Continental Drift (Jeremy Rabkin, Fall 2005, Claremont Review of Books)

Imagine a new world counterpart to the European Union…. A series of treaties bestows lawmaking power to councils of representatives from the United States, Mexico, Canada, Guatemala, Grenada, Belize, Brazil, and a dozen or so other countries. Agriculture and labor regulations are made in secret meetings of the labor and agriculture ministers; environmental and safety regulations by environment and safety ministers; and so on. These laws and regulations—elaborated in suitable detail by a Commission of the Americas in, let us say, Caracas, Venezuela—exceed the reach of the current U.S. Code and take priority over U.S. laws. A court in, say, Belize, charged with giving force to these laws, has the authority to override any constitutional objections from the U.S. Supreme Court. The presidents or prime ministers of all these states then meet periodically to expand the powers of the Union of the Americas, by mutual agreement among themselves.

Of course, anyone who proposed such a scheme would be dismissed out of hand. It would subvert our Constitution’s system of accountability, along with its checks and balances. But to state the objection in this way may be too abstract. Most Americans would instinctively recoil from this project on the grounds that it is, well, nuts. Most Americans would prefer to keep their own country.

Is the comparison unfair? Some Europeans have sentimentalized the project of European integration as a way to restore the unity of medieval Europe before it was shattered by the Protestant Reformation, or the French Revolution, or the terrible wars of the 20th century. But the nations of today’s E.U. have never been governed in common. Neither ancient Rome nor its ramshackle successor, the Holy Roman Empire, stretched so far to the north or the east or the west. There has never before been a single political unit stretching from Portugal to Estonia, from Ireland to Greece, from Sweden to Cyprus.

True, before the United States, there was no polity covering the middle of North America, from one coast to the other. But the comparison remains instructive. After the original 13 states established a common federal government, the Union embraced more and more new states until, within little more than 60 years, it had expanded to the far shores of the Pacific. California entered the Union only two years after its territory was acquired from Mexico, but it already had a majority of English-speaking residents from the more settled parts of the U.S. Hawaii became an American possession in 1898, but 60 years later there was still intense debate about whether this territory, where most inhabitants were of Asian descent, could be incorporated as a full state of the Union. Puerto Rico, acquired at almost the same time as Hawaii, is still not a state. If the majority on that Spanish-speaking island ever sought full statehood, it is not at all certain that it would be admitted.

You can denounce Americans or past generations of Americans for racism, intolerance, chauvinism, or xenophobia. There is, no doubt, truth to such charges. But they are largely beside the point. The overwhelming majority of Americans are descended from immigrants who did not originate in the British Isles. In other words, the “native” population is now far outnumbered by descendants of “others.” Scarcely any Americans notice this fact. A son of Arab immigrants commands American forces in Iraq, but the ancestry of General John Abizaid is not an issue. Nor does anyone notice that for 20 of the past 40 years, the office of U.S. Secretary of State has been held by an immigrant or by the child of immigrants.

Our tradition of assimilating newcomers to America is old—so old that it worked even when we brought America to the foreigners. After acquiring the Louisiana Territory, President Jefferson insisted that the existing French-speaking community conduct its political affairs in English. Louisiana has done so ever since, and without protest, despite the persistence of a sizable Cajun-speaking community.

Since the 19th century, immigrants have been required to learn English and demonstrate their knowledge of American history and institutions before becoming citizens. They must swear an oath, pledging to “support the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” and promising, if required, to “take up arms” against these enemies. We have extracted this oath from grandmothers and disabled people, along with more suitable military recruits.

At bottom, the U.S. is, at least by the theory of our founders, a mutual defense agreement among citizens. Despite our differences, we stand together against common enemies. We entrust a common government to make what can be, literally, life or death decisions on our behalf. But it is not simply the government that constitutes our political community. The stability of the government, and of the Constitution that constitutes and limits that government, reflects the solidarity among the people. New Yorkers may not be the most beloved people in America, but the attack on the World Trade Center was seen throughout the country—in distant Hawaii as in Alabama or Michigan—as an attack on Americans, requiring a common American response.

Whatever else it is, the European Union certainly is not a counterpart to the U.S. in this respect. But what it actually is, no one can say. The collapse of the E.U. constitution is a reminder that political entities don’t retain authority when they have no clear purpose that citizens can respect—or even grasp.

America is an exceptional country in many ways, which is part of the reason it continues to provoke so much envy, resentment, and hostility from Europeans. But as a nation-state, the United States is not at all unusual. The European Union itself is a confederation—or a collection, anyway—of separate nation-states. It presupposes these states, even more than the U.S. Constitution presupposes the states in our Union.

The American Founders were eager to assure that the federal government could make decisions on behalf of the whole American people and execute its own laws and policies. State governors play no role in our federal councils and even senators serve for fixed terms, whether state governments pass to a different local majority or not. By contrast, E.U. policies are made by the immediate representatives of the member-state governments. All E.U. policies are then implemented by the member-state governments, because the E.U. has no police, field agents, or inspectors, and no local courts of its own.

The strange structure of the E.U. reflects the irreducible fact that Europeans do not trust each other all that much. The E.U. Parliament has only very limited powers because member states have never been prepared to trust their fates to a European-wide majority.

Remember just a couple years ago when folks had convinced themselves not only that the EU was inevitable but that it would be a serious counterweight to the U.S.?

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