What is “Patriotic History”?

In a recent article that appeared in The Atlantic last week, Eliot Cohen, the prominent political scientist, sometime public servant, and well known neocon, makes a case for “patriotic history.”

The essay starts with Cohen following George Orwell in making the following distinction between nationalism and patriotism. Nationalism is “the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects,” while patriotism is “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world.” The former, which Cohen associates with President Trump and the Make America Great crowd, is supposedly inferior to the latter. Why Cohen believes such is the case (aside from the fact that he evinces enormous dislike for the current occupant of the White House) and why he even chooses such definitions in the first place, are unclear. Indeed, a number of problems with his essay begin with the meanings that Cohen attributes to these terms—but more about that anon. Cohen continues by arguing that the failings of the current administration have inspired a renewed interest in civic education and particularly history as a means of inoculating the public against the corruption emanating from Washington, DC. He is gratified to note that history is alive and well in the United States, insofar as Americans have many opportunities to engage with the past. But Cohen believes that history and historians must be more mindful about encouraging Americans to understand and embrace patriotism. The kind of patriotic history that Cohen has in mind would not be some sort of white-wash. As he puts it:

Patriotic history does not have to cover up the dark pages of the American past—the cruelties and suffering of slavery and Jim Crow, the violence and injustice of the Trail of Tears or the massacre at Wounded Knee, the corruption of Tammany Hall, the follies of the Red Scares or Charles Lindbergh’s creepy America Firstism. But patriotic histories have a way of reminding us of what there is to celebrate in the American past—as when David Hackett Fischer reminds us that George Washington broke with British military practice in abjuring the floggings that could turn into death sentences, or when James McPherson points out that, in fact, the Cause—be it preservation of the Union or hostility to slavery—really did matter to many Union soldiers.

This history, he states, must provide us with heroes—complex characters from a wide variety of backgrounds who may have had flaws but can help teach us what integrity, intelligence, service, and self-denial are all about:

Patriotic biography gives us John Quincy Adams in every phase of his life, to include its end, when he took a lonely and principled vote on the Mexican War just before suffering a fatal cerebral hemorrhage on the floor of the House of Representatives. It gives readers Davy Crockett on the frontier and Audie Murphy at Anzio, and it also gives them Harriet Tubman rescuing men and women from bondage, or Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce fighting a hopeless fight for his people. It gives them complicated figures like Andrew Carnegie—strikebreaker and extraordinary philanthropist committed to building libraries across the country to give young people the keys to better futures.

Cohen stresses that, “All of us, but young people especially, need heroes, including the really complicated ones, and particularly these days, when character is in such short supply. . . . To know what heroes look like is also to know what craven or spineless or obsequious or merely unserious persons are.”

One Thing after Another will not deny that American patriotism is now in a bad way. Both the right and left would agree on this point but, of course, for very different reasons. Certainly, our political leaders have done a poor job of modeling the virtues and behaviors associated with patriotism. There is now much more concern with outcomes than process. Party has become more important than the republic. Even the armed forces, which seem to many people the last and most reliable bastion of patriotism in America, may not be able to sustain this role for long. Long-service professional forces committed to imperial ventures for extended periods overseas and often alienated from the main currents of metropolitan civilian culture may not remain patriotic forever. Such a situation threatens to produce a class of “centurions” (to borrow the title of Jean Lartéguy’s famous novel about French officers who fought in Indochina before applying lessons learned there to Algeria) who are tough, experienced, resourceful, skillful, intelligent, brave, and cynical—but more responsive to the call of a mystical brotherhood in arms than the democratic republic they serve. It is no surprise, perhaps, that Lartéguy’s centurions became praetorians who twice attempted to overthrow the French Republic (1958 and 1961).

There are, however, a number of problems with Cohen’s argument and prescription. For one thing, patriotic history has been tried before, and the results have not always been desirable. France provides an interesting example (again) because, like America, it too has been a democratic republic for many years. Under the Third Republic, patriotism was a mainstay of history education in the schools. In this context, one is reminded of the schoolmasters who were the so-called “shock troops” of that republic in its battle against the Catholic Church, great landed families, and conservative values. Armed with Ernest Lavisse’s The History of France (“our ancestors the Gauls were intelligent and brave”), these schoolmasters not only taught a love of the Republic and its institutions, but also devotion to the patrie. With its praise of Vercingetorix, Charlemagne, Louis IX, Joan of Arc, Bayard, Henry IV, and so on, this type of education was perhaps not so nuanced as the sort Cohen would like to see. One marvels, though, at the results. The patrie was literally manured with the corpses of hundreds of thousands of young Frenchmen between 1914 and 1918 as they fought Germans who had been educated in much the same way. Patriotic history was not solely responsible for this bloodbath, but it played its role. Lavisse, in his way, was part of that love to which F. Scott Fitzgerald, in Tender is the Night, famously attributed the colossal sacrifice of World War I:

The western front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. . . . This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes. . . . You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers. . . . This kind of battle was invented by Lewis Carroll and Jules Verne and whoever wrote Udine, and country deacons bowling and marraines in Marseilles and girls seduced in the back lanes of Württemberg and Westphalia. Why, this was a love battle—there was a century of middle-class love spent here.

How can we ensure that a patriotic history does not become an aggressively nationalist one (at least according to Cohen’s lights)? Can the state, especially one constituted as ours, be trusted to conjure up Fitzgerald’s “sureties” properly and deal with the results in such a way that we do not experience another “great gust of high-explosive love”?

If Cohen’s patriotic history, which exposes the past “warts and all,” should not resemble something so unsubtle as Lavisse’s History of France, what would it look like? How would it convey its patriotic message? What exactly would that message be? To what degree would it look different from plain old history? And are we not already producing the kind of history that Cohen desires? Off the top of its head, One Thing after Another can think of Ron Chernow’s Grant and Louis Galambos’s Eisenhower (both of which were published in late 2017) as works that might fit Cohen’s bill. But since Cohen is not terribly specific about the form and content of a patriotic history that might suit the needs of 2018, it’s hard to tell.

With these questions unanswered, it also remains difficult to decipher which heroes to include in the pantheon of patriotic history. Who is a hero? Who is not? Is Robert E. Lee in? Is Eugene Debs? We can be sure that those who support the inclusion of the former in patriotic history would not look kindly on the latter—and vice versa. These questions are ineluctably tied to another: who should select these figures? In the same way that it “takes money to make money,” it requires patriotism to make patriots. We cannot remedy our deficiencies with supposedly non-existent material (unless, of course, Cohen and other self-appointed patriotic elites choose themselves for the task of resurrecting patriotism). Otherwise, a bitterly divided country suffering from a lack of patriotism is not in a position to anoint heroes without adding yet another battle to the protracted culture war that has consumed the United States for decades. From where is the universally recognized understanding of patriots and patriotism to come?

All of these questions stem from Cohen’s problematic descriptions of nationalism and patriotism which he obtains from Orwell. Orwell’s definitions appear in “Notes on Nationalism” (1945) in which he wrote:

By “nationalism” I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled “good” or “bad.” But secondly ­– and this is much more important – I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. . . . By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

Although this view of matters may accord with the way these ideas are widely perceived, the problem with this passage is that it turns nationalism and patriotism into bad and good versions of more or less the same thing: nationalism is aggressive and motivated by a thirst for power; patriotism is defensive and inspired by love. Both, however, are about one’s association with a community of people (which is really nationalism). Ironically, Orwell’s understanding of the difference between the two lends itself to a kind of double-speak: “we” are always patriots (peaceful and defensive), and “they” are nationalists (warlike and aggressive). It is partly for these reasons that most scholars who investigate the topic have rarely defined the two terms in this fashion. Generally, the most important distinction that those working in the field have drawn between patriotism and nationalism is that the former concerns one’s duties to the state while the latter is about one’s relationship to the national community (which is frequently defined and held together by forces such as culture and history). This is a position most identified with Lord Acton’s famous essay, “Nationality” (1862). More recently, Maurizio Viroli has made a very similar argument in For Love of Country: An Essay on Patriotism and Nationalism (1997), when he states:

The language of patriotism has been used over the centuries to strengthen or invoke love of the political institutions and the way of life that sustain the common liberty of a people—or love of the republic; the language of nationalism was forged in late eighteenth-century Europe to defend or reinforce the cultural, linguistic, and ethnic oneness and homogeneity of a people.

Viroli goes on to argue that nationalists can be patriots, and patriots can be nationalists, but the priorities of each are somewhat different. Such is usually the case, unless one lives in a country characterized by civic nationalism—that is, a nation (like the United States) defined by subscription to specific political institutions and not to a particular ethnicity. In such a case, one can say that patriotism and nationalism are extremely closely related if not identical. In America, then, patriotism and nationalism are not different names for a horse, one for when it is good, another for when it is bad (as Cohen and Orwell would have it); instead, they are two horses working in tandem.

Making distinctions of this sort are not acts of pedantry. They help us understand what our duties are and how they should be taught. A civic nationalism based on our institutions binds us to our fellow Americans while a patriotism based on our love of our democratic republic and the protections it extends to us also ought to bind us in duty to the state. It seems fitting, then, to conclude with a reference to George William Curtis’s oration to Union College’s graduating class of 1857 in which he pointed to one way in which Americans could understand their peculiar patriotism. In this speech, entitled “Patriotism,” Curtis made clear that we have several duties that could either contradict or complement each other. As people, we were “bound by the universal rule of right or of God” which meant that in “whatever country or whatever case a man may chance to be born, he is born a citizen of the world.” Such an assertion was in keeping with his belief that “the races are but one race” and that the “doctrine or practice of universal brotherhood” was the “ethical statement of a scientific fact.” A man, then, should not be “the best German or the best Roman . . . but the best man he can be.”

Patriotism was the “peculiar relation of an individual to his country.” It was, declared Curtis, an “intelligent love” that perceived opportunities where his country could help mankind. A person’s country, Curtis went on to argue, was a principle, and “patriotism is loyalty to that principle.” Every country served a different principle which contributed to the “cause of human development to which all nationalities are subservient.” In America’s specific case, that principle was not power (every country was tempted by its siren song), and it was certainly not riches (which Curtis believed had the potential to corrupt America). Rather, it was the love of liberty safeguarded by a commitment to democracy; that is, the spirit and values that underpinned the democratic republic. Curtis continued:

Patriotism in an American is simply fidelity to the American idea. Our government was established confessedly in obedience to this sentiment of human liberty. And your duty as patriots is to understand clearly that . . . whatever in its government or policy tends to limit or destroy that freedom and equality is anti-American and unpatriotic, because America and liberty are inseparable ideas.

The patriot’s duty consisted of obeying the laws of the state—only so long as they did not contradict American principles and thus violate the universal rule of right. Although he did not say so explicitly at Union College, Curtis asserted in other venues that American slavery, protected by the Constitution and the laws of men, violated natural laws. It was therefore the duty of every patriot who loved democracy and freedom—by definition every true American—to destroy the peculiar institution. Towards the end of his speech, Curtis had these words to say, as true then as they are today: “Remember that the greatness of our country is not in the greatness of its achievement, but in its promise—a promise that cannot be fulfilled without that sovereign moral sense, without a sensitive national conscience.” From this perspective, patriotism could be taught by history (and Curtis referred to many such examples), but it was mainly a question of ethics.

At the end of the day, then, the problem with a history that teaches a “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world” is that it makes presumptions about a country and its people that are not necessarily true (one may believe something that is false). Moreover, such an attitude lends itself to complacency (if one belongs to a country she believes to be the best in the world, why change it?). One Thing after Another much prefers Curtis’s vision, which suggests that patriotism is a matter of eternal exertion and struggle for the sake of an idea that is imperfectly realized—a democratic republic. In other words, instead of defining Americans by who they are, Curtis seeks to define them by what they strive for. And that seems much more useful at a time when, to quote Villèle, the journalist who crops up in Lartéguy’s Centurions occasionally to make an observation, “The role of the utter, out-and-out bastard is becoming more and more difficult to keep up in this dull, hypocritical, tolerant world of ours.”

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.


The British Empire is Dead–But the Debate over Its Morality is Not

A recent essay by Kenan Malik in the New York Review of Books details the latest public spats among historians over the merits of the British Empire.

As Malik states, “like all such debates, this latest controversy comprises many threads.” Was colonialism good or bad? How should one debate these questions in academia and politics? And what has inspired the most recent flare-up in a long-running dispute?

Malik recapitulates the main outlines of this dispute between detractors and defenders of the British Empire. He concludes that “the arguments for the moral good of colonialism are . . . threadbare.” So far as most scholars of the empire are concerned, Malik is correct. The British Empire killed, enslaved, starved, and impoverished too many people on too many occasions over too long a span of time to qualify as a Good Thing. (However, that is, and should be, a different matter from claiming that it was the equivalent of, say, the Nazi Empire. The emergence of liberalism in Britain led to the rise of an influential and persistent party of home-grown critics who castigated the British Empire throughout much of its lifespan—surely an unusual if not unique situation for an empire. Moreover, this liberal strain made the British Empire, among other things, susceptible to the moral suasion of swaraj in India, a weakness from which other empires did not suffer. But that is an argument for another time.)

Malik goes on to assert that the contemporary defense of empire is inspired partly by a Brexit-induced nostalgia for the colonial past, and partly by a desire to learn lessons that will make contemporary Western intervention abroad more effective. In other words, those like Niall Ferguson, who hold the British Empire up as a force for good are not merely engaging in an act of wistful schmaltz; they are thinking about contemporary policy prescriptions that revolve around “foreign intervention and technocratic governance.” Malik concludes:

These are very contemporary issues, and ones with which liberals wrestle as much as reactionaries. Liberals may despise empire nostalgia, but many promote arguments about intervention and governance that have their roots in an imperial worldview. We should not imagine that apologists for empire are simply living in the past. They seek, rather, to rewrite the past as a way of shaping current debates. That makes it even more important that their ideas and arguments are challenged openly and robustly.

One Thing after Another takes a special interest in this question because this blog teaches a course on the British Empire and, as part of the final examination, asks students to perform a “moral audit” (to use Piers Brendon’s words) of that empire. Piers’ argument that “Imperium et Libertas” was a sort of oxymoron in which an imperium necessarily ruled by force (and undermined libertas) to compensate for its lack of legitimacy carries much weight with this blog. In other words, there was a fundamental contradiction at the heart of Britain’s version of colonialism. Yet, this blog feels that in an otherwise good essay, Malik elides two important issues.

First, the argument about the British Empire’s merits has been subsumed by a more general dispute about colonialism. The problem with discussing colonialism is that it is not terribly easy to define in a precise manner, and the more one speaks of colonialism (and theories of colonialism), the more one speaks of an abstraction rather than the actual operation of real, flesh-and-blood empires. Discussions about colonialism, then, do not always sufficiently distinguish between different types of empires and often lack nuance. They surely do not capture the historical British Empire which was a mutating and complex entity; merely referring to the source of evil as “colonialism” suggests a static, simple, and monolithic entity. Due to its size, variety of interests, diversity of peoples, and assortments of governing structures (e.g. responsible self-government, crown colonies, protectorates, mandates, princely states, etc.), the empire did not frequently act in unison or speak with one voice. Not only that, but the empire was constantly transforming itself, a fact that is captured by the periodization of scholars who refer to the “first,” “second,” and even “third” and “fourth” British empires—as well as to the different characteristics in each of these phases (e.g. mercantilism, free trade, the “swing to the east,” and so on). Recognizing the bewildering, changing, and kaleidoscopic nature of the empire raises an important question: at any given moment, who or what was the empire? In other words, who was responsible for “colonialism”? Lenin, of course, argued that the culprit was finance capital. He was wrong, but at least he had something specific in mind. As conducted today in public, the debate is not as incisive. The word  “colonialism” conjures up images of the British government in London, imperial administrators, and military leaders. In most minds, it also probably includes British financiers, merchants, and industrialists. But just where does the list end? To what extent was the rest of the country complicit in the crimes of empire? What of the empire’s many British critics who used Libertas to attack Imperium (surely, as a number of observers have pointed out, a unique circumstance for an imperial power)? Our questions cannot stop with the United Kingdom’s borders. What about, say, Indians who worked for the Raj or performed vital functions in the imperial economy—princes, zemindars, soldiers, policemen, low-level administrators, railroad employees, merchants, bankers, and so on?

Second, like many observers, Malik analyzes the motives of the empire’s present-day defenders, but what of its detractors? If “today’s apologists for colonialism are driven as much by present needs as by past glories,” to quote Malik, what are the “present needs” of those who attack the empire? Why does no one scrutinize their motives? Do they get a pass because they are on “the right side of history”? It would seem naïve to claim that they are simply engaged in a disinterested effort to correct interpretations of the past. One example here will suffice: Shashi Tharoor (whom Malik mentions), a former UN administrator (who lost the contest for UN General Secretary in 2006 to Ban Ki-moon) and Indian minister as well as a current member of the Indian Parliament. Tharoor became an anti-colonial stalwart in 2015 when he famously argued at the Oxford Union that Britain ought to pay India a nominal sum in reparations as symbolic compensation for losses the latter suffered under imperial rule. He followed up this performance with Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India (2017), a polemic which dwells on the Raj’s cruelty and callousness while explaining how Britain grew wealthy at India’s expense. What is Tharoor after? Certainly, he is not attacking the promotion of “foreign intervention and technocratic governance” that ostensibly lie behind present-day justifications of the empire; it would seem odd for a former UN administrator like Tharoor to assault the empire in an attempt to undermine the case for liberal internationalism. It is possible that Tharoor seeks to burnish his credentials with a young, leftish, educated, Anglo-American crowd as someone who has stayed “woke” by engaging in Britain’s venerable anti-establishment tradition of excoriating the empire. Yet this explanation does not seem fully convincing. Although he has longstanding ties to the transatlantic world (he has lived and worked in Britain and the United States for long periods of time), it appears that Tharoor has committed himself to Indian politics for the time being. And it is perhaps the demands of domestic Indian politics that explain Tharoor’s stance. Tharoor is a member of the Indian National Congress (Congress) which has vainly sought to restore its declining popularity among voters by shedding its traditional mantle of secularism and moving closer to the Hindu nationalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which currently rules India. For sure, Tharoor continues to speak the language of inclusion (witness this excerpt from his recent work Why I Am a Hindu), but he, like the rest of Congress, must feel the political pressure of Hindutva (or “Hinduness”). Under these circumstances, attacks on an empire that has long gone and demands for reparations that will never be paid must seem like harmless ways of currying favor in a more stridently nationalist political environment. Certainly, these attacks and demands have gone down well in India. Perhaps Tharoor’s motives can be explained in some other way, and perhaps his situation is unique, but it would not be surprising if the empire’s critics were inspired just as much as its defenders by contemporary politics.

Surely, many probably worry that those who defend colonialism and the good the British Empire did are inspired by a kind of neo-imperialism that will lead to more foreign adventures that culminate in disasters like Iraq and Afghanistan (although Nigel Biggar and Bruce Gilley seem to imply that the whole point of understanding the true nature of colonialism is to avoid making such mistakes when intervening in other countries’ affairs). But as we have seen in Tharoor’s case, we probably also have reason to express concern about the motives of those who denigrate the British Empire. As Bernedetto Croce claimed (and this is not the first time One Thing after Another has referred to Croce’s statement), “All history is contemporary history.” In other words, the concerns and ideas of a historian are, by necessity, dictated by his or her times. History is always political, and no more so than when scholars and politicians use it to make a political point. It is almost futile to inveigh against the forces that prevent the historian from assuming an objective standpoint. Yet in this case, as in others, it seems that all would be better served if historians took the leading role in promoting nuanced and incisive discussions of the past—instead of those who feel most directly the great weight of politics.

History in the Age of Trump: Immigration (Part I)

Part I

Note: The Donald Trump presidency has already caused historians and other observers to look to the past for parallels and guidance. Some commentators have emphasized that Trump’s policies bear striking similarity to earlier periods in American and European history. Others have emphasized that Trump’s administration has broken with longstanding traditions in American political life. This series will attempt to place Trump’s presidency in a historical perspective in a way that contributes both to our understanding of past events and current affairs.

**Links in this essay will open PDF copies of New York Times articles from the 1920s. Links should open in a new window.

The images are striking: immigrants stuck in limbo, having arrived in the New York but detained and denied entry due to new, stricter immigration regulations. Those affected include men who risked their lives fighting for the United States who now find that they are unwelcome in the country they defended. In one case, a woman from the Middle East arrives in the U.S. to be reunited with her husband, a religious cleric who had come to the country legally more than a year earlier. The woman and their young daughter are taken into custody and then ordered to return home, prompting a frantic legal battle over their future.


Holding area at Ellis Island.

These stories do not describe events that took place in the past week—they describe conditions in 1924, just after Congress passed legislation that dramatically reduced the number of immigrants eligible for entry into the United States. The new law created bottlenecks at American ports, including Ellis Island. Critics of the law were dismayed to note that soldiers who had fought in World War I but later left the country found themselves stranded, uncertain of when they could return. Other opponents complained that the law unfairly targeted certain ethnic groups. Italians, who had made up a large percentage of immigrants to the United States since the early 1900s, saw their numbers slow to a trickle. Religious minorities also suffered under the new law; the family mentioned in the opening paragraph were Jews from Palestine.


On this blog, we try not to overstate the link between past and present. Immigration restrictions in 2017 are not the same as in 1924; America now is very different from America then. Nevertheless, President Trump’s executive order has drawn attention to America’s historic position as a beacon for immigrants, along with its equally long history of trying to exclude “undesirables.” Trump’s critics are right: his executive order is un-American, a betrayal of our core principles. At the same time, it is also quintessentially American, a modern manifestation of the nativist tendencies that have always existed in this country.

Part II of this post explores the fears that immigrants in the 1920s were violent radicals who threatened the American way of life. It will also consider how that history relates to current attitudes, and provide another illustration of how past events can be misconstrued in a modern context.

Do You Favor Independence for Scotland?


Over the last month, a number of people (mostly students) have asked One Thing after Another, “What do you think about the referendum on independence for Scotland?” One Thing after Another has always hesitated to respond because such a question involves predicting the future (i.e. determining whether or not Scotland will be better off alone). The study of history sharpens our judgment and allows us to meet the challenges of today’s world in an informed manner. It does not, however, allow anybody to make prognostications with any kind of accuracy.

While ruminating upon this question, One Thing after Another noticed the following article in The Atlantic which uses the referendum in Scotland as a launch pad to discuss the future course of world politics:

One Thing after Another had something of an “a-ha” moment (an epiphany, not a flashback to the band), and thought this article called for a historically informed response that addressed some major issues associated with Scottish independence.

In tackling the particular case of Scotland, Parag Khanna, the author, makes much sense. He is correct that from a political perspective, those who favored greater autonomy for Scotland would win, no matter what the outcome of the referendum. If the measure passed, Scotland obtained independence. If the poll failed, the Scots would nevertheless obtain many devolved powers.  It is when he wanders from the example of Scotland that Khanna encounters some semantic difficulties and makes a number of questionable assumptions.

There are two semantic problems with Khanna’s argument about devolution. First, Khanna leads his essay by claiming, “The 21st century’s strongest political force is not democracy but devolution.” However, demands for devolution of the sort that Khanna refers to are expressions of nationalism. And nationalism, especially in its voluntarist version, has long been tied to democracy. As John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) wrote in Chapter XVI (entitled “Of Nationality, as Connected with Representative Government)” of Considerations on Representative Government (1861), “Where the sentiment of nationality exists in any force, there is a prima facie case for uniting all the members of the nationality under the same government, and a government to themselves apart. This is merely saying that the question of government ought to be decided by the governed. One hardly knows what any division of the human race should be free to do if not to determine which of the various collective bodies of human beings they choose to associate themselves.” If, as Mill argues, the “question of government ought to be decided on by the governed,” the case is a democratic one. In other words, pace Khanna, then, devolution (and the desire for self-determination that lies behind it) is not distinct from democracy—rather, it is an expression of democracy. In this context, One Thing after Another can think of no better authority than Ernest Renan (1823-1892), the French historian who wrote, among other things, the famous essay, “What is a Nation?” (1882). Renan argued that the most important element of nationality was a willingness on the part of the nation’s members to live together as part of a national community. As he put it famously: “The existence of a nation . . . is a daily referendum, just as the continuing existence of an individual is a perpetual affirmation of life.” What an appropriate analogy in the case of Scotland—the Scots voted in a referendum and decided, just barely, to continue living as part of a national community of Britons.

Second, Khanna uses the word “devolution” to describe both independence and increased autonomy. Independence for Scotland is placed in this category as are the 75 new states that resulted from decolonization in the post-World War II era and the 15 states that emerged from the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But in the course of his argument, so are Texas, California, Western Australia, British Columbia, Quebec, Catalonia, and Basque country. Unfortunately for this type of taxonomy, there is a world of difference between an independent state and one that constitutes part of a federal union (or possesses the status of a semi-autonomous region). Independent states are sovereign, while members of a federal union are not.

Two of Khanna’s assumptions are also questionable, and both of them seem to stem from the kind of breathless, contemporary forecasting that assumes globalization, connectivity, and information technology have changed everything beyond recognition.  First, even though we have only reached 2014, he declares that devolution is the “political force of the 21st century.” As any historian can tell you, Fortune’s wheel can turn rather suddenly. Think about what the world looked like 86 years ago (1928). The world was dominated by European empires, and although an intelligent observer might have spotted the approach of world-wide devolution (George Orwell was one such figure), such a vision would have required much prescience. Who is to say that the globe of 2100 will resemble our devolving world? Making statements about the 21st century eight-and-a-half decades in anticipation of its completion leaves many hostages to fortune.

This point is related to a second one.  Khanna does not provide us with a good idea of what the future holds because he completely disregards the fact that small states live in a world dominated by big ones. The United States, China, and Russia all have important spheres of influence that they seek to shape through military and economic means. While they have not necessarily always been successful, they are more movers than moved. Certainly, they have intervened decisively with smaller states—ask the Iraqis, Tibetans, and Georgians, to name just three examples. At the same time, the massive economic influence of large powers has yielded important political results. To take the most crude example, the Russians have used their control of energy to manipulate Europe. Large states and empires may be unwieldy, as Khanna claims, but collections of small states acting together in pursuit of common interests are just as unwieldy. The European Union is not exactly a nimble beast. Moreover, at the end of the day, such supranational organizations rely on large or medium-sized powers as backstops. Germany has come to dominate the European Union, and a Scotland escaping English control might, like the Greeks, eventually find itself at the mercy of Teutonic bankers. Likewise, Eastern European states with large Russian minorities (e.g. Latvia) are turning to NATO for support because they see what has happened to the Ukraine—but what credible deterrent does NATO present if not the fact of American power? It is for this very reason that František Palacký (1798-1876), the historian and leader of the Czech national revival, famously claimed that if the Austrian Empire did not exist, it would have to be invented. In other words, the Czech people needed room to grow, but they could only do so within a larger multi-ethnic Austrian Empire, otherwise, they would fall prey to either Germans or Russians. In a devolved world, where can small states find security?

Finally, devolution is not a universal solution to political problems. In many cases, ethnicities and nationalities are so thoroughly intermingled that it is impossible to redraw territorial boundaries in a way that suits everybody (a point that even John Stuart Mill understood in 1861). The Balkans, of course, is the obvious example, but the problem exists in many other parts of the world. This difficulty of intermingling raises another question: to what level should devolution descend? How little can a devolved state be? Historians of nationalism have long noted a “threshold principle”—that is, a nation has to be large enough to be viable. Nationalists used to speak of economic or cultural viability, but what about military viability? Where is that threshold, especially in a world where bigger states can prey upon smaller ones? To use one example, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the forging of the Paris settlement of 1919 led to the creation of many small Eastern European states—almost of all of which fell first  into the German orbit before succumbing to rule from Moscow.

Should one be for or against independence for Scotland? For sure, there are many local or parochial issues to consider with regard to the relationship between the Scots and the English (e.g. changes in taxation). But, as one contemplates these questions, one should also explore the larger global context that will influence the resolution of these issues.