Leninism, Maoism — could lead to an overhaul of State institutions and radically affect political structures; for instance, the first 1917 revolution in Russia swept over four hundred years of tsarism away within a week. Changing norms and technology, such as the inability for certain regimes to enact violent oppression in the face of their public opinion and the advent of widespread photography in the media, certainly played a part in the unfolding of decolonisation processes and other revolutions.
History also offers interesting examples of socio-political entities deciding to come together and creating new common institutions. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth is such an example, as the two countries, following several agreements, permanently joined through the Union of Lublin in 1569. The Union lasted for over two hundred years, until the repeated partitions of Poland by its neighbours erased it from the map of Europe between 1795 and 1919. The thirteen North-American colonies, established progressively from the beginning of the 17th century, decided, following the War of Independence, to establish a common political structure through the Articles of Confederation of 1777. Twelve years later, faced by the inability of the Confederation to meet its goals of protecting trade, ensuring security and enhancing sovereignty, the newly written Constitution led to the creation of a united federation that has endured to this day — unsurprisingly, the main issues were the lack of confederal law enforcement, inability to raise taxes, and paralysing decision-making procedures. In Europe, following World War II, the process of European construction began with the Treaty of Rome, in 1958, and has been developing ever since.
We can see, therefore, that history is marked by the continual creation and creative destruction of socio-political structures. Structures that ruled for hundreds of years periodically came to an end and made way for newer ones, either unwillingly or to meet a new environment. Alexander’s empire, while long gone, however, has not disappeared from memory and, to this day, continues to exert a lasting influence on the territories it affected and on their people. We have not forgotten about it; we remember its existence, recognise its achievements, and yet we do not think of mourning it.
Attachment to existing structures
The regular conduct of international affairs makes clear that States and their citizens are very jealous of their national sovereignty — this beacon of independence. States enter into treaties with each other but are keen to preserve their prerogatives, for fear of disappearing as independent structures. The European construction is a clear example: despite common norms and regulations, States have stayed clear of a political union.
Current v. past structures
Why is it that we do not mourn the disappearance of Alexander’s empire? Why is it that French people neither deplore the Roman invasion of their territory, nor lament the later emergence of the Frankish kingdom that eventually led to the French Republic? And why is it that the former strong opposition to the federal Constitution in the United States or the long battles required to unite the Italian peninsula have made way to passionate nationalism in both countries? How many today would advocate for a dismemberment of either of these countries?3
Put simply: because we now take them for granted.
Social interactions function based on predictability: they work best when individuals are aware of and respect social norms. This predictability is correlated to stability: if norms were to change regularly and drastically, it would be much harder for individuals to internalise them and abide by them. Norms are therefore more prone to gradual changes than to complete overhauls and evolve as the result of a dialectic between conservative and progressive forces.
Likewise, socio-political structures seek durability and evolve slowly over time; that is, unless a breaking point is reached and a revolution is triggered. Once the revolution has occurred, society seeks a new equilibrium and a new set of norms.
As a society, we are therefore naturally, yet irrationally, attached to the structure we belong to: overall, we wish to maintain it, with internal forces slowly moving us one way or another. If that system was to change, we would naturally grow attached to the new system until we considered it the norm.
This willingness to preserve structures as they are, and even to celebrate them, is a driver for the development of traditions and the insistence on preserving a group’s identity — a group’s definition of itself based on its norms and history. In the case of nation-States, this tendency helps give rise to nationalist feelings.
Increased attachment, same short-sightedness
With the advent of the age of information and a more widespread higher level of education, the knowledge and familiarity with existing structures worldwide seems to have increased our willingness to maintain them. For instance, in the 17th century, it is likely that the fall of a dynasty or the disappearance of a kingdom — depending on the personal qualities and policies of the victor and on instances of repression by the new authorities — could take place smoothly in large parts of the affected territory. People might be attached to their kingdom but these changes were part of the accepted dynastic norms and, in any case, regular folks had no say in the matter. And, indeed, European territories would regularly switch hands and allegiance between ruling families.
Today, however, citizens have a direct say in the making of their polity and the idea that Germany or Italy could cease to exist seems almost unthinkable. Yet, many forget that these countries did not exist as such a mere 200 years ago and many more countries, in their present political form, were created even more recently. Examples abound in Central and Eastern Europe.
We therefore note a strong emotional attachment to the socio-political structures that we know and have become familiar with — an attachment that grows stronger with our heightened knowledge of these structures and our greater civic involvement. Yet, we easily forget easily what came before them and often lasted much longer. We take these modern structures for granted and often refuse to consider their possible disappearance or otherwise evolution.
Likewise, our predecessors took for granted their own socio-political structures; many were those who thought the end of the world was upon them with the fall of their regimes. The step back that history has given us makes it easy to see that all did not turn out for the worst and that, in most cases, we are now better off. Let us now try and apply this lesson to our situation.
Stepping back to see the bigger picture and knowing one’s priorities4
Considerations on national sovereignty
What does it mean for a people to be independent? What does it mean for a State to be sovereign? In simple terms, sovereignty is the ability for a defined people (or its representative institution) to freely make its own choices, according to its own values and goals, unconstrained by outside influence. From a power perspective, this means independence from other States and institutions.
In an economically interconnected world, however, sovereignty is increasingly limited by a dependency towards and the economic power of other actors — from States to multinationals. Indeed, what good is it to be nominally independent from outside influence, yet unable to make your own choices because of economic constraints? To have the freedom to choose any path you want, yet be unable to bear the consequences of these choices?
As we look ahead, two main possibilities arise: either, at some point in the future, near or far, through warfare or substantial environmental degradation, mankind ceases to exist, or we continue to do so. In this latter case, and as our technological environment changes, it seems both logically and historically impossible that our current socio-political structures would endure, the way they currently are, forever. Somehow or other, as they have done repeatedly throughout history, our countries or empires will continue to evolve: some will change in reach or form, others will disappear and new ones will take their place. In the long run, it is fair to say that absolutely all the structures we know will be gone or changed to the point of being unrecognisable. No more United States, no more China, no more France; at least, not as we know and cherish them.
Let us not be afraid of these changes; they are but natural parts of life — historical cycles. As a child grows into an adult and an adult evolves over his life, so do social structures evolve. Not ceasing to be who they are, but evolving with time. Only refusal to evolve — like a child refusing to grow — is doomed to failure. By focusing on maintaining a structure intact, we sacrifice what really makes us who we are, our values. This is not to say that every change is for the best, but that opposing the idea of change itself is a vain effort.
Therefore, the prospects that our countries will evolve in their structures and may disappear altogether should not be feared and blindly opposed — after all, as we have seen, they are but mere man-made, social-political structures. No, this prospect should be contemplated as a possibility, an opportunity, one that we must seize and encourage.
So, in this realm of possibles, what change should we welcome and encourage? The change that helps us support our values and reach our goals. But what are our values? What are our goals? Well, for the humanist, those would be democracy, human rights and the rule of law. We must be consistent with our values and judge our actions by whether or not they support and promote our values.
In a country that follows the rule of law, each subject is protected in his or her rights and democracy can flourish. In the absence of laws or of the enforcements of existing laws, however, citizens are left in a state of arbitrariness and unbridled competition. In such a system, as in the animal kingdom, might is right: the weak stands without the shield of the law and the strong imposes his will — precisely what the rule of law is designed to prevent.
Many States have made great strides to secure the rule of law on their territory, developing adequate institutional and judicial mechanisms. The same cannot be said of the international system that we live in. At the global level, international law exists — and indeed continues to grow — but lacks proper enforcement from a public authority and relies, more often than not, on voluntary State compliance. In such a system, economically or militarily powerful countries are free to impose their will on others, regardless of their supposed sovereignty. The nominal independence of smaller or weaker countries pales in the face of power relationships that benefit the big and strong. This global chaos also serves as a ladder for non-State actors, such as multinational companies or terrorist groups, only too happy to play States against one another.
Lessons for Europe
So if change is not something that we can avoid — nor should fear — and the anarchy of the international system favour the strong over the weak, what consequences can we draw for European nations and European citizens?
Firstly, that they should act and vote according to the values they profess5and, parting, commit themselves to changing the structure of the international system of political and economic relations. Secondly, that they should seek to reform themselves and their structure, without waiting for a new international political scene.
In this context, let us remember, in the words of Federica Mogherini, High Representative of the EU, that « European countries are divided in two kinds: the small ones and the ones that have not yet realised they are small in the world of today. »6
Indeed, the welcome loss of colonial empires and the progressive development of the South has brought more balance to the distribution of powers worldwide and European nations find themselves in positions slightly more aligned with their respective size and population. And let us make no mistake: efforts to eradicate poverty and to promote development will continue to support less developed countries and help them catch up on their European counterparts as they should.
European nations therefore face the prospect of finding themselves medium or small players on the international scene and, with the structure of the international system, face off against many more bigger players, running the risk to lose, not their nominal sovereignty, but their actual ability to choose and bear the consequences of their choices. In effect, what will European nations separately do when Brazil, India, Iran or Nigeria catch up with their untapped potential?
In the face of this risk to lose our ability to freely choose what we so desire, the choice is ours. We can decide that the preservation of our institutions and our national sovereignty takes precedence, that keeping our nation-States the way we imagine they have always been and ought to remain is paramount. This would mean, above all else, remaining politically independent. Conversely, we can decide that what makes us who we are lies in our values and in our history and that these can be separated and be placed above our political and administrative structures. That is to say that we acknowledge that our political, military and economic power, at the national level, does not allow us to compete efficiently against stronger powers and that our ability to make free choices, in today’s world, is eluding us. And that, having acknowledged this, we would be better placed to safeguard our freedom and promote our values by coming together willingly amongst like-minded countries than to abandon any more of our decision-making power to stronger and hostile powers.
I doubt there are many that would argue today that the people of Massachusetts or Georgia would be stronger and better defended in their values and goals if they stood as independent countries. Likewise, the people of the various regions of Germany and of Italy now stand stronger through their inclusion in a unified national polity than they previously did. In the same manner as parts of a country stand stronger as elements a united national structure, so would we Europeans stand stronger under a united federal structure. There is truth in the saying « united we stand ».
It is key here to understand that there is no predetermination for a people to be together within the borders of one country — as if, in a Fukuyamaesque sense, our nation-States were always meant to be the way they are now. Had France not sold Louisiana to the United States government in 1803, the country would not have taken its current shape. Had Charlemagne not divided his empire between his sons in 814, the map of Western Europe would not be the same. And in both cases, it would now seem only natural.
No, there is no historical determinism and what matters, beyond the current shape of our borders, is what we choose for our future. This choice to form a united polity, which for so long stood out of reach of the common man and rested upon the fate of battles and on the willingness of kings and emperors to conquer more territory, is now open to popular decisions and choices. We can choose to change our political structure. We are free to decide to come together and form a united federal polity.
Some will say that our histories are too long and our cultures too different for us to ever form one single country at the European level. But saying so would be to admit that we are forever constrained by the past and the prisoners of our history. If this were the case, and if ever any evolution was strictly limited by where we come from, there would be little future for who we are and hope to be.
Nationalists of today forget that the countries they wish to maintain or « restore » — the structures they see as the embodiment of our identities — are precisely what former nationalists fought against in their own time. Members of the French Front National, for instance, who today call themselves patriots and glorify France’s enlightened past should remember that, before them, others who also called themselves patriots staunchly fought against the same enlightenment. And they too claimed to defend France as it had always been and should remain. Future generations will not fail to judge their attempts just as misguided as those who previously fought to maintain tribal divisions, absolute monarchies and colonial empires.
On the contrary, we can decide, as was decided following the suicide of Europe that was the Second World War, that we can choose our destinies and that we are free actors of our future. In the more powerful words of William Ernest Henley, « [we are] the master of [our] fate: [we are] the captain of [our] soul ». Thus, this wilful choice to come together is not a renunciation of who we are, it is not the end and destruction of our history and of our identities. It is recognising that we share values with our European neighbours and that, by opening a new chapter of our history, we will be better able to preserve them. In the same way that our shared Roman-Hellenistic foundations have not disappeared following the dismemberment of these antique civilisations, our national histories and shared values will endure in a united Europe. And in the same way that our regional traditions have not disappeared through the primacy of the nation-State, so will our national differences and characters persists in a united Europe.
While we often see them as one uniform people, citizens of the United States will readily admit and proclaim that the people of California are not the people of New York, and that the people from the red hills of Georgia live differently from those of the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. This diversity in a country the size of a continent can, and should, be respected through proper institutions. It is up to us to design strong institutions, democratic institutions, representative institutions, adapted to our goal and specificities, that will allow us to ensure the respect of our freedoms and differences, yet to live stronger together. It is imperative we realise that this is not only feasible but within our reach, if we so desire and put our hearts to the task.
As we have seen, it is understandable and altogether fitting that we should be emotionally attached to where we come from and to whom we have become, as individuals and as societies. Yet, a brief observation of history shows us how much of what we now take for granted has changed over the centuries. This review should help us acknowledge that what has changed will change again, whether we want it or not. The preservation and affirmation of who we are does not go hand-in-hand with the immobility of our socio-political structures; who and what we are is more than a line on a map or a dedicated seat at an international conference.7
The choice is ours to decide what we will make of our future and to recognise, as others have successfully recognised before us, that coming together as like-minded people with shared values and liberty for all is the only way to ensure the survival of who we are.
1.Plutarch actually has Alexander weep for the opposite reason, writing: « Alexander wept when he heard Anaxarchus discourse about an infinite number of worlds, and when his friends inquired what ailed him, ‘Is it not worthy of tears’, he said, ‘that, when the number of worlds is infinite, we have not yet become lords of a single one?’ ». The misattributed quote passed into popular culture after appearing in Robert Hayman’s 1628 Quodlibets as « Great Alexander wept, and made sad mone, because there was but one world to be wonne. ». It is seemingly as a confusion between quotes attributed to Julius Caesar about Alexander and quotes attributed to Alexander himself.
2.Let us right away eliminate the changes in dynasties that took place within the same structure, such as, in France, the transition from the Merovingian to the Carolingian or the successions from the Capetian to the Houses of Valois and later Bourbon.
3.Indeed, both countries have minority groups calling for a restructuration of power structures, or even a break-up of the whole, but never a strict return to the former situation.
4.This section will continue to focus on Europe but attentive observers will not fail to understand its application and consequences for other regions.
5.Human Rights, respect for human life, peace, democracy, individual freedom, rule of law, equality, solidarity, tolerance, self-fulfilment, respect for other cultures and religion; Standard Eurobarometer 77, Spring 2012.
6. High Representative/Vice-President Federica Mogherini at the 2017 Carnegie Nuclear Policy Conference, Washington, 20 March 2017.
7. Already the European Commission negotiates trade agreements on behalf of EU Member States at the World Trade Organisation. It is also hard to argue that our current 28 seats at the UN General Assembly and two seat on the Security Council afford us more power that the United States or China yield on the international scene.
Special thanks and recognition go to Naomi Fenwick and Leanne Tory-Murphy for the time they took to review this article and provide insightful comments. Any typos or mistakes remaining are indeed my responsibility alone.
Originally published at foodforthought.blog.lemonde.fr on August 16, 2017.