A review of The Great Experiment: The Story of Ancient Empires, Modern States, and the Quest for a Global Nation, by Strobe Talbott 
Democracy Without Borders?: Global Challenges to Liberal Democracy, by Marc. F. Plattner


Strobe Talbott, former Deputy Secretary of State for Bill Clinton and currently president of the Brookings Institution, has written a book that is full of insights into the mindset of "transnational progressivism" and the strategy of promoting "global governance." Here, for instance, is a White House meeting of Bill Clinton's foreign policy team just before the president's first address to the United Nations. The Cold War was over, and Clinton was pondering the "direction of history." Al Gore weighed in:

Rousseau said the body politic is a moral being possessed of a will. He was thinking on the national level. We need to take it to the international one. We need to make the leap from nationhood to a sense of identity that is truly global, but that embodies Rousseau's point.

According to Talbott, Clinton agreed in principle, but was concerned about how to sell the idea: "that's great stuff Al…but until I can say it in a single phrase, we're sunk."

Talbott tells us that Clinton held two core foreign policy beliefs: that American preeminence was temporary—"We're not going to be cock of the roost forever"—and that "history evinces positive ‘directionality'" towards global cooperation, interdependence, and peace. Clinton, writes Talbott, was "careful not to broadcast" these beliefs "[f]or most of his time in office," because to do so would have invited charges of decline-ism and "wooly-headed" naïveté. But once liberated from the presidency, Clinton openly stated: "We must build a global social system" and "a world for our grandchildren to live in where America was no longer the sole superpower."

Shortly before the 1992 election, Talbott spelled out in a memo to Clinton a strategy for "multilateralism" that envisioned atransnational rather than an international order:

they [Americans] are mighty chary about any arrangement that smacks of pooled national sovereignty or authority. The way to counter this resistance, of course, is to sell multilateralism as not just an economic imperative but as a means of preserving and enhancing American political leadership in the world.

This is an argument that we can expect to hear again and again in the coming years—that American "leadership" or "interests" will "require" the "pooling" of sovereignty. This means that America will lead by following the conventional wisdom of transnational elites and that America's interests will be served by entrusting them to entities beyond the American political system.

In Time magazine in 1992, Talbott anticipated a time when "nationhood as we know it will be obsolete [and]…all states will recognize a single, global authority." In The Great Experiment, Talbott claims to have "qualified my forecast somewhat." But his writings on this theme were not then and are not now simply descriptive (a "forecast"); they express an ardent wish for a transnational future in which the sovereignty of all democratic nation-states (including the United States) will be weakened and subordinated to global authority.

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The Great Experiment is partly a history of the "quest" for global governance and partly a memoir. The historical section is an interesting overview of an array of emperors, empires, and one-world idealists. Alexander the Great, Constantine, Mohammed, Ashoka, Genghis Khan, Dante, Kant, Marx, Einstein, Cord Meyer, and the World Federalists all pass in review. Talbott has clear favorites among them: empire over republic, transnationalists over defenders of national sovereignty. He declares that while Aristotle "believed in the city-state," his student "Alexander had a bigger and better idea," a "single global political community." The modern democratic nation-state of Israel appears to Talbott problematic, while he describes the European Union in glowing terms ("a model for what is possible"). Some things he just gets wrong. He describes America, for example, as a "multinational state." But however multi-ethnic America may be, we are not a land of different "nations" and "peoples," like the Austro-Hungarian empire or Canada or Belgium. As stated forthrightly in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, we are one people.

Talbott goes very wrong in his understanding of the relationship between the Enlightenment and America's founding. Like many on the Left and some on the center-Right (e.g., Robert Kagan), he describes a philosophically monolithic Enlightenment with the American Republic and the French Republic as its progeny. He acknowledges that these republics developed differently, but he views their "philosophical parentage" as the same. He fails to recognize the division within the Enlightenment from which the two revolutions and regimes derived their fundamentally different characters.

The French Revolution (like Marxism, as Lenin recognized) was a child of the utopian radical wing of the Enlightenment typified by Condorcet, who believed in a malleable human nature and the perfectibility of man, and promoted a historicist vision of the inevitable march of progress. John Adams directly challenged Condorcet's views in the late 1780s; the American Revolution and our entire constitutional order were heirs to the non-utopian Enlightenment (mostly Anglo-Scottish, but including continental moderates like Montesquieu). The very serious conflict within Western democracy today between the constitutional state and global governance is at one level a continuation of the argument within the Enlightenment between its moderate and utopian wings. Talbott does not understand this.

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In Democracy Without Borders? Marc Plattner highlights the inherent tensions between the transnational worldview promoted by Talbott (and influential Western elites), and democratic self-government itself. Plattner, a former student of Allan Bloom, is a vice-president of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and co-editor of its Journal of Democracy. Whereas Talbott posits global governance as the ultimate political good, Plattner champions liberal democracy and the democratic nation-state. To the title question, Democracy Without Borders? Plattner answers no: "We cannot enjoy liberal democracy outside the framework of the nation-state."

Plattner's book is an insightful reflection on liberalism, the democratic nation-state, and the European Union in relation to global democracy. Talbott talks of "shared" or "pooled" sovereignty without directly addressing the core problem of who is ultimately accountable to the citizens of a democracy. Plattner, by contrast, argues that "If there is no clear locus or demarcation of sovereignty, it is hard to see how the people can be sovereign."

If Talbott interprets America's past and future in light of Immanuel Kant, Plattner looks to John Locke. Americans, Plattner tells us, have been historically (and still are) primarily Lockeans, combining the particular and the universal along the lines found in Locke's Second Treatise. Thus for Lockean-Americans, while "all human beings are endowed with universal human rights," these rights are realized "only within particular commonwealths," whose governments are based on "popular consent and respect for individual rights."

This Lockean worldview directly affects American foreign policy. Talbott claims that the U.S., the foremost proponent of international cooperation in the past, has recently turned its back on multilateralism; Plattner argues that multilateralism itself has been "redefined." Americans support the old liberal internationalism embodied in the original U.N. Charter based on cooperation among sovereign nation-states. But many Americans object to the "new" multilateralism that seeks to "build institutions of ‘global governance'" because these new institutions lack "democratic accountability." This American stance, Plattner maintains, is based on the Lockean principles of the Declaration of Independence: a "striking juxtaposition of an invocation of universal principles and an insistence on the right of a particular people to determine its own destiny."

Plattner is cautiously critical of the European project but is not a "Euroskeptic." The E.U., he tells us, has maintained a "studied ambiguity" on the direction of European integration. He allows that Europe is suffering from a "democratic deficit" and that decision-making in the E.U. is "unaccountable," and he worries that "if democracy were to unravel even in a single EU country," it would damage the cause of global democracy. But then he declares: "Fortunately, the European Union (even if it may indirectly be weakening to some extent the national democracies of its member states) offers a strong bulwark for resisting such a development."

At the end of the day, Plattner himself maintains a studied ambiguity towards the relationship between the E.U. style of global governance and liberal democracy. And that is the core problem with this fine book that is in many ways an intellectual tour de force. Plattner is reluctant to declare that the postmodern, post-national viewpoint he analyzes so well is also "post-democratic." He remains stuck within Francis Fukuyama's conceit that there are no serious rivals in principle to liberal democracy.

He points out, correctly, that the advocates of transnationalism do not directly challenge liberal democracy. But this is because they realize that an indirect approach is more effective. When John Ruggie, a leading international relations expert at Harvard, describes concepts of national sovereignty and the nation-state (including democratic ones) as "morally questionable" (Plattner's words), he is challenging the moral legitimacy of the democratic regime—including by definition American constitutional democracy and the very idea of American self-government. Plattner does not make enough of this.

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Though he provides a clear antidote to the writings of Strobe Talbott and other transnationalists, ultimately Plattner blinks. The global governance movement is the most serious challenge today to constitutional democracy and its only compatible home, the sovereign democratic nation-state. It is no less a challenge because it is Western, internal, "soft," and indirect, rather than Eastern, external, hard, and direct. Global governance in general and the European Union in particular represent a conscious ideological rival to American constitutional democracy, because the E.U. is both a post-democratic and a post-liberal project. Under E.U. rules, legislation begins in the European Commission (the bureaucracy), not the European Parliament, which has only limited authority. About 70% of Britain's laws today come from the European Commission, not from that "mother of parliaments" the British House of Commons—so much for representative democracy. Moreover, based on the U.N. Convention on Eliminating All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the E.U. is promoting gender proportionalism in parliamentary and local elections across Europe, recommending a certain percentage of seats reserved for women. This is not liberalism but classic corporatism, in which representation is based on the ascribed group to which one belongs. To make matters worse, E.U. institutions restrict free speech by outlawing "hate speech" in ways that would be inconceivable to Americans with our First Amendment guarantees.

This is not to suggest that we abandon Europe, but it is to argue that we support those forces in the E.U. who are seeking to repatriate sovereign powers back to the democratic nation-states. DeGaulle was right—and he was more of a genuine constitutional democrat than today's E.U.-crats—when decades ago he advocated a "Europe of Fatherlands." The present E.U. philosophical framework is, ultimately, incompatible with liberal democracy. It is time to stop engaging in politesse and say so openly.