How to Defend Nationalism, and How Not to

Defective history and some untenable key distinctions mar a brilliant, necessary, and much-discussed new book.

From the cover of The Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony.

From the cover of The Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony.

Nov. 26 2018
About the author

Andrew N. Koss, a senior editor of Mosaic, is writing a book about the Jews of Vilna during World War I.

“The Virtue of Nationalism”? The very title of Yoram Hazony’s new book will be repugnant to readers for whom nationalism has simply become a dirty word, associated with authoritarianism, racism, and bigotry: a vice, not a virtue.

But this only proves the book’s timeliness. Drawing on history, political philosophy, contemporary politics, and the Hebrew Bible, Hazony—president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem and author of previous works on the political thought of the Hebrew Bible—sets out to redeem nationalism’s reputation. He does so with a robust defense of what he calls the “national state”: a polity with defined borders, an effective central government capable of maintaining order, and a dominant national group. Such states participate in what Hazony calls the “order of nations,” an international system in which numerous national states seek the betterment of conditions within their own territory while—crucially—respecting the sovereignty of others.

The book is divided into three parts. In the first, Hazony lays out his distinction—originally articulated in Mosaic—between “two visions of world order”: one based on his favored model of multiple independent national states and the other based on a single imperial state that seeks to impose peace and order by unifying states under one supreme authority. He then traces a history of these competing visions, from the ancient Near East to the modern West. In the second part, he makes the case for the nation-state’s superiority over empire. In the third he undertakes to rebut the claim that nationalism is a source of hatred, to explain how it came to be discredited, and to connect disdain for nationalism with hatred of, in particular, the Jewish state.

The result isn’t merely a defense of nationalism but an articulation of a new understanding of the history of the West, political philosophy, and the contemporary political scene. Let’s take it in stages, starting with a précis of the argument.




Hazony’s story begins with ancient Near Eastern kings and pharaohs desirous of bringing security and prosperity not just to their own but also to surrounding lands—a vision that centuries later would be expressed in the phrase pax Romana and later still in the conduct of one empire after another. By contrast, the Hebrew Bible offers an opposing vision in which God gives His laws not to humanity as a whole but to a single nation. The Israelites are commanded to live according to these laws within their own carefully delineated borders (Numbers 34:1-15), ruled by a king “from among your brothers” (Deuteronomy 17:15). Moreover, God specifically commands them to respect the borders of the Edomites and Ammonites (Deuteronomy 2:4-24), to whom He has assigned their own lands.

From the ancient Near East, Hazony moves on to later manifestations of imperialism in, for example, the two “universalist” ideologies of Christianity and Islam, each of which tried to bring together as much of humanity as possible under a common religion. Here the contrast is with the nations whose churches, beginning with the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, broke with Rome. Developing what Hazony terms the “Protestant construction” of politics, they forged an ideal of sovereign nation-states intent on protecting the freedom and well-being of their people. With its roots in the Hebrew Bible, the Protestant construction was also inextricably bound up with a “conservative” school of Anglo-American political philosophy whose greatest proponents included John Fortescue (1394-1479), John Selden (1584-1654), and Edmund Burke (1729-1797).

Here a further distinction comes in. Opposed to these conservative philosophers were such theorists of classical liberalism as John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The latter group’s core assumption was that regimes are formed when otherwise deracinated individuals come together to shape a political order—a “social contract”—from scratch. Hazony inveighs against this assumption. In reality, he writes, the individuals coming together to constitute a state are not so many rootless “blank slates” but instead bring with them pre-existing loyalties to family, clan, tribe, and religion. Nor are they interested only in preserving their liberty and security as individuals; they are also committed to preserving the specific collectives that have formed their primary identity.

The classical liberal model is not only false, Hazony maintains; its effects have been politically pernicious. The triumph of the liberal vision in the modern age has been responsible for such allegedly “progressive” inventions as the European Union and international bodies like the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. Advocates of these overarching transnational institutions invoke grand terms like “global governance”—euphemisms, in reality, for a new form of imperial rule.

In the end, Hazony maintains that empires are flawed precisely because they are based on hubristic claims to have discovered the best political system for mankind, a system to be brought about through the agency of some dominant force that erodes national sovereignty even as it imposes its own sovereign will through military or economic coercion. By contrast, and more modestly, a national state claims only to know what is best for its particular nation. Similarly, an “order of nations” allows for diversity, for experiments in various laws and ways of structuring society, and for respect for local custom and diverse national characteristics. It, too, may have its flaws, but it is consistently superior to imperialism.




There is much to be praised in The Virtue of Nationalism. Above all, Hazony provides a theoretical framework in which nationalism and nations achieve pride of place for their partiality to individual freedom and self-government. Along the way, he persuasively advances a case for the particular rights and liberties that are found in the American and English constitutions and have become the hallmark of Western democracy.

What is more, rather than treating mankind’s tribal instincts and the individual’s desire to belong to a wider group as limitations to be overcome, or vestiges of barbarism to be stamped out, Hazony shows them to be the very basis of political virtue. His book is thus more than simply a corrective to the contemporary disdain for patriotism and the fervent disavowal of nationalism. It is an ambitious and eloquent attempt to show the mutual compatibility of freedom, national feeling, and the “moral minimum” found in biblical religion and especially in the Ten Commandments. And, to repeat, it’s timely, speaking to a number of immediate issues and providing food for thought for intellectuals and statesmen dumbfounded by Brexit, the electoral victory of Donald Trump, and the recent political trajectories of Hungary, Poland, India—and Israel.

For all of these reasons, it was important that Hazony get his argument, and his history, right. Unfortunately, in many respects he has not.

At the foundation of the problem lie Hazony’s ironclad dichotomy between empire, the arch-villain of the book, and nationalism, the hero, and his equally ironclad association of empire with liberalism and nationalism with conservatism. Into this double distinction he forces all of European history, creating problems and contradictions at every juncture.

Thus, to replace the story told by Locke, Hobbes, and Rousseau about the state of nature giving way to the social order, Hazony devises a counter-myth that is almost equally unhistorical and idealized. The clan and the tribe, he tells us, are the natural social units that preceded the state. These then make a decision to unite and form national states based on existing ethnic and religious bonds.

His examples: the twelve tribes of Israel, which according to the book of Samuel united under Kings Saul and David; Athens, “created through the unification of a number of clans”; the unification of England under Alfred the Great; the unification of “the Netherlandish tribes” to form the Dutch Republic; and the unification of the thirteen former colonies to constitute the United States.

None of these examples is especially helpful. The stories of the unification of England and Athens are as much myth as anything else, and most historians would say the same about the account of ancient Israel in the book of Samuel. As for the Netherlands and the American colonies, their basic units were not tribes based on familial bonds but provinces—in the former case, feudal ones—established by rulers. And both the Netherlands and the United States were confederations in which each member gave up some but not all of its independence—much like today’s European Union.

How does Hazony resolve this puzzle? “The national state,” he writes, “is midway between the tribe or clan and the imperial state in terms of scale.” Perhaps he can tell the difference, but who’s to say that people 200 years from now won’t admire the EU’s success at unifying the warring tribes of Europe, forging them into a single European nation and protecting them from American, Russian, and Islamic imperialism? If that seems unlikely today, perhaps it’s because the EU is a transnational unifying project as Hazony asserts; or perhaps it’s because at present its leaders have little backbone and no army.

Next, when it comes to imperialism, Hazony’s examples are equally problematic. In his discussion of medieval Europe he presents two representative villains: the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire. To these imperial organizations, which supposedly sought the domination of all of Europe, he contrasts Britain, which heroically stood up for its own independence and pioneered the ideal of the national state.

But this is backward. The imperial Catholic Church in fact helped to create and give sanction to an order of independent kingdoms that recognized one another’s legitimacy. For a kingdom to come into being, it was necessary for the pope to anoint its monarch. Papal conferral of legitimacy was the main force, aside from the military kind, that encouraged medieval rulers to respect one another’s boundaries, and popes also intervened to broker disputes between states. True, the kingdoms and principalities of medieval Western Europe were not national states in the modern sense, but most scholars would agree that the international order in Catholic Europe, to the extent it existed, was a prototype for the order of national states that evolved out of it.

By contrast, the Eastern Orthodox church developed no equivalent political theory. Whereas pagan rulers who converted to Catholicism became kings, those who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy became tsars—from the Latin word Caesar, in the sense of emperor.

If Hazony’s model of how nation-states developed is defective, no less questionable is his account of what happened once they came into being. Take the key issue of respect for the borders and sovereignty of other national states—a quality supposedly obliterated by imperialism. In 1492, Spain completed the gradual process of liberating itself from Islamic imperial rule and unifying its various kingdoms and principalities into a single Spanish kingdom. But at that point, rather than sitting contentedly in its own borders, it set about conquering the Americas. The same holds true for Portugal, France, England, and the Dutch Republic: each, almost immediately after consolidating into a national state, embarked on imperial adventures.

The pattern holds with near-perfect consistency, applying also to Germany and Italy, which unified considerably later, and even to such non-European countries as Japan. And that is not to mention the near-simultaneous rise in all three of these countries of one form or another of fascism.

So much for the “disdain for imperial conquest” that, Hazony tells us, is a cardinal virtue of the national state. And now take, by contrast, Hapsburg Austria—one of Hazony’s villains. The Hapsburg dynasty ruled the Holy Roman Empire from the 15th century until 1806, and Spain from the 16th through the 18th century, while retaining a modest empire in Eastern Europe until its fall in 1918. Expansionist, yes, gobbling up Ottoman territories almost to the end—but never colonialist. Klemens von Metternich, Austria’s foremost diplomat in the first half of the 19th century, dedicated himself to opposing French imperialism and was a devoted defender of the balance of power in Europe, through which the various powers respected each other’s sovereignty and sought to avoid war.

Did, moreover, the collapse of the Austrian empire benefit the former inhabitants of its territory? Hardly. Its fall must be seen in the context of the gradual unraveling of the Ottoman empire in Europe between 1832 and 1913 and the end of the Russian and German empires at the end of World War I. These left in their wake an Eastern Europe divided into nation states—which in almost every case devolved into dictatorships, were consumed by territorial rivalries, and were entirely unable to withstand the Nazi and Soviet empires that confiscated their independence in the 1930s and 40s. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to find a single example of a nation-state that has endured while minding its own business.




Hazony’s previous books have focused on the Hebrew Bible, Judaism, and Zionism. Although The Virtue of Nationalism is not a book about the Jews, it starts and ends with them. That being so, it seems appropriate to ask how they have been affected by nationalism.

Jewish nationalism itself—i.e., Zionism—has obviously succeeded in creating a flourishing and democratic Jewish national state, and even before 1948 successfully encouraged Jews who might otherwise have fallen to the Nazis to come to the Jewish homeland. But what about the effect upon Jews of the nationalism of others?

Consider, for example, the replacement of the East European empires by nation-states in the early 20th century. In nation-state after nation-state, this development, as the great Jewish historian Salo Baron pointed out, was bad for the Jews. By contrast, the Austrian empire of the 19th century had been singularly tolerant of its Jews. Something similar can be said of the Ottoman empire: despite its flaws, Jews flourished within its borders. As, however, its rule receded, from Romania to Iraq, and regardless of whether its successor states were national or some other kind of polity, Jews suffered new heights of anti-Semitism.

This hardly means that nationalism has been everywhere a force for evil—it hasn’t—or that national states are necessarily bad for the Jews—they aren’t. Nor does it suggest that imperialism necessarily is good for the Jews. But the errors in Hazony’s exegesis of European history are sufficient to throw into question both his basic assumptions and his conclusions, and in particular the overbroad reliance on his distinction between nationalism as conservative and imperialism as liberal.

Indeed, so committed is he to maintaining this distinction that he is forced to ignore liberal nationalism. In a footnote, he explains away the liberal nationalism of the 19th century—the heyday of European nationalism—as an odd exception brought about by an unusual constellation of contingent factors. But the golden age of classical liberalism did not coincide with the golden age of nationalism by sheer serendipity. Rather, the two are intimately connected.

The Virtue of Nationalism itself helps to explain why this is so. Hazony rightly emphasizes the link between the origins of the national state and the origins of “Western freedom”—that is, the political ideals found in the Magna Carta and U.S. Constitution. Expounding this argument in one of the book’s most powerful sections, he repeatedly cites John Stuart Mill, a great liberal if there ever was one, on the salutary effects of nationalism. Yet he refuses to draw the natural and correct conclusion that liberalism and nationalism are linked.

Again a brief look back is helpful. Prior to the rise of liberalism, kings ruled by divine right, by hereditary claim to the throne, and by sitting at the top of the system of contracts known as feudalism. What we now think of as patriotism often expressed itself as a sense of loyalty to a particular dynasty: thus a Savoyard could manifest allegiance to the Bourbon kings without feeling the least bit French and a Slovenian could proudly fight and die for the Hapsburg emperor even though neither he nor his emperor really thought of himself as Austrian.

In the 19th century—that is, following the French Revolution—nationalism became a potent force in Europe because governments needed a new form of popular legitimacy and a way of holding people together. The relationship between nationalism and democratization can be seen most clearly in the “Springtime of Nations,” as the revolutions that swept through Europe in 1848 were called. The wave began with a democratic revolution in France that toppled the Bourbons once and for all and led to the formation of the Second Republic. It quickly spread eastward, where it immediately became a national revolution of stateless peoples rising up against their imperial masters. These revolutionaries were also campaigning for expanded individual liberty, parliamentary representation, and constitutions; they wanted freedom both as individuals and as nations.

But nationalism did not remain liberal, and the shift away from it went hand in hand with increasing bigotry. Hazony is certainly aware of this transformation, which occurred most dramatically in Germany but also in most other European national states. Yet he chooses to dismiss it. In his view, when nationalism leads to aggressive wars of conquest (as in the case of Hitler’s Germany), it ceases to be nationalism. Nor will he entertain the question of why nationalism was sometimes tolerant and sometimes intolerant and viciously anti-Semitic, no doubt because doing so would involve distinguishing between good and bad nationalism, or liberal and illiberal nationalism, which he conspicuously declines to do.

By contrast, he deals deftly with what followed the rise of intolerant nationalism and the ensuing cataclysms of two world wars. After World War I, as nationalists were becoming ever more chauvinistic and ever more hostile to liberal democracy, nationalism itself began to be seen as the prime mover behind violence and destruction. World War II served to cement this view.

Thus did Nazism and two world wars make “nationalism” a bad word, an incubus that Europe, and Germany especially, had to shake off and kill. The result was the EU, founded on a narrative asserting that, by rejecting nationalism, its members had overcome centuries of bloody wars. In thrall to this logic, Angela Merkel could see no morally justifiable reason why Germans, or other Europeans, shouldn’t be eager to bring a million immigrants from other nations into their borders—or why so many should have reacted to this initiative with hostility and growing skepticism of the EU. After all, if nationalism is anathema, what reason is there for Germany to remain the nation-state of the German people at all, rather than just the state of the random persons who happen to reside in its borders?

Thus, by dismissing nationalism tout court, cosmopolitan liberals have helped to sow the seeds of liberal democracy’s destruction. Indeed, the EU increasingly seems dominated not by liberal imperialists but by illiberal cosmopolitans who don’t care much for nationalism, individual liberty, or the will of the people. No wonder the nationalist banner, held aloft by Hazony, has been captured instead by authoritarians like Viktor Orban in Hungary and extreme-right parties elsewhere.




The European Union, we learn from Hazony, is only one of the two great liberal “imperialist projects” in the post-cold-war era. Just as the EU wishes to subordinate the nations of Europe to Brussels bureaucrats, the United States, imposing its own vision of world order, goes around bullying other nations into abiding by international law.

Where America is concerned, Hazony laments, the internationalist mindset has dominated establishment thinking not just since the end of the cold war but since the end of World War II. Dragged into imperialism by the need to confront Communism, the U.S. lost sight of its original nationalist ethos. Soon, he writes, “whenever a nation ‘broke the rules’ of the new world order, the American military, with allied European contingents, was going to go in and reestablish these rules.” Most recently, the anarchy and chaos in the Muslim Middle East have “inflamed American, Russian, Turkish, and Iranian imperial ambitions”—which, he apparently believes, are not so different from one another.

With such statements, Hazony makes clear that he sees the American foreign-policy approach that is often called “neoconservative” (a term he avoids) as but one side of the same coin as liberal internationalism: both represent imperialism. At the very least, however, this overarching rubric obscures much more than it explains.

The claim, for instance, that the U.S. went to war against Iraq twice because Saddam Hussein violated liberal rules that the West wished to impose universally is tenuous at best—unless the rule at work was respect for the borders of other states, which to Hazony is a core principle not of the liberal order but of his favored conservative nationalism. In the 1991 war, the U.S. dispatched its troops to the Persian Gulf not because Saddam Hussein had transgressed liberal norms but because he invaded Kuwait, threatening U.S. interests along with the self-interest of others who chose to join the fight.

Likewise, in the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the second Bush administration was motivated by Saddam Hussein’s well-documented support for terrorism, the suspicion that he was developing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and the fear that he would give these to jihadists who would use them on American soil. In other words, the U.S. went to war to achieve the very traditional goal of protecting its citizens. One can debate whether the dangers were sufficient to justify war or were based on accurate evaluations of the facts, just as one can question the way the war was executed—but it beggars belief that the real motivation was Saddam’s disregard for property rights or his unwillingness to sanction gay marriage.

Besides, if liberal imperialists are so committed to military intervention, what explains the refusal of both the U.S. and Europe to intervene when Syria’s Bashar al-Assad committed depredations on a par with the worst of Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and Moammar Ghadaffi? Meanwhile Vladimir Putin—a nationalist—transgresses liberal norms in his country’s internal affairs with impunity; the only times he provoked even a feeble response was when he invaded Georgia and Ukraine, thus violating the very order of sovereign national states that Hazony holds dear. Meanwhile, Iran is a leading rule-breaker, but liberal internationalists in the EU and the Obama administration did what they could to protect it.

If this is empire, it is empire in retreat. The simple fact is that any international order that recognizes multiple legitimate sovereign states is likely to require some great power to police it, much as the Catholic Church did in the Middle Ages. Britain assumed this role from the time of the Glorious Revolution in 1688 until the end of World War II, building alliances to contain whatever Continental power seemed to grow strongest: France (itself a national state) until Waterloo, Russia for a good part of the 19th century, and Germany for the first half of the 20th. During this period the British acted the part of—in the historian Paul Johnson’s phrase—the “world’s policeman.”

The U.S. has since assumed this function, assisting massively in the crushing of Germany during the world wars, keeping the high seas safe from piracy and the skies from terrorism, and protecting Europe from Soviet expansionism. Had it not taken on this role during the cold war, Europe would have remained formally divided into states on ethnonational lines, but their governments would have been subordinate to Moscow.

With Barack Obama in the White House, the world got a good sense of how things might go if the U.S. were to cease being the world’s policeman. If the U.S. were to continue to retreat, the European Union, the UN, and the International Criminal Court might grow stronger or weaker, but free and independent national states will be left to face on their own the real imperialism that would undoubtedly replace American supremacy.




In the third and final section of The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony raises the question of national hatreds and of anti-Semitism. He explains how Israel’s insistence on being a state of and for the Jewish people, and its concomitant desire not to follow a regime of international law that is more or less rigged against it, provoke disdain on the part of leftists and liberal internationalists. Meanwhile, Europeans who have told themselves that they have outgrown nationalism hate Israel for clinging to it. And this fits into a long tradition of hating Jews in general because of their desire to remain a people apart.

All of this is true and perceptive. What it omits is that Europeans have always hated Jews for one reason or another. Enlightenment figures like Voltaire hated Jews for their adherence to tradition and particularism, while 19th-century conservatives hated them for their alleged association with liberalism, democracy, modernity, and cosmopolitanism. Communists hated Jews for inventing capitalism, and anti-Communists for spreading Communism. By the late-19th century, many nationalists hated Jews for wanting to be citizens while remaining distinctive or for trying to assimilate into the dominant nationality.

Yes, the anti-Israelism of today’s left, and the European left in particular, is deeply tied up with anti-nationalism, as Hazony persuasively explains. But the record suggests that Europeans have managed to peg the Jews as the embodiment of whatever the dominant ideology of the day opposes. They may hate Israel because it’s a national state, but they also hate it because it’s filled with Jews.

Unless these facts are acknowledged, we are left with an incomplete account of nationalist bigotry, an incomplete account of the latest incarnation of anti-Semitism, and an incomplete account of the relationship between the two. Once they’re taken into consideration, the connection between anti-nationalism and anti-Israelism becomes clear.

This, however, points once again to the need for a historically informed defense of nationalism. It’s a shame that The Virtue of Nationalism is not that work—especially because so many of its arguments are incisive and even brilliant.

Moreover, perhaps without realizing it, Hazony has done something else in this book that is truly remarkable. He’s squared a circle that has irked Jewish and Christian thinkers for millennia: how can the Hebrew Bible, entirely inseparable from the story and mission of the Jewish people, have a message for the rest of the world? Yes, the nations of the world have learned much from it about the nature of man and God, and about morality and justice. But what is the non-Jewish reader supposed to learn from its central theme of Jewish chosenness?

Just this: if it’s true that the Bible recommends the national state as an ideal, and that it does so precisely by narrowing its focus to a particular people living in a particular land and rooted in its own history, and by setting forth certain political guidelines meant to be followed by others similarly situated, then “the scandal of Jewish particularity,” as some Christian theologians have spoken of chosenness, is no longer so scandalous. Other nations can benefit from the Hebraic political tradition, as some already have done, not by adopting the details of biblical civic and ritual law but by forming their own national states with laws best suited to themselves while taking inspiration from scripture’s moral and prudential claims. Then they, too, would shun empire and the idolatry of totalitarian ideologies, which would surely be for the best.

It’s a message worth remembering. Thankfully, and despite the now-constant wailing that Israel’s democracy is in danger, not to mention the false claim that its leaders are obsessed with expanding its borders, today’s Jewish state seems to be serving quite well as a “light unto the nations”—not least by demonstrating the virtues of liberal and democratic nationalism. A shared sense of identity has helped the Jewish people in the Jewish state overcome both their external enemies and their own fierce internal divisions. Meanwhile, the Jewish state over the course of its 70 years has, if anything, expanded individual and economic freedoms and become more tolerant of minorities.

As Hazony himself argued trenchantly in a 2015 article, the famous tension between Israel’s democratic character and its Jewish character is exaggerated if not chimerical: Israel is democratic because it’s Jewish, and vice-versa. One can only speculate, but I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that Israelis’ high levels of happiness, high fertility rates, and willingness to serve their country in uniform all testify to the sense of togetherness that comes from a strong national identity. Their example, I’m confident Hazony would agree, may be the very best human demonstration of the virtues of nationalism.

More about: History & Ideas, Israel & Zionism, Nationalism