The idea that, “We must do something about this,” is not necessarily a bad one. One encounters it often among the Victorian Imperialists, back when the United Kingdom, and not the United States, had the role of “world policeman.” It can be a very bad idea, too, of course, especially if the intentions behind the action are criminal, or one is settling private scores in public ways. But today we are discussing public policy, God help us; and assuming that truly national and not private interests are at stake.
Which opens the wide gate on what a “national interest” might be. Without discussion I will affirm that it is the security of a people in a fairly broad sense: the preservation of their liberties and way of life; the keeping invasive forces at bay; the safety of a nation’s citizens both at home and abroad. I say this in the knowledge that the definition is inadequate: that nothing can be reduced to the worldly without sacrifice of the unworldly. Still, we are proceeding roughly, through a world that is itself rather rough.
The “national interest” is seldom analagous to an individual’s interest, practically or morally. Nations cannot be saved — and are not saved in the long course of history. Men can be, and are. The politician who thinks his country should act as saint or martyr, is making that decision on behalf of others. To volunteer another for martyrdom is murder; to volunteer another for saintly behaviour is tyranny of the same species. We may recommend that an individual become a saint or martyr; but it is an horrific abuse of power to impose this outward fate upon him, when he has not inwardly subscribed.
It follows that the nation state should avoid “idealism.” Its business is only to legislate for the common good, insofar as that is obvious; to encourage, perhaps robustly sometimes, motherhood and apple pie; but to impose only upon criminal wrongdoing. The State is not our Church and not our Nanny.
Note that this is an unambiguously Christian approach. We have only to go as far as Islam to find it denied. Mohammad in the Koran tells us to “command the good.” Christ in the New Testament sets it before us by example. I’m afraid we have to choose our prophets; I hope I have made my own bias clear.
“Sovereignty” is another big word. In its old sense, it meant the paramount: what is above something else. It did not apply exclusively to the nation state. A subtle transformation took place, which I have never seen properly examined. The “sovereign” was head of state — at its highest symbolic, more than managerial, station. “National sovereignty” is quite a different thing. It transfers the headship to the state itself, however headless or “republican.” It projects the will to power, transforming state into Leviathan. It creates an abstract being, beyond management or symbol. To my mind, it opened the city gates to the demonic.
In politics, however, we accept things as they are. The field delimitations are as they have been for the last few centuries (since the seventeenth in Europe): they are boundaries around “sovereign” nation states. Each national government has the “sovereignty” within its recognized frontiers (a sovereignty within a sovereignty, as it were), and is thus responsible for order within that domain, as well as for guarding those boundaries. The world “abroad” is that of peace and war; of diplomacy if possible, or war if not. The case is necessarily complicated by ethnic conflicts, and essays in federalism.
Thus far I think I am in agreement with Pat Buchanan, the old Nixonian sage (and sincere Catholic) who has expounded, and been expounding for many years, a view of the American interest that is coherent and by tendency, isolationist. He takes America on its own word, as a nearly-absolute claimant on the loyalty of its people, and describes himself as a patriot. He is probably more a Catholic than an American, should he ever have to choose, but it would be a close-run thing.
I look at his views instead of those of his supposed disciple, Donald Trump, because the latter is pure populist and thus, utterly incoherent. That is to say, he will not state his principles, and champions instead his feelings, presumptively shared in the crowd with which he has emotionally bonded. Buchanan has principles and strategy; he will go to the wall for them, win or lose. Trump has impulses and tactics; but at the moment he seems to be following, roughly, Buchanan’s view of things. (And Buchanan has generously allowed that this may be so.)
Given the function of a modern, sovereign state, I find nothing controversial about minding the borders. Yet I would remind that to a mediaeval mind, such as the one I aspire to possess, it is senseless. Boundaries were meaningless, except in the limited sense of trespass on property where there was no right-of-way. One crossed borders freely, in the main (there were tolls to pay, but for the use of roads and bridges). One showed deference to local custom and lordship because one was now, in effect, a citizen of that country. And would become the citizen of another, when one passed on to the next domain, within Christendom. Only at the frontiers of Christendom did one’s status radically change, in the way it does today at national borders; and did one lose one’s right to the common courtesies (including the pilgrim’s claim on monastic hospitality).
The USA was an unusual country in having been built upon mass immigration; but it is not unique in that respect (Canada, Australia, Argentina, &c). By now it is “a nationality,” however, and while the sonnet of Emma Lazarus sounds uplifting, it is just words:
… Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore …
Unless it sets a quota on immigration, even a country as big as USA can be overrun by the teeming in question. Unless, indeed, it selects immigrants, for compatibility with what is already there, a government has betrayed the denizens of its gated neighbourhood. It must choose those who want to become Americans, not those whose national loyalties will continue to lie elsewhere.
A special, traditionally Christian dispensation for refugees from tyrannies fleeing for their lives has long been (selectively) recognized — on the assumption that their gratitude for shelter will be real. The status of “economic migrants” is necessarily confused. It is entirely pragmatic, whatever the idealist blather. I have no great trouble with policing borders, or building necessary fences and walls, in the modern circumstance. Neither, I think, would any loyal immigrant.
Laws, too, must be enforced, to maintain order. Those in a country illegally have broken them. If they are not prosecuted the world has been informed that no one will be. Compared to this, fences are ineffective: all “merciful” exceptions will be taken as licence to go up and over. (Or dig under, as the Mexicans seem to prefer.)
And yet we retain the licence to be humane, in specifying exceptions. A distinction can decently be made between those newly arrived, and those who have been in the country so long that they have established a right of abode, bygones being bygones. Those otherwise law-abiding, who have set down families and acclimatized themselves, should to my mind have the equivalent of the old pioneering “squatter’s rights.” Say, seven years, and you have immigrant status. (One day less, and you should remain inconspicuous till morning.) There should anyway be no such thing as a second generation of illegals: crimes of the fathers being, by convention, not visited on the sons.
Verily, statutes of limitation, in various kinds, are a fine Christian, mediaeval concept, and should be borne in mind when any politician opens his populist yawp. Nothing in this world is by its nature perpetual, and limitations on positive law should be freely, and pointedly, acknowledged. Moreover, retroactive legislation should be subject to taboo. Laws are for now, not yesterday.
Too, the public order, for which laws were intended, requires sometimes the relaxation of laws. The USA today is full of Hispanics (those from Mexico, incidentally, most likely of all Latin Americans to be Catholic and Christian); it is unwise in the extreme to alienate them. Or more plainly: it cannot be in the practical interest of the majority to persecute a very large minority. If they are there already, what is done is done. Try charm instead.
And remember that the melting pot is always in operation. Their children will if welcomed become much more like us, and we will in turn become a bit like them, in the cultural stew. Live with it: for the real cultural questions are not, in the end, race and language. They are at their base, credal.
Which is why I fear, and think others should fear, massive Muslim immigration more than any other. For here we have credal differences, that cannot be bridged except glibly. Shariah is in its nature antagonistic to most Western norms. The poor of Ireland and the Germanies were not, in the past; nor are the Hispanic “economic migrants” today. They more-or-less embrace our common, fundamentally Christian, notions of public decency. (Indeed, these are challenged almost exclusively by native-born lily-white liberals, inventing the “shariah” of the politically correct.)
Here again we are dealing with a distinction above the national, which falls awkwardly into our present bureaucratic categories. The question is rather civilizational. Should men be admitted to flood our realm who — if they are sincere in their religion — are committed to our destruction? Or should they be admitted only if they can prove their insincerity? In which case, the insincerity becomes an issue. But in any case, we are typical post-moderns, dealing pragmatically with something that is not in its nature pragmatic. This is a strategy that leads, invariably, to a bad end.
So we build a wall against (mostly harmless) economic migrants, largely Catholic and Christian, then empower the TSA to grind holiday traffic through our airports to a standstill against abstract “terrorists,” who by law cannot be subjected to a religious test, and are unlikely to pose as terrorists. For which Trump at least (Buchanan is not so naïve) proposes a “temporary” religious test, until we’ve sorted out what we are doing.
Here we begin to discover the impossibilities of modern political thinking. America the nation state has been confused with America the civilizational; and the latter, more important, must be sacrificed to the former. Like Laurel and Hardy, we’ve gotten ourselves into a fine mess.
But immigration is only on the cusp of foreign policy. I foolishly promised to critique Buchanan’s (and by supposed extension Trump’s) novel views on how those United States, which incidentally remain the pre-eminent Western military power, should conduct themselves around the planet. I am what they would call a “neo-conservative” (whether with justice I do not care). I am in fact more of an old-fashioned Imperialist, and will continue this ramble perhaps, tomorrow.