Gordon Brown's failure to turn up to sign the treaty of European union alongside the other 26 EU leaders on Thursday exasperated them mightily: their perception is of a politically semi-detached Britain dreaming of the lost grandeur of empire and the ersatz glory of the "special relationship" with the United States. But this disconnection reflects another, and one which this time bears on all our international commitments, the UN as well as the EU. In Britain there is no serious debate about the meaning of supranational institution building, something that betrays itself in the empty shouting match about defending the "national interest" that does duty for an understanding of modern European developments, and more terribly in the decision to ignore international law and wage war alongside the US in Iraq.
In his recent collection of interviews and articles*, Jürgen Habermas - doyen of European social theory for several decades now - reminds us of just how deep are the roots of this disengagement. The rise of the modern nation state coincided with the discrediting of religion as a means of restraining organized aggression, obliging Enlightenment thinkers to put forward what could only be a rational approach to preventing war. In 1795 Immanuel Kant's Perpetual Peace: a philosophical sketch duly provided the foundation of a debate which in Europe continues to this day, and which has been deepened, fuelled and enriched by the spectacle of the extreme national self-assertion of the Nazi period, the experience of Soviet communism and the patient process of constitution-building in the post war world.
Habermas contrasts a number of lines of thought. Have we for example to accept, as Kant at first suggested, that supranational institutions must take the form of a global republic? Habermas thinks not: not a global electorate, but a global public committed to universal human rights may be enough to hold international actors to account. How do we move towards such a situation? Certainly not through the "hegemonic unilateralism" of a dominant superpower seeking to extend its own legal system to encompass the world as a whole. Even a benign democratic hegemon could, as Habermas puts it, "never be sure whether it is really distinguishing its own national interests from the universalizable interests that all other nations could share".
With the UN as it actually is, however, and in the Bretton Woods institutions, we confront a distribution of international legislative authority which largely reflects the relative power of nation states. It is here we encounter what is perhaps Habermas's key idea: a living polity must not merely represent the weight of its constituent parts, it must command the legitimacy to alter those weights in the interests of all. This is the true dialectic of democratic institutions, something that Kant was feeling for over two centuries ago and which we still find hard to grasp today.
The UK is of course a country which lacks a rationally justified written constitution of its own. Perhaps in that light it is little wonder that we tend to be dead to the intelligent debate which engages our continental neighbours. Reading Habermas gives you an idea of what we are missing.
* The Divided West (Polity Press 2006)