The Character of Nations

How Politics Makes and Breaks Prosperity, Family, and Civility


By Angelo Codevilla

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In the aftermath of the Cold war, people around the globe are reexamining and reinventing their political systems, conscious that political choices imply different ways of life. In this new cross-cultural study, Angelo M. Codevilla illustrates that as people shape their governments, they shape themselves. Drawing broadly from the sweep of history, from the Roman republic to de Tocqueville’s America, as well as from personal and scholarly observations of the world in the twentieth century, The Character of Nations reveals remarkable truths about the effects of government on a society’s economic arrangenments, moral order, sense of family life, and ability to defend itself. Codevilla argues that in present-day America government has had a profound negative effect on societal norms. It has taught people to seek prosperity through connections with political power; it has fostered the atrophy of civic responsibility; it has waged a Kulturkampf against family and religion; and it has dug a dangerous schasm between those who serve in the military and those who send it in harm’s way. Informative and provocative, The Character of Nations shows how the political decisions we make have higher stakes than simply who wins elections.



Also by Angelo M. Codevilla

Informing Statecraft: Intelligence for a New Century

Modern France

War: Ends and Means (with Paul Seabury)

Machiavelli’s Prince

No Victory, No Peace

Between the Alps and a Hard Place

Advice to War Presidents:

A Remedial Course in Statecraft



Revised Edition


What the Prince does then do many
for upon the Prince are the eyes of all.



As an adolescent Italian immigrant to the New York of the 1950s, I adapted to a way of life I had not imagined. A half century later, the American way of life that I learned then has changed in ways that neither I nor those who taught it to me imagined. How might it change yet again?

The Greek classics teach us that habits make for very different ways of life, and that habits are subject to change. Plato and Aristotle’s descriptions of how Lycurgus’s laws made the Spartans dogged while Solon’s laws made the Athenians expansive make sense. So does Thucydides’ account of the Macedonian barbarians adopting Greek ways while any number of Greeks were degenerating into barbarism. And what is Roman history if not the tale of human character and political institutions rising and falling intertwined? The more we live and travel—and the more deeply we reflect about faraway times and places—the more we wonder what it would take for us to live like others, and for our country to change into yet something else. While the lesson that peoples really are different, and that they can change, is as old as Herodotus, fooling ourselves into thinking that all the neighborhoods in the global village are alike, that they will remain as they are and always were, is all too human.

We are interested in how habits change peoples because the character of the American way of life is up for grabs perhaps more than ever before, and because our government and the sectors of society associated with it— our regime—affects our character arguably more than it did generations ago, when it was smaller. Even as our regime is bringing about vast changes in how we live, liberals and conservatives are trumpeting ideas for social engineering. This book is intended to give pause to all social engineers by making the case that the powerful levers they want to pull really are connected to living tissue, that each scheme for reform has reasonably wellknown effects.

As a student, as a naval officer, and as a professor, as a civilian fulfilling various assignments within the U.S. government, and as a consultant, researcher, lecturer, and curious tourist, I have been privileged to poke into almost every corner of the world, to read about it, and to talk about it with interesting people. This has strengthened my awe for the countervailing powers of habit and contingency. By and large, people live as they do primarily by following old patterns. Nevertheless, ways of life change because everywhere some make themselves champions of “new modes and orders,” which Machiavelli says is the hardest thing in the world, but the most powerful.

I confess to sympathy with John Adams’s A Defense of the American Constitutions and Discourse on Avila, which surveyed the world’s political systems. Adams found it easy to imagine the world’s peoples digging themselves deeper into misery, despotism, depravity, and superstition, but more difficult to imagine them raising themselves to the prosperity, civility, decency, and piety in which the American people of his time found themselves. Indeed, thought Adams, the Americans should realize how precarious is their hold on the virtues responsible for their happiness, how “strait is the gate.” Along with Adams, I see new modes and orders as not so likely to improve human character as they are to worsen it.

Political science, as founded by Aristotle, had as its principal object understanding the human consequences of certain forms and acts of government. The great tyrannies of our time challenge political science to explain how so many peoples have changed so much. Walking around the last of the rubble of postwar Germany as a college student, I found it difficult to understand how the solid burghers I met could have been party to the Holocaust. What could have led such nice folks to do that? My political science courses hardly gave a clue. But Hannah Arendt explained, much as Aristotle would have, how their regime had made evil banal. I read that the Soviet Union had murdered on an even grosser scale. Arthur Koestler and Alek-sandr Solzhenitsyn—not political scientists—explained the effects of living by lies. How could the superpolite Japanese people, who are filling the world with Sonys, have wreaked unspeakable cruelties around the Pacific? General Douglas MacArthur explained how one facet of this people’s character gave way to another. The Japanologists were otherwise occupied. This is why I have preferred the old political science to the new, and from the outset of my career wanted to write in the style of Aristotle and Montesquieu, of Alexis de Tocqueville, Walter Bagehot, Lord Bryce, and Ferdinand A. Hermens. I wanted to grasp the meaning of our time’s regimes by looking at their effects, the better to understand how America’s regime is shaping us.

Since the following is political science in the old style, it does not mean to prove anything. It is an essay that musters facts because the author thinks they point to interesting phenomena. Notes are provided to help the reader check quotes, to provide the sources of statistics, to indulge some tangential thoughts, and to thank authors from whom I have learned. This book contains no facts previously unknown. It does bring the experiences of faraway places and times to bear on choices very close to us.

I began this book during my decade as a senior research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution (1985–1995) and am indebted to a number of colleagues there whose wisdom enriched and delighted me: to the late Lewis Gann for his wisdom on Africa, Germany, and the English language; to Mikhail Bernstam and Robert Conquest for years of discussions on Soviet and post-Soviet Russia; to Hilton Root for insights on economics in China and the Third World; and to Thomas Metzger and Ramon Myers for introducing me to the interaction of Confucianism and the West. I am also indebted to Thomas West of the University of Dallas, and to the Claremont Institute in general, for discussions on the character of the American founding; as well as to the late Hernan Cubillos for countless conversations on the Chilean revolution of 1973–1990. I thank also graduate students David Corbin and Matt Parks and undergraduate Meredith Wilson, all of whom were at Boston University in the late 1990s, for helping with the original research. I alone am responsible for all interpretations and errors.

Since the first edition of this book was published in 1997, the regimes it described have evolved, and my reflections on them have deepened. This second edition draws from the ensuing decade’s events and includes illustrations of our topic that are more familiar and lively. It also considers some aspects of the topic in greater depth and detail.

This book is about the logic of modern regimes and how that logic affects America. That is why, after explaining what regimes are, it focuses on how the legacy of the Soviet Union—the twentieth-century regime in which all of the elements of modernity were concentrated most heavily, the one in which modernity’s logic unfolded most fully—affected the prosperity and civility, the families and souls, and the capacity for national survival of the people who lived under it. While we can be grateful that nowhere on earth, least of all in Russia, are any of that monstrosity’s elements as virulent today as they were between 1917 and 1991, nevertheless some version of them tempts regimes pretty much everywhere. That is important, because the logic of modern regimes exposes all of them to modernity’s temptations. Because modern regimes administer much, the number of prominent persons who constitute them tends to be large. Few, if any, sectors or aspects of society are beyond their reach. To keep from wrecking prosperity, civility, family, and spiritual life, modern regimes would need powerful reasons. They seldom seek them.

Though production is the key to prosperity, redistribution is the economic logic of modern regimes. Whether in Russia, Asia, Europe, or increasingly in America, government itself or association with it is the likeliest path to plenteous, pleasant living. It matters less whether the government owns businesses, as in Cuba; mandates detailed operations, as in Europe; or permits economic activity as a privilege, as in China. The rulers’ degree of discretion is key. Modern regimes determine prices, and it matters less whether it is by taxes, by regulations, by management of trade, or by manipulating credit and the value of money. Economic modernity—as it exists, for example, in the European Union—consists less of high tax rates than of exquisitely detailed choices of the categories and even the individuals who benefit, and at whose expense. By subsidies or rules, modern regimes make valuable things that would be worthless, and vice versa. Because regimes can make you a hot commodity, bankrupt you, or save you from bankruptcy regardless of your stupidity, the most economically profitable thing you can do, whether in Europe or Argentina, or China or Chicago, is to worry less about producing than about building a profitable relationship with the regime. Because exchanging economic privilege for political support is the essence of modern government, access to economic opportunities and enjoyment of the fruits of one’s labor depends increasingly on what part you play in holding up the regime.

Economic life in America has become inexorably more modern as more and more people at the top, bottom, and even the middle of society have found it increasingly normal to stake their prosperity on the state. Whereas by the late 1990s, even as state power over the economy was growing, there was superficial consensus that it should not, and the subsequent decade saw America’s upper socioeconomic end increasingly behaving as if it were entitled to having government cover its bets. The financial panic of 2008 became the occasion for the government authorizing itself to spend $700 billion on top of some $300 billion, and otherwise assuming responsibility for over $8 trillion in private liabilities. The point was to save from bankruptcy whatever businesses it thought worthiest. Not surprisingly, industry after industry argued that it deserved public financing. The winner of the 2008 presidential election, for his part, said that “the middle class” (itself the source and repository of the nation’s productive energies and wealth) needed to be “rescued.” Who would rescue whom? To whose profit?

The Republican administration of President George W. Bush initiated, and the administration of his Democratic successor expanded, the practice of “rebating” taxes to people who do not pay them—that is, of transferring money from those who pay taxes to those who do not. Composed of interchangeable people, they patronized the lowest strata with “compassionate” programs that they administered. In short, the regime punished the prudent and productive to patronize the imprudent.

The notion that any regime could distribute society’s wealth, pick winners and losers while abstracting from its own interests, that it would treat political supporters and opponents equally, is not worth a second thought. In sum, our regime, with the American people in tow, seemed to have accepted the premise that all are entitled to expect the government to guarantee their dreams—the very premise that led Argentina, wealthy in the 1920s, to food riots in the 1960s.

Citizenship and the rule of law are even rarer than economic prosperity. Our Declaration of Independence’s statement that “all men are created equal,” and its exposition of the logic that proceeds from it, sound even stranger to modern ears than to those of the late eighteenth century. That is because modern thought developed antibodies to the notion of God-given human equality. Whether through paths traced by Rousseau, or by Hegel, or by V. I. Lenin, Fidel Castro, John Rawls, or Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the former French president, who authored the European Union’s constitution, the conclusion is the same: Ordinary people are equal only in their duty to meld into large organizations in which the rules are made for the good of all by those who know best.

In the most recent decades, however, in America as elsewhere in the Western world, regimes have added a new twist to old arguments about why ordinary humans are unfit to rule themselves—namely, that government must depend on science, which dictates that peoples must surrender to their betters plenary powers over where and how they live, how much and what kind of energy or even food they consume, in order to “save the planet” from human habitation’s effects. The details of such rules being purely scientific and technical, so goes the argument, it would be inappropriate to debate them and subject them to contending interests. Yet, given the existence of contrary interests, scientifically inspired government must harmonize them. Special sensitivity to especially important matters is also the main premise of the argument for why judges and bureaucrats should decide such matters rather than persons tainted by politics. Because this argument has gained so much traction, this second edition examines its roots and consequences in some detail.

Few peoples live under rules of their own making. While some modern regimes have chosen to apply their laws more regularly than others, the American people were well nigh alone (Switzerland excepted) until the late 1930s in making and administering the laws under which they lived, mostly at the local level. Later, as the United States joined the ranks of administrative states, U.S. laws became grants of power to administrative agencies to make the actual rules by which we live, and local autonomy withered.

The effects of modern regimes on family life have continued to develop along a simple logic: As much as it can, the state deals with men, women, and children as individuals with inalienable duties to itself, and with such relationships with one another as each individual may choose. While there have been vast differences in the actual “family policies” of the Soviet Union, Sweden, China, Europe, and the United States, the assumptions underlying them have varied less. The actual condition of families varies widely, from, say, Japan, where they seem most coherent; to Sweden, where they barely exist and few seem to miss them; to Russia, where at least the women seem to miss them terribly. Nevertheless, the result has been a general decline in the rate at which families form, in how long they last, and in what responsibilities they bear for their members. In America the overall (though slower) decline in the various indices of family health can be understood by paying attention to a peculiarly American habit, as old as the nation itself, namely, the tendency of the population to sort itself out according to habits and preferences. Thus there are some sectors—notably unchurched blacks— among which families have practically ceased to exist, and others—Orthodox Jews, Mormons, conservative Catholics, and evangelicals—in which families thrive.

Sorting out and secession are natural reactions to cultural and above all religious differences. Separation of religious communities was the twentieth century’s dominant demographic fact. The Indian subcontinent saw Hindus and Muslims separate. Whereas in 1900 Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived side by side from the Caucasus to Morocco, a hundred years later the Christians had retreated to Armenia and Georgia or gone to the West, while the Jews were concentrated in Israel. No sooner had the Soviet empire’s dis solution given the Orthodox and Catholic populations of the Balkans and Eastern Europe their freedom than they used it to push away from one another, if not to make war. The millennial strife between Sunni and Shia Muslims became arguably the force driving wars from Gaza to Baghdad.

No doubt, identity politics drive this strife and separation more than zeal over theological particulars does. Nevertheless, the non-Western world is alive with a lively life of the spirit. In China, that life includes perhaps 60 million who practice some kind of Christianity, as well as countless adepts of native cults. The government, eager to tap into what it perceives are the roots of Western civilization’s strength, sponsors the teaching of Christianity in the universities. Seemingly understanding that spiritual emptiness is unsustainable, the Chinese regime approves unofficially of its people living spiritual lives as long as they do not threaten it politically.

By contrast, Western regimes have gone out of their way to deny their peoples’ and polities’ kinship with Christianity—the drafters of the European Union’s constitution rejected references to it vehemently and repeatedly. In America, arguing that America is a Christian country endangers careers. Spiritual emptiness, the proposition that human life is qualitatively indistinguishable from animal life and hence meaningless, holds monopoly status in the schools. More important, acceptance of it is de rigueur for interacting with those who count. Moreover, Western regimes have tried to engender ersatz sentiments of reverence for “the planet,” and for their own status as priests of the culture of liberating meaninglessness. Though this culture is entrenched in regimes, and though it has diminished or suppressed the West’s Christianity, it has not engendered enthusiasm, even among its priests.

Whereas in cultural as in other matters Europeans are habituated to following their regimes—usually passively—or revolting, Americans typically tend to gather into subcultures, turning their backs on, and disengaging from, religious as well as secular leaders they dislike. In short, many Americans have reacted to our regime’s cultural policy as they have to its family policy: by sorting themselves out into subcultures. Hence America’s pluralism is a long-term challenge to its regime—and not just on matters of the spirit. At all times, however, regimes depend for their survival on their armed forces’ willingness and capacity to win battles. Ultimately, these depend on the population’s identification of their lives and fortunes with the regime. Arguably (but seldom noted), modern regimes differ from their ancestors of a century ago most significantly in the diminished—often to the vanishing point—willingness of their peoples to defend them. The Soviet regime died in August 1991 when it could not find within its armed forces—the world’s largest—a few hundred men to capture the rebellious Russian parliament. That regime, compared with its Russian successor—never mind the regimes of Western Europe—had devoted thought, resources, and brutality to ensuring its forces’ responsiveness. They did not answer the call simply because the regime had long since lost the capacity to attract, or to compel, commitments of lives.

Note well, however, that the number of modern regimes that can inspire or compel men to lay down their lives for them is very small. Certainly it does not include any Western European regime. The world’s tinpot tyrannies, from the Middle East to Africa and the rest of the Third World, generate plenty of violence through hired thugs. Sometimes, as in the Iran-Iraq war of 1981–1988, they can get people to kill one another by appeals to race, backed by police. Even China’s regime trembled in 1989 as it scraped the bottom of its military barrel to find a unit willing to put down a student revolt in Tiananmen Square. In sum, most modern regimes are militarily fragile because their subjects do not see them as worthy of sacrifice.

In this as in other matters the American regime is exceptional, but becoming less so. If, as in Tocqueville’s time, religion’s pervasiveness is the first thing that foreigners notice in America, patriotism is surely the second. Although, like religion, willingness to fight for America is spread unevenly among American demographic groups, it is widespread enough to make of America probably the only country that can draw a large, reliable army from its population. But as that willingness and that participation in the armed forces becomes more and more peculiar to demographic groups that feel themselves less and less in tune with the regime, as America’s regime becomes more and more like those of Europe, and as the regime’s military ventures rack up one unsatisfactory end after the other, so is America’s military losing its uniqueness.

The change began in the 1950s, as the social groups that make up the regime began to look down on their fellow citizens’ revulsion to communism. During the Vietnam War, America’s leaders revolted against those they had sent to fight it and withdrew from the armed forces. America’s upper and upper-middle classes did not return, but imposed on the armed forces elements of their own culture: acceptance of homosexuals and restrictions on prayer. Our regime, absent in body and estranged in culture, especially scornful of the traditional military goal of victory, became accustomed to using the armed forces in ventures from the Balkans to Iraq that were neither war nor peace, that were more obviously related to regime goals than to American interests—but that got a lot of people killed nevertheless.

Alas, military incompetence is not the only drain on the sources of the American people’s commitment to the regime. Increasingly, the regime has come to represent the opposite of the image that the American people have always had of our country. America, such is the image, is a place of bounty, which anyone may acquire without interference from one’s presumed betters. Here, if nowhere else, “all men are created equal.” Hence, if you live by the laws that you’ve had a hand in making, you need not suffer those who look down their noses at you. America is by, of, and for families; by, of, and for divine worship and thanksgiving. An equal among equals, you are familiar with weapons and are proud to defend a public realm that is very much your own.

In contrast with this vision, our increasingly Europeanizing administrative regime restricts opportunity. The grounds on which it does so— fairness, the environment—matter less than the fact that the restrictions on prosperity go along with an increase in the distance between the rulers and the ruled, between “authorized persons” and the herd. Americans are not used to such distinctions, or to being looked down upon for devotion to God and family. Add to this that our regime has not been successful as a manager of prosperity or as a healer of social maladies, that it has earned the reputation as a loser of wars.

In sum, different as the world’s regimes are from one another, the modernity they share is affecting the peoples who live under them in ways that are comparable, and from the comparison, we may learn how our increasingly modern regime may affect us.



Day by day, case by case [the Supreme Court] is busy designing a Constitution for a country I do not recognize.




On Sale
Mar 24, 2009
Page Count
400 pages
Basic Books

Angelo Codevilla

About the Author

Angelo M. Codevilla has taught political theory and international relations at Stanford, Princeton, and Georgetown University and is presently a professor of international relations at Boston University. He is the author of nine books, including The Character of Nations, The Arms Control Delusion, and a new translation of Machiavelli’s The Prince. He lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

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