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The Romance of the Nation-State

Author(s): David Luban

Source: Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 9, No. 4 (Summer, 1980), pp. 392-397
Published by: Wiley
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DAVID LUBAN The Romance of the

The theoryI espoused in "JustWar and Human Rights"entitlesna-

tions to wage war to enforcebasic human rights.'This entitlement
stems fromthe cosmopolitannature of human rights.The rightsof
securityand subsistence,withwhich I was concerned,are necessary
for the enjoymentof any otherrightsat all; no one can do without
them.Basic rights,therefore, are universal.They are no respectersof
politicalboundaries, and require a universalistpoliticsto implement
them,even whenthismeans breachingthewall of statesovereignty.
Since the time of the French Revolution,which linked the Rights
of Man withthe demand fornational sovereignty, cosmopolitantheo-
ries have been criticizedby appealing to the ideologyof nationalism.
National sovereignty, it was thought,gives people theirmost impor-
tant entitlement:a state that expresses theirtraditions,historyand
unity-their"nationalsoul."2Attackthe state,and you attackthe soul
of its people. The cosmopolitanvisionof humanityis reallya flatten-
ing universalism,a philosopher'sconceit.As Herder says, "Everyna-
tionhas its own coreofhappinessjust as everyspherehas its centerof
gravity! . . . Philosopher in a northern valley, with the infant's scales
of yourcenturyin yourhand, do you knowbetterthan Providence?"3
I. See Philosophy& Public Affairs9, no. 2 (Winter 1g80): I6o-I8I.
2. See Hannah Arendt,The Origins of Totalitarianism, rev. ed. (New York:
Meridian, I1958), pp. 230-231.
3. "Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichtezur Bildung der Menschheit,"Werke,
ed. Suphan, vol. 5, pp. 501 if.; quoted in Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the
Enlightenment,trans. Koelln and Pettegrove (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1951), pp. 232-233. See also Cassirer,The Mythof the State (New Haven:
? 1g80 by Princeton UniversityPress
Philosophy & Public Affairs9, no. 4
0048-39g15/80/040392-6$oo.50/ I

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393 The Romance of the

Nationalismmay have originatedas an ideologyof liberationand

tolerance;in our centuryit is drenchedin blood.What Mazzini began,
II Duce ended; otherexamples are equally obvious and equally pain-
ful. The violenceof modernnationalismand its indifference to basic
human rightsarises,I believe,fromthe convictionthatthe onlyright
whichmatterspoliticallyis the rightto a unifiednation-state.Its pic-
tureof the nation-state,however,is a myth.It emphasizes a nation's
commonality,affinity, shared language and traditionsand history,
what Mazzini called "unanimityof mind."4The pictureglosses over
intramuralclass conflict,turmoil,violence, and repression;these it
representsas the reflectionof inscrutableprocesses akin to national
destiny.5This view I shall call the Romance of the Nation-State.In
place of respectforpeople it sets respectforpeoples; in place of uni-
What disturbsme about Walzer's essay is its acceptance of the
premisesof nationalism.6Walzer embodieshis anti-cosmopolitanism
in fivetheses: (i) that nations are comparativelyself-enclosed(p.
227); (2) that"thestateis constitutedby theunion ofpe,opleand gov-
emment"(p. 2I2); (3) thatthepoliticaland moral statusof a nation
is aptlycharacterizedby the metaphorof the social contract;(4) that
"the only global community is . . . a community of nations, not of hu-
manity"(p. 226); and (5) that the main moral principleof intema-
of nations and
tional politicsis "pluralism":respectforthe integrity
theirstates; in particular,respectfor theirrightto choose political
formswhichfromour pointof view are morallydeficient.

Yale UniversityPress, 1946), pp. 176-I86; Isaiah Berlin, Against the Current
(New York: Viking, I979), chaps. I, I3; and Berlin, Vico and Herder (New
York: Viking, I1976).
4. For this citation,togetherwith a shortsurveyof nineteenth-centurynation-
alist ideology,see VictorAlba, Nationalists WithoutNations (New York: Praeger,
1968), pp. 5-17.
5. Even Mill seems to subscribe to this, for according to Walzer it is his idea
"that citizens get the governmentthey deserve, or, at least, the governmentfor
which they are 'fit,'" Just and Unjust Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1977), p.
6. Parentheticalreferencesin the text are to Walzer, "The Moral Standing of
States: A Response to Four Critics,"Philosophy& Public Affairs9, no. 3 (Spring

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394 Philosophy& Public Affairs

This is a moleculartheoryof worldpolitics,in whichself-contained

nation-statesare the units of moral regard: molecular,because each
is bound togetherfromwithinand presentsitselfas a unitfromwith-
out. The fourthand fifththeses yield the anti-cosmopolitan interna-
tional moralitythat underlies Walzer's theoryof jus ad bellum;
these theses depend,however,on the firstthree,which representthe
Romance of the Nation-State.
The social contractmetaphoris centralto thismyth.It suggestsrec-
iprocity,coincidentinterests,mutual obligation,formal equality of
theparties.But thepresenceof thesefeaturesis not a conceptualtruth
about the nation-state,nor,I think,a factual one. The metaphorand
the myth,I shall argue,lead Walzer to a deficientaccount of human
rightsand a blindnessto the threatphysicalrepressionposes to po-
The controversialthesisof Walzer's essay is this: he believes that
states which oppress theirpeople may, nevertheless,be considered
legitimatein internationalsociety,as long as theydo not fall under
what he calls the "rules of disregard."Interventionis allowable in a
nation when a national minorityis secedingfromit; when a foreign
powerhas intervenedin a civil war it is fighting; or when it is massa-
cring,enslaving,or expellinglarge numbersof people. In these in-
stances,Walzer argues,"the absence of 'fit'betweenthe government
and community is radicallyapparent"(p. 2I4). The restof thetimewe
are obligedto act as if statesare legitimate.Walzer calls this"thepoli-
ticsof as if" (p. 2I6); its leadingprincipleis "a morallynecessarypre-
sumption:thatthereexists a certain'fit'betweenthe communityand
its government and thatthestateis 'legitimate"'(p. 212). Hard as it is
forliberal democratsto believe,foreignersmay want theirtyranny-
theremay be a "fit"betweengovernmentand people.
What supportsthis presumption?Accordingto Walzer, foreigners
just can't judge an alien culture'sfitwithits government."Theydon't
know enough about its history,and theyhave no directexperience,
and can formno concretejudgmentsof the conflictsand harmonies,
the historicalchoices and culturalaffinities, the loyaltiesand resent-
ments,thatunderlieit" (p. 2 I 2).

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395 The Romance of the

I findno plausibilityin this.True, if we don'tknowenough about a

foreigncultureto judge its "fit"withits government, we should giveit
thebenefitof thedoubtand presumethefitis there.But whypresume
we are ignorant?We aren't,usually.There are, afterall, experts,ex-
perienced travelers,expatriates,scholars, and spies; libraries have
been writtenabout the most remotecultures.Bafflingly, Walzer does
not mention the obvious sources of informationeven to dismiss
them.He seems to take as an a prioritruth-itis partof the Romance
of the Nation-State-thatwithout"directexperience"a memberof one
culturecannot,ultimately,knowwhat it's reallylike to be a member
of another.But this is of a piece with"no man can reallyknow what
it's like to be a woman" or "youcan't know what it's reallylike to be
me": even grantingtheirvalidity,we don't assume that such consid-
erationsprecludemakingtruejudgmentsabout otherpeople. That is
more like solipsismthan pluralism,and if it were trueit would spell
theend,nottheprinciple,of politics.
Of course Walzer is rightthat the lack of fitbetweengovernment
and people should be "radicallyapparent"to justifyintervening,be-
cause interventionbased on a misperceptionis horriblywrong. But
whatdoes it take to make thingsradicallyapparent?In myview,Wal-
zer's rules of disregardset the thresholdtoo high; what he calls "or-
dinaryoppression"can make the lack of fitapparentenough. Let us
look at ordinaryoppressionin a medium-sizedictatorship.Each year
thereare a few score executions,a few hundredtortures,a few thou-
sand politicalimprisonments, a fewmillionpeople behavingcautious-
lybecause theyknowthata singleslip willbringthepolice.The police
and armybelievethatif the government falls theyare dead men; it is
thebargaintheyacceptedto escape the povertyof theirvillages.They
take theirforeign-made fighters,small arms,and peppergas and hope
forthe best.
If this is a "union of people and government," why are the jails
so full? Surelyall those strappedto the torturetable are not misfitsin
theirown culture.I thinkwe should aim at a morecommon-senseex-
planationthanWalzer'sof whypeople put up withtheregime,such as
the idea that theyare afraidof being "disappeared"(to use a phrase

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396 Philosophy& Public Affairs

currentin Argentinaand the Philippines). The governmentfitsthe

people the way the sole of a boot fitsa human face: aftera while the
It was centralto my argumentin "JustWar and Human Rights"
that under ordinaryoppressionpeoples' socially basic human rights
are violated-not,to be sure,on the scale envisionedin Walzer's third
rule of disregard,which refersto what the Nurembergcourt called
"crimesagainst humanity,"but systematicallyenough to definethe
state'spoliticalphysiognomy and justifyintervention.Walzer's theory
of interventionas aggressionis also based on individualrights,but
thosethat controlare the rightsemphasizedby nationalism: to fight
forthehomelandand to live underinstitutions formedby one's fellow-
nationals.They are rightsto a nation-state, not claims againstit.
This differenceis illustratedby Walzer's analysis of the recent
Nicaraguan revolution.He emphasizes the fact that in the wake of
theirinitialdefeatthe Sandinistaswereforcedto clarifytheirprogram
and solidifytheirpoliticalbase. This is indeed an instance of self-de-
termination, and if Walzer'spositionis that,otherthingsbeing equal,
it is betterthatit shouldhappen thannot,he is undoubtedlyright.Let
us notforget,though,thatotherthingswerenot equal. Fiftythousand
people were killed in the second round of revolution,Nicaragua's
productivecapacitywas ravaged,and Somoza's followershad an addi-
tionalyearto stripthe countryofeverything theycould crate.Because
of this,the new governmenthas been forcedto make a numberof
deals that have weakened its political base. Neithershould we dis-
miss as unimportantthe fact that Nicaraguans had to live under an
oppressiveregime one year longer. We cannot ignore, as Walzer's
theorydoes, the cost in blood, the bottomline in an account that
makes sociallybasic human rightsits guidingconcept.
The problemwithWalzer's argumentis this. Human rightsaccrue
to people no matterwhat countrytheylive in and regardlessof history
and traditions.If human rightsexist at all, theyset a moral limitto
pluralism.For thisreason Walzer's appeal to pluralismbegs the ques-
tion,formakingpluralismthe overridingvalue is incompatiblefrom
theoutsetwitha theorythatgrantsuniversalhuman rights.
Rights,moreover,are crucial values for us-as Walzer points out,

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397 The Romance of the

theyare deeplyconnectedwithour notionsof personalityand moral

agency.Thus, when murders,tortures,imprisonmentsgo unchecked,
more so when theirperpetrators(the worstpeople in the world) are
treatedas if theyare legitimate,the commonhumanityof all of us is
stained. In this way, the politicsof as if, in which we acknowledge
rightsbut turnour backs on theirenforcement(p. 226), fails to take
our values seriously.It raises politicsabove moral theory.
Walzer sees it differently. He claims that he is defendingpolitics
while his criticsare expressing"the traditionalphilosophicaldislike
forpolitics."This, he says,is because we are unwillingto tolerateun-
wantedoutcomesof "thepoliticalprocessitself,withall its messiness
and uncertainty, itsinevitablecompromises,and itsfrequentbrutality";
we wouldrestrictthe outcomesby forceof arms (p. 31 ).
But why is this less political than standingby while an uprising
againsta repressiveregimeis crushedby forceof arms? Repressionis
itselfan attemptto restrict, or rather,to eliminatethepoliticalprocess.
It subjectspoliticsto the essentiallyapoliticaltechnologyof violence,
the "greatunequalizer."Intervention,when it is just, should restore
self-determination, not denyit. In thisrespectit is similarto counter-
intervention of the sortcountenancedby Walzer's second rule of dis-
regard-an analogy which is particularlyappositein view of the fact
thatmilitarytechnologyis usually providedto repressiveregimesby
Walzer dismisses the abilityof sheer force to stiflethe political
process because forcecannot prevail against the united community,
whileif thecommunityis notunitedintervention wouldbe wrong.But
a unitedcommunity is a rarepoliticalachievement,particularlyunder
conditionsof class oppressionand terror,and I thinkit is wrongto
make it the yardstickof politics-doingso is anothermetamorphosis
of the Romance of the Nation-State.One mightdoubt whetherin a
civilwar an intervener can knowwhichside to support.But theentitle-
mentto intervenederivesfromthe cosmopolitancharacterof human
rights;one intervenes,then,on behalfof sociallybasic human rights,
forit is thesewhichenable people to enjoy theirpoliticalrights.Wal-
zer's hands-offapproach,on the otherhand, waitingforthe day when
thenationunites,simplyyieldsto guns and tanks.

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