The Virtue of Nationalism


By Yoram Hazony

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A leading conservative thinker argues that a nationalist order is the only realistic safeguard of liberty in the world today

Nationalism is the issue of our age. From Donald Trump’s “America First” politics to Brexit to the rise of the right in Europe, events have forced a crucial debate: Should we fight for international government? Or should the world’s nations keep their independence and self-determination?

In The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony contends that a world of sovereign nations is the only option for those who care about personal and collective freedom. He recounts how, beginning in the sixteenth century, English, Dutch, and American Protestants revived the Old Testament’s love of national independence, and shows how their vision eventually brought freedom to peoples from Poland to India, Israel to Ethiopia. It is this tradition we must restore, he argues, if we want to limit conflict and hate — and allow human difference and innovation to flourish.




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. From this perspective, Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the “America first” rhetoric coming out of Washington seem to herald a reversion to a more primitive stage in history, when war-mongering and racism were voiced openly and permitted to set the political agenda of nations. 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.1

Surely, the many statesmen and intellectuals who embraced nationalism a few generations ago knew something about this subject, and were not simply trying to drag us back to a more primitive stage in our history, to war-mongering and racism. What, then, did they see in nationalism? There have been surprisingly few attempts, whether in the public sphere or in academia, to answer this question.

My own background allows me some insight into the subject. I have been a Jewish nationalist, a Zionist, all my life.2 Like most Israelis, I inherited this political outlook from my parents and grandparents. My family came to Jewish Palestine in the 1920s and early 1930s with the aim of establishing an independent Jewish state there. They succeeded, and I have lived most of my life in a country that was established by nationalists, and has been governed largely by nationalists to this day. Over the years, I have known a great many nationalists, including public figures and intellectuals both from Israel and from other countries. And while not everyone among them has been to my taste, on the whole these are people I deeply admire—for their loyalty and courage, their good sense, and their moral decency. Among them, nationalism is not some unfathomable political illness that periodically takes over countries for no good reason and to no good end, as many in America and Britain seem to think these days. It is instead a familiar political theory on which they were raised, a theory of how the political world should be ordered.

What is this nationalist political theory about? 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. I do not suppose that the case for nationalism is unequivocal. Considerations can be mustered in favor of each of these theories. But what cannot be done without obfuscation is to avoid choosing between the two positions: Either you support, in principle, the ideal of an international government or regime that imposes its will on subject nations when its officials regard this as necessary; or you believe that nations should be free to set their own course in the absence of such an international government or regime.3

This debate between nationalism and imperialism became acutely relevant again with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. At that time, the struggle against Communism ended, and the minds of Western leaders became preoccupied with two great imperialist projects: the European Union, which has progressively relieved member nations of many of the powers usually associated with political independence; and the project of establishing an American “world order,” in which nations that do not abide by international law will be coerced into doing so, principally by means of American military might. These are imperialist projects, even though their proponents do not like to call them that, for two reasons: First, their purpose is to remove decision-making from the hands of independent national governments and place it in the hands of international governments or bodies. And second, as you can immediately see from the literature produced by the individuals and institutions supporting these endeavors, they are consciously part of an imperialist political tradition, drawing their historical inspiration from the Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the British Empire. For example, Charles Krauthammer’s argument for American “Universal Dominion,” written at the dawn of the post–Cold War period, calls for America to create a “super-sovereign,” which will preside over the permanent “depreciation… of the notion of sovereignty” for all nations on earth. Krauthammer adopts the Latin term pax Americana to describe this vision, invoking the image of the United States as the new Rome: Just as the Roman Empire supposedly established a pax Romana (or “Roman peace”) that obtained security and quiet for all of Europe, so America would now provide security and quiet for the entire world.4

This flowering of imperialist political ideals and projects in the last generation should have sparked a rigorous debate between nationalists and imperialists over how the political world should be organized. But until very recently, a discussion of this kind was largely avoided. Since 1990, when Margaret Thatcher was deposed by her own party for expressing doubts about the European Union, virtually no one in a position of influence in either America or Europe has showed much interest in picking a fight with the broad vision at the heart of these twin empire-building projects.5 This uncanny unanimity allowed both the European Union and American “world order” to move forward without triggering an explosive public debate.

At the same time, political and intellectual spokesmen for these projects remained keenly aware that Europeans might not relish the prospect of a renewed “German empire,” even one that was nominally governed from Brussels. They were mindful, too, that Americans have often balked at the idea of an “American empire.” As a result, almost all public discussion of these efforts was conducted in a murky newspeak riddled with euphemisms such as “new world order,” “ever-closer union,” “openness,” “globalization,” “global governance,” “pooled sovereignty,” “rules-based order,” “universal jurisdiction,” “international community,” “liberal internationalism,” “transnationalism,” “American leadership,” “American century,” “unipolar world,” “indispensable nation,” “hegemon,” “subsidiarity,” “play by the rules,” “the right side of history,” “the end of history,” and so on.6 All of this endured for a generation—until finally the meaning of these phrases began to become clear to a broad public, with the results that we see before us.

Whether the outpouring of nationalist sentiment in Britain and America will, in the end, be for the best, remains to be seen. But perhaps we can all agree on this: The time for vacuous talk is past. The debate between nationalism and imperialism is upon us. Imperialism and nationalism are formidable and opposed ideals that have contended with one another in the past, and they have resumed their old conflict in our day. Each of these points of view deserves to be thought about carefully and with due respect, which includes speaking about them in straightforward, unambiguous terms so we can all understand what we are talking about. Let us hope that this debate, so long overdue, is conducted in a manner that is at once frank, reasoned, and clear.

I have written this book so that we have a statement of the reasons for being a nationalist.7 In the interest of contributing to a discussion that is as clear and comprehensible as possible, I will understand “globalism” for what it obviously is—a version of the old imperialism. And in the same way, I will not waste time trying to make nationalism prettier by calling it “patriotism,” as many do today in circles where nationalism is considered something unseemly.8 Normally, patriotism refers to the love or loyalty of an individual for his or her own independent nation. The term nationalism can be used in much this way as well, as when we speak of Mazzini as an Italian nationalist or of Gandhi as an Indian nationalist. But nationalism can also be something more than this. There is, as I have said, a long tradition of using this term to refer to a theory of the best political order—that is, to an anti-imperialist theory that seeks to establish a world of free and independent nations. That is how I will be using it in this book.

Once events are seen in light of this long-standing confrontation between two irreconcilably opposed ways of thinking about political order, the entire subject becomes much easier to understand, and a more intelligent conversation can emerge.

My argument will be as follows:

In Part One of the book, “Nationalism and Western Freedom,” I offer a basic historical framework for understanding the confrontation between imperialism and nationalism as it has developed among the Western nations. I introduce the distinction between a political order based on the national state, which seeks to rule over one nation alone; and one whose purpose is to bring peace and prosperity by uniting mankind under a single political regime, which is an imperial state.9 This distinction is central to the political thought of the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”), and in the wake of the Reformation it inspired the renunciation of the authority of the Holy Roman Empire by national states such as England, the Netherlands, and France. Thus began a period of four centuries during which the peoples of Western Europe and America lived under a new Protestant construction of the political world, in which national independence and self-determination came to be regarded as foundational principles. Indeed, these things came to be viewed as among the most precious human possessions and the basis for all our freedoms. An order of independent nations would permit diverse forms of self-government, religion, and culture in a “world of experiments” that would benefit all mankind.

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.” And who, in fact, would want to be a nationalist if nationalism means supporting racism and bloodshed on an unimaginable scale?

With nationalism thus tarred as having caused the greatest evils of our age, it is not surprising that the old intuitions favoring national independence have been gradually attenuated and finally even discredited. 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. They no longer regard national loyalties and traditions as providing a sound basis for determining the laws we live by, for regulating the economy and making decisions about defense and security, for establishing public norms concerning religion and education, or for deciding who gets to live in what part of the world. The new world they envision is one in which liberal theories of the rule of law, the market economy, and individual rights—all of which evolved in the domestic context of national states such as Britain, the Netherlands, and America—are regarded as universal truths and considered the appropriate basis for an international regime that will make the independence of the national state unnecessary.10 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.

But have supporters of the new imperialism correctly described what nationalism is and where it comes from? Are they right in attributing to nationalism the greatest evils of the last century? And is a renewed imperialism really the solution?

In my view, all these things appear exceedingly doubtful. And in Part Two, “The Case for the National State,” I argue for regarding a world based on independent national states as the best political order, in the process showing why we should reject the imperialism that is now so much in fashion. 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.

Most recent attempts to compare a “globalist” political order with a world of national states have been focused on the proposed economic and security advantages of a unified legal regime for the entire world. But according to the view I defend here, arguments based on economics and security are too narrow to provide an adequate answer to the question of the best political order. In reality, much of what takes place in political life is motivated by concerns arising from our membership in collectives such as families, tribes, and nations. Human beings are born into such collectives or adopt them later in life, and are tied to them by powerful bonds of mutual loyalty among their members. In fact, we come to regard these collectives as an integral part of ourselves. Many, if not most, political aims are derived from responsibilities or duties that we feel we have, not to ourselves as individuals, but to an extended “self” that incorporates our family, tribe, or nation. These include a concern for the lives and property of members of the collective to which we are loyal. But we are also powerfully motivated by shared concerns that are not physical in this way: the need to maintain the internal cohesiveness of the family, tribe, or nation, and the need to strengthen its unique cultural inheritance and pass it on to the next generation.

We cannot accurately describe these dimensions of human political motivation in terms of the individual’s desire to protect his life, personal freedom, and property. Each of us in fact wants and needs something else in addition, which I suggest we call collective self-determination: the freedom of the family, tribe, or nation. This is the freedom that we feel when the collective to which we are loyal gains in strength, and develops those special qualities and characteristics that give it unique significance in our eyes.

In the liberal political tradition, the desire and need for such collective self-determination tends to be regarded as primitive and dispensable. It is assumed that with the advent of modernity, individuals free themselves from motivations of this kind. But I will argue that nothing like this actually happens. 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.

My argument points to a number of decisive advantages of organizing the political world around independent national states. 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.

These and other considerations suggest that a world of independent national states is the best political order to which we can aspire. This does not mean, however, that we should endorse a universal right to self-determination, as Woodrow Wilson proposed. Not all of the thousands of stateless peoples in the world can or will have political independence, so what place should the principle of national independence have in the affairs of nations? I conclude Part Two by considering what can be the relevance of the order of national states for a real-world international arena in which political independence cannot be applied always and everywhere.

The argument most commonly made against a nationalist politics is that it encourages hatred and bigotry. And there is certainly some truth in this: In every nationalist movement, one finds individuals who are haters and bigots. But what conclusion should we draw from this fact? To my mind, its significance is weakened by the realization that universal political ideals—of the kind that are so prominent, for example, in the European Union—seem invariably to generate hatred and bigotry to at least the same degree as nationalist movements. In Part Three, “Anti-Nationalism and Hate,” I investigate this phenomenon, comparing the hatred between rival national or tribal groups that feel threatened by one another, with the hatred that proponents of imperialist or universalist ideologies feel toward national or tribal groups that refuse to accept their claim to be bringing salvation and peace to the world. The most famous example of the hatred generated by imperialist or universalist ideologies is perhaps Christian anti-Semitism. But Islam, Marxism, and liberalism have proved themselves quite capable of inflaming similarly vicious hatreds against groups that are determined to resist the universal doctrines they propose. In fact, I suggest that liberal-imperialist political ideals have become among the most powerful agents fomenting intolerance and hate in the Western world today. This is not itself a recommendation for nationalism. But it does suggest that hatred may be endemic to political movements in general, and that the dispute between nationalism and imperialism should be decided on other grounds.

In the Conclusion, “The Virtue of Nationalism,” I offer some brief remarks on the relationship between nationalism and personal character. All my life, I have heard it said that nationalism corrupts the human personality. This is an opinion I have heard from Christians and Muslims, liberals and Marxists, all of whom consider nationalism to be a vice because it seeks to raise barriers among people, when we should be tearing them down. My own understanding is different. In my father’s house I was taught that to be a nationalist is a virtue. I explain how this can be so, showing that an orientation toward an order of independent nations can pave the way for certain positive traits of character that are more difficult, if not impossible, to attain so long as one remains committed to the dream of empire.

MUCH REMAINS UNCERTAIN ABOUT the exact course that the revived nationalism in Britain, America, and other nations will take. But whatever direction the political winds may yet turn, it is certain that the fault line that has been uncovered at the heart of Western public life is not going away. 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. At this time, then, there can hardly be a subject more worthy of careful attention than that of nationalism and imperialism.

In addressing this subject, I will employ and develop political concepts such as nation, empire, independence, national freedom, self-determination, loyalty, tribe, tradition, and toleration. Many of these terms have a somewhat antiquated feel to them, but I ask the reader’s patience in this regard. It is true that these and related concepts have been largely sidelined in recent years in favor of a discourse that seeks to understand political problems almost entirely in terms of the state, equality, personal freedom, rights, consent, and race. But this constriction in our political vision is itself one of the principal difficulties facing us today. The political world cannot be reduced to these terms, and the attempt to do so induces blindness in crucial areas—blindness, followed by disorientation when we begin colliding with things that are still quite real, even if we cannot see them any longer. A broader range of political concepts, updated for use at this time, can do much to restore the full range of our vision and dispel the confusion that has overtaken us. Once we can see the roads clearly, deciding which way to go becomes easier as well.

Part One


I: Two Visions of World 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. In recent generations, the first vision has been represented by nations such as India, Israel, Japan, Norway, South Korea, Switzerland—and of course by Britain, in the wake of its turn toward independence. The second vision is held by much of the leadership of the European Union, which reaffirmed its commitment to the concept of an “ever closer union” of peoples in the Treaty of Maastricht in 1992, and has proceeded since then to introduce EU laws and currency into most member nations, as well as requiring the free movement of populations among most member states.1 The United States, committed from its founding to the ideal of an independent national state, was for the most part able to maintain this character until the Second World War. But in the face of competition with the Soviet Union, and especially after the end of the Cold War, it has deviated from this model of national independence and has increasingly sought the establishment of a worldwide regime of law that would be enforced upon all nations by means of American power.2

The conflict between these two visions of the best political order is as old as the West itself. The idea that the political order should be based on independent nations was an important feature of ancient Israelite thought as reflected in the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”).3 And although Western civilization, for most of its history, has been dominated by dreams of universal empire, the presence of the Bible at the heart of this civilization has ensured that the idea of the self-determining, independent nation would be revived time and again.4

Why is the Bible so concerned with the independence of nations? The world of Israel’s prophets was dominated by a succession of imperial powers: Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, and Persia, each giving way to the next. Despite their differences, each of these empires sought to impose a universal political order on mankind as a whole, the gods having sent them to suppress needless disputes among peoples and to create a unified international realm in which men could live together in peace and prosperity. “None hungered in my years or thirsted in them,” Pharaoh Amenemhet I wrote a few centuries before Abraham. “Men dwelled in peace through that which I wrought.”5 And this was no idle boast. By ending warfare in vast regions and harnessing their populations to productive agricultural work, imperial powers were in fact able to bring to millions a relatively reliable peace and an end to the threat of starvation. No wonder, then, that the imperial rulers of the ancient world saw it as their task, in the words of the Babylonian king Hammurabi, to “bring the four quarters of the world to obedience.” That obedience was what made salvation from war, disease, and starvation possible.6

Yet despite the obvious economic advantages of an Egyptian or Babylonian peace that would unify humanity, the Bible was born out of a deep-seated opposition to this very aim. To Israel’s prophets, Egypt was “the house of bondage,” and they spared no words in deploring the bloodshed and cruelty involved in imperial conquest and in the imperial manner of governing, its recourse to slavery and murder and its expropriation of women and property.7 All of this, the Israelite prophets argued, stemmed from Egypt’s idolatry—from its submission to gods who would justify any sacrifice so long as it advanced the extension of the imperial realm of peace and kept the production of grain running at maximum capacity.

Was there a viable alternative to universal empire? The ancient Near East had much experience with localized political power in the form of city-states. But for the most part, these were helpless before imperial armies and the ideology of universal empire that motivated them. It is in the Bible that we find the first sustained presentation of a different possibility: a political order based on the independence of a nation living within limited borders alongside other independent nations.

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.8 The Bible systematically promotes the idea that the members of a nation should regard one another as “brothers,” and Mosaic law offered the Israelites a constitution that would bring them together in what would today be called a national state.9

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  • "A new book that will become a classic.... Yoram Hazony has written a magnificent affirmation of democratic nationalism and sovereignty. The book is a tour de force that has the potential to significantly shape the debate between the supporters of supranational globalism and those of national-state democracy."—National Review
  • "One of the most important books on one of the most important controversies of our time."—New Criterion
  • "[Hazony] cogently argues in the book that anyone who values his freedom should reject universalism and fight for a future of nations... [an] excellent book."—City Journal
  • "Hazony is both erudite and well reasoned."—American Conservative
  • "The Virtue of Nationalism is a brilliant achievement, at once learned and sharp, philosophical and politically engaged."—Jewish Review of Books
  • "A concise, thoughtful, strongly put case that resurgent nationalism is reason not for concern but for relief."—New York Sun
  • "Hazony presents a vigorous case for nationalism and its virtues."—National Interest
  • "The catastrophic failure of the liberal program opens the way for a new kind of political thinking, and Hazony offers a timely contribution to the debate."—Tablet
  • "Important.... Hazony continues to do a service in reviving the theory of nationalism at a moment when its empirical manifestations have become impossible to ignore. He also presents a model of engaged political philosophy--learned yet accessible, spirited but not excessively hostile."—Modern Age
  • "A thought-provoking book."—Publishers Weekly
  • "In an era when the word 'nationalism' falls on many ears as an insult and condemnation, Yoram Hazony recalls the ancient, essential, and even noble origins of the nation. I expect and hope this provocative and deeply learned book will incite fierce debate, but the depth and persuasiveness of its defense of the virtue of nations will demand engagement by every reader concerned with serious political ideas. Hazony masterfully blends a deep grasp of history, political philosophy, theology, and common sense with originality and clarity in what will be one of the most-discussed books of this dawning new age of the nation."—Patrick Deneen, professor of political science, University of Notre Dame, and author of Why Liberalism Failed
  • "In this engaging and deeply learned book, Yoram Hazony explores the religious and historical roots of nationalism, illuminates its modern accomplishments, and thereby offers a uniquely insightful guide to the forces transforming the politics of the West."—Yuval Levin, editor of National Affairs and author of The Fractured Republic
  • "To cosmopolitans on the right and left, the division of the world into sovereign nation-states is a lamentable fact we must strive to overcome. In The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony demonstrates that it is in fact essential to human flourishing."—Reihan Salam, executive editor, National Review
  • "Yoram Hazony's book is profound as well as accessible and well-crafted, reflecting years of inquiry and reflection into a subject of unparalleled importance. Political figures, scholars, and the broader public will have to think carefully about this remarkable book."—Natan Sharansky, author of The Case for Democracy and Defending Identity
  • "Yoram Hazony's The Virtue of Nationalism belongs among the great works of political theory. Hazony presents a radical, even dangerous thesis: what if nationalism is not the scourge that today's left views it as, but rather the best hope humanity has? The Virtue of Nationalism mounts a necessary challenge to the liberal order of the day."—Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor of The Forward

On Sale
Sep 4, 2018
Page Count
304 pages
Basic Books

Yoram Hazony

About the Author

Yoram Hazony is president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem and director of the John Templeton Foundation’s project in Jewish Philosophical Theology. His books include The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul and The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture. He lives in Jerusalem.

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