National Conservatism and Cosmopolitanism

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Yoram Hazony‘s recent “National Conservatism” conference attracted controversy, some of it deserved. Arch interventionist and National Security Advisor John Bolton was one featured speaker, injuring the gathering’s promise of a shifting foreign policy consensus on the Right. Tucker Carlson, by contrast, capably promoted an “America First” policy of military restraint—restraint that runs directly counter to Bolton’s grandiose neoconservatism.

We doubt whether a “Trump Doctrine” can emerge from the intellectually incoherent mess that characterizes today’s Conservatism, Inc. But any movement on the Right away from hubris and toward humility is potentially beneficial; particularly movement away from Buckleyite faux-intellectualism and toward Old Right sensibilities. Any chance at redemption by conservatives starts with the issue of war and peace, the recognition that Bush and Cheney were wrong while Ron Paul and Pat Buchanan were right. To the extent Mr. Hazony’s attendees understand this, conservatism may have a flicker of life. 

But there was another flat note at the conference, at least from the perspective of media pundits  US Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri, a rising pro-Trump figure in the GOP, spoke disparagingly of “cosmopolitan elites” in both parties who have lost touch with the interests of common Americans. This theme is not new, but finds growing purchase among economically insecure, downscale American voters; among Brexiteers in the UK and gilets jaunes in Paris; and among Euroskeptic pensioners in Italy and Greece. And of course western elites have made a terrible mess of everything, mismanaging government, foreign policy, central banks, financial markets, schools, and medicine. War and inflation, the two great products of 20th and 21st century governments, hardly benefit ordinary people. In the current context, anti-elitism (in the form of political populism) is entirely justified.  

But is there more to this? Does Hawley’s concept of a “rootless cosmopolitanism” imply a lack of allegiance to, or concern for, one’s country? Worse, is “cosmopolitan” now a smear which some people think is too frequently applied against Jews, like “neocon”?

Some in the Twitterverse allege this, or at least argue Hawley was tin-eared in his language. But Mr. Hazony, for his part, took to Twitter in defense of Hawley:

Politics has a way of clouding and even weaponizing plain words. But Ludwig von Mises was a precise thinker and writer, one who used the term “cosmopolitan” frequently in his earlier work—particularly in Nation, State, and Economy (1919) and Liberalism (1927). In the latter his description of liberal thought mirrors Hazony’s “citizen of the world” language:

Liberal thinking always has the whole of humanity in view and not just parts. It does not stop at limited groups; it does not end at the border of the village, of the province, of the nation, or of the continent. Its thinking is cosmopolitan and ecumenical: it takes in all men and the whole world. Liberalism is, in this sense, humanism; and the liberal, a citizen of the world, a cosmopolite.

In Nation, State, and Economy Mises discusses tensions between what he termed the “nationality principle” and the problems of war, protectionism, and autarky. Mises thought a “liberal nationalism” was possible, but only under conditions of true self-determination, international trade, and peace among nations. Any impulse toward domination of political minorities, autarky (including protectionism),or imperialist expansion was necessarily illiberal. Free nations exhibit a benevolent unity:

Unity in a unified state offers the peoples the highest assurance of maintaining their freedom. And there, too, nationalism does not clash with cosmopolitanism, for the unified nation does not want discord with neighboring peoples, but peace and friendship.

A century later, we think of nationalism and cosmopolitanism as competing views. But Mises puts it differently:

The nationality principle above all bears no sword against members of other nations. It is directed in tyrannos. Therefore, above all, there is also no opposition between national and citizen-of-the-world attitudes. The idea of freedom is both national and cosmopolitan.

Sensible and agreed-upon definitions for ordinary words are casualties of the culture wars today, as Josh Hawley and “national conservatives” have discovered. But Mises had it right: cosmopolitan simply means “not provincial.” Cosmopolitan thinking requires the ability to conceive of a life quite unlike one’s own: a different place, culture, language, or way of life. To be cosmopolitan means to have awareness of, and interest in, the world beyond one’s day to day life. Cosmopolitanism does not require a particular worldview or political perspective beyond this. It does not compel globalism in the political or cultural sense, but rather respect for others’ political arrangements and cultures.  

Is peaceful nationalism a pipe dream? Was Mises wrong, in those interwar years, to advocate a peaceful nationality principle which Hitler’s aggression would render obsolete? In other words, is nationalism inherently illiberal? Mises didn’t think so, and a careful reading of both Nation, State, and Economy and Liberalism would greatly benefit both the globalist Left and the nationalist Right.

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