For once, the results of the first round of the French election lined up with the polls, with Macron and Le Pen through to the final round. As always, most of the media gets obsessed with the horse race aspects of such elections. But there is no disputing CNN’s conclusion:
The result upended traditional French politics: Neither candidate hails from the establishment parties that have dominated the country for decades.
The previous order is already overturned, in yet another election.
What is going on here? This latest election, and the Trump and Brexit results, is most often talked about in terms of nationalism (or populism) versus globalism, or “closed” versus “open.” But it’s something much deeper than a dispute over jobs or trade or refugee policy. It’s not a dispute over technique, or efficiency, but about goals.
I think it’s better understood as a dispute over legitimacy: what the state is for. Electorates feel ignored and betrayed, both on the left and the right. The defenders of the current status quo, are faltering.
Let’s take a longer-term perspective, instead of getting hung up on the latest headlines. The US Constitutional Scholar and former National Security Council Official Phillip Bobbit wrote a history of the relationship between strategy and legal norms over the past 500 years, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History, in 2002. The nature of the state kept changing, he said, sometimes in response to political upheaval, sometimes in response to military change such as universal conscription. He traces the development from princely states to monarchical states to ‘state-nations’ to ‘nation-states’ to the current ‘market-state.’
The trouble is each transition between forms of state legitimacy happened through an epochal war. Conflict and legal norms are intertwined, he argues. Each of those disruptive wars was resolved with a peace settlement, such as the Treaty of Westphalia or Versailles, which reset the norms of legitimacy for the next period.
Yet all constitutions also carry within themselves the seeds of future conflict. The 1789 US Constitution was pregnant with the 1861 civil war because it contained, in addition to a bill of rights, provisions for slavery and provincial autonomy. Similarly the international constitution created at Westphalia in 1648, no less than those created at Vienna in 1815 or Utrecht in 1713, set the terms for the conflict to come even while it settled the conflict just ended. (p xxiv)
Our own current system is the market-state. Its legitimacy, he said, is based on maximizing the opportunity of its people. The market-state is good at setting up markets, of course. But:
unaided by the assurance that the political process will not be subordinated by the most powerful market actors, markets can become targets of the alienated and of those who are disenfranchised by any shift away from national or ethnic institutions.
In other words, every settled idea of political norms tends to wear out after five to ten decades, as the settlement of the previous great war recedes into history and political realities and military and strategic necessities change. But politics gets stuck and the result is often a massive conflict, an epochal war, which shakes the international system to its core.
Since the 2008 crisis, it is obvious to many that the market-state is not delivering on its fundamental promise: maximizing opportunity. At the same time, its universalist notions of human rights (often perhaps developed as a rebuke to the Soviets in the Cold War) is redrawing the fundamental nature of democracy itself through massive demographic change and a fraying welfare state. No wonder we’re seeing increasing conflict.
I’m not a believer in deterministic cycles. However, history can sensitize us to the fact that no set of institutions lasts forever, and so we need to adapt.
The answer to the current turmoil is not to go back to the previous system of nation-states that itself arose on the ruins of empire. But neither is it to grimly defend a set of norms that made sense in 1945, or in an amended way, in 1970. Many of those norms are cherished principles. On the previous record, that is likely to produce another epochal war – and the seeds of such extremism already seem to be flourishing.
We need to go forward instead. That requires a lot more creativity.