Nationalism as Political Realism

This essay is part of a Law and Liberty Symposium on Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism.

A specter haunts much of today’s world—the specter of nationalism. Key institutions upholding the post-Cold War order of liberal internationalism and globalization have joined in a progressive alliance to exorcise what they see as a malign spirit from a discredited past. Where is the opposition party or popular movement that has not been decried as nationalist by elite incumbents? Where is the centrist who has not hurled back the branding reproach of nationalism against more conservative rivals along with an older, political left grounded in loyalties forged among working class communities now in decline? Already recognized as a rising force, nationalists should declare their aims and meet the strawman of this specter their opponents raise with a clear defense of nationalism.

The outrage across Europe and North America prompted by nationalist movements and events from the Brexit vote to Donald Trump’s election makes parodying the Communist Manifesto’s preamble an evocative opening to discuss what nationalism means. It captures the alarm raised by disparate movements directly challenging some cherished certainties. The success of those movements in Poland, Hungary, and the United States and the considerable support they have drawn elsewhere indicates seismic changes that require explanation. Determining what nationalism means and why it appeals to so many people in very different contexts seems a logical first step in that inquiry, but rarely do commentators in current debates take it. Instead, as George Orwell said of fascism in an earlier generation, nationalism becomes a way of saying “I don’t like you.” But, however phrased, such dismissals obscure phenomena that need elucidation.

Yoram Hazony pushes against the current in the Virtues of Nationalism with an elegant, reasoned defense of the nation-state. Far from constraining individual liberty, nations provide a context in which it can flourish and gain purpose. Indeed, Hazony writes that “until only a few decades ago, a nationalist politics was commonly associated with broad-mindedness and a generous spirit.” Understanding why requires looking beyond the past few decades when the liberal political tradition changed to regard “the desire and need for such collective self-determinism” nations provide “as primitive and dispensable.” Where critics dismiss national sentiment as the source of bigotry and prejudice, Hazony describes it as a way individuals develop an extended self which encompasses family and community to bind them into shared concerns. Nation states offer a via media between the anarchy of tribalism and the aspiration to universal dominion of empire that bolsters ordered liberty.

Hazony writes as an Israeli Zionist taught in his father’s house “that to be a nationalist is a virtue.” The Jewish experience shapes his understanding of the nation state as a refuge from persecution. Theodore Herzl wrote Der Judenstaat, the book that set modern Zionism in motion, six months after observing the public degradation of Captain Albert Dreyfus on January 5, 1895 following his conviction on a false charge of treason. A revived Israel as an independent state, Zionists claimed, would give Jews denied full citizenship elsewhere the chance to have a country of their own. But Auschwitz, as David Ben Gurion pointed out in November 1942, clinched the argument by showing the danger of military dependence on other countries. Jews needed a country of their own to protect their own people. Critics of nationalism drew a different lesson that only by eliminating the nation state with its exclusionist tendencies—or at least subordinating it to international organizations and their norms—could future peace be guaranteed.

The clash between Zionism and universalism has consequences. Hazony frames nationalism sympathetically as a quest for community and links militarism, bigotry and chauvinistic tendencies typically associated with an expansionist drive for power instead with the separate phenomenon of imperialism. The outbreak of World War I gives evidence supporting his case. Progressives see Israel as a rebuke to their universalism in its insistence on being a Jewish state. Hence the tendency to equate Zionism with imperialism or racism. Developed countries, especially European nations or those descended from European settlement, that refuse to give up the national right to independent action similarly arouse resentment for violating norms. Wishing to chart an independent course, Hazony points out, becomes a crime in itself.

Current tensions reflect a long historical struggle from antiquity between two antithetical visions of world order that frames Hazony’s understanding of nationalism. An “order of free and independent states, each pursuing the political good in accordance with its own traditions and understanding” faced an imperial order “under a single regime of law, promulgated and maintained by a single supranational authority.” Empire freed humanity from needles conflict to provide the peace and security that made settled life possible. Civilizations later described as hydraulic despotism made possible the flourishing of the Fertile Crescent and Nile Valley with counterparts in other regions. Rome would take up the mantle of empire later and set an example with lasting influence by its achievement of linking the Mediterranean littoral with much of Europe and the Near East into a single domain of peace.

Hazony draws on the Hebrew Bible to articulate a counterpoint to that vision in the nation of Israel with its covenant with God. Defining nation as a number of tribes sharing a common language or religion and a history of acting together in defense or other large-scale enterprises, Hazony shows how Mosaic law gave the Hebrews a constitution with a self-limiting principle. Scripture distinguished between us and them in ways that kept Israel from seeking to bring neighbors under its rule. Other polities in antiquity—whether tribes or city-states—provided alternatives to empire whose example Hazony might profitably explore further, but the Hebrew Bible’s place in the universal faith of Christianity made Israel an important model for governance in an emergent Western tradition. A renewed emphasis on the Old Testament in the sixteenth century with the Protestant Reformation amplified its force.

The Western Roman Empire’s collapse left ideas and an institutional structure that Latin Christianity repurposed for its own needs. Words like diocese and vicar taken from civil government show its influence on the church as a transnational institution. European rulers also looked back to Rome, claiming the title emperor with hopes of enjoying its prestige. But no sovereign or state ever unified Europe as Rome had done. The distinction Western Christendom drew between spiritual and civil power reinforced political fragmentation even before the Reformation by sustaining alternative centers of authority. Resistance to the hegemony of any ruler shaped the balance of power that emerged from the seventeenth century and then extended across the globe as European trade and political rivalries spread overseas.

Hazony makes a persuasive case for how nations grow historically from particular circumstances that sets an empirical understanding of organic development before abstract theory elaborated from first principles. Thomas Hobbes and John Locke both posited a state of nature in which man once lived before joining society by either submission or consent, but their focus on the individual neglects the reality that people are born and raised in families. Political life rests upon the family, which operates on the individual prior to consciousness, rather than the calculation of persons. Hazony rates mutual loyalty much higher than consent partly because it forms tighter bonds that make families more open-ended than other relationships that can end as calculations of personal benefit change. Political order develops outward from family to tribe on the basis of personal gratitude by individuals for assistance received and the services they render in their turn.

Tribes exist in what Hazony calls an anarchic order, one always on the edge of conflict. Freedom coexists uneasily with insecurity, and the personalist nature of tribal relationships adds uncertainties of its own. This is especially dangerous because tribal prejudices shape the judgement of leaders with little prospect for appealing their decisions. Empire operates at the other extreme with allegiance given to a distant, and in principle, boundless authority. Rulers and ruled are abstractions to each other rather than individuals, but the former demands sole loyalty with any other intermediate bonds to family or community and even self-interest broken for a greater good. Only individuals and their relation to the state matter. Empire may bring peace by banishing violence, but it does so at the price of submission.

Hazony frames the nation as a golden mean that binds related tribes in a larger community able to preserve order along with collective and personal freedom. Institutionalizing mutual obligation within a national state make relationships less arbitrary without entirely removing personal loyalties or the various bonds that form civil society. While Hazony writes of tribes, the same dynamic operates with city states and other polities joining together as a nation. Operating under law that restrains authority and stands accountable to the public enables the nation to overcome the downsides either of tribal life or empire. As institutions on a limited scale, nations acting in their own interests also have an incentive to show restraint. Internalizing restraint contains war in both extent and ferocity. Conflicts between nations tended to be limited, Hazony writes, while wars of ideology or empire break those bounds with fierce urgency. The horrors of the twentieth century World Wars reflected an imperial spirit expressed before 1914 in Africa and Asia turned back upon Europe with catastrophic results.

National states uphold collective freedom by preserving multiple, independent centers of power that check one another’s ambitions. Hazony quotes the legal theorist Emer de Vattel’s observation that the balance of power exists so that no country has the power “of making law for the others.” The checks and balances of international politics have a parallel within nations where competing loyalties and impersonal law constrain authority. A competitive political order offers multiple opportunities to citizens while challenging other countries to raise their performance and exploit comparative advantage. Such variations protect individual liberty just as they promote cultural diversity.

Definitions of nation and empire raise some complications that Hazony addresses by noting how empires often grow around a dominant nation and that nations can adopt new groups within their extended family. Egypt and China began as empires in antiquity but centuries of institutional development made them into nations. Although composite monarchies since the early modern period, Spain and Britain display the attributes of nationhood. Hazony equates a federal structure with empire, but the Dutch Republic and the United States of America adapted from provincial confederations into nations. Perhaps the Habsburg Monarchy fits his idea of benign empire, but from the eighteenth century it combined dynastic loyalty with a legal order that constrained the state while granting citizen status to subjects and providing a shelter for nations geographically unable to form viable states of their own without horrendous population adjustments.

So are national states the only way to secure ordered liberty?

The Habsburg case reinforces the role law plays as a check on power in Hazony’s conception. Besides Mosaic Law, with the baseline it sets “for a life of personal freedom and dignity,” he cites Common Law as a restraint on executive power that moderated political life. The English jurist, Sir John Fortescue, along with a later generation of seventeenth century lawyers including Sir Edward Coke and John Selden, had a greater practical impact on political culture than Locke. Emphasizing that historical experience and national character shaped law, they grounded liberties in particular claims—the rights of Englishmen—rather than abstract principles. Hazony’s points on this score merit elaboration and a look beyond the Anglo-American tradition, but he shows here that legal constraints and the culture underpinning them are essential to his positive view of nationalism. The Rechtsstaat—a conception of the legal state that binds ruler and ruled under laws impartially administered—offers a European counterpart serving the same function.

Nationalism without the guarantees of law resembles at worst North Korean Juche with its blend of xenophobia and despotism. Critics might seize on the point to taint nationalism generally, but Hazony warns plausibly that universalism makes total demands that put liberty on shaky grounds. Aspirations for universal peace he associates with empire justify achieving them by any means necessary. The First French Republic turned the ideal of brotherhood into the reality of “be my brother, or we kill you.” Later totalizing ideologies followed the same terrible path. Hazony notes how elite liberalism, with its assumption of being “on the right side of history,” excludes alternative perspectives as backward or undemocratic. After all, error has no rights. The postmodern therapeutic politics Walter McDougall recognized as the latest iteration of civil religion in the United States may be kinder and gentler than other universal systems, but it promises the same despotism nonetheless.

Even raising the topic of national sovereignty in anything but the most critical terms risks charges of extremism. Handling his subject with a deft touch, Hazony pushes back against an elite consensus without polemic or ire. His slim volume raises questions that should spark a much wider debate, particularly given concerns raised about the prospects of liberalism itself. Technocratic liberalism wants to cast national belonging aside, but the loyalties countries inspire make it hard to dismiss. The Virtue of Nationalism also contributes to the project of elaborating a realist conception of political order that goes beyond theory to understand historical fact while appealing to imagination. Even critics of nationalism should welcome the challenge it offers and strive to meet it with the same fair-minded spirit rather than dismissing the phenomenon as the malevolent specter of our day.