Nationalism and Liberal Empire
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Nationalism and Liberal Empire

Leon Hadar
Leon Hadar
10 min read

A review of The Virtue of Nationalism, by Yoram Hazony. Basic Books (September 4, 2018) 304 pages.

Saying that nationalism has become the number one topic in the current political and intellectual discourse is to state the obvious. Not a day goes by in the West, without another think-tank symposium, a journal article, an op-ed piece, or a long scholarly book, warning us of the rise of nationalism. With the pro-Brexit vote in Britain and the election of President Donald Trump promoting an “America First” agenda  — to the threat that this global political trend poses to the long-term survival of liberal democratic societies, to the foundations of the so-called liberal international order, and perhaps even to the entire Enlightenment Project as we know it.

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Much of this fashionable bashing of nationalism seems to almost take it for granted, that nationalism, which in essence is the recognition of the nation-state as the central force that provides stability to domestic and international political order, is the close political relative of, if not synonymous with, protectionism, nativism, militarism, religious intolerance, and what is the contemporary embodiment of all evil in the world — racism.

And did we mention the Ku Klux Klan, fascism and Nazism? If you challenge the bureaucrats of the European Union, or support the imposition of U.S. tariffs on Chinese imports, or oppose the idea of opening the borders of your country to free immigration or believe that foreigners who want to become Americans should learn English, you will be charged with sounding “almost like” David Duke, Mussolini, or — you guessed it — Hitler!

Yoram Hazony

Well, Yoram Hazony, a conservative writer who currently heads the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, does not buy all of that, and his new book, The Virtue of Nationalism, confronts the anti-nationalism hysteria — the other side of the coin being the sacred dogma of globalism — head on. He argues contra the conventional wisdom that reigns in the intellectual centers of Manhattan and Cambridge, London and Paris, that nationalism has been “the engine that established modern political liberty” and a “spur to diversity among nations.” According to the contrarian from Jerusalem, it is a political theory that suggests “the world is governed best when it is divided into diverse nations, each having independence and self-government.”

Say what?

After reading Hazony’s tome and assessing what he calls “a statement of the reasons for being a nationalist,” I was struck by the realization that much of what he had to say about the subject seemed so obvious and self-evident, at least to me. And I was wondering why stating one’s embrace of nationalism creates so much controversy these days, and therefore requires writing a book that celebrates the “virtues of nationalism.” My immediate response to his four-cheers-for-nationalism manifesto was, “Duh!”

Then I noticed that like Hazony I was born in the second half of the twentieth century, at a time when the support for national independence and the expression of nationalism sentiments, were very much “in,” and a reflection of intellectual broad-mindedness, the kind that liberals and progressives had cherished.

In a way, the backward-looking and illiberal forces in the world were represented by those adhering to the anti-nationalist ideology of imperialism, led by Great Britain and France, who were resisting the pressure from nationalist movements in areas in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa that were under their control. What they wanted was “to chart their own independent course, cultivate their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without foreign interference,” which are, as Hazony puts it, the essential sentiments of the nationalist.

The nationalist’s nemesis is not the proponent of liberalism or progressivism, but the imperialist. Today we tend to associate imperialism with war-mongering, territorial expansionism and political repression. But as Hazony reminds us, imperialism “seeks to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind, as much as possible under a single political regime” that would, if necessary, impose its will on subject nations. It is, therefore, by definition, hostile to those forces who believe that nations should be free to set “their own course in the absence of such an international government or regime.”

Later on in the last century, in the aftermath of the collapse of the European empires, the charge of imperialism was directed at the United States which was trying to contain the forces of nationalism in places like Vietnam and Cuba. The charge was also levelled against the Soviet Union, an empire that suppressed the national aspirations of Poles and Hungarians, Georgians and Armenians (among others).

Like Hazony, I was raised in the then new nation-state of Israel, established by the Zionist movement that was committed to the idea of Jewish nationalism and that had led a long fight for independence from the British imperialists who ruled the Land of Israel, or Palestine. And apropos nationalism; the country was later divided by the United Nations — the emphasis should be on “nations” — between the two people or nations that inhabited it, the Jews and the Arabs.

The point is that for most enlightened baby boomers who were raised in the West in the post-World War II era, nationalism was considered to be a force for good. They celebrated the birth of the independent India, Algeria, and other nations in Africa and Asia, and demonstrated against American intervention in Vietnam and Chile, and the Soviet repression of Hungarians and Czechs.

And they, like most of their co-citizens, assumed that their main political allegiance was to the nation-state to which they belonged. You obeyed the laws of that state, paid taxes to its government, and were even willing to spill your blood and fight to death to protect it.

Moreover, contrary to the myth advanced by today’s proponents of globalism and the anti-nationalist agenda it promotes, the founders of post-1945 security and economic institutions, acting in the aftermath of the defeat of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan, did not set out to transform the traditional international system that had come out of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. That old system, as Hazony points out, was based on the principle of sovereignty and the right and obligation of national governments to pursue independent policies that would protect their national security and grow their economies.

From that perspective, U.S. Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, French leader Charles de Gaulle, were old fashioned nationalists, who concluded that the most effective way to avert future wars and keep the peace would be through cooperation between nation-states, and not by establishing a universal government to which an imaginary world citizen would owe his or her allegiance.

And the international — like in “inter-national” — institutions they helped create, such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the European Economic Community assumed that independent nations could continue to advance their national diplomatic, military and economic interests — but could at the same time also collaborate with other nations to achieve common goals.

Hence inter-nationalism as opposed to globalism continued to consider the loyalty to the nation-state and not to some idealistic world order, to be at the foundation of the international order. Indeed, every U.S. president has put “America first” and would have probably applauded President Trump when he asserted during his last address before the UN General Assembly that the American government’s “first duty is to its people, to our citizens — to serve their needs, to reassure their safety, to preserve their rights, and to defend their values.”

So when and why did the political and intellectual zeitgeist, reflecting these nationalist principles, that Hazony and I — and Presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, and now President Trump — were exposed to and espoused, go through such a dramatic transformation? When did they so-called globalist elite start demanding our complete adherence to the principles of open markets, the free flow of people across borders, and the construction of supranational organizations that would eventually erode the power of the supposedly already moribund nation-state?

The end result is that when the U.S. government takes steps to protect its national sovereignty and economic interests by placing restrictions on immigration or by pursuing a national economic strategy, notions that would have once sounded like pure common sense to American presidents, it is being disparaged for espousing the reactionary concept of “nationalism.”

Hazony believes that the turning point was the end of the Cold War and the accompanying struggle against communism, that saw “the flowering of imperialist political ideals and projects,” when Western leaders became pre-occupied with two imperialist projects.

First, what French President de Gaulle and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher envisioned would become a Europe of Nations with a common economic market, dominated by a Franco-German duopoly, was gradually transformed into a totally different project, a European Union that has “progressively relieved member nations of many of the powers usually associated with political independence” and all in the name of advancing universal liberal ideals while bidding farewell to the anachronistic national tradition.

The European Union

Then there was the project of establishing an American “world order” under which American diplomatic and military power would force other nations — from Iraq and Afghanistan and the entire greater Middle East to Russia’s near abroad — to abide by international law and to gradually integrate themselves into an international system where American-like democratic values and free market economics would spread and eventually dominate.

And here we are today facing an almost manic onslaught against “nationalism” launched by today’s proponents of globalism. These proponents advocate for increases in immigration, free trade, the lowering of tariffs, military interventionism in the name of protecting human rights, and the many forms of global governance that evolved after the end of the Cold War and China’s entry into the global economy. Meanwhile, there is little mention of the notion that the international order should provide governments with the power to protect their nation’s sovereignty.

Hazony integrates the discussion of the attack on nationalism and the efforts to replace it by a new form of imperialism as a guiding principle for Western policymakers and intellectuals, into an larger historical and philosophical framework. In this framework, he makes a distinction between the Lockean or civic concept of the state where the bonds between citizens are based on the consent by the individual to become a member of a human collective and abide by its rules; and between a traditionalist or conservative concept of a national state where the loyalty of the individual is transferred from the family and the clan into the national state. The end result being the nation as a collective with unique common historical and cultural traits.

In that context, Hazony presents what is probably the most original part of his discussion. Most of us in the West adhere to the Lockean concept of the state which we associate with the rule of law, protection of individual rights, and other liberal values, that place the liberty of the individual at the centre. Which also explains why we regard citizenship as a product of a voluntary act by an individual who agrees to obey the laws of the state.

In that context, Hazony proposes that the principles of limited executive power and individual liberties, that we tend to identify with what is construed as a universal concept of liberalism, are actually products of a unique Anglo-American political and cultural tradition rooted in the heritage of the Protestant religion and English history.

But contemporary self-proclaimed “liberals” do not understand that the principles they espouse are grounded in that distinctive national tradition. If these principles are not an organic part of a national Anglo-American tradition and allow for a process under which any individual can join the state voluntarily by accepting its rules, why should they not be seen as part of a liberal political tradition — that could be exported to the rest of the world?

And that is exactly what the “liberalism” that today’s Western liberals are committed to. It could be described as a Liberal Empire.

Ultimately, our liberal imperialist discovers how difficult it is to export the political concepts that sustain individual liberty in the West to the Arab and Muslim worlds and learns that many national societies, including in places like Hungary or Poland, reject his or her definition of liberalism. Moreover, the proponents of the liberal universal project also face resistance from his or her co-citizens who continue to be attached to their own national cultural and historical traditions which they want to preserve and who insist that any individual who wants to join their nation-state needs to adopt and respect those traditions.

Finally, the liberal globalists of today have abandoned what in many ways, what Hazony considers to be the centrepiece of the Anglo-American political tradition, which is the quest for national self-determination and strong opposition to universalist and imperialist projects. But Hazony, not unlike the liberal globalists he decries, may be exaggerating the role that ideas and those who advance them play determining the outcome of today’s global political and economic crisis.

The earlier success of globalization has less to do with a battle of ideas than with American geo-strategic and geo-economic interests. The support of China’s entry into into the World Trade Organization, the “liberation” of Iraq, and the support for a strong and unified EU were all seen as being in the interests of the United States and worth paying the costs.

It is obvious today that many Americans and European are reluctant to pay those costs, and what is being described as the rise of nationalism in the West reflects sentiments among citizens that their governments and elites should return to the original strategy of the post-World War II project. This strategy included quite a lot of economic nationalism and restraint in the use of military power.

This reaction basically summarizes what Trumpism and Brexit is all about.

But opposition to illegal immigration does not translate into nativism, in the same way that skepticism about the benefits of free trade does not mean that Americans or Europeans want to close their borders to foreign trade and investment, but want to, instead, restructure institutions like the EU or NAFTA.

Nor can the resistance to the universal liberal agenda be equated with chauvinism and racism. After all, saluting the flag, respecting the national anthem, and ensuring that all American citizens be fluent in English, was the way most Americans regarded, until recently, as some of the fundamentals of what it meant to be American and belong to the nation.

Nor is the distinction between the Lockean or civic concepts of the state and the notion of a nationalist state so clear. What is American nationalism is really a product of a complex historical and cultural processes, that have given birth to what are now considered to be American symbols such as jazz and its African rhythms, and the pizza.

To paraphrase Communist party intellectual Nikolai Bukharin’s plea to Soviet leaders in the 1920s: it is time to move away from the Marxist position that socialism must be established globally, toward national communism or “Communism in one country.” Western leaders likewise should now prioritize the consolidation of liberal democracy at home, the rebuilding of their economies, and the reassessment of global commitments. In short, they need to switch gears and focus on the nation-state as the primary tool for achieving political legitimacy and growing the economy. In other words, to commit themselves to the principle of “Liberalism in One Country.”

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Leon Hadar

Dr. Leon Hadar is a Washington-based global affairs analyst, who writes regularly for the National Interest (Online), The American Conservative, Huffington Post, Asia Times, and Haaretz (Israel).