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In Defense of the Nation


The Virtue of Nationalism
by Yoram Hazony
Basic Books, 2018, 305 pages

Observe “the splendors of history,” wrote an anonymous German pamphleteer in 1795, “and you will see that national states have rarely experienced total annihilation, while political bodies composed of several portions of different nations, have suffered endless vicissitudes.”1 Viewed from Jerusalem, where Yoram Hazony lives, this admonition must feel entirely natural. Israel, after all, is a nation that regained sovereignty after a hiatus of two millennia.

Hazony is part of an Israeli intellectual circle—including biblical scholar Joshua Berman, historian Ofir Haivry, sociologist Shmuel Trigano, and political philosopher Yechiel Leiter—that is looking to change the way the world understands the origins of modernity and Western liberal values. Their books and translations are intended to enhance Israelis’ understanding of the Western intellectual tradition and political theory, and to reconceptualize the role of the Hebrew Bible in the Western political tradition. Essential to these efforts is an attempt to radically alter the modern consensus on nations and nationalism.

Not long ago, Hazony’s argument for the virtue of nationalism would have been written off as an eccentric throwback to a lower stage of human development; the Western intellectual elite has long been convinced that nationalism is a violent, genocidal ideology. This elite persuaded itself that “perpetual peace,” as Immanuel Kant put it, would be attainable if the world’s more advanced peoples abandoned national loyalties to “form an international state, which would necessarily continue to grow until it embraced all the people of the earth.”

In horrified recoil from the atrocities of the Third Reich, Western opinion shifted away not merely from a Wilsonian vision of ethnic nation-states spreading the ideals of liberal democracy, but even from a Westphalian agreement that states will not interfere in the internal affairs of other sovereign states. In the late twentieth century it became received wisdom that nations and nationalism produce intolerance, ethnic cleansing, war, and genocide. The Westphalian system, therefore, was to be left in the dustbin of history alongside such archaic practices as stoning adulteresses and slavery.

In The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony offers a bold counternarrative. His most striking claim is that any world government will necessarily be intolerant because ours is a world of diverse cultures. The diversity of peoples extends well beyond cultural preferences for such things as spicy food or closely cropped hair. And it runs deeper than such questions as whether a culture favors multigenerational households or prefers to live as nuclear families. Cultures define the good in fundamentally different ways and, therefore, choices about what to value may diverge sharply without one choice being objectively superior to another.

Kant, Locke, and Hazony

In The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony, a Rutgers-trained political philosopher, offers a riposte to Immanuel Kant’s Perpetual Peace (1792) and to John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government (1689). Locke, of course, regards human beings as autonomous actors, who can be bound to others, even the family, only by voluntary contract. Political communities, for Locke, are formed by a contract freely entered into by individuals, none of whom is said to bear any prior duty to society, family, or other human group. Hazony, however, sees the notion that human societies are formed—even metaphorically—by the mutual consent of free actors as a fairy tale flattering to the human ego, but dangerously inaccurate as a portrait of reality. We are born into families, into groups, into cities, and into nations. Locke’s account elides the fact that we have duties towards fellow members of the human groups into which we are born. The mutual, nonelective duties and loyalties that bind families and communities are the foundation upon which all known human societies are built.

In an elegant metaphor, Hazony points out that the Lockean model of political community formed by contract is unlike a family, but very like a business enterprise. Businesses are “established . . . to provide for the life and property of individuals who consent to participate.” This is not to deny that a business can “inspire loyalty”; owners and managers regularly take great pains to inspire such loyalty precisely by “insisting on the family-like character of the business.”2 Yet this rhetoric of family that businesses employ is notorious for leaving devoted employees upset, bereft, and bewildered when employment is suddenly terminated. Likewise, despite the loyalty they often feel, employees do not regard themselves as obligated to stay in a job if a better job is available. Participation in a business is a matter of mutual consent, and it is temporary. Businesses, moreover, operate in a “sphere of human life in which the individual’s freedom, calculation, and consent are most beneficial.”3 On the other hand, as Hazony points out, “only a fool” conducts family life according to principles that work in the business sphere, subjecting spouse and children to “periodic assessments and abandoning them when . . . they have ceased to profit him as others might.”4

In contrast, families operate “in that sphere in which loyalty, devotion, and constraint are most beneficial,” even though, like businesses, families are initiated by mutual consent (to marry) and, like businesses, families seek the material welfare of their members. Despite the fact that an individual may choose to be intensely loyal to a business associate, and altruistically choose to accept financial loss or legal sanction on behalf of a colleague or an enterprise, the two institutions are fundamentally different. Unlike joining a business enterprise, the obligations incurred by being born, by marrying, and by having children are permanent. This is true even though families can adopt or disown individual members, and even though individuals may walk away and sever all contact. Duties that we shirk do not disappear. Nor does the impact of our origin. One can emigrate and spend an entire adult lifetime in a new country. But no one can expunge the influence of the national culture in which we were reared or the formation of our personal habits of mind.

According to Hazony, the purpose of forming a family is “to pass on to another generation an inheritance that has been bequeathed to us by our parents and by their ancestors. This inheritance includes life itself and some property, if we are fortunate, but it also includes a way of life, a religion and a language, skills, habits, and certain ideals and ways of understanding that are unique to each family, and that others do not possess.” Wife and husband seek to pass on, and perhaps even improve upon, “the best of what each has received” from parents and grandparents. It can even be said that a family “is established to repay a debt to one’s fathers and forefathers for the inheritance that has been received from them.”5 Nations, like families, are founded upon “family-like bonds of mutual loyalty.”6

Some nations are very old, with a language, culture, and a sense of shared identity that has been continuous over many centuries, even as that language, culture, and identity have constantly evolved. Consider England, a nation with a language and cultural practices continuous at least since Alfred’s reign, although many would argue that the English nation dates only to the Tudors, while others date it as far back as the Venerable Bede. Bede, as one may recall, wrote in both Latin and Old English, not Celtic, Norse, or Frisian. He argued that the Jutes, Saxons, and Angles of his day formed a single gens anglorum. There are a surprising number of very old nations in the world, the two foremost examples being the Han Chinese and the Jews. Israel and Jews are inevitably raised here not merely because Jewishness is the oldest national tradition in the West, but because ancient Judeans produced the Bible. The Bible has been the paradigm and textbook of modern nationalism, at least since the 1500s;7 some would argue since Isidore of Seville in the sixth century AD.

The quotation about the endurance of nations with which I opened this essay was not, in fact, written by Yoram Hazony. It was penned by an ethnic German living on the left bank of the Rhine in 1795, at a time and place where the significance of nations was self-evident. It was published anonymously for the very good reason that Revolutionary France had conquered the region and was moving to incorporate it into France. The pamphleteer wrote, “There are moral limits, that time has assigned to each people and that history respects more than others. Language, uses, customs, morals, character constitute these limits and create, of every political body . . . a nation apart.”8 This was before Napoleon took charge, during a decade when the revolutionaries in Paris understood themselves as upholders of ideas about the rights of man that, because they were true and universal, the French state was not merely entitled but even obliged to impose on the world—by conquest and expropriation, if necessary.

Kant wrote and published Perpetual Peace during the Revolution. People who see nation-states as inherently intolerant and prone to violence often admire the French Revolution for initiating a reign of human liberation, democratic government, brotherhood, and equality. Hazony’s counternarrative understands revolutionary France as an example of the potential of nations to transform themselves into expansionist empires, ruling—and extracting revenue from—other nations. And he sees it as an example of the tendency of utopian ideologies to give rise to totalitarianism.

In France this transformation happened in the blink of an eye. On November 19, 1792, the National Convention stipulated its commitment never to declare offensive war, offering the world a decree of fraternity and promising to come to the armed assistance of any people attempting to throw off the tyranny of princely rule in favor of democracy. Yet by April 13, 1793, the same men were so drunk with military success that they renounced the decree of fraternity and persuaded themselves that defending their own Revolution entitled France to wage whatever wars of conquest they deemed necessary to achieve borders they regarded as secure. Moreover, they asserted French entitlement to extract from conquered peoples whatever resources the National Convention thought necessary to fund French security.

Hazony argues that some part of the blame for the rapid collapse of this Revolution into a reign of terror lies with Kant, Locke, Rousseau, and social contract theory. The fragile amalgam of the Protestant values of dignity, self-discipline, and mutual respect that had produced a Europe-wide rise in prosperity—and in the security of person and property in the years since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia—went up in the flames of revolution at least partly because “the dream-world offered by Locke’s Second Treatise rendered most of the Protestant order senseless and superfluous.”9 Why, after all, subject yourself to the constraints demanded by an ethic of moral striving and self-improvement? Why subject France to a rerun of Britain’s arduous, century-long struggle between Crown and Parliament if the goals of libertéégalitéfraternité can be achieved instantly by assembling a Convention and declaring the rights of man?

Nation and Empire

Hazony sees the European Union as an empire, an attempt to impose a single government on a diverse continent—a primarily German effort driven by post-Nazi guilt and an atavistic longing for a modern edition of the German-led Holy Roman Empire. It is a recurring type. Empires and men who have ruled or attempted to rule Europe include Rome, Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, and Charlemagne, along with several medieval popes, several Hapsburg and Ottoman emperors, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin, and probably a few I have missed. For Hazony, the European Union is little more than a new iteration of Caesar, Stalin, and all the emperors in between, working as they did to usurp the right of European peoples to self-determination. But because the European Union is cloaked in the rhetoric of universal values, it is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The difficulty, of course, is that there are no universal values, no moral principles upon which all reasonable people agree. Most recently, European nations have disagreed sharply with Germany on the question of whether countries have a duty to admit certain numbers of refugees. Some European immigration activists also argue for a duty to accept economic migrants.

Resistance to admitting large numbers of migrants arises, at least in part, from the realization that when migrants arrive in large numbers, the culture of a nation changes. Nationalists tend to believe that they have a right to prefer to keep the culture they inherited from their parents and grandparents, even if they are aware of the many changes which that culture has undergone. Here, Germans may be uniquely burdened not only by guilt over a fascist past that ended before most of them were born, but by a suspicion that there must have been something intrinsically wrong with German culture for it to have produced Nazism. Demonstrably few other European nations feel this way; one by one they have closed their borders to all but a very limited number of refugees. And German voters have forced Germany to do much the same. The debate that continues to rage over migration is driven by global idealists upholding, in essence, the idea that the only morally valid human group is humanity itself, and that each of us owes duties to all other humans—but that we owe no special duties to those who happen to share our country, language, or culture. Essentially, the argument is that, far from being a cultural and political space within which a feeling of mutual identity and obligation enables the sharing of public goods and the provision of mutually secure lives and political rights, the nation-state is the cause of intolerance and war, and must therefore be replaced by transnational governance.

Hazony describes all such systems as forms of empire, and does not differentiate between empires based on ideals, like Communism or Islamism, and empires that, like Britain and Rome, were built by ethnic nations. He may be right to treat both types as fundamentally the same. After all, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was little more than the old Russian Empire clothed in Marxist rhetoric, and ISIS was an Arab state, while much of the success of the Roman and British Empires can be attributed to the strong appeal of Roman and British culture and ideas. Few or perhaps no empires have existed without an ethnic core. Even the conquering Ottoman armies, famed for the career opportunities that they offered to young Muslim fighters of all ethnic backgrounds (and for reliance on Greek administrators), were Turkic at their core.

Although Napoleon created an old-style empire, the conquests of the French Revolutionaries in the 1790s, before Napoleon became first consul in the coup d’état of 1799, were of a less common type. This was an empire based on an ideology whose warriors not only sought converts but claimed—and apparently believed—that they fought for the good of the people they conquered and plundered. Beginning with the 1793 conquest of Belgium, revolutionary France imposed imperial rule on the grounds that it was conquering peoples for their own good—or, as the months passed, for a good that was far more important than the will of the peoples being subjugated. After all, as Rousseau wrote in his Social Contract, “Of itself the people wills always the good, but of itself it by no means always sees it.” Revolution provided peoples with what was good for them, by force when necessary. Ironically, the pragmatic French justification for eliminating the individual “customs, laws, and privileges” of Belgian cities and regions and replacing them with a new standardized system was identical to the rationale given by Charles V when he reorganized the Low Countries with his Pragmatic Sanction of 1549. The latter sparked the Dutch Revolt and eventually led to a long war during which the northern provinces became a new Dutch and Protestant nation famed for its remarkable religious tolerance, while the south remained part of the Catholic empire.

The rule of dominant empires has been the usual state of affairs in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, the Ethiopian plateau, Europe, Central America, and Peru throughout history. City-states, kingdoms, and nation-states independent of hegemonic or imperial control have been rare. They appear in the temporal or geographic gaps between empires. Considering this history, one might expect, for example, that Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and even the states of the Malay Archipelago would be clients of China. But in periods of Chinese eclipse, nation-states formed, and some, including Japan and Palembang, became regional hegemons themselves for a time. Similarly, it is typical for states in the Levant to be vassals or clients of an empire centered in Egypt, Anatolia, or Mesopotamia. Small ethnic nations formed in the Levant only when hegemonic powers happened to be in simultaneous retreat, most memorably in the period following the civilizational collapse of the late Bronze Age, in the wake of which Israel emerged.

Historians of the ancient world and historians of the European Middle Ages are often surprised to learn that scholars of nationalism regard nations as modern phenomena. The eminent historian Susan Reynolds refuted this modernist conceit in her book Kingdoms and Communities in Western Europe 900–1300 (Clarendon Press, 1997). She argued that, although legal scholars and contemporary students of nationalism understand the concept of a nation as a real body that legitimizes the state in and after the period of the French Revolution, the modern nation is not different from the medieval idea of the kingdom as legitimated by the real existence of a unique people.

A series of conferences was held in 1648 in the Westphalian cities of Osnabrück and Münster by delegations representing feudal power-holders in groupings that closely match the borders of modern European nation-states. The Peace of Westphalia created the modern international system in which states agree to recognize one another’s borders, respect one another’s sovereignty, and not interfere in one another’s internal politics. Remarkably, the system was underwritten not by a hegemon, but by a balance of power that restrained the inclination of large states to conquer or snatch land from small neighbors. It did nothing to restrain European powers from sending armies to secure territory in other parts of the world, but, with the grand exception of wars of succession, war in Europe was rare between Westphalia and the French Revolution. Protestantism and the Westphalian settlement created the conditions under which Europeans replaced the habit of resorting to violence to settle personal disputes with a new culture of restraint and recourse to law that rendered private retinues of armed retainers outmoded. By 1800 it had become possible for men to walk the streets of many European cities unarmed.

The Best Possible System

Hazony is surely correct to argue that a world of unique nation-states arranged in a Westphalian system under which each nation manages its own affairs, and independent states balance one another, is a good way to organize political affairs. He further argues that the nation-state is the best way to provide the kind of freedom that comes only where “the possibility of collective self-determination” exists.10 For Hazony, true freedom comes on two levels: There is the freedom of individuals to make choices about their personal lives, a sort of freedom that can be available to the subjects of diverse empires. But there is also the freedom of a people, a nation, for self-determination—the freedom, that is, of a nation to preserve and pass on its unique culture, and the right to shape public policy according to a nation’s unique moral principles and folkways.

Consider the question of what is meant by the will of the people. When the French Revolution broke out, two provinces in what is now France, Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin, were papal possessions. Avignon famously petitioned to be allowed to join Revolutionary France. The Comtat, however, had to be forced into “volunteering” to join France by bullyboys from Avignon, by the flight of many citizens, and by a rigged vote remembered as the first of a number of such predetermined ballots through which various peoples asked to join the French Revolution. To the world’s enthusiastic democrats, the choice of the Comtat to live under the pope when they might be given freedom seemed irrational, although it was not unusual. In some cities on the left bank of the Rhine, three votes had to be taken, and carefully rigged, before the citizenry requested a new, French-style government. Here, my deeply American faith in democracy notwithstanding, I am forced to admit that it is difficult to make an argument for imposing democracy on a people who prefer some other system. And, as the French Revolutionaries would soon learn, it is extremely difficult to make such a democracy work.

On the other hand, although Hazony does not mention it, even firmly established nations can disappear. Mighty Carthage has vanished along with its literature, culture, and language. The Carthaginians were among the many peoples conquered and absorbed by Rome; Augustine of Hippo represented one of the last generations of Punic speakers. More often, empires break up into separate peoples, as the Ottoman and Hapsburg empires did at the time of the First World War. But empires can recombine after breaking into pieces; China has repeatedly fallen apart only to reform into an empire that continues to absorb whole peoples. Confederations, on the other hand, almost always fall apart, though the confederation formed from thirteen separate American colonies endured a bloody Civil War, in the aftermath of which it slowly and painfully built a unified national identity. And then there is Switzerland, an old nation improbably binding a predominantly Protestant and German-speaking population with large minorities of French- and Italian-speaking Catholics into a remarkably strong identity. For Hazony, the great virtue of nationhood is not that that it can enable the group to endure imperial conquest or to build a great empire. In fact, he veers perilously close to denying that nations do create empires. The great virtue of nations is that they enable political self-determination. It is an important idea.

As Francis Fukuyama persuasively and presciently argued in his 1995 book Trust, although diversity can bring benefits to a society, the coherence of the shared culture that nations possess creates the level of trust that makes democracy possible. Hazony is in a better position than most to see this, because the modern nation-state in which he lives had such an odd birth.11 In the three years after winning independence, the fledgling state doubled its Jewish population, as refugees poured in from Europe and the Muslim world. Many were secular, even the observant followed distinctive regional religious customs, and very few spoke Hebrew. Almost the only thing they had in common was a Jewish identity. And that, improbably, was enough to enable the creation of an enduring—if noisy—democracy.

Nationhood makes democracy possible. Not inevitable, but possible. As the European Union shifted from being a customs union towards becoming a centralized government, complaints rose about the dirigiste nature of a system under which bureaucrats in Brussels impose their will, or the will of Germany and France, on small states where voters lack an effective voice in regulations that affect their lives. To this has recently been added a more vociferous complaint that EU policies enable mass immigration against the expressed will of voters. This is the background of Hazony’s anti–European Union argument for a return to a Westphalian international system that would “ensure that no nation grows so strong that it is in a position of ‘making laws’ for the others. Its purpose is, in other words, to preserve the freedom of nations to make law for themselves—which is to say, to preserve their independence and selfdetermination.”12

Yet, contra Hazony, history shows that a Westphalian system does not itself prevent the creation of empires. Napoleon and Hitler defied the Westphalian system; China simply ignores it. In addition, I might wish that Hazony had more thoroughly explored the process by which the ideal of global government enraptured Europe. Germany is the culprit in Hazony’s argument. Riddled with guilt over the Holocaust, Germans sold the ideal of a borderless world to Europeans, many of whom now find that they would prefer to be Danish, Hungarian, or British. Hazony might have supported more of his arguments with historical or contemporary examples. One might also wish that Hazony had taken time to explore the dark side of nationalism. But this would be to ask for a different book than the one he has written.

Hazony is not unaware of the tendency of nationalism to go wrong and roll over the rights of other nations in panzers. But he sees aspects of nationalism that most contemporary writers are blind to: Nation-states can function very well. They can protect the rights of minorities and resist the creation of empires. There are many examples of unique national cultures producing moments of extraordinary human creativity. Nations are also essential to democratic government. They answer a fundamental human need for belonging, and they enable individuals to come together as a coherent political unit to determine their own future. Nationalism has a valid claim to virtue that needs to be heard, and Hazony is right to remind us of these all too frequently forgotten truths.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume II, Number 4 (Winter 2018): 160–71.


1 “Lettre d’un allemand a un de ses amis en France, sur la question: S’il est de l’interet de la Republique Francaise de conserver a la rive guache du Rhin?” Frankfurt, September 2, 1795. Cited in Edward James Kollat, Sovereignty, International Law, and the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 199.

2 Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism (New York: Basic Books, 2018), 83.

3 Hazony, 87.

4 Hazony, 88.

5 Hazony, 85.

6 Hazony, 89.

7 Diana Muir Appelbaum, “Biblical Nationalism and the Sixteenth-Century States,” National Identities 15, no. 4 (2013), 317–32.

8 Kollat, Sovereignty, 199.

9 Hazony, 33.

10 Hazony, 10.

11 Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (New York: Free Press, 1995).

12 Hazony, 127.

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