Against Conservative Internationalism

Winston Churchill walking through the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, 1942 (Library of Congress)

The Conservative Human Rights Revolution: European Identity, Transnational Politics, and the Origins of the European Convention
by Marco Duranti
Oxford University Press, 2017, 528 pp.


Christian Human Rights
by Samuel Moyn
University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, 264 pp.


As the intense debate over Brexit unfolded last summer, the postwar era was on everyone’s mind. “Britain Rattles Postwar Order,” proclaimed the New York Times after the British voted to leave the European Union. “A repudiation of the post-war economic and political order” announced Forbes. For many progressives, the corrosion of postwar internationalism seemed especially alarming. Political scientist Sheri Berman spoke for many when she claimed in the Washington Post that unprecedented European cooperation had been a necessary foundation for the bold expansion of the welfare state after the Second World War; the demise of integration would therefore accelerate the breakdown of economic distribution, ensuring more austerity and inequality.

A rival group of progressives offered a very different story. Postwar welfare, they claimed, was an achievement of the nation-state; the EU and its army of unelected bureaucrats were not the source of this progressive success, but a conservative effort to strangle it. For political theorist Richard Tuck or sociologist Wolfgang Streeck, this alternative narrative meant that Brexit presented an opportunity to foster a new commitment to welfare. The British could resist the EU’s neoliberal assault (most apparent in the austerity recently imposed on Greece), rebuke its undemocratic structures, and rejuvenate popular politics in the process. Rather than defending them, the international organizations created in the postwar era had to be dismantled.

A new wave of scholarship has begun to substantiate this provocative historical narrative. Europe’s integration and its broader postwar reconstruction, some scholars now claim, were conservative projects, geared toward bolstering traditional social, cultural, and economic hierarchies. In this story, the architects of Europe’s rebirth were not progressive democrats, but an assembly of free-market zealots and reactionary Christians. The ideas they espoused and institutions they built sought not only to tame destructive national passions, but also to preserve economic inequalities, suppress socialism and communism, and establish Christian supremacy in the public sphere. Most surprisingly, these conservatives established what many celebrate as the era’s greatest progressive legacy: enshrinement of human rights as the core of the European order, which these scholars now claim was tied up with efforts to curtail social reforms and popular democracy.

Yet if these works confirm Tuck and Streeck’s historical premises, they do far less to bolster the lessons they draw for...

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