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The Virtue of Nationalism—An Internationalist's Critique

The second and most impressive section of the book lays out Hazony’s principled arguments for adopting a vision of the world order characterized by an 'order of independent nation states.'

· 11 min read
The Virtue of Nationalism—An Internationalist's Critique

A review of The Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony. Basic Books (September 2017) 304 pages.

The last 30 years have witnessed many arguments about the end of nationalism and the nation state, ranging from Fukuyama’s end of history thesis to Thomas Friedman’s claim that globalization was making the world “flat.” But, as they say, reports of the nation’s death now appear to be exaggerated. Over the past few years, from Brexit in the United Kingdom, to the rise of right wing nationalists such as Donald Trump in the United States, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Poland’s Law and Justice Party, the specter of nationalism looms once again.

Yoram Hazony’s welcome new book The Virtue of Nationalism analyzes this political shift and offers a defense of its value. Hazony’s book is by far the most interesting and compelling articulation of the nationalist case put forward thus far. This makes The Virtue of Nationalism an important book, since those looking to defend the nationalist cause will surely want to arm themselves with its formidable intellectual resources, while those (such as myself) who are critics of nationalism must now contend seriously with its arguments. Moreover, the book is exceptionally readable, always thought provoking, and includes a number of passionate and touching asides which explain Hazony’s reasons for writing the book. Needless to say, this is unusual in an academic work, and Hazony deserves praise for being as forthcoming about his personal motivations as he is.

Before I discuss Hazony’s main arguments and offer some objections, I should offer a qualification. The book is clearly written with an inclination to defend Israel against criticism from international institutions. While important, I will not address these issues here because a substantial discussion of those debates exceeds the purview of this review.


Hazony’s book is divided into three sections. The first, “Nationalism and Western Freedom,” is primarily a historical account linking the emergence of Western freedom and self-determination to the moral and spiritual influence of the Old Testament Bible, and later Protestantism’s emphasis on national self-determination. The second, “The Case for the National State,” is the longest and most powerful section. Here, Hazony puts forward a more principled argument for the nation state, drawing on an impressive combination of philosophy, Biblical analysis, history, and international relations theory. Finally, the concluding third section, “Anti-Nationalism and Hate,” is designed to rebut critics who believe nationalism abets violence and hatred.

The first section of the book—“Nationalism and Western Freedom”—establishes the basic antagonism framing much of The Virtue of Nationalism:

For centuries, the politics of Western nations have been characterized by a struggle between two antithetical visions of world order: an order of free and independent nations, each pursuing the political good in accordance with its own traditions and understanding, and an order or people united under a single regime of law, promulgated and maintained by a single supranational authority.

Hazony understands the first vision of “free and independent nations” to be a product of two primary influences. The first is the Biblical nationalism of the Hebrew Bible, which he argues has continuously softened Western aspirations to universal empire, by ensuring “that the idea of the self-determining independent nation would be revived time and again.” Unfortunately, Hazony does not discuss this link between the Hebrew Bible and nationalism in much detail, though I suspect it is treater more thoroughly in his earlier books such as The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. Still, more elaboration would have been helpful since Professor Hazony consistently emphasizes the importance of the Old Testament, while expressing a much more mixed appreciation for the New Testament.

Having discussed the Hebrew state and its holy texts, Hazony moves on to criticizing the Western desire to establish a universal Christian Empire, a project which he claims was most ambitiously attempted by the German Holy Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church. This aspiration was abetted at the end of the Thirty Years War, which marked the end of both the Holy Roman Empire and the Church as the primary political actors of Western Civilization. According to Professor Hazony, the Treaty of Westphalia ended the Thirty Years War and inaugurated the “Protestant Construction of the West.” Countries like England and the Netherlands worked to re-found “the entire political order” on the basis of Westphalian nation states. These, it was hoped, would impose limits on government and support principles of national self-determination.

However, Hazony admits that this “re-founding” was troubled and inconsistent, as many of the Protestant European states were quite content to preach nationalism at home while engaging in vast imperial projects abroad. He also has a mixed appreciation for the Protestant emphasis on individualism and economism, best embodied in the thinking of John Locke. Hazony admires capitalist markets and free exchange, believing the experimentalism and empiricism they embody contrasts favorably with the rationalistic desire of socialists to impose a given redistributive order atop the market. However, he also argues that the Lockean emphasis on individual self-interest as the basis for political legitimacy contributed to a growing indifference to tradition, shared values, and responsibility. He notes with approval Edmund Burke’s striking declaration that Locke’s Second Treatise on Government was “one of the worst” books ever written. This lukewarm appreciation towards liberalism extends to the present day. Hazony notes that modern liberals, wherever they sit on the political spectrum, have increasingly accepted a kind of radicalized Lockeanism which aims to “subordinate the independent nations” to the control of international federations such as the EU and liberal super-powers such as the United States.

The second and most impressive section of the book lays out Hazony’s principled arguments for adopting a vision of the world order characterized by an “order of independent nation states.” Simplifying somewhat for the sake of brevity, Hazony argues that the traditional liberal individualist model of political legitimacy is wanting. He is especially critical of contractarian authors such as Hobbes, Locke, and Kant who believe that self-interest and/or hyper-individualism are or could be the legitimate foundations of the state. However, Hazony is not entirely willing to forgo the consent-based models of legitimacy these liberal authors rely on. Instead, he wants to socialize them by suggesting that it is in fact groups who are the foundational actors in politics by consenting to establish the nation state which is to govern them.

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Hazony develops a four-pronged typology of groups which I present in order of escalating scale: families, clans, tribes, and nations. Hazony argues that, historically, the formation of the nation-state proceeded through a gradual process of inclusion. Families consented to form political associations with clans with whom they shared traditions, languages, and religions in common. These clans then consent to form larger tribes, and these tribes finally established nation-states. Hazony then argues that this historical process of consensual inclusion into broader political associations should stop at the nation state level. Hazony’s ideal political association is a “free state.” A free state is “one in which the cooperation of the ruled is given to the government voluntarily. This can happen is the heads of a coalition of tribes, recognizing a common bond among them as well as a common need, come together to establish a national standing government.”

While Hazony admits that nation states can fail to live up to this standard by becoming despotic, he believes they are less likely to give in to despotism than “universal” empires consisting of many nations. Moreover, Hazony argues that, even where nation-states are despotic, their propensity towards violence tends to be constrained relative to alternative political associations. Therefore, Hazony believes that national freedom should be the “ordering principle” of the world order, since even where it leads to disaster, it is freer and less violent than attempting to establish an international empire or law, whether oriented by liberal or any other principles.

The third part of the book is focused on rebutting those who immediately associate nationalism with hatred and violence. Hazony admits that under some circumstances, nationalism can indeed engender ethnocentric violence and brutal wars of self-interest. But he argues that such conflicts tend to be limited, because a proper nation state has little interest in expanding its authority beyond the confines of the tribes and clans of which it is comprised. When discussing the nationalist wars of Nazi Germany, Hazony maintains that these countries had more in common with the universalist internationalists than with nation states properly understood. Nazi Germany wished to establish an imperial hold on the different nations of the world, uniting them under the control of a single dominant race.

Unfortunately, the evils wrought by the Axis powers brought nationalism into disrepute and the philosophies of internationalists like Immanuel Kant into vogue. In his seminal essay “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,” Kant argued that nation states were primitive and lawless political associations that needed to give way to a global federation of states organized by a system of liberal international law. In the aftermath of the Second World War, many Europeans and Americans accepted Kant’s argument, leading to the formation of the international legal system and federations like the EU. Hazony argues that this was the wrong lesson to draw from the Second World War. A world order of free and independent states, as framed by documents such as the Allied Atlantic Charter, would have been far preferable.

Hazony goes on to argue that modern internationalists want to quash freedom and national particularity by establishing a new global empire in all but name. He brings up a number of examples, the most convincing of which are his criticisms of American interventionism. Unfortunately, Hazony also engages in needless hyperbole in parts of this section, a tendency captured in passages where he claims “the horror for the national and the particular, the hatred of emperors and imperialists, burns bright among liberal internationalists. They have taken up the yearning from universal empire, believing in it as Christians once believed, and as Marxists once believed.” This conflation of complex and different historical and philosophical movements, alongside the suggestion that they all hate the “national and the particular,” is unworthy of a scholar of Hazony’s ability.


There is a great deal to admire in Hazony’s book. The prose is sharp and lucid, the arguments always thought provoking, and the examples relevant. Moreover, Hazony is admirably undogmatic in many respects. He admits throughout the book that his order of nation states will never resemble any kind of utopia. Indeed, how could it? Permitting different nation states to pursue different conceptions of the good may lead to some unfortunate outcomes. But Hazony feels this is preferable to an “imperial” project which will have to be enforced by central authorities, and which he believes could only be achieved through immense repression. However, the book does have considerable problems which limit its capacity to convince internationalists such as myself.

The first set of problems are empirical and historical. Hazony’s book leans heavily on a number of dichotomies—the order of nation states vs international empire, the particular vs the universal, Hebrew/Protestant nationalism vs Catholic/German/Liberal internationalism. But Hazony himself seems to recognize how fragile many of these dichotomies are in practice. Much of the text is spent qualifying his examples and discussing exceptions. One of the most obvious examples is the discussion of the Westphalian order, which Hazony holds up as an exemplar. Unfortunately, he admits that his idealization of the Westphalian order is troubled given that many of the states that supported it also engaged in significant empire building, often justifying this by appealing to narratives of national and cultural greatness. This includes the Dutch and, of course, the British, whose nationalist traditions are singled out for praise by Hazony. To abet this, Hazony has to admit that while these nations got the principles right, they didn’t adequately put them into practice. Perhaps this is true. But if so, this history substantially troubles Hazony’s argument that he is adopting an “empirical” and “pragmatic” approach which appeals to experience rather than rationalistic and utopian argumentation.

Another example is Hazony’s attachment to capitalist markets. At various times, Hazony offers an olive branch to neoliberals who long for the breakdown of borders. He argues that, just as capitalism encourages experimentation in the economy, nationalism encourages experimentation in politics. Perhaps this is true but, whatever their resemblance, this does not mean the capitalist and nationalist projects can be so easily joined. At points, Hazony expresses confusion as to why fervent supporters of capitalism, such as F.A Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, had a frosty relationship to the nation state. But this is not really surprising. It is no coincidence that the European Union began life as an economic area designed to ease the flow of goods and migrants.

Nor is it a coincidence that most nationalists today have a frosty relationship to international capitalism, and are highly critical of the free movement of labor and trade deficits, which—from the standpoint of capitalist individualism—are to be welcomed or are unimportant. Borders are economically inefficient, as are restrictions on the free movement of labor, protecting domestic industries for cultural reasons, letting traditional religious norms stand in the way of developing new industries—such as the sex industry—and so on. Moreover, Hazony doesn’t adequately engage the arguments of critics on the Left such as David Harvey, and critics on the Right such as Patrick Deneen (who otherwise praises Hazony’s book) who argue that capitalist dynamics are at least partially responsible for the devaluation of cultural particularity and communitarian attachments. For instance, one might ask which body is really more responsible for the devaluation of traditional religious norms around sexuality: the European Parliament or a global pornography industry allegedly worth $97 billion in 2015. This is a major problem for those like Hazony who want both independent nations with strong religious-cultural traditions and free capitalist markets.

The second big problem with the book is theoretical. Hazony has formulated a group-oriented account of political consent and legitimacy, wherein families, clans, and then tribes choose to establish ever broader political associations. The fact that this choice is uncoerced is crucial to Hazony’s claim that nation-states are “free.” But he then claims that the nation-state cannot legitimately join broader political associations, as expressed by his seventh principle for the order of nation states “the non-transference of powers of government to universal institutions.” Hazony admits that this principle seems to contradict the ideal of national independence and self-determination. After all, if families can consent to join clans, clans can consent to join tribes, and tribes join nations, why can’t free nations consent to join international unions? If this is a choice they make, that would seem to be the end of the matter.

This possibility becomes especially problematic if, as still remains the case for many EU member states, a majority of individual citizens support remaining in an international Union. Hazony’s only argument against this possibility is prudential. He believes that a Union like the EU will inevitably aspire to become a universal state which will pose a threat to the independence of both its members, and other states. But this is a radical claim to make, both about the EU (which has often been parsimonious in granting membership) and any such hypothetical union. Moreover it still doesn’t answer why independent nation states shouldn’t be allowed to consensually join such a Union, even one with extraordinary powers, if that is what their governments and citizens wish and the process is carried out without coercion. Robust national sovereignty doesn’t mean everything to everyone, and Hazony is hard pressed to establish why a consent-based theory of political legitimacy entails that it must be.

That said, there is no doubt that Hazony’s book is a highly successful contribution to an important discussion. Hazony has repeatedly stated that he wished to spark a more serious discussion about nationalism and its virtues. He has no doubt accomplished that, and The Virtue of Nationalism deserves to be read by anyone interested in serious engagement with the world today.

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