Elshtain, Jean Bethke. New Wine and Old Bottles: International Politics and Ethical Discourse. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998.
The book is a compilation of two lectures given in 1996 – she was the Hesburgh Lecturer on Ethics and Public Policy that year. The premise is that for years scholars were stating emphatically that nationalism would go by the wayside as rationalism took a step forward. It begins with a brief history of sovereignty and its intended purpose: “…sovereignty was intended to regulate not only relations between states but also, perhaps even more fundamentally, their internal conditions, characterized by lawlessness and violence. The establishment of the sovereign state as a supreme coercive authority was intended to alter these conditions.” In her opening pages she talks about the middle ground between realism and idealism – both views will get you only so far – the whole world is not a battle field, nor is it peaceful along every border.
Her aim is to bring ethics into public policy (political realm) in a way that makes them interact with one another. As I was reading Elshtain’s ideas about sovereignty and the negative aspects of nationalism it made me think to recent comments by Angela Merkel in regards to anti-multiculturalism. Both are warning that too much pride in individual ethnic groups leads to distrust, power-struggles, and war. Neither is saying that celebrating difference is bad just that for the sake of a nation (state) it can be. Elshtain says, “because power lies at the heart of the matter, any critical unpacking of sovereignty must reveal how power is understood within sovereign discourse…” This should lead to a better understanding of what is needed to understand how ethics can fit and relate to political policy which is then needed to understand and possibly change sovereignty.
Her idea of politics is one that “would also profoundly shift the focus of political loyalty and identity such that we would no longer be seen as civic beings mobilizable to certain ends and purposes but as citizens who are responsible to and for one another and for that they hold in common and for articulating and embodying their differences in ways that do not create enemies, in part because the presuppositions of an enemy is not the place from which one starts.” Her ideal would give more power to the people and what they want rather than a government forced to work within borders and boundaries – remembering that these borders were put into place because people wanted to feel safe and because people wanted power – private property is above all else about power and the ability to share (or not to share) said power.
This is hard for people to understand because humans need reference points – we need groups to belong to – but why do these groups have to be violent towards groups that are different. Elshtain and Merkel rail against diversity and multiculturalism, but the original thoughts behind multiculturalism were tolerance – the Muslim view of tolerance which is about peace and acceptance – not the Western view which is about putting up with. I believe that the Islamic world’s definition (or translation) of tolerance is aligned with both Merkel’s hopes for the future of Germany and what Elshtain appears to be working towards in this book.
Elshtain calls nationalism “the great political passion of our time.” This is surprising for many as most political scientists expected rationalism to be the new world view. She quotes Pope John XXIII and George Orwell in defending her position that nationalism does not rightly portray reality. But changing this mentality is hard because nationalism begins in children – they are indoctrinated before they even go to their first day of school. She gives an example using Lithuania and Poland on page 30-32 which is similar to reading about Angela Merkel (Germany) and Cameron (United Kingdom) speak about their new anti-multiculturalism agendas.
After she finishes reviewing what nationalism is and how it affects politics and people she dedicated another chapter to the idea of forgiveness. This is not the I forgive you for harming me though. This is a nation’s ability to forgive and focus on forgetting past atrocities in order to move forward. It is more about the ability to move forward and past through acknowledgment rather than actual forgetting. She uses Hannah Arendt to make her points also using very Heideggerian language throughout.
It was an interesting read – one that makes me look forward to the other book by her on my list for this exam. It is also good in that it takes a different approach to the problem of diversity that so many states are dealing with and how this relates to ethics and war is crucial – it does make me wonder about relativism and if this is another fad of thought to fit what is happening in the world today or will it stand and push forward. Only more reading will answer these questions.
Thanks for reading,