The Virtue of Nationalism, by Yoram Hazony
If the great struggle of the 20th century was between Western liberal democracy and totalitarianism, the major fault line of the 21st century is within the democratic family, pitting those who believe nations should be self-governing and sovereign against powerful forces advancing “global governance” by supranational authorities.
In a new book that will become a classic, Israeli political philosopher Yoram Hazony identifies this conflict as one “between nationalism and imperialism,” which he describes as “two irreconcilably opposed ways of thinking about political order.” Further, “the debate between nationalism and imperialism is upon us.” This “fault line” at “the heart of Western public life is not going away,” and one must “choose.”
Hazony poses the question: What would the best political order for the world look like? A universal empire with global law? A collection of autonomous tribes? Or an order of independent national states? He chooses the last model over universalism (i.e., empire, including the soft “global governance” variety) and tribalism. He explains that, first, unlike the rule of tribes, the national state establishes internal security and order and reduces the threat of violence. Second, unlike empire, the scope of the national state is limited, because it is confined to exercising authority within its borders.
Third, it provides for what Bill Buckley’s Yale mentor Willmoore Kendall called the greatest right of all, national freedom, the collective right of a free people to rule themselves. Fourth, national freedom permits nations to develop their own institutions “that may be tested through painstaking trial and error over centuries.” Thus, what might be called the sovereigntist option tends toward a realistic empirical style of governance as opposed to a utopian rationalist outlook. Hazony contrasts Margaret Thatcher’s empirical approach to economics, for example, with an overly rationalistic perspective that often leads to unworkable utopianism (e.g., socialist economics in practice).
Fifth, Hazony, quoting John Stuart Mill, argues that, historically, individual rights have been protected best in national states, particularly in England and America. He maintains that in a “universal political order . . . in which a single standard of right is held to be in force everywhere, tolerance for diverse political and religious standpoints must necessarily decline.” This is exactly what has happened as transnational progressive elites, including organs of the EU, the U.N., and, significantly, the American Bar Association, have promoted a “global rule of law” that is intolerant of longstanding religious and patriotic beliefs.
Hazony boldly declares that we should resist all efforts to establish supranational global institutions: “We should not let a hairbreadth of our freedom be given over to foreign bodies under any name whatsoever, or to foreign systems of law that are not determined by our own nations.”
Hazony reviews the history of the conflict between nationalism and imperialism, from the Tower of Babel to the latest anti-Israeli U.N. resolution. The political concept of the independent national state, as an alternative to empire and tribalism, begins with the Hebrew Bible. Ancient Israel was a national state posed against empires in Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, Persia, and Rome. Hazony declares that the Israelite nation was not based on race but on a “shared understanding of history, language, and religion.” He cites Exodus, noting that some Egyptians joined the Hebrews in fleeing Pharaoh, and points out that other foreigners joined the Jewish people once they had accepted “Israel’s God, laws, and understanding of history.”
In Hazony’s telling, after the fall of the Roman imperium, the ideal of a universal empire lived on in the papacy and in the German-led Holy Roman Empire. The emergence of Protestantism resurrected the Hebrew Bible’s concept of the national state. For example, Dutch Protestant rebels in their war with imperial Spain modeled themselves on ancient Israelis fighting for national freedom against the Egyptian and Babylonian empires. The Thirty Years’ War was not simply a religious conflict but a struggle that pitted nationalism against imperialism, with the states of France (Catholic), the Netherlands (Calvinist), and Sweden (Lutheran) fighting against the German-Spanish Hapsburg empire.
Hazony describes a new “Protestant construction” of the West inspired by the Hebrew Bible. It was based on two core principles: national self-determination and a “moral minimum” order, roughly corresponding to recognizing the Ten Commandments as natural law. This Protestant construction has been challenged by a “liberal construction” based on individual rights and a universal order. Beginning in the Enlightenment with Locke and Kant, but particularly since World War II, the liberal construction has largely replaced the Protestant construction among Western elites, though Hazony optimistically remarks that the ideas of the Protestant construction are still strong in the U.S. and Britain. Further, the liberal construction has proved to be illiberal, leading to the suppression of free speech, “public shaming” campaigns, and “heresy hunts.” Hazony laments that “Western democracies are rapidly becoming one big university campus.”
Hazony asserts that the “neutral state is a myth.” While the national state has historically been successful, a purely “neutral” or “civic” state based only on formal law and abstract principles and without attachments to a particular culture, language, religion, tradition, history, or shared sacrifice is unable to inspire the necessary mutual loyalty and national cohesion required for a free society to survive. He identifies the United States, Britain, and France as national, as opposed to neutral or civic, states.
One of Hazony’s most powerful insights is his understanding of the role that hatred plays in the conflict between nationalists and globalists. One hears repeatedly that nationalism means hatred of the “other.” Hazony, however, successfully flips the argument. He notes that “anti-nationalist hate” is as great as or greater than the hatred emanating from nationalists. In fact, the forces supporting universalism hate the particular, especially when particularist resistance to globalist homogenization “proves itself resilient and enduring.”
Thus, “liberal internationalism is not merely a positive agenda. . . . It is an imperialist ideology that incites against . . . nationalists, seeking their delegitimization wherever they appear” throughout the West. Nowhere is this clearer than in the intense antipathy such liberal internationalists feel towards Israel.
As a proud nationalist, Hazony declares, “My first concern is for Israel.” He examines the hostility directed at the Jewish state by “many” in Europe and, increasingly, in America. He concludes that since World War II, and particularly since the 1990s, in elite circles in the West, a Kantian post-national moral paradigm has replaced the old liberal-nationalist paradigm of a world of independent states in which the Zionist dream was born.
This new paradigm insists that national states should increasingly cede sovereignty to supranational institutions, especially in matters of war and peace. In the new paradigm, Israel’s use of force to defend itself is seen as morally illegitimate. The leadership of the European Union and American progressives, for the most part, adheres to the new post-national paradigm; hence, they constantly excoriate Israeli attempts at self-defense.
Hazony declares that “the European Union has caused severe damage to the principle that originally granted legitimacy to Israel as an independent national state: the principle of national freedom and self-determination.” (There is also a faction of Americans, Hazony writes, who favor a different, more muscular type of imperialist project: the establishment of a pax Americana in which America would serve as a contemporary Roman empire, providing peace and security for the entire world and policing the internal affairs of recalcitrant national states that are insufficiently liberal.)
For the EU and Western progressives, Hazony explains, the horror of Auschwitz was the result of atrocities committed by a national state, Germany, infused with a fanatical nationalism. But, as Hazony argues, Hitler’s genocide was inspired by a belief in Aryan racial superiority and imperialism. Hitler cared little for the German nation per se. For example, near the end of World War II, he told his confidant Albert Speer not to “worry” about the “German people”; they might as well perish, for “they had proven to be the weaker [nation] and the future belongs solely to the stronger eastern nation.” Not exactly the sentiments of a true nationalist.
On the other hand, Hazony says, for Israelis, Auschwitz was the result of powerlessness: Jews did not have their own national state and the requisite military capability to protect themselves. Hazony quotes David Ben-Gurion’s famous World War II address in November 1942. He noted that there was “no Jewish army” and declared: Give us the right to fight and die as Jews. . . . We demand the right . . . to a homeland and independence.” It is exactly this very human aspiration for national independence hailed by the liberal nationalists of yesteryear (e.g., Garibaldi, Kossuth, Herzl) that the new imperialists of 21st-century globalism (Merkel, Juncker, Soros) scorn.
Hazony writes that other nations too have been subject to campaigns of vilification from European and transnational elites when they have ignored supranational authority and acted as independent national states. The United States, in particular, has been excoriated (since long before the Trump administration) for refusing to join the International Criminal Court and the Kyoto Protocol and for deciding for itself when its national interest requires the use of force. Recently, globalist wrath “has been extended to Britain” because it returned “to a course of national independence and self-determination and to nations such as Czechia, Hungary, and Poland that insist on maintaining an immigration policy of their own that does not conform to the European Union’s theories concerning refugee resettlement.”
A serious scholar, Hazony is a consistent thinker and is intellectually honest to a fault. As a result, many potential allies in the political-ideological struggle against transnational progressivism might well object to his critical portrayal of, for example, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Ayn Rand, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Konrad Adenauer, Charles Krauthammer, the British Empire, a pax Americana, the papacy, and medieval Christianity, to say nothing of the World Trade Organization and President George H. W. Bush’s “new world order.”
My only serious substantive difference with Hazony concerns his interpretation of John Locke and natural rights, a subject directly related to the American Founding and, therefore, to the crux of American nationalism. Hazony presents Locke as overly focused on individual autonomy and detached from the national state and the culture necessary to sustain it. However, in his famous Second Treatise, Locke explicitly favors the nationalist over the imperialist perspective, lauding “an entire, free, independent society, to be governed by its own laws” and decrying “the delivery . . . of the people into the subjection of a foreign power, either by the prince or the legislature.”
Locke in his other writing also emphasizes the centrality of morality, religion, and family, as well as individual rights, thereby supporting Hazony’s “moral minimum” for the well-being of any independent commonwealth. In any case, it should be stressed that the philosophical basis of the American Founding is much more than the theories of John Locke (as Hazony agrees). Leo Strauss, Harry Jaffa, and, recently, Thomas G. West in his brilliant and definitive work The Political Theory of the American Founding have argued that from the beginning, the American regime has contained pre-Enlightenment, pre-liberal, non-rational elements that are essential to its vitality and success.
Further, the law of nature and the natural rights envisioned by the American Founders were held to be accompanied by an equal set of duties and virtues commensurate with those rights, including the republican virtue of patriotism. Neither Locke nor, certainly, the Founders were utopian, but instead they balanced a belief in reason with an empirical outlook and a realistic view of human nature.
Caveats aside, Yoram Hazony has written a magnificent affirmation of democratic nationalism and sovereignty. The book is a tour de force that has the potential to significantly shape the debate between the supporters of supranational globalism and those of national-state democracy. The former will attempt to marginalize Hazony. Crucial will be the response of the Western (particularly American) center-right intelligentsia. Will mainstream conservatives embrace Hazony’s core thesis (with requisite qualifications) and recognize that they have been given a powerful intellectual and moral argument, or will this opportunity be squandered in sectarian squabbling over exactly what Locke meant and how to redefine “liberalism” in the 21st-century global world?