The first rule of politics is to never give government powers that you would not trust in the hands of your worst political enemy.
If there is one government institution that has proven this correct, it is the European Union. Born out of the Cold War, forged in the uncertainty of its ending, and built during the peaceful, prosperous 1990s, the EU was originally meant to be an enabler of freedom, commerce, and human ingenuity. In 1995, as an EU-skeptical candidate for its parliament (while still living in my native Sweden), even I could appreciate the virtues of facilitating the mobility of resources across national borders within the union.
Since then, the EU has been completely transformed. Today, it is an increasingly totalitarian entity, trying to force moral values upon its member states—values that are at odds with core conservative principles. To take a well-known example, the tensions between Brussels on the one hand and Warsaw and Budapest on the other would not have existed if the EU had stayed true to the purpose that gave birth to the union in Maastricht in 1992.
The aphorism that all government powers can be abused is not new. Human history is full of examples of how power has corrupted national leadership. But history also furnishes us with examples of how the sword of power is wielded responsibly, and the difference is usually a simple one. Leaders who love their country more than they love themselves will put the interests of their own nations first.
In far too many countries today, the political leaders do not live by that principle. In some instances, such as the North Korean dictator or the tyrant in charge of Venezuela, the leaders’ disregard for their nations’ well-being is based on personal corruption. In other cases, as with the European Union, the values that politicians rank above the nation-state are globalist in nature. There are perceived virtues in rising above the interests of one’s own country—virtues that sometimes lead politicians to tag their nationalist opponents as ‘populists.’
The rise of the European Union, including its transformation into a super-state structure with globalist ambitions, has inspired a crop of politicians in the EU’s member states, whose political deeds are well-aligned with those ambitions. As such, the EU has served to reinforce a leadership trend that the world knew little about back in the last century: national political leaders who ranked the well-being of their own nations below other interests.
While not articulated on a regular basis, this anti-national bias is coaxed out of its bearers whenever they are confronted with national leaders whose preferences are the exact opposite. One of many examples is the controversy stirred up by European leaders over the judicial reforms in Poland, for which Warsaw has been heavily criticized, even fined by the European Court of Justice. Another example is the controversy over Hungary’s refusal to go along with the prevailing European trend of LGBT legislation. As the political leadership in Hungary aimed to protect minors from sexually explicit propaganda, leaders of other EU member states spoke out en masse to condemn the Hungarian government.
If they had put the interest of the nation above the interest of their political cause, they would have expressed respect for Poland’s and Hungary’s sovereignty on all issues moral and political. Furthermore, they would have used the same national sovereignty to pass whatever laws their own peoples wanted.
Prime Minister Orbán intelligently responded to the international criticism by referring to it as an expression of colonialism. He was too kind: critics of Mr. Orbán’s conservative government and policies have gone as far as to make totally unsubstantiated claims that Hungary is not a fully democratic country. They have done so solely because Hungarian law restricts the spreading of sexually explicit material to children.
By pulling Hungary’s democracy into the LGBT rights discussion, Europe’s calumniatory magyarophobes make themselves excellent examples of politicians who elevate themselves above—and even oppose—national sovereignty. They don’t even have to spell out their disdain for the nation: they behave as if they put other values in front of the prosperity, liberty, and eternity of their own countries.
There are other examples. The 2020 pandemic put the global-national tension on full display, with one-size-fits-all containment policies being implemented in all corners of the world. Environmental and immigration policies come with similar globalist preferences.
It is important to distinguish politicians who rise above the interests of their nations from those who simply want to engage in international cooperation to further the interests of their own countries. The metamorphosis of the European Union symbolizes the trend in political leadership from the latter to the former. This trend has made it morally permissible, even virtuous, for national leaders to put their country second.
It has also led to a shift in the use of government powers, from national interests to global interests. In the case of the European Union, this has taken on absurd proportions: it has increasingly amassed its own powers, yet it has no nation-state as its base. It rests on a synthetic foundation, created not by the organic process that forms nation-states, but by political fiat.
Political leaders of a government entity that was formed on synthetic premises are inevitably loyal only to the supra-national construct that is their government. To those politicians, this allegiance is natural; leaders of nation-states, on the other hand, should be loyal to their own nations.
When national leaders adopt the same governing ideals as those of supra-national institutions, they shift their moral loyalty upward from the nation-state. In doing so, they not only reinforce political ideals that are antithetical to the nation-state, but they also undermine the wealth, stability, and—in the extreme situation—even the very survival of their own nations.
Under normal conditions, such as peace, political accountability, and economic stability, a nation-state can continue to exist under the neglective boots of its globalist government. However, when a crisis emerges and it becomes incumbent upon that government to address it, its moral loyalties are in a place where the long-term wealth of the nation is irrelevant. Therefore, when national leaders without national loyalty respond to a crisis, their response is aligned with their own interests—not the interests of their country.
The war in Ukraine has laid bare the inability of globalist governments to act in the best of national interests. It started long before the war itself, as the risk of a major conflict in Ukraine was escalating. Some national governments in Europe—Germany and Sweden stand out—implemented energy policies that made them dependent on natural gas from Russia. Given the negative effects on the economy at the time, and the mounting risk of energy cut-offs in the event of a war in Ukraine, these decisions were clearly not made based on national interests.
When Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the next wave of anti-nationalist decisions swept through many of Europe’s capitals. The immorality of the Russian invasion notwithstanding, the sanctions on trade and finance against Russia were problematic. They aimed not at protecting national interests, but at escalating the conflict itself. Predictably, the sanctions had negative effects on Europe’s economies; energy insecurity now resides where some of the world’s most reliable energy systems once reigned.
Many Western political leaders made more or less blanket commitments to supplying Ukraine with arms. In some instances, such commitments are understandable on historical grounds. Poland is a case in point, and a good example that political leaders can put their country first while still making judicious, yet unwavering commitments to support Ukraine. Unfortunately, the government in Warsaw is an exception: most of Europe is governed by globalist leaders whose dedication to Ukraine is not necessarily of the nationalist kind we see in Poland. This has now led to a situation where Europe generally is in worse shape to defend itself than on the day of the Russian invasion. Supply lines for military hardware are increasingly strained.
The depletion of military resources is not defensible on the grounds that it will contain the Ukrainian war within that country. If the logic of a well-equipped military works in Ukraine’s favor, it applies to countries in the EU as well, but with a reversed implication. Since a strong military is a deterrent, a depleted military is the very opposite.
Again, the national interest in self-defense has given way to a supra-national interest to engage in a foreign war.
It deserves to be repeated that President Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine was reprehensible, and he needs to be held accountable for it. At the same time, the leaders of most European countries, as well as of the United States, have committed to come to Ukraine’s aid in the war, even in disregard of the increasingly tangible consequences for their own countries. This raises alarming questions about how far they are willing to go.
Let us keep in mind that when politicians demote their nations to second-tier status, it is not out of malice. Their preferences are simply oriented toward global interests out of acquired habit. A political career spent putting his or her own nation below other values conditions a politician to habitually disregard the national consequences of major policy decisions. The consequences may be good, bad, or none at all; the globalist politician is still indifferent to them.
This practical indifference gives rise to a moral indifference, which in turn opens for terrible consequences—especially in the context of the war in Ukraine. If Europe and America continue to ramp up their support for Ukraine to the point where Russia considers itself to be at direct war with the Western powers, there will no longer be any limit to what the ramifications can be.
More or less indifferent to their own nations, Western leaders are likely to ignore, and even fail to comprehend, the destructive consequences of their engagement in the war in Ukraine. It leads them to disregard, even overtly oppose, other options than a linear escalation toward an all-out global war; it detaches the use of their national resources from the people who put them in office; and—given the nuclear annihilation that is practically certain with another world war—it puts the very existence of their own nations in grave danger.
America and most of Europe share the problem that their globally oriented leaders are gradually losing control over the Ukraine war fallout. However, that blame runs deeper than the last few elections: it goes all the way back to the aforementioned first rule in politics. The United States Congress has delegated significant powers to the president to engage American military resources in conflicts around the globe. Many European nations have comparable statutory features on the books that open for similar engagements.
These powers were meant to be used in the interest of their own nations, and, if handled by politicians with a distinct national interest in mind, there would have been no misuse of those powers. It is, e.g., highly likely that President Trump—well known for his ‘America First’ foreign-policy doctrine—would have taken a much more restrained approach to the Russia-Ukraine conflict than President Biden has done.
The lesson learned is painfully clear: the people of a nation should never give powers to politicians without checks, balances, and an expiration date. When this war is brought to a peaceful ending without the civilizational destruction of a global nuclear holocaust, voters and taxpayers all over the world need to take whatever means they can to put such restrictions on the powers that start, escalate, and perpetuate wars.
Once such limitations are put in place, they can be responsibly expanded to rein in other government powers as well. It would be good, e.g., to permanently reduce government’s presence in our economies, and to secure our children, our schools, and our communities from immoral exploitation of all sorts.
This renovation of government powers is not as difficult as it may seem. We already have an ideology at hand that can guide us into a future with less conflict, stronger nations, more prosperity, and a reinvigorated spiritual dimension in our lives. That ideology is national conservatism, of which we have written plenty. It is firmly planted in the nation-state and solidly anchored in eternal civilizational values. As such, it provides the strongest bulwark human civilization can muster against conflicts that otherwise would escalate beyond control.
Most important of all: national conservatism fosters political leaders who love their country more than they love themselves.