Book Summary: “The Virtue of Nationalism” by Yoram Hazony


Title: The Virtue of Nationalism
Author: Yoram Hazony
Scope: 3 stars
Readability: 4 stars
My personal rating: 4 stars
See more on my book rating system.

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Topic of Book

Hazony makes the case that the world is best governed by a collection of independent nation-states.

Key Take-aways

Hazony argues that:

  • All groups must be organized upon a mutual loyalty that individuals have to a larger group.
  • The only viable groups for organizing politically are:
    • Clans
    • Tribes
    • Nations
    • Empires
  • Clan and tribal rule lead to anarchy, while rule by empire leads to tyranny. The nation-state is a conceptual midpoint between the two.
  • Under an order of independent national states, mankind attains the greatest degree of freedom to pursue such collective health and prosperity.
  • All international federations like the European Union are empires in disguise.

Important Quotes from Book

Politics in Britain and America have taken a turn toward nationalism. This has been troubling to many, especially in educated circles, where global integration has long been viewed as a requirement of sound policy and moral decency… Fearing the worst, public figures, journalists, and academics have deplored the return of nationalism to American and British public life in the harshest terms.

But nationalism was not always understood to be the evil that current public discourse suggests. Until only a few decades ago, a nationalist politics was commonly associated with broad-mindedness and a generous spirit. Progressives regarded Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the Atlantic Charter of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as beacons of hope for mankind—and this precisely because they were considered expressions of nationalism, promising national independence and self-determination to enslaved peoples around the world. Conservatives from Teddy Roosevelt to Dwight Eisenhower likewise spoke of nationalism as a positive good, and in their day Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were welcomed by conservatives for the “new nationalism” they brought to political life. In other lands, statesmen from Mahatma Gandhi to David Ben-Gurion led nationalist political movements that won widespread admiration and esteem as they steered their peoples to freedom.

The nationalism I grew up with is a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference. This is opposed to imperialism, which seeks to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind, as much as possible, under a single political regime.

As late as the Second World War, many still believed that the principle of national freedom was the key to a just, diverse, and relatively peaceful world. But Hitler changed all that, and today we live in the aftermath, in which a simplistic narrative, ceaselessly repeated, asserts that “nationalism caused two world wars and the Holocaust.”

Today, many have come to regard an intense personal loyalty to the national state and its independence as something not only unnecessary but morally suspect.

What is being proposed, in other words, is a new “liberal empire” that will replace the old Protestant order based on independent national states. It is empire that is supposed to save us from the evils of nationalism.

This part of the book offers a philosophy of political order based on a comparison of the three rival ways of organizing the political world that are known to us from experience: the order of tribes and clans that is found in virtually all pre-state societies; an international order under an imperial state; and an order of independent national states.

British and American concepts of individual liberty are not universals that can be immediately understood and desired by everyone, as is often claimed. They are themselves the cultural inheritance of certain tribes and nations. Americans or British who seek the extension of these concepts around the world continue to give voice to the age-old desire for collective self-determination, which moves them to want to see their own cultural inheritance grow in strength and influence —even if it means destroying the inheritance of others who may see things differently.

Among others, I suggest that the order of national states offers the greatest possibility of collective self-determination; that it inculcates an aversion to the conquest of foreign nations, and opens the door to a tolerance of diverse ways of life; and that it establishes a life of astonishingly productive competition among nations as each strives to attain the maximal development of its abilities and those of its individual members. In addition, I find that the powerful mutual loyalties that are at the heart of the national state give us the only known foundation for the development of free institutions and individual liberties.

The politics of nations are rearranging themselves along this fault, dividing those who wish to retain the old nationalist foundations of our political world from educated elites who have, to one degree or another, become committed to a future under an imperial order.

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 of peoples united under a single regime of law, promulgated and maintained by a single supranational authority.

By nation, I mean a number of tribes with a common language or religion, and a past history of acting as a body for the common defense and other large-scale enterprises.

[From the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 to World War II] the political life of Europe was rebuilt upon two principles:

1: The Moral Minimum Required for Legitimate Government.

2: The Right of National Self-Determination.

Nazi Germany was, in fact, an imperial state in every sense, seeking to put an end to the principle of the national independence and the self-determination of peoples once and for all.

These Western European nations had not feared the Germans because of their nationalism, but because of their universalism and imperialism—their aim of bringing peace to Europe by unifying it under a German emperor.

This is what empires do. They offer peace in exchange for the renunciation of a nation’s independence— including its ability to think as an independent nation and to devise and implement mature policies fitted to the life of an independent nation.

For all their bickering, proponents of the liberal construction are united in endorsing a single imperialist vision: They wish to see a world in which liberal principles are codified as universal law and imposed on the nations, if necessary by force. This, they agree, is what will bring us universal peace and prosperity.

Under a universal political order, by contrast, in which a single standard of right is held to be in force everywhere, tolerance for diverse political and religious standpoints must necessarily decline. Western elites, whose views are now being aggressively homogenized in conformity with the new liberal construction, are finding it increasingly difficult to recognize a need for the kind of toleration of divergent standpoints that the principle of national self-determination had once rendered axiomatic. Tolerance, like nationalism, is becoming a relic of a bygone age.

That simple truth is that the emerging liberal construction is incapable of respecting, much less celebrating, the deviation of nations seeking to assert a right to their own unique laws, traditions, and policies. Any such dissent is held to be vulgar and ignorant, if not evidence of a fascistic mind-set.

Strong institutions are established where the individuals involved identify the interests and the aims of the institution as their own.

A political theory designed to understand human beings as they are in reality, and not to tell us stories about the adventures of some fantastic creature invented by philosophers, cannot avoid this capacity of the human individual to recognize the aims of the collective as his own.

The family is the strongest and most resilient of all small institutions known to human politics.

The mutual loyalty of individuals to one another is the most powerful force operative in the political realm. Feelings of mutual loyalty pull individuals tightly together, forming them into families, clans, tribes, and nations.

Far from being motivated only to secure their own life and property, human individuals are ceaselessly concerned to advance the health and prosperity of the family, clan, tribe, or nation to which they are loyal, frequently in a manner that puts their own life and property at risk.

The enduring weakness of political philosophy descended from Hobbes and Locke is due to this one great falsehood: It pretends that political life is governed largely or exclusively on the basis of the calculations of consenting individuals as to what will enhance their safety and protect and increase their property. This is another way of saying that liberal philosophy ignores mutual loyalty as a motive, suppressing the most powerful cause operative in political affairs.

A free state is not a business enterprise. It is constituted, and continues to exist in time, not because of business-like calculations of personal benefit and ongoing consent among its members, but only due to the family-like bonds of mutual loyalty that persist among them.

This clash between imperial law and the traditions and ideals of the tribe draws our attention to what is perhaps the central dilemma facing the imperial state, which is how the aspiration to unify humanity can be reconciled with empirical human nature.

The truth is that, since the dawn of recorded history, the government and armed forces of the imperial state have been built upon the ties of mutual loyalty that bind together the members of a single nation—that of the ruling nation around which the imperial state is constructed.

The empire is ultimately held together by the mutual loyalties of members of a ruling nation, its language and customs, and its unique way of understanding the world, which the other nations are invited or coerced into joining. Thus while empires like to identify their cause with the ultimate good of all humanity, this cause is almost always closely associated with the domination of one nation at the expense of all others.

I have said that under empire the loyalty of the individual is supposed to be directed toward humanity as a whole; whereas in an anarchical order, it is devoted to the politically independent family or clan. Here, what is proposed is an order in which loyalty is turned toward an institution that sits precisely at the conceptual midpoint between these others: the national state.

In addition, however, the national state is also qualitatively different from anarchical and imperial political order. The nation is distinguished from the family or clan in that it is not a community of individuals who are known personally to one another… Yet at the same time, the nation is also distinguished from all of humanity in that it possesses a quite distinctive character, having its own language, laws, and religious traditions, its own past history of failure and achievement. This means that each nation is different from all other nations.

Here, at the inflection point between anarchy and empire, we find a new ordering principle rooted in the moral order: the principle of national freedom. This principle offers a nation with the cohesiveness and strength to maintain independence and self-government, and to withstand the siren songs of empire and anarchy, an opportunity to live according to its own interests and aspirations. More generally, this principle supports the establishment of a world in which there are many such national states, each pursuing its own unique purposes and developing its own vision of human life, every one “under its own vine or its own fig tree.”

The economic system of free enterprise is based on the recognition that the individual desires to improve his own life and material circumstances, and it is ordered so as to give the most beneficial and least damaging expression to this urge. It seeks, in other words, to be realistic about the true characteristics of human nature and to achieve the best that can be attained in light of these characteristics. In the same way, the political order of national states is based on the recognition that the individual constantly desires and actively pursues the health and prosperity of the family, clan, tribe, or nation to which he is tied by bonds of mutual loyalty, and it is ordered to give the most beneficial and least damaging expression to this urge.

[There are] five ways in which the order of independent national states is recognized as being superior to the anarchic and imperial forms of political order with which it competes, once the human desire for collective freedom is taken into account and allowed to find its fullest and most salutary expression.

  1. Violence is Banished to the Periphery.
  2. Disdain for Imperial Conquest
  3. Collective Freedom
  4. Competitive Political Order
  5. Individual Liberties

Indeed, alongside defeat on the battlefield, this aversion to wasting the strength of the nation governing foreign lands is the greatest factor that stands against the inclination of rulers to aggrandize themselves through ever-further conquest.

Europe has, of course, known general wars of virtually unlimited devastation in the past four hundred years. The wars that now haunt Europe—and with it the world—were not, however, wars among national states seeking to gain advantage over their rivals. Rather, they were ideological wars, fought in the name of some universal doctrine that was supposed to bring salvation to all of humanity. For the sake of this universal doctrine, armies were sent out into the world to swallow one nation after another, with the aim of overturning the established order of life in every nation conquered.

The cause of the First World War was, in other words, the determination of Germany to revive imperialism on the continent, thus ending the European order of national states forever—and the equal determination of Britain to prevent this. The causes of the First World War are, in this regard, remarkably similar to the causes of the Second World War. Both were fought principally over the question of whether Germany would unite Europe under a German emperor.

Under an order of independent national states, mankind attains the greatest degree of freedom to pursue such collective health and prosperity.

An imperial state cannot be a free state. It is always a despotic state. It may be a benevolent despotism or a vicious one, depending on the circumstances and the character of its officials at a given moment; and it may be benevolent toward one subject nation while being vicious to another, each in its turn.

The entire reason for the principle of the “balance of power” in international affairs, which insists on a constant vigilance lest any one nation gain too much power, is precisely in order to preserve the possibility of national freedom throughout the system of states… Rather, the purpose of the balance of power is to ensure that no nation grows so strong that it is in a position of “making law” 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 self-determination.

The choice between an imperialist and a nationalist politics thus corresponds to a choice between two theories of knowledge: In Western history, at least, imperialism has tended to be associated with a rationalist theory of knowledge… Nationalism, on the other hand, has tended to be based on an empirical standpoint, exercising a moderate skepticism with regard to the products of human reason, and mindful of the calamities that men have brought upon us in the political realm time and again by their over-confidence in their own reason. And being skeptical, it recognizes the wisdom of permitting many attempts to attain the truth, each different from the others. In this way, some experiments will be successful, while others will fail. And those that succeed will do so in different ways, so that the unique experience of each nation will teach us different things that we had not understood before. We may say, in other words, that a nationalist politics invites a great debate among the nations, and a world of experiments and learning. Whereas an imperialist politics declares that this debate is too dangerous or too troublesome, and that the time has come to end it.

A similar argument between rationalist and empiricist theories of knowledge is familiar from economics. The socialist has always believed that the necessary knowledge is at hand, so there is no need for competition in the marketplace. The economy needs only to be directed by a rational planner who will dictate the transactions that are to proceed for everyone’s benefit. The capitalist, on the other hand, has understood this proposal to be nothing but a conceit, a product of human arrogance and folly—because in reality there is no human being, and no group of human beings, that possesses the necessary powers of reason and the necessary knowledge to correctly dictate how an entire economy should proceed for everyone’s benefit. Instead, the capitalist argues, from a skeptical and empirical point of view, that we should permit many independent economic actors and allow them freely to compete in developing and providing economic products and services. It is understood that because each of these competing business enterprises pursues a different set of aims, and is organized in a manner that is different from the others, some will succeed and some will fail. But those that succeed will do so in ways that no rational planner could have predicted in advance, and their discoveries will then be available for the imitation and refinement of others. In this way, the economy as a whole flourishes from this competition.

The political order is in this respect much like the economic order. The reality is that no human being, and no group of human beings, possesses the necessary powers of reason and the necessary knowledge to dictate the political constitution that is appropriate for all mankind… And yet despite this diversity, the rulers of these independent national states, in constant competition with other members of the order of similar states, are also forever glancing sideways at their competitors to see what is bringing them success, imitating that which they regard as wise and useful and beautiful in the institutions of other nations in order to improve their own. In this way, the rulers of each nation, while concerned principally for the strength and standing of their own nation among its competitors, nevertheless end up sharing with all humanity from their own unique store of experiment and experience.

We cannot pass over the fact that so very great a proportion of the heritage of mankind has been the product of systems of independent states, whereas the contribution of imperial states has been, in comparison, strikingly sparse.

On the contrary, the imperial states known to us have all been autocratic regimes of one kind or another. Meanwhile, the development of the tradition of individual rights and liberties arose only in national states, and some political theorists have suggested that the national state is the only environment in which free institutions can be made stable.

The idea of an international federation simply is the idea of empire. It should be deplored and rejected, along with all other imperialist schemes.

The supposition that an international federal government can somehow be constrained so that it will interfere only in certain prescribed matters is false.

The supposition that the international federation will interfere “only” in matters of war and peace has already been shown to be nonsensical. Any intervention to prevent a war or to end one will require a resolution of grievances—and these, as we have seen, can include any action or policy undertaken by a neighboring state if it is seen as sufficiently provocative or irritating. The mandate of the international federation to interfere in matters of war and peace is thus as broad as each state’s list of grievances against its neighbors, both real and fabricated.

This is what we see happening in the most prominent current experiment with international federation, the European Union… officials. This restraint has not, however, been forthcoming, and the EU bureaucracy, backed by federal European courts, has consistently extended its powers over member nations in areas such as economic policy, labor and employment policy, public health, communications, education, transportation, the environment, and urban planning. The European principle of subsidiarity is thus nothing other than a euphemism for empire: The subsidiary nations of Europe are only independent insofar as the European government decides that they will be independent.

The truth, then, is that there is no “federal solution” that can allow us to evade the choice between an imperial order and an order of independent nations. An international federal government is nothing other than an imperial government.

But the truth is that the neutral state is a myth. It is invoked time and again by those who imagine that the state can exist in the absence of national or tribal cohesion—when in reality it is only national or tribal cohesion that permits an independent state to be established and maintained without unceasing political repression.

The central question for such an ideal is then this: If it is not loyalty to the tribe or nation that moves the individual to shoulder such onerous burdens, what will be the source of his motivation to make such sacrifices in the neutral state?

There are no neutral states.

There is, in other words, a blind spot in contemporary liberal discourse. Due to their commitment to a universal political order, liberal imperialists tend to attribute hatred to national and tribal particularism (or else to religion), while overlooking or downplaying the hate that is a direct consequence of the advance of their own aspiration of attaining universal political order.

None of this should be surprising. Historically, every imperial theory with which we are familiar—whether Egyptian or Assyrian, Greek or Roman, Christian or Muslim, liberal or Marxist—has offered an ideology of universal salvation and peace. And each such imperialist ideology, as soon as it collides with a determined rejection of the salvation it offers, responds to this rejection with an intense and abiding hatred. The universal, it seems, can love all men and all nations only as long as they are willing to allow themselves to be determined, in their thoughts and actions, by this universal.

The institution of the national state, I have suggested, offers a number of advantages over the alternative forms of political order that are known to us: The national state, like empire, drives war to the borders of a large, politically ordered region, establishing a protected space in which peace and prosperity can take hold. But unlike empire, the independent national state inculcates an aversion to adventures of conquest in distant lands. Moreover, an order of national states offers the greatest possibility for the collective selfdetermination. It establishes a life of productive competition among nations, each striving to attain the maximal development of its abilities and those of its individual members. And it provides the state with the only known basis for the development of free institutions and individual liberties. These are considerable advantages, and in light of them I conclude that the best political order known to mankind is, in fact, an order of independent national states.

What I propose is a broader view, one that recognizes the larger interest that all mankind share in a world of independent and self-determining nations, each pursuing interests and aspirations that are uniquely its own.

Human beings are intolerant by nature, and it would be foolish to attribute this intolerance entirely to one or another political or religious standpoint. Nevertheless, if one wishes to inflame this innate intolerance, making it harsh and poisonous to the greatest degree possible, one could hardly do better than to disseminate a worldview according to which there is but one true doctrine, and mankind’s salvation depends on the entire world submitting to it.

First, the order of national states is an ideal that is premised upon a measure of humility with respect to the wisdom and achievements of the nations. The nationalist, we may say, knows two very large things, and maintains them both in his soul at the same time: He knows that there is great truth and beauty in his own national traditions and in his own loyalty to them; and yet he also knows that they are not the sum of human knowledge, for there is also truth and beauty to be found elsewhere, which his own nation does not possess. This balance of factors permits a moderating skepticism.

It is nationalism, alone among the political dispositions that are known to us, that offers a consistent counterweight to this fanaticism of the universal, establishing the diversity of independent nations as a virtue of the political order, and the tolerance and appreciation of such diversity as a virtue in the individual.

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