13 March 2019

Is Nationalism Worth Defending?

When I first came across Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism, I found the title off-putting. After all, I have devoted an entire chapter of my Political Visions and Illusions to nationalism, which I treat as an idolatrous love of nation: in an effort to bind people together in a tighter unity, nationalists often exalt the nation, however they define it, at the expense of more proximate loyalties rooted in the pluriformity of communities making up a complex differentiated society. Thus when I started reading Hazony’s treatment, I steeled myself for what I expected to be a grim experience.

Nevertheless, once I was into the book, I quickly discovered that it was not what I had expected. Far from defending an idolatrous love of nation, the author has advanced what amounts to an implicitly Aristotelian defence of the nation-state as the optimal form of political governance. A world of independent nation-states is the virtuous mean between the extremes of tribal anarchy on the one hand and supranational empire on the other. In defending the national state against its apparently vicious rivals, Hazony mounts a modest argument in favour of a non-utopian order which, while far from perfect, he believes best facilitates political freedom. While his thesis has applicability across a broad range of political life, the author employs it in defence of his own homeland of Israel as a state embodying the Jewish nation, acting unilaterally when necessary. He refrains, however, from affirming a universal right to national self-determination, conceding the legitimacy of prudential considerations in particular cases. In this respect, his argument has Burkean overtones.

Does Hazony’s defence of the national state work? Yes. And no!


First the positive side. Hazony is on firm ground in so far as he rejects utopian projects that threaten real people, their communities and their distinctive traditions. To function properly, a political community requires genuine ties of mutual loyalty binding citizens together. In their absence, such a community remains a mere abstraction incapable of commanding more than a nominal allegiance. This, of course, is the major flaw of empires throughout recorded history. An effort to replace local customs and mores with something more encompassing and less proximate must necessarily rely on coercive means, thus eroding political freedom. The ancient empires of Assyria, Babylonia, Persia and Rome are testimony to this. All of these dominated Israel and Judah for centuries, and the Jewish people looked forward to a day when they would regain their freedom from foreign domination. The re-establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 was a fulfilment of this ancient dream. Accordingly, contemporary Israelis are unwilling to give up this independence in favour of supranational governance along the lines of the European Union.

Yet the negatives arise early on. Let’s return to Aristotle for a moment. The famed Greek philosopher believed there to be an optimal size to the body politic—optimal understood as that which most conduces to the cultivation of human virtue. Society is an ascending hierarchy of communities, beginning at the base with households, combining to form villages, which in turn come together to form the polis, or city-state. Beyond the polis we find the empire, embodied at that time by Persia, hovering ominously on the eastern shores of the Aegean Sea. From Aristotle’s perspective, an array of virtues requires a community intimate enough for members to know each other, to meet face-to-face, and to put those virtues into practice. Sub-communities are too small to be self-sufficient, meaning that they must depend on others to bring the virtues to fruition. By contrast, empires are too large and are incapable of being governed constitutionally by free virtuous citizens. Even when Athens and Sparta were at war, the Greeks preferred self-government in the polis to the universal peace offered by Persia.

Hazony’s argument follows Aristotle’s logic but comes to a different conclusion. He too begins with the basic communities of clan and tribe. Multiple clans and tribes live in a condition of anarchy with constant warfare breaking out among them. Feudalism is a variant of this anarchy. At the same time as feudalism dominated Europe, however, the continent had a vague imperial unity in the form of a German-dominated Holy Roman Empire, to which all Christians theoretically owed fealty. But the Reformation of the sixteenth century brought about something new, namely, a continent dominated, starting at its western periphery, by a form of political rule embodied in the independent national state. This put an end to both the anarchic and imperial features of feudalism, establishing an order of independent states based on biblical precedents. By Hazony’s reckoning, not the polis, but the nation-state has proved to be the best guarantor of political freedom.

By gathering together in a national state, the disparate tribes gain a measure of peace and stability lacking in an anarchic order, even as they give up the right to advance unilaterally their own respective interests. True, the members of a nation cannot possibly come to know each other personally, yet each nation “possesses a quite distinctive character, having its own language, laws, and religious traditions, its own past history of failure and achievement” (101). These are for the most part sufficient to create more or less lasting bonds of loyalty. In this respect, Hazony appears to ascribe to the nation a kind of natural existence preceding the development of political bonds.

But is this necessarily true? José Ortega y Gasset argues more plausibly that the “state has always been a grand impresario and dedicated matchmaker.” In other words, the state creates the national community. And if it can do this in France, why not in Europe as a whole? Hazony would likely reply that, because Europe is not culturally and linguistically unified, it cannot become a nation. Yet France itself was once linguistically diverse, with successive monarchical and republican régimes imposing uniformity over the centuries. The boundary between nation and empire is more fluid than Hazony appears willing to admit. This complicates his choice of the national state as the proper locus of political freedom.

Thus, much as Aristotle brings his narrative to an end with the polis, declining to extend the process of consolidation further, so Hazony ends with the national state. Any unity beyond this point is necessarily an imperial unity, spelling the death of political freedom. Even a federal unification of existing national states does not differ essentially from imperial unity. The European Union is ostensibly a voluntary union of the member nations, but as long as bureaucrats in Brussels are able to overrule domestic political institutions in, say, France or Italy, it still amounts to an empire.

Hazony’s analysis is predicated on the assumption that national state and empire are two different things and that the former has no necessary connection to the latter. But here is where Hazony misses the ideological character of nationalism. Love of one’s nation is right and proper, but like any good thing such love can be overdone. It may begin to crowd out other legitimate loves, especially the love of God and neighbour. Hazony notes that some members of the EU, such as Britain, Poland, Hungary and Czechia, are more attached to the system of national states which he celebrates. Yet Great Britain was once an empire possessing scores of overseas colonies and territories, convinced that its domestic institutions were superior to those of its subject peoples. He believes that the actions of Germany in the two world wars were not those of a national state, but of a people once strongly associated with the imperial unity of the Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs. Yet this is to discount the racial ideology of the National Socialists and the associated belief in German superiority. Hazony recognizes the existence of a narrative that describes the EU as an attempt to transcend the destructive nationalisms of previous decades, but he is more persuaded by a parallel story that sees the EU as one more empire attempting to extinguish the national state. Which narrative is the more persuasive? Hazony embraces the first, but much of his discussion seems to constitute evidence that different life experiences will predispose one to accept different narratives, each of which on its own may not offer a complete picture of reality. How one adjudicates between the narratives he does not tell us.

His discussion of Israel towards the end of the book exemplifies what happens when one tries to fit a complex phenomenon into a larger narrative that may not account for all the realities on the ground. In Hazony’s case, the narrative is that of Immanuel Kant, as expressed in his Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch (1795), whose reasoning Hazony believes has come to dominate contemporary international discourse. Kant sees the world progressing from barbarism through the nation-state to a supranational unity capable of keeping the peace. Western elite opinion accepts the Kantian narrative, as exemplified by the efforts of the EU and the United Nations to bring the rule of law to the international realm. If this is so, then Hazony believes that negative attitudes towards Israel in the west are due to the perception that Israel is clinging to an outmoded order of national states being transcended elsewhere. Israel is the dissident and is thus vilified “in international bodies, in the media, and on university campuses around the world” (192).

Perhaps Hazony is right, but it’s not the whole story.

When I was growing up in the United States, Israel enjoyed a hugely positive image, especially following the Six Day War (1967), when the Israeli military stood up to the provocations of its much larger Arab neighbours. Otto Preminger’s Exodus (1960), with Ernest Gold’s stirring theme music, had already elicited sympathy for the Israeli cause in English-speaking film audiences. But over the decades something changed, and Israel can no longer command the same public support it once counted on in the west. Is this because Israel stands athwart a Kantian liberal imperial paradigm? I personally doubt it. More likely are the following factors: greater sympathy for displaced Palestinian Arabs, especially those caught for half a century in the occupied territories and even longer in neighbouring refugee camps; a general decline in sympathy for (recent) states based on large-scale settlement of one people in another’s land; Israel’s policy of settling its Jewish citizens in occupied territories; and the general perception that Israel is now an aggressor in the region, claiming land to which it has no right. Whether these assessments are altogether justified is a fair question. In Israel’s behalf, it must be admitted that Palestinians have been spectacularly ill-served by their leaders, who have squandered opportunities time and again for self-government and have sullied their own cause in the process.

Yet whoever is more at fault for the ongoing troubles in the region—indeed culpability can be found in both sides—I think the explanations for the decline in Israel’s international reputation can be found in more concrete considerations without appealing to a larger Kantian narrative of which most people are unaware.

Near the end of his treatment, Hazony once more sounds a Burkean note in affirming the particular over the universal:

One can have no better destroyer than an individual ablaze with the love of a universal truth. And there is something of the destroyer, intellectually if not yet physically, in everyone who embraces universal salvation doctrines and the empires they call into being (230).

Nationalism is virtuous because it apparently eschews such universalisms. But is it possible that the goal of national liberation, if followed with single-minded devotion, might itself take on redemptive pretensions? Love of nation, like any human love, is by no means immune to our proclivity to idolatrous pride. Hazony has painted a winsome portrait of a world composed of national states, coexisting side by side, always conscious of their territorial limits and generally unwilling to interfere in their neighbours’ affairs. But nations can become jealous gods, as experience has repeatedly shown. Thus we must conclude that, while a modest love of nation is legitimate, it is precisely nationalism that makes too much of this, crossing into dangerous ideological territory, something Hazony would do well to recognize.

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can be contacted at: dtkoyzis@gmail.com