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Are You a Nationalist or an Imperialist?

Pick one. Photo: Getty Images

The political fortunes of nationalism are on the rise. Brexit, Trump, and the rise of populist nationalism in Europe have together dealt a death blow to the idea that increasing global interconnection would cause more parochial commitments to wither and die. Yet nationalism’s political successes have, so far at least, not translated to much in the realm of culture. Yes, the Steve Bannons of the world may occasionally be given platforms outside of the far-right media ghetto, but the thinking and writing classes of the West still generally regard nationalism less as a legitimate political philosophy and more as a problem to be dealt with.

In a just-published book, The Virtue of Nationalism, the Israeli political theorist Yoram Hazony sets out to attack this consensus. An Orthodox Bible scholar, former aide to Benjamin Netanyahu, and president of the conservative Herzl Institute, Hazony will be familiar to some English-language readers from his frequent, and frequently Trump-friendly, contributions to American conservative outlets like National Review and The Wall Street Journal. Unlike more timid contemporary defenders of nationalism, his goal is to offer not merely a pragmatic case for the nation-state as a concession to human nature but a positive argument for nationalist political philosophy as good in itself. And although Hazony is not the first conservative intellectual to attempt to revive nationalism as a respectable political theory in recent years — magazines like The American Conservative and, more recently, American Affairs, have regularly published arguments along these lines — his book is likely to stand out for its ambition and theoretical simplicity, providing today’s right-wing nationalists with a conceptual language for challenging their globalist rivals.

Contemporary opposition to nationalism is usually grounded in morality. Pragmatic cases can be made that nations suffer economically or politically from an undue focus on their own interests, but “globalism,” to use Hazony’s term, would never have achieved its current position of strength if it did not build on the powerful moral intuition that there is something wrong with privileging the well-being of fellow citizens over that of other human beings, just because the former happen to have been born on the right side of an arbitrary border. Nationalism, in this view, is always premised on the exclusion of outsiders from the circle of moral concern. Even in cases where it is not explicitly racist, then, it channels the same impulse to discriminate that lies behind racism and other forms of prejudice. This impulse seems all the more irrational given the now-widespread belief that national identity is more or less mythical, constructed, or, in the words of a New York Times video from earlier this year, “made up.”

Hazony attempts to upend these intuitions by providing an alternative moral framework for thinking about the nation and nationalism — that of the nation versus the empire. In Hazony’s stylized view, the history of mankind since the invention of the state is the history of two competing principles of political order: nationalism, or the principle that the world should be divided up among a multiplicity of self-governing nations, and empire, which Hazony defines as any order “whose purpose is to bring peace and prosperity by uniting mankind under a single political regime.” The rise of globalism among Western elites in recent decades should be understood, according to Hazony, not as the emergence of a new, more enlightened principle of political order — one that has recognized the errors of nationalism and evolved beyond them — but as the reemergence of something far more ancient: the ideology of an imperial ruling class that sees strong commitments to the nation as threats to the unity of the empire. Hazony’s goal with this framing is to force his readers into a choice: either you’re a nationalist, or “you support, in principle, the ideal of an international government or regime that imposes its will on subject nations when its officials regard this as necessary.” Which is to say, you’re either a nationalist or an imperialist.

The early chapters of The Virtue of Nationalism provide a sketchy and sometimes tendentious account of the historical conflict between nationalism and imperialism — Hazony traces a genealogy of Jewish and Protestant nationalist resistance to Roman and then Catholic empire — but his real argument is made on the basis of political philosophy. Reprising a theme that has become increasingly popular with conservative intellectuals like Patrick Deneen, Hazony begins with a polemic against the Enlightenment political philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes, whose assumption that humans are essentially self-interested individuals is, in these these critics’ view, the basis for universalist liberal theories that unduly elevate the rights of individuals over the claims of concrete human groups. Humans, for Hazony, are not primarily individuals: they are first and foremost members of collectives, such as the family, tribe, or religious community. These collectives imbue their members with an identity —transmitted through language, belief, and tradition — and the individuals that make up a collective will in turn view it as part of their own extended selves, producing feelings of solidarity and mutual loyalty among the members of the group. The mutual loyalty of human collectives is, for Hazony, the basis of all political order.

The nature and size of these social collectives can vary wildly, leading to different forms of political order. Hazony contrasts two ideal types based on the two possible extremes of collective identity: the order of tribes and clans and the universal empire. The order of tribes and clans is what exists prior to the formation of the state: highly local and particularistic, it is akin to an extended family, ruled by leaders to whom the members of the tribe or clan are bound by ties of familiarity and personal loyalty. This order produces a tremendous degree of freedom but tends toward internal division and weakness, which is why, historically, most tribal and clan societies have either formed their own states or been conquered by neighbors who beat them to the punch. At the other end of Hazony’s continuum is the imperial state. In contrast to the circumscribed world of the tribes and clans, the empire is potentially limitless in extent, its expansion checked only by the ability of other states to resist it. In place of the constant squabbling of the tribes, the empire imposes peace under one ruler and one law. And if mutual loyalty in the tribe is limited to familiar individuals, mutual loyalty in the empire applies, in theory, to the entire world. “In an imperial order,” Hazony writes, “all political life is rooted in the moral principle of the unity of unfamiliar humanity, which is the principle that each individual has obligations to the common welfare of mankind.”

Yet this moral universalism is, for Hazony, precisely the problem with empire: empires by their very nature believe that their way of doing things is the only way and that all of humanity would benefit by submitting to imperial rule, which produces an eternal appetite for expansion. Given, however, that most humans will feel more loyalty toward concrete and particular groups than they are capable of feeling to humanity in the abstract, the moral universalism of the empire will always, in Hazony’s view, turn out to be flawed in theory and hypocritical in practice. On the one hand, universalism drives empires to despotism as they attempt to abolish or suppress local sources of collective identity, which undermine subjects’ primary loyalty to the empire. On the other hand, since so few people are willing to fight and die for the mass of “unfamiliar humanity,” imperial states will, in practice, tend to be constructed around a “ruling nation” whose members will “defend one another at all cost against the peoples whom they have conquered,” as he argues was the case in the English, French, Greek, Persian, Roman, and Spanish empires. What passes itself off as universalism, then, always turns out to be the universalism of a particular nation or ruling elite, accepted only temporarily and reluctantly by others.

The virtues of nationalism emerge by way of comparison to these two extremes. For Hazony, the national state — a state culturally and politically governed by a nation — represents a sort of happy medium between the insularity of the tribe and the despotism of the imperial state. Like the imperial state, the national state establishes justice, defends against foreign conquest, and elevates its citizens beyond the limited horizons of the tribal world. Yet unlike the imperial state, the national state is particularistic rather than universal — it is sustained by mutual loyalty among members of a specific nation, which Hazony defines as a union of tribes marked by the “shared heritage” of “a common language or religious tradition” and a “history of joining together against common enemies.” The national state’s particularism, in Hazony’s view, has the dual advantage of restraining the imperial impulse toward constant expansion and of providing the state with a concrete basis for social solidarity and mutual trust. This includes the solidarity between the rulers and the ruled, with the former feeling toward the latter a sense of obligation based on shared communal identity. For Hazony, this is why free institutions, such as constitutional checks and balances, first emerged in Protestant Europe during the early modern period, when states like England and the Netherlands began cohering into truly national states.

Although Hazony is at pains to insist that there is nothing biological or racist about his idea of the nation, his definition of one is functionally equivalent to that of an ethnic group, making “ethno-nationalism” a hostile but not necessarily inaccurate description of what he is advocating. He is brutally dismissive, for instance, of what is referred to in the United States as “civic nationalism,” or the idea that a commitment to the abstract values embodied in a state’s founding documents can plausibly substitute for the mutual loyalty of an actual nation. Founding documents, Hazony argues, “will become an object of loyalty precisely to the extent that the tribe or nation to which we are loyal transmits the sacredness of these documents to each new generation of children.” Any loyalty they produce will be thus primarily be loyalty to the tribe or nation rather than to the documents themselves. For those, such as oppressed minorities, who are alienated from the dominant national culture, the state’s founding documents will be seen as “the quasi-religion of a different nation or tribe, and as hypocrisy to the extent that neutrality is claimed for them.” Indeed, Hazony seems to believe that functioning national states require one nation to be so dominant within the state that minority groups have few options other than to “assimilate themselves” into the “constitutional and religious culture of the majority.” This may well be true as a practical matter, but it tends to undercut the moral force of Hazony’s polemic against empire: for some reason, the empire’s demand that subject nations assimilate to imperial culture is intolerable despotism, but the national state’s need to assimilate domestic minorities is accepted as political necessity.

The Virtue of Nationalism does get some things right: the national state is, historically, the only political entity with the sufficient size, cohesion, and military prowess to regularly resist imperial aggression. And while its vices have been elevated to mythic proportions in recent years, cosmopolitan empires, too, are riddled with flaws of their own: their leaders will often feel contemptuous, or simply indifferent, toward subject peoples with whom they share nothing in common, and they must often resort to despotism to ensure obedience in the absence of more substantive bonds of mutual loyalty.

The book’s major flaw is that Hazony tends to define his terms as ideal types and then argue from those definitions, which, while producing the elegant dichotomy between nation and empire, can also lend his arguments a sense of unreality. For instance, Hazony collapses imperialism, universalism, and philosophical rationalism into a single concept, allowing him to argue that empires will, always and everywhere, seek not only to expand indefinitely but to ruthlessly eliminate all particularity, obliterating local cultures in the name the imperial faith. Yet imperial elites, whether in ancient Rome or 19th-century Britain, have often been perfectly happy to accept limits to territorial expansion and leave local customs in place as long as the taxes get paid on time. Similarly, Hazony argues that Nazism, because it ignored national boundaries in pursuit of German hegemony in Europe, was actually a form imperial universalism rather than nationalism. But Nazi Germany was, in his terms, both imperialist and nationalist: its leaders attempted to abolish some nation-states, but they did so believing not that the Jews and Slavs would benefit from German rule but that the particular interests of the German nation required the Jews and Slavs to be physically destroyed.

The Nazi example indicates a deeper problem with the entire binary, which is that nationalism, as it has existed in history, is not a “principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course”; it is something more like a political language, one that takes the nation as the source of legitimacy and the furtherance of its interests as the goal of politics. Nationalism, in this sense, can be inflected by all sorts of other ideologies and “principled standpoints” — there have been liberal nationalisms, communist nationalisms, and fascist nationalisms. Some nationalisms have defined the nation in terms of race or ethnicity, while others, such as French republican nationalism, in terms of belief and civic loyalty. Some have promoted the idea that all nations are equal and deserving of political self-determination; others, that superior nations should subjugate the inferior. The Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland did not make them anti-nationalist any more than the Soviets’ failure to abolish class society made them anti-communist, and though Hazony repeatedly says he is willing to accept that nationalism is responsible for its share of historical crimes, his method of dealing with specific crimes is usually to insist that the perpetrators, because they violated his own principles, weren’t real nationalists, even if that’s what they considered themselves.

Ironically, Hazony’s definitions lead him to reproduce a form of the conceptual rigidity that he associates with empire. Most of what is evil in history — territorial expansionism, World War I, the Holocaust — is assimilated to the category of “imperialism,” along with much of what irritates Hazony in the present, especially criticism of Israel from international bodies such as the European Union and U.N. These criticisms, in Hazony’s view, are not the result of any concrete Israeli actions (the construction of settlements in the West Bank, for instance) but stem from the imperialist character of international institutions, which are compelled by their inner logic — the right to set rules for the entire world — to delegitimize and ultimately destroy any nations that resist them. Therefore, Hazony writes, “We should not let a hairbreadth of our freedom be given over to foreign bodies under any name whatsoever,” or else we will one day have no options left “other than to acquiesce in eternal enslavement or go to war.” In addition to containing a slight hint of hysteria, this is itself a form of universal legislation for how nations should behave that takes no account of — and is indeed hostile to — the particularities of a given time and place. One suspects that if such a prohibition were coming from a Eurocrat, Hazony himself would call it a form of imperialism in disguise.

Are You a Nationalist or an Imperialist?