Home Politics A Classical Humanist Approach to Globalism and Populism

A Classical Humanist Approach to Globalism and Populism

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Recent years have seen a rise in tensions between globalism and populism, between those advocating for greater integration and those arguing for the importance of territorial sovereignty and the nation-state. To merely take one side or another is to ignore fundamental problems which will undermine related narrow solutions. While there are those, like Steve Bannon, who argue that the future will be populist, there is a great deal of value in interconnectedness. While cosmopolitanism and globalization have some value, they have a natural tendency toward developing top-down, and Tower of Babel-like superstructures which become increasingly irrelevant to the average person. In order to find an intelligent response to the complexities of modern political issues, perhaps it is best to go back to when modern international relations theory really began developing. Europe in the seventeenth century offers two particular cases in the crafting of formal international law: one theoretical and one the result of practical necessity. The first is the ideas of Dutch jurist Hugo Grotius (1583–1645) and the second being the series of peace treaties at the end of the Thirty Years War, collectively known as the Peace of Westphalia (1648). An intelligent response to the present political debates surrounding globalization and populism must be one which incorporates the best of the two perspectives in such a way to avoid the worst extremes of each.

Hugo Grotius (1631), painted by Michiel Jansz. van Mierevelt

Hugo Grotius was a prodigy[1] who lived in the Dutch Republic during the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648), when the Dutch were fighting for independence from the Spanish Empire. Having gotten involved in a contentious religious debate, he was imprisoned and escaped to France where most of his works were published. The first half of the seventeenth century was incredibly violent. In addition to the Eighty Years’ War, much of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation was a battle ground for European countries involved in the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648). This Thirty Years’ War was an incredibly violent struggle between Catholics and Protestants. Among the most destructive wars in recorded history, current estimates are that about 8,000,000 people died during the conflict as a result of warfare, famine, and plague.[2] Much of the war was fought in what is today Germany.

Hugo Grotius wrote his most important legal text De jure belli ac pacis (On the Law of War and Peace) in 1623 (published: 1635). This book has been frequently cited as a foundational work in the field of international law. It provides a theoretical framework for international relations as Europe transitioned from a period dominated by religious warfare to a period in which the nation-state became much more important as a coherent political unit. He begins the text by delineating an understanding of basic and relevant concepts to both the individual and the state. “Civilians call a faculty that Right, which every man has to his own; but we shall hereafter, taking it in its strict and proper sense, call it a right. This right comprehends the power, that we have over ourselves, which is called liberty, and the power, that we have over others, as that of a father over his children, and of a master over his slaves. It likewise comprehends property, which is either complete or imperfect; of the latter kind is the use or possession of any thing without the property, or power of alienating it, or pledges detained by the creditors till payment be made. There is a third signification which implies the power of demanding what is due, to which the obligation upon the party indebted, to discharge what is owing, corresponds.”[3]

The relation between the individual and the state is fundamental. This relationship is also at the heart of current debates surrounding globalization and populism. In his critique of the European Union, psychologist Jordan Peterson evokes the story of the Tower of Babel.[4] The European Union, he argues grew too fast and is unlikely to survive. The economic structures upon which the EU emerged were created in the aftermath of World War II, in part, to prevent a major European war from breaking out. Recent developments at the top have diverged significantly. Rather than focusing merely on economic integration (which itself is deeply problematic, given the different situations in Germany and Greece), Brussels has taken on more political authority. Brexit was a populist reaction to radical top-down, bureaucratic overreach on the part of the EU leadership in Brussels. One can make a solid argument that the superstructure of the European Union is beyond salvage. Perhaps a series of trade agreements are the best path forward here. Bottom-up cosmopolitanism is far more structurally sound than detached bureaucrats trying to force countries to agree to giving up more and more elements of national sovereignty in the name of a top-down superstructure under the guise of ‘progressive virtues.’ Hugo Grotius understood international relations as the relations between sovereign states. His arguments about how states can conduct themselves are not predicated on the increasing eradication of national sovereignty in the name of abstract ideals. He was a political realist and articulated a pragmatic approach to international relations, considering potential problems.

Grotius was a devout Christian but we moderns can gain value from some of his references to his god if we analyze relevant statements with a Petersonian lens. For example, one of the most famous lines in his treatise is: “What we have been saying would have a degree of validity even if we should concede that which cannot be conceded without the utmost wickedness: that there is no God, or that the affairs of men are of no concern to Him.” We can interpret this as Grotius pointing to the transcendent, to that which undergirds our various understandings of the world to a single unity. Human nature unites us all. It would be convenient and tempting to simply dismiss his statement as superstition or employ Sam Harris-style tactics to ‘debunk’ the evocation of a god here. Such responses, however, seem to fail to deal with what Grotius seems to be dealing with at a deeper level. I am no Christian and have no religious motivation behind a defense of Grotius’s views but seek to find meaning in his statement here (in the context of other works he has written). Putting all this aside, the main point of his remark evokes the transition from the religion-centered politics of previous centuries to the nation-state-centered politics of modernity. The principles he discusses have validity outside the realm of claims backed up by Christian scripture. This was the age of the Scientific Revolution and only decades before the emergence of the Age of Enlightenment. Empiricism was becoming more and more important as a tool for aiding human endeavors. The Age of Enlightenment would be the flowering for the application of ways of thinking from the scientific realm to social/political realm.

Just as John Locke would formulate treatises articulating natural laws, the foundation of classical British liberalism, Hugo Grotius laid the theoretical foundation for modern international relations. The concrete development of international relations owes a great deal to the ideas of Grotius and really took off around the time of his death. Both the Thirty Years’ War and the Eighty Years’ War ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia.

The Peace of Westphalia refers to the negotiations and treaties of Osnabrück and Münster, both of which were signed in 1648. Sweden and the major Protestant forces met at the Protestant-controlled city of Osnabrück while negotiations between several major powers (including France, the Dutch Republic, and Spain) took place in Münster. Delegates began arriving in 1643. All together 16 European countries sent delegations and 66 states in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation sent representatives. The delegation of the Holy Roman Emperor was headed by Count Maximilian von und zu Trauttmansdorff (1584–1650). Negotiations lasted for several years. The results of the Peace of Westphalia included the following:

-Catholicism and Protestantism were equal before the law in the Empire

-the Holy Roman Emperor lost some power to the various princes in the Empire

-official recognition of the independence of the Dutch Republic

-a right for individuals to practice their religion in private if it was not the established

religion of the area

-official recognition of Switzerland as independent from the Empire

  • various territorial adjustments and payments made
Count Maximilian von und zu Trauttmansdorff (1584–1650)

The Peace of Westphalia lent its name to the concept of ‘Westphalian Sovereignty,’ the principle that each state has exclusive sovereignty over its territory. Henry Kissinger noted the practical elements which led to the development of Westphalian Sovereignty in his World Order (2014): “The Westphalian peace reflected a practical accommodation to reality, not a unique moral insight. It relied on a system of independent states refraining from interference in each other’s domestic affairs and checking each other’s ambitions through a general equilibrium of power. No single claim to truth or universal rule had prevailed in Europe’s contests. Instead, each state was assigned the attribute of sovereign power over its territory. Each would acknowledge the domestic structures and religious vocations of its fellow states and refrain from challenging their existence.” Whatever your views on Kissinger, he was spot on in this analysis of the emergence of international relations from a practical political perspective. The development of modern international relations did not emerge out of grand ideals. Rather, it emerged from self-interested parties having to negotiate with each other to achieve an acceptable peace. This same political realism is a necessary foundation for any serious debates about how to deal with conflicts between globalists and populists. I would argue that a bottom-up approach, based in the territorial sovereignty of the nation-state, is the only way in which a rational and sustainable cosmopolitanism can be maintained for the long-term. Populism is a necessary part in this political hierarchy, with its emphasis on the voices of the individuals who make up a particular polity. Elements of globalism rest on this, not to the exclusion of this.


[1] with an estimated IQ of 200 (178, of one takes the Flynn Effect in 1926 into consideration) — based on The IQs of 301 Eminent Geniuses according to Cox (1926) along with their Flynn Effect corrections. http://www.iqcomparisonsite.com/cox300.aspx

[2] Clodfelter, Micheal. Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Encyclopedia of Casualty and Other Figures, 1492–2015.

[3] https://socialsciences.mcmaster.ca/econ/ugcm/3ll3/grotius/Law2.pdf page 8.

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MONZ2ewR7EY

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