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Resisting Today’s Imperialist Temptation

A new book says nationalism isn't the problem; it's the antidote. But can that be true?

The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony, Basic Books, 304 pages

The strongest argument in Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony’s new book comes right up front: all political regimes can be divided into three types—tribal, national, and imperial. A tribal regime is pre-modern; it operates according to tradition, guided by elders or a chief. A national regime has formalized its governance; the state thus presides over a specific people—which is to say, a modernized tribe. And an imperial regime is a modern state that rules over many different peoples.

Hazony’s trigonous delineation is compelling for three reasons. First, it reaffirms that thenatural unit for people is the family; the tribe, after all, is just an extended family. Second, it reminds us that tribes have, for their own betterment and survival, wished to rationalize their arrangements into a formal state. And third, it helps us see the aggrandizing instinct that sweeps tribes and nations into empires.

As suggested in the title The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony sees this type of regime as the happy medium between the primitiveness of tribalism on the one hand and the oppressiveness of imperialism on the other. As he writes, nationalism is “a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course.” So that’s the gist of Hazony’s argument: the world is happiest when it’s organized into distinct nations.

Alas, in the course of 304 pages, Hazony puts forth other arguments, which are, even to a sympathetic reader, arguable. For instance, he fixates on the idea that the ancient Hebrews provide us today with an exemplar of peaceable nationalism. As he writes, “Throughout the Bible, we find that the political aspiration of the prophets of Israel is not empire but a free and unified nation living in justice and peace amid other free nations.”

To bolster his pacific assessment, Hazony quotes the Book of Deuteronomy, in which God, speaking through Moses, tells the Israelites: “Ye are to pass through the coast of your brethren the children of Esau…. Meddle not with them; for I will not give you of their land, no, not so much as a foot breadth; because I have given Mount Seir unto Esau for a possession.”

Yes, those live-and-let-live words are in Deuteronomy, but so, too, is this divine injunction not cited by Hazony: “Cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” The Israelites are ordered to “smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them.”

Nor were the ancient Hebrews particularly concerned about political freedom; in fact, the Almighty was the top enforcer of top-down order, as when He opened up a cleft in the earth to swallow the rebellious Korah and his 249 co-conspirators.

The point here is not to pick a fight over theology; after all, God has His ways. However, for mere mortals, it is, well, arguable whether or not the political science of the Old Testament—often thought of as a saga of “quarrelsome tribes”—offers pointers for modern times.

Indeed, about now, the reader might ask, If the issue is ancient political role models, what about the Greeks? You know, “politics,” “democracy,” and all the other words tossed around by the likes of Plato and Aristotle. It is notable that Hazony scants Hellenism in favor of Hebraism. And when he does bring up the Greeks, he does so in minimizing ways, as when he conflates the two very different systems: “Both the Israelite and Athenian states were thus able to function on the whole as free states.”

Fortunately, from such shaky intellectual ground, Hazony soon moves to firmer turf, as he identifies the real villain of his book—namely, empire, then and now.


Hazony argues that the essence of imperialism is the quashing of the nationalistic impulses of people. Not surprisingly, he launches his imperial survey with a consideration of the Roman imperatores, who were hardly good for the Jews.

To be sure, two millennia later, the Roman Empire seems to enjoy a generally positive aura—but then, of course, history is written by the winners. And one of those winners, the Roman historian Tacitus, was candid when he wrote that the conquering legions “make a desert and call it peace.”

As Hazony points out, empire-builders almost always say that they are operating in the name of peace—even if that means, first, a lot of killing. Cicero typified this empire-serving mindset when he declared, “In the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and for all times.” Hazony sums up this familiar pro-imperialist spin as “seek[ing] to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind, as much as possible, under a single political regime.” That sounds nice, we can observe, until it’s actually tried.

From the Roman Empire, in Hazony’s telling, it was an easy jump to the Roman Catholic Church. That is, the churchmen adopted the fallen imperial forms as they built up their new Augustinian spiritual empire. And yet, of course, the unified City of God was still an Empire of Men—even as the subjects, now in scattered domains, were Christians, not pagans.

So now that Hazony has his target in front of him, he fires at will: “For more than a thousand years, Christianity thus aligned itself, not with the idea of setting the nations free as had been proposed by the Israelite prophets, but with much the same aspiration that had given rise to imperial Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia.”

To be sure, the idea of a Catholic imperium has its champions, even in the modern era; one thinks, for example, of Ernst Robert Curtius’s irenic 1948 ode to the old days, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages.

Yet any warm nostalgia for Big Catholicism will have to be found in somebody else’s book. In the meantime, in Hazony’s book, progress toward virtuous nationalism came only with the Reformation in the 16th century. As Hazony puts it, the Catholic order finally gave way to a new “Protestant order based on independent national states.”

Indeed, for Hazony, an Israeli, it’s a treat that the new Protestants often looked to the Old Testament for inspiration as to godly covenants; thus the ancient Hebrew nationalism, however idealized, became a part of the modern nationalism.

The signal victory for the new order came in the 17th century: “It was in the Thirty Years’ War,” writes Hazony, “that the concept of a universal Christian empire, which had held sway over the West’s political imagination for thirteen centuries, was decisively defeated.” After 1648, the rule would be cuius regio, eius religio—that is, his realm, his religion.

To be sure, not everyone was on board with this new way of doing things. One such was Innocent X, who declared in a papal bull that the new Westphalian order “is and forever will be, null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, and entirely devoid of effect.”

Yet the Vatican’s protestations notwithstanding, for the next few centuries, nationalism was unmistakably on the rise—even in Catholic countries. It was nationalism, for example, that animated Spanish Catholics to rise up against Napoleonic French Catholics in 1808, and it was nationalism, too, that inspired Latin American Catholics to revolt against the Spanish a decade later.

Thus the nationalist template was established, much to Hazony’s delight, as specific peoples sought to carve out specific nations. And yes, of course, Zionism, another nationalist dream, also emerged in the 19th century.

Even in the first half of the 20th century, as colonialism disintegrated, it was widely assumed that nationalism was the worldwide wave of the future. As Hazony puts it, “A nationalist politics was commonly associated with broadmindedness 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.”

And yet the world wars won by Wilson, Roosevelt, and Churchill were the hinge toward today’s “post-nationalism.” Hazony concedes that the popular view is that “nationalism caused two world wars and the Holocaust”—and that linkage bothers him.

Thus to vindicate his nationalism-is-virtuous thesis, Hazony seeks to draw a bright line between good nationalism and bad imperialism, even if that entails the challenging task of distinguishing German nationalism from German warmongering. Hazony insists, “Nazi Germany was, in fact, an imperial state in every sense.” That is, not nationalistic.

Here, the historical record is not necessarily a friend to Hazony’s stance—and not just with regard to Hitler. After all, it was in 1916, during World War I, that the Kaiser’s government ordered the words Dem Deutschen Volke (“To the German People”) inscribed on the main facade of the Reichstag as a way of underscoring that this was a collective war for the Vaterland. And a generation later, Hitler’s incantatory invocations of Ein Volk became the stuff of Riefenstahlian legend.

So rather than arguing that early 20th century German nationalism was not, in fact, nationalism, perhaps Hazony might have had an easier time if he had simply argued that Germany produced a uniquely malignant form of nationalism—a disastrous one-off. Nationalism might have its virtues, but as with anything, there can be a dark lining.

In any case, Hazony is on stronger ground when he observes, correctly, that the only thing that saved the world from German evil was, yes, the nationalism of the Americans, British, and Russians.


Yet in the minds of many, the bitter experience of World War II poisoned the nationalist ideal. Hazony quotes Konrad Adenauer, the post-war German leader—personally unbesmirched by Nazism, but nevertheless deeply affected—declaring in his 1955 book, World Indivisible, With Liberty and Justice For All, “The age of national states has to come to an end.” Laments Hazony, “Today many have come to regard personal loyalty to the nation state and its independence as something not only unnecessary but morally suspect.”

To be sure, the post-nationalistic funk seems confined mostly to the West; there’s plenty of red-blooded nationalism, for example, in China. And yet in the West, Hazony fears, what’s filling the nationalist void is the revival of a bad idea: “imperialistic projects.”

One such project, held up for considerable scorn, is the European Union. To Hazony, the EU’s ambitions “are simply the reincarnation of threadworn medieval debates between the emperor and the pope over how the international Catholic empire should be governed.”

Interestingly enough, another project to be chided, if not quite scorned, is American foreign policy over the past couple of decades. In not-so-admiring terms, Hazony writes of a hoped-for “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.”

Such a formulation might strike some as a bit Chomskyite, but Hazony means it. He recalls that the late Charles Krauthammer busied himself with articles extolling America’s “unipolar moment” and its “universal dominion.” As Hazony explains, recalling the imperial apologia of earlier eras, “This is what empires do. They offer peace in exchange for the renunciation of a nation’s independence.”

The culpable mindset for both projects, European and American, is the age-old desire for imperial universality, which, in today’s terms, Hazony links mostly to the Left: “Much like the pharaohs and the Babylonian kings, the Roman emperors and the Roman Catholic Church until well into the modern period, as well as the Marxists of the last century, liberals, too, have their grand theory about how they are going to bring peace and economic prosperity to the world by pulling down all the borders and uniting mankind under their universal rule.”

So in Hazony’s reckoning, today’s Pope Francis, who seems to think of himself as a leftist, is actually more of a latter-day Innocent X. That is, the current pope, emphasizing transnational issues such as migration and climate change, is really seeking to revivify Catholicism’s universal dream through the politically correct undermining of nation-state sovereignty.

Indeed, lest anyone miss his point about the dangers of imperial multiculturalism, Hazony adds this zinger of warning: “Wherever the principle of the unity of unfamiliar humanity is imbedded in the heart of the state, it necessarily gives birth to conquest, to the subjugation of neighboring peoples, and to the destruction of their way of life so that the ‘realm of peace,’ as the empire understands it, can be extended.” This creeping danger to liberty, he continues, applies even to self-declared nice guys—“even where the imperial state appears, in a given moment, to be benevolent.”


By now we have figured out that Hazony is not only a hardline Israeli nationalist—for all his odes to nationalism, he thinks little of Palestinian national aspirations—but also, clearly, a man of the Right. Obviously inspired first by his Jewish faith, Hazony also gracefully invokes Edmund Burke’s hymns to tradition and family.

At the same time, Hazony’s bête noire is John Locke, godfather to both the liberals and libertarians of today. Locke is dismissed as a “utopian,” blinded by a “far-reaching depreciation of the most basic bonds that hold society together.” And Hazony disdainfully tosses Locke’s successors—all of them suffering from “a radically insufficient basis for understanding political reality”—into the same dingy pot, including Rousseau, Kant, von Mises, and Ayn Rand.

Warming to his conservative theme, he derides all those who live in prosperous security and yet “disdain the kinds of efforts that are needed to maintain the cohesion and independence of the state, happily advocating for policies that work directly to destroy its cohesion and dilute its independence.” As he says, “The Western democracies are rapidly becoming one big university campus”—and that’s not meant as a compliment.

In particular, he rips into the EU Europeans for going soft—and soft in the head—under the U.S. defense umbrella, which “keeps them in a condition of perpetual childhood, happily repeating Adenauer’s claim that by dismantling the independent national state, they have found the key to peace on earth.” Most people around the world, of course, don’t see geopolitics that way.

Hazony adds that the EU has embraced a “dogmatic imperialism” of political correctness—including, of course, hostility to Israel—“that has taken on the worst features of the medieval Catholic empire upon which it is unwittingly modeled, including a doctrine of infallibility, as well as a taste for the inquisition and the index.”

So Hazony would seem to have more than a little overlap with another staunch nationalist and Euroskeptic, Donald Trump. As the president said of the international immigration debate in June, “If you’re…pathetically weak, the country is going to be overrun with millions of people… I would rather be strong.”

Trump, of course, has made a career out of being strong, and strongly bludgeoning PC pieties, including those of the EU.

For his part, Hazony is both erudite and well reasoned, and yet he is nonetheless strongly determined to make his case. And so when he writes, “I will understand ‘globalism’ for what it obviously is—a version of the old imperialism,” we can detect that he despises today’s globalists with a Trumpian fervor.

Yes, Hazony mostly speaks through books, as opposed to, say, Twitter. And yet undeniably, The Virtue of Nationalism is a metaphorical hammer, aimed at smiting, with Maccabean force, the intellectual enemies of nationalism.

James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.



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