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Philip Allott

March 2nd, 2020

Can there be anything new under the sun ever again?

3 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Philip Allott

March 2nd, 2020

Can there be anything new under the sun ever again?

3 comments | 1 shares

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

Post-war internationalism is in retreat. Are we doomed to repeat the terrible mistakes of the past? Philip Allott (University of Cambridge) says the need for courageous new ideas has never been so urgent.

The crisis prompted by Britain’s withdrawal may well prove terminal to the European Union. In any case, the unprecedented effort to build a new basis of European co-existence — other than diplomacy and war — will never be the same again.

mother courage
Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children, Atelier Theater à la Belge de Molenbeek, 2012. Photo: Lieven Soete via a CC-BY-SA NC 2.0 licence

The event coincides with multiple signs of regression in political forms around the world, with the revival of age-old corrupt tyrannies and the decay of the international settlement achieved under US leadership after the second world war. Can the human future only be a repeat of many of the worst features of the human past?

It is meaningless to attribute intentions to states as if they were persons. Their actions are the product of internal processes of irreducible complexity. Did Austria seek to stifle revolutions throughout Europe by the Holy Alliance among some of the Great Powers after the Napoleonic Wars? Did France seek revenge for 1870 and 1914 in the Versailles settlement? Why did the UK leave the EU?

Historians have to compromise in telling the story. The impossible complexity of international relations obliges them to imagine a coherent source of incoherent events and, often, the most convenient thing is to place that source in a ‘world-historical’ individual — a Caesar or a Napoleon or a Hitler.

Tolstoy, again and again in War and Peace, and in an Epilogue to the novel devoted to the problem of history-writing, scorned Thomas Carlyle’s idea of world-changing individuals. Great historical events, and especially war, are the product of chaos and chance at the most everyday level — as Clausewitz also recognised — and can only be given a spurious coherence retrospectively. Brecht, in Mother Courage, portrays the meaningless chaos of the Thirty Years War, one of Europe’s worst wars, a war that historians present as a power-struggle of states led by obsessed rulers. The historian’s compromise with reality flatters and encourages politicians and diplomats in making war, and in the intervals between wars conventionally called peace. They imagine that they are masters of some universe for a few moments before the terrible damage is done, and they leave the stage pathetically, to write their self-serving memoirs.

Great damage is done and yet, somehow, great things are occasionally achieved. The French historian Hippolyte Taine said that he had approached the subject of the French Revolution as an entomologist observes the metamorphosis of an insect or a doctor examines the pathological symptoms of a disease. We might add that the human insect is a thinking insect, full of ideas, and ideas can cause pathologies and ideas can cure pathologies. States are ideas. The human world is made from ideas. The human world can be changed by ideas.

The decline of the idea of European integration in recent years, and the current chaotic state of the human world in general, cry out to be judged as a matter of clinical ideology, by how they were imagined and what they became — not in terms of the behaviour of states and human beings who, as human beings, can only be the usual rough mixture of good and evil, rationality and irrationality.

The EU may have been too ambitious. Merging very large and disparate economic systems, without creating a Europe-wide politics to govern them, has risked igniting more nationalisms that it overcame – including an English nationalism whose scale came as a surprise. The EU may have been not ambitious enough. It has not acquired the global power that a union of five hundred million people deserves. Now the EU is caught up in multiple global problems including the collapse of post-1945 world order and a retreat into a new form of executive-branch absolutism, noticeable even in the United States and the UK.

The idea of European integration was the idea of adding a judgment of the common interest of all the people of Europe to the traditional judgments of national interest made by governments. It overlooked the distinction between nationalism, a 19th-century evil, and the patriotism which attaches people to their country and its government, but only if they feel that the government is listening to them and acting as their servant.

The idea of the international settlement after the second world war was the idea of ultimate human interdependence: the survival and prospering of particular peoples is inseparable from the survival and prospering of all peoples.

Yet post-war internationalism proved unable to overcome the age-old nationalisms of a world that would come to contain, not 51 countries that had survived two terrible wars, but 193 old and new countries, with the government of each of them fighting for its own survival and prosperity in its own way. The idea of a common interest above national interest and the idea of ultimate human interdependence were the product of millennia of enlightened human thought about the human condition, and millennia of bitter human experience. Having been thought, we must not allow them now to be unthought.

In Europe, we have lived through six tri-centennial enlightenments during what has come to be called the Common Era (CE). The last was in the eighteenth century. We owe it to the wonderful thinkers who have gone before us to be the courageous voices of an enlightenment that has never been needed so much, or needed so urgently.

This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor LSE.

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About the author

Philip Allott

Philip Allott is Professor Emeritus of International Public Law at Cambridge University, a Fellow of Trinity College, and a Fellow of the British Academy. He was at one time a legal adviser in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. His most recent book is Eutopia: New Philosophy and New Law for a Troubled World.

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