A little over two months ago, we celebrated the successful ‘National Conservatism’ conference held in Rome under the auspices of the Edmund Burke Foundation, and several other European and American organizations. The feeling of optimism there, and the bold ideas that many of its speakers communicated to the world, was nothing short of remarkable. And in the days after the conference, it certainly felt like we would soon be seeing a new phase in the development of new conservative thinking across the West.
As the Burke Foundation explains on their own website, the return of nationalism in the past few years has created an opportunity for a return to a vision of the world based on independent nation-states. In doing so, it has triggered a ‘crisis’ and a reconsideration of the principles and values which once made the West great—and which, somehow, how been forgotten and lost. “At the heart of this crisis,” says the Burke Foundation, “is a question”—which, in part, can be formulated thusly: “is nationalism an essential, if neglected, part of the … conservative tradition at its best?”
We respond, without hesitation, in the affirmative.
But what’s interesting is that it has taken the appearance and spread of a global threat like the COVID virus to really bring this to the fore. To many, discussions about the idea and role of the nation and of national sovereignty seemed like either the province solely of either academics and conservative policy wonks, or of right-wing politicians and thinkers in the U.S. and some Eurosceptic countries. It was not taken seriously.
Fast forward to today, when we are quickly approaching two million confirmed cases of the virus around the world. While we had been assured and re-assured that the multilateral bureaucracies and UN health agencies are in place in order to make our lives better, more peaceful, and safer, they have, instead, been shown to be inefficient and, in some cases, corrupt. To whom do we now turn? On whom can we now rely? Increasingly, the answer to these questions seem to point [not only, of course, to the transcendent but] to ourselves, our own communities, and our own nation-states.
“[T]he idea of the nation, the Burke Foundation says, as well as “the principle of national independence and … the revival of … unique national traditions … alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.” We agree whole-heartedly with this. It is solely these entities that have the capacity to best respond to the needs of their populations, not the lumbering, slow-moving, and often corrupt international organizations that purport to be leading the response.
Today’s pandemic has thus exploded at a most opportune time—in the sense that it has shone a spotlight on the rot in our national and international institutions and their dysfunction. In an excellent recent essay for The American Mind, the executive director of the Charter Cities Institute, Mark Lutter, wrote: “The rot runs deeper than a single president [or country or institution]. Mitigating the harm from COVID and rebuilding our institutions to prevent the next crisis requires accurately diagnosing the problem.”
That problem? Our national and international institutions, and the corrupt and disconnected elites at their helm. As Lutter wrote: “A functioning government could have prevented the [COVID] crisis, as Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan have demonstrated.” But we don’t have functioning governments anymore. We need to rebuild them—while at the same time, we need to deconstruct the national and international “administrative state” that hampers and impedes their functioning.
Amid the tragic and unnecessary deaths, COVID has allowed people everywhere—Italy, Spain, the U.S.—to see the frail, little man behind the veil. In a very harsh and inelegant way, it has reminded us that in the end, the only people we can rely on is ourselves, in community with family and neighbors—and that the illusion of sophisticated, global institutions working for the betterment of mankind are just that: an illusion.
We thus must use this current crisis as an opportunity: to remind everyone that our institutions have failed us and, at the same time, to point out how complacent and disinterested and lazy we have all become. While scientists scramble for a vaccine, we need to begin thinking of ways forward that will allow us to rebuild our institutions, our nations, and our world. That is the path we need to follow in the coming weeks, months, and years. As Lutter concludes: “Any other path forward condemns us to helplessness in the face of the next crisis.”