The only complicating factor occurs in a case like the United States, where the character of the regime and the character of the people are bound together so tightly that it’s hard to imagine one without the other. The government-country distinction is easier to make in countries where regimes change willy-nilly, and while obviously our regime isn’t identical to the one founded in 1789, our democratic temper – both institutional and cultural – has endured through the transition from a decentralized republic to a mass democracy with a sizable administrative state. So whereas France would still be France if the current Republic were dissolved and a monarchy or a dictatorship took its place, there’s a sense in which imagining an America governed by an emperor or a military junta is a little like imagining a France whose inhabitants no longer speak French.
True enough, the problem is thornier in states (or confederations of states) that have emerged later in the modern era and which have no history or perhaps just a relatively short history under a different regime. Ross’ remark reminds me of a line from Aurel Kolnai’s autobiography that Americans are technologically the most modern people in the world, but that we are politically the most anachronistic with our attachments to 18th century forms (if not always their original use or content). Of course, the anachronism is more apparent than real, but it points to the relative political conservatism of Americans with respect to the maintenance of forms, which is made possible by the general consensus of our political culture that derived from the virtual unanimity of the first generations after independence in support of liberal republicanism. That is, the nature of the regime we have had has fostered a political culture that values homogenity in political values, which has made the possibility of frequent changes of regime much more remote. Thanks in part to the expulsion of the most recalcitrant Loyalists, the range of political views that have any chance of mobilising large numbers of people has always been extremely narrow, which has made it possible to perpetuate the false idea that America is a propositional or even an ideological nation in which the definition of being American is somehow tied to the acceptance of certain political views.
The relative political stability in American history to which Ross refers has made it difficult to imagine an America that did not continue to have a regime more or less like the one we have now that is (at least nominally) defined by the Constitution, and the general consensus, reinforced by education and conditioning by way of the media, has defined the political debate as an argument over the method of governing a liberal republican regime with mass democratic and managerial features. Even most of the radical critiques of the status quo take for granted that returning to the old liberal republican regime as it existed at some point in the past is the goal. There are extremely few openly socialist or right-authoritarian people in America, which is a boon in many ways, but it also ensures that an America without the current regime seems literally unthinkable. It is perhaps even more crucial, given the stakes when it comes to waging war and projecting power around the world, that we understand that American patriotism and American identity are not inseparably tied to the regime and would survive even if this regime were to change even more radically away from its original form.
Modern unified nation-states in Europe and Asia that were/are cobbled together from many other constituent polities pose a different, but related problem, and post-colonial states in Asia and Africa pose even more vexing problems because of the extreme arbitrariness of boundaries that actually divide more or less existing cultural or tribal regions and/or countries between one or more nation-states. More on those in a moment.
First, I should note that it is clearly the American case that the participants in the Cato debate are discussing, even if they are not mentioning it explicitly, not least since the concern over “activist foreign policy” makes no sense in just about any other national context today, so it is in the American context that the government-country distinction needs to be defended most effectively. In the American case, several things need to be kept in mind. One is that Americans possessed their respective countries before they possessed their own polities. Even after the Confederation and then after the beginning of the Federal period, Americans identified with their countries, which had been the colonies and were the states that had broken away from British rule, and tended to self-identify first according to more local or regional identities before they identified themselves as Americans. Being American at that point was a relatively remote civic identity, and one that defined citizenship in the new federal republic, but in the early republican period patriotic attachment was fixed primarily, though not exclusively, on the home country of New York, Virginia and the like. Since all of the participants keep bringing up the connection with war, let us consider an example of American war before independence. Long before independence, militiamen during King William’s War (a.k.a., War of the League of Augsburg) were almost certainly not fighting for the Crown first and foremost, but were fighting to defend their home against attack (or the threat of attack), even though they may have been fighting because of policy set in a capital far from home related to countering Louis XIV’s aggression in the Rhineland. While this is sometimes overstated in our history books, the series of colonial wars along the western and northern frontiers of the colonies was a contributing factor in creating resentment against British rule, as the distinction between what was in the interest of the colonies and the interest of the British state became increasingly clear. The rebellion of the 1770s was a direct response the costs being imposed, both fiscal and physical, by state policy, revealing the difference between what the patriots owed to their own countries and what was being demanded of them by the authorities in London. So, at this point we can say that the government-country distinction was at the heart of the American experience. As mass democracy has taken hold, and centralism has vitiated or destroyed many more local loyalties, it is harder to keep the distinction clearly in mind, since mass democracy in a centralised nation-state has the effect of compelling citizens to identify collectively with the government that supposedly exists because “we” consent to it and that “we” supposedly control. Indeed, it is a constant problem when writing about government actions to avoid using the first person plural, because it is so commonplace to refer to what “we” are doing in Iraq, despite the fact that most of “us” want out.
Returning to the War for Independence, we cannot readily say that everyone who did not back the rebellion in the 1770s was unpatriotic. Patriots in the same country will have different interpretations of what their obligations to their country require. This may sound like I’m trying to have it both ways, but it reflects the variety of patriotic loyalty that makes civil strife between neighbours possible; it helps explain how even members of collaborationist regimes believe that they are doing what is necessary to preserve their country from a worse fate. One group or the other may be wrong about what is best for the country, but both are convinced that they are acting out of loyalty to the country. One of the reasons why patriotism gets such a bad reputation among intellectuals, particularly liberal and libertarian intellectuals, is that it is wrongly taken for granted that loyalty to the country somehow pre-empts or precludes criticism of and dissent from government policy. They see how pro-government deamgogues deny their opponents’ patriotism, and so they see patriotism itself as a bludgeon with which to overwhelm critics and quash debate, which mistakes a thing’s abuse for the character of the thing.
There will be a counter-argument that the boundaries of these countries were still identified with political boundaries, and that patriotic Virginians identified with the Commonwealth government, which would seem to push back against a clear distinction. First, I should say that while the distinction is great and important, it is difficult to find complete separation between countries and polities in all cases, but this is where the non-American examples are especially useful.
Some months ago, I remarked on a strange distinction that Fred Kaplan made between Iraq and India. India, unlike Iraq, was a “real country even before the British colonized it,” he said, which prompted me to discuss the problems with how we think about what constitutes an “artificial” vs. a “real” country. What I wrote then may be useful in thinking about the government-country distinction now:
Of course, it is important to recognise that all modern nation-states are to some extent founded on the ruin and death of other even more real countries that they gobbled up and suppressed, but even so there are nation-states today that actually have meaning for their citizens and many that mean next to nothing at all. At some point, every nation-state is a contrivance and something imposed, because it seeks to unify any number of polities and peoples who have previously not identified or united with one another.
That being said, it is also worth noting that at some point the nation-state can gradually fashion a country out of the disparate countries that it has taken over. So today you can have a French patriot in Provence or Languedoc, despite the long history of distinctive regional identity and the relatively late administrative centralisation of France, even though the centralisation was accomplished first by absolutists and then by nationalists who were in a very real sense “inventing” or imagining a new country and imposing it on the existing countries that already existed. Where local patriotic attachments are strong, resistance to assimilation to the nation-state can be fierce, and this will be intensified by a distinct question of clashing ethnic or tribal identities. In general, the patriot will resist incorporation into these larger nation-states, but in later generations after the consolidation the nation-state may have created, albeit through coercion and political homogenisation, a country out of the constituent parts to which patriots now feel an attachment distinct from any tie they may have to the government of that nation-state.