Is national independence at risk in today’s West? The question calls to mind a fateful quote from September 2018, almost four years ago. “Reliance on a single foreign supplier,” the quote reads, “can leave a nation vulnerable to extortion and intimidation. That is why we congratulate the European states such as Poland for leading the construction of a Baltic pipeline,” (this was in reference to the so-called Baltic Pipe currently under construction between the Norwegian sector of the North Sea and Poland) “so that nations are not dependent on Russia to meet their energy needs …. Germany will become totally dependent on Russian energy if it does not immediately change course.”
With the hindsight afforded by the recent brutal invasion of Ukraine, the quote seems eerily prescient. As Russia—the country that until 2018 provided two-fifths of the European Union’s (EU) gas and over one-fourth of its crude oil—makes a wasteland of its western neighbor, nearly every EU member state is scrambling to wean itself off that very dependence the quote warned about.
The quote dates back to 2018, when Europe’s energy reliance on Russia was not nearly the urgent it has become. Who had the foresight to sound the alarm so early? Who had the vision to foresee something that our EU leaders were blind to until faced with another bloody war on the European continent, countless civilian casualties, and over 10 million refugees already?
You may think the quote was uttered by some distinguished scholar of international relations or energy politics. But the truth is that realizing the inherent danger of relying on a single supplier of energy doesn’t even take a bachelor’s degree. What the quote’s author did have was a good dose of common sense—something our EU overlords seem to have in short supply.
That author was none other than Donald J. Trump, who addressed these words to the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) and had them met with the scornful scoffs of the German delegation.
Laughter, in this case, was a coping mechanism for evident embarrassment. In 2021 alone, Germany spent more than €40 billion on oil, gas, and coal imports from Russia. But now, in the wake of the Russian invasion, the Germans aren’t laughing. Under Olaf Scholz’s chancellorship, they’ve been speedily cutting back their reliance on Russia for oil, gas, and coal by 10, 15 and 25 percentage points, respectively.
Energy is merely one facet of “national independence,” a concept not to be confused with national sovereignty, self-government, national freedom, or sovereignty. These terms can all seem easily interchangeable, but there are subtle differences in their meaning. For one thing, independence is a stronger term than sovereignty. Whereas a country can give up elements of its sovereignty—and most of our Western European nations have doubtless forfeited too much of it to the EU and other global institutions—nations often find their independence threatened from without. This is what we are seeing at work in Russia’s brutal aggression in Ukraine. It is more difficult for a country to give up its independence unilaterally, thought such a giveaway is not entirely impossible.
Indeed, just as the EU has been sucking up ever larger swathes of national sovereignty since the 1950s, West European nations have been undermining their own independence by relying on a hostile nation for a large chunk of their energy supply. Thus Western European nations become geopolitical pawns at the mercy of Vladimir Putin’s whims. But this is not the only attack on independence. Western nations have contracted out their infrastructure projects to China, whose predatory Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) seeks to neuter all criticism of the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) domestic abuses. They have issued debt bonds and shares in strategic companies to the Chinese state. They have outsourced vital supply chains, such as semiconductors or Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), to countries that have no interest in European nations’ self-sufficiency or recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. They have relied on the US for their security. Or, following the US’s lead, they have committed themselves to endless wars from which they can hardly extricate themselves once those wars’ objectives are met.
In each of these examples, Western European nations are faced with the temptation to give away their independence in the hope of securing better access to lending, to goods and services, or to security.
Ignoring the minor course correction in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, these nations have largely accepted this devil’s bargain, and their independence on the world stage has correspondingly suffered.
To better assess what exactly it is that Western European nations are forfeiting, let us detour first into definitions. Yoram Hazony’s definition of nationalism makes an important distinction: nationalism cannot be reduced to its manifestation in one country alone. In fact, nationalism is a coherent worldview, according to which the world is governed best when all nations are allowed to self-determine, to be independent. This definition is internally consistent, too. The right to be independent applies to all nations equally, including those to Europe’s south that have earned their independence in the last century. As nationalists, we should salute every nation’s bid for independence. It matters not that Algeria, to cite one example, has been ruled by a corrupt elite of oil-enriched oligarchs since gaining its independence from France in 1962. What matters is that the right to rule themselves, however badly, belongs to them and nobody else.
We should think of “national independence” along two dimensions: becoming independent and staying independent. Few doubt that our West European countries are nominally independent. On paper, they wrote their own constitutions. They elect their own leaders democratically. But how many of them are truly free to chart their own course in the messy chessboard of global politics? How many of them can call out China’s persecution of its Uyghur population or recognize Taiwan’s independence without suffering enormous economic damage? How many of our West European nations, after decades underspending on their militaries, could credibly raise an army to deter foreign aggression of the kind that is being inflicted on Ukraine? National independence has many faces: political, economic, military. And the reality is that Western nations are fully independent in none of these senses of the word. We have grown so interdependent with hostile powers like Russia and China that, in any given policy area, we have very few options left.
But there is an even deeper ill. National independence—the ability for a country to chart its own course, free from foreign interference or domination—is a principle so basic that in developed countries we have almost forgotten its meaning. How many of our countries have experienced a war of national independence within living memory? Israel, with its heroic defense against Arab aggression in 1948, 1967, and 1973, used to be a source of inspiration for the West’s older nations. But the next generation of Israelis seems less committed to dying for their land if necessary, as their forebears were in 1948.
Granted, Ukraine is keeping the flame of national independence alive. To those still in doubt as to whether universal liberalism or the particularistic nation-state is at stake in Ukraine, I would urge to look at the bravery with which young Ukrainians are defending every inch of their territory. Most people are not ready to die for universal liberalism. Only a stronger sentiment—the bonds of mutual loyalty and love that can only exist within the nation-state—can lead ordinary Ukrainians to so boldly defy their invaders.
In Western Europe, meanwhile, our globalized, post-national era of peace and prosperity has wrought decadence and complacency. It has erased from the national consciousness the blood and tears needed to get independence and to keep it. It is not just that our countries are no longer fully independent stricto sensu; it is that they lack the moral resources requisite to wield that independence. If we cannot re-cultivate those moral resources soon, the horror unfolding in Ukraine may soon arrive at our own front doors.