“David Ben-Gurion, on the other hand, embodies the opposite view to that of the EU. Auschwitz was possible because there was one nation not in existence: Israel.”
Yoram Hazony, of the Herzl Institute in Israel, has written a book that not only explains the need for nations. He defends the national state against liberal internationalism, which he argues is really a form of imperialism. As he says, this argument is the “fault-line” at the “heart of Western public life,” and it “is not going away.” He makes the case that while there is no universal right to national self-determination, a world of nation-states is the one we should be aiming for. His case is persuasive, and this book will be invaluable to those who wish to present a reasonable counter-argument against the prevailing liberal hegemony of today.
Hazony divides the book into three parts. Part one, titled “Nationalism and Western Freedom,” lays the historical, conceptual and philosophical foundations for the rest of the book. Part two, titled “The Case for the Nation State,” forms the heart of Hazony’s argument concerning why the national state is the best way of organizing human society, and why an order of national states is the best order for humanity. Part three, titled “Anti-Nationalism and Hate,” deals with the objections to nationalism, which comes from a liberal internationalist perspective. All three sections present a clear and lucid argument, written in engaging and eloquent prose that often rises above the plain English effectively employed for clear communication, and moves into flights of elegance that lifts the book above the average thesis of political philosophy.
What is Nationalism?
Hazony argues that fundamentally nationalism 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.” In Hazony’s view, a nation is a community united around a common culture, a distinct language, a shared religious tradition, and a history of struggle against adversity. This view of the world, according to Hazony, provides the best way for humanity to organize itself, in opposition to tribal anarchy and imperialist conquest, both of which lead to conflict. As Henry R. Nau says in National Review in response to Donald Trump’s position on American sovereignty, basing some sort of world order around the primacy of the national-state does not mean that the inevitable outcome is isolationism. What he calls “conservative internationalism” involves national-states cooperating with each other when necessary, engaging in dialogue to solve problems. The key thing that should be remembered at all times is that the national-state is foundational to how we as people experience the world.
Part One discusses the two views of political order that have predominantly governed humanity throughout history: tribalism or imperialism. Most human societies have either been constituted as small tribes, living in a state of anarchy (no state), often in conflict with each other, or as empires, made up of a multiplicity of tribes and nations, part of an entity that sees the rule of the world as its divinely inspired goal. Hazony takes the example of the Biblical kingdom of Mosaic Israel as the midpoint between these two extremes. In the Torah, God gave Israel to the Jewish tribes, and no more. The tribes came together to form a nation, defined by national boundaries. The goal was not to spread God’s word through conquest but to manifest it in one territory. As God instructs Moses in Deuteronomy:
“And when you come near, opposite the children of Ammon, harass them not, nor contend with them, for I will not give you of the land of the children of Ammon any possession, for I have given it to the children of Lot for possession.” (Deuteronomy, 2:19)
This was in direct opposition to the worldview adhered to by the Egyptian Pharaohs, Assyrian and Babylonian kings, who saw themselves as divine heads of an empire blessed by the gods whose mission it was to spread the blessing of their rule over the world. As Giles Fraser says in his review, “The point about the Biblical ideal of a national kingdom is that it is where people are free and self-determining, and absolutely not a launch pad for some wider imperial ambition.”
The Mosaic view of limited territorial aspiration was repudiated by the Catholic Church, which was already religiously universalist in orientation as a result of Christianity’s call to spread God’s world around the world. The Church was also a politically Universalist entity, having grown out of a Universalist empire, namely Rome. This led to the creation of the Holy Roman Empire in the early medieval period, which centered on Germany, whose goal was to resurrect Rome under God across Europe under the leadership of German rule.
The Catholic Construction was opposed in the 16th and 17th centuries by the growth of Protestantism. According to Hazony, the possibility for resistance to the universal religious and political Catholic hegemony was always latent to Christianity, inhabiting the Old Testament with its visions of a world of independent nations. This provided religious grounds for the nations of Western Europe to adopt a more “national” Christianity, particularly in France, which Hazony argues modeled itself on “the biblical Davidic kingdom and stubbornly resisted the control of popes and emperors.”
This shaping of nationally inflected Christianity also took place in England, Poland and Czechia. Protestantism—shaped by Old Testament influenced preachers like John Calvin—with its emphasis on a direct and more personal interpretation of scripture and therefore a more direct line to God, was primed to embrace different national cultures. As Hazony says, “The self-image of these Protestant peoples as rightfully independent in the face of imperial opposition was often explicitly modeled on biblical Israel’s effort to wrest its national and religious freedom from the dictates of Egyptian and Babylonian universal empire.”
The end of the Thirty Years War with the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 saw the decisive defeat of the idea of the universal Christian empire as embodied by the German and Spanish Holy Roman Empire and enshrined the emerging system of national states as the new reality. This new Protestant Construction, made up of the national states of England, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Sweden and Denmark, was built upon two principles that both stemmed from the Old Testament. These were 1. The Moral Minimum Required for Legitimate Government and 2. The Right of National Self-Determination. The Moral Minimum centered around the ruler “devoting himself to “the protection of his people in their life, family, and property, to justice in the courts, to the maintenance of the sabbath, and to the public recognition of the one God—roughly, the biblical Ten Precepts given at Sinai, which both Luther and Calvin regarded as a natural law that could be recognized by all men.” National Self Determination is self-explanatory: nations that are cohesive and strong enough have the right to govern themselves according to their laws and traditions without outside interference. The Moral Minimum was held to be binding on all nations, but this did not entail a uniformity of national expression. This worldview held sway Hazony argues up until the Enlightenment.
Parts Two and Three of the book need to be taken together as they’re inextricably linked. Hazony describes how nations are formed in Part Two: individuals are born into families, are raised by them and are loyal to them, These bonds of mutual loyalty are then transferred through the family to the clan, which in time is transferred to the nation. This view of the world rests on the idea of bonds of mutual loyalty, of communities growing from families, to clans, to tribes to nations. At each stage, the transference of loyalty to bigger and bigger units is given through the expansion of these mutual bonds. These bonds were not chosen but were created and nurtured from birth. As Edmund Burke argued, they bind society together in a covenant among the living, the dead, and those yet to be born. The coming together of different tribes to form a nation is not a process undertaken by rational, autonomous individuals. Heads of tribes undertook it to become part of the larger grouping. These bonds of mutual loyalty, which tie the family to the clan to the tribe, enabled the individual to feel like he or she is part of the process, providing as it does a sense of a singular “we.”
This view of the world is in direct contradiction to strains of the Enlightenment worldview. As Hazony has argued elsewhere, those like Hobbes, Locke and their descendants are rationalists whose aim is to, “deduce universally valid principles from self-evident axioms, as in mathematics.” In his Second Treatise on Government, Locke asserts that through universal reason, humans are open to uniform political truths. Every individual possesses “perfect freedom” and “perfect equality.” As a result of this, “obligation to political institutions arises only from the consent of the individual.” Political order, in this worldview, is created and expanded on grounds of individuals “pursuing life, liberty and property in a world of transactions based on consent.” All relationships are voluntary and temporary alliances, while all group relationships are simply aggregates of individuals and last only as long as they are beneficial. Particularism of any kind limits individual freedom and therefore personal flourishing and well-being. In response to this worldview, I would just say, paraphrasing Burke, that you don’t form a voluntary contract with your parents.
This view of the individual partnered with the Enlightenment idea of universal values. This found its expression in Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative: “Act only on the maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should be a universal law.” Hazony argues that in the liberal worldview, the individual and the universal are the mirror of the other. They lead, as Kant argues in Perpetual Peace, to the dismantling of the nation-state in favor of a world government that allows the full expression of individual freedom and the protection of his property. The fact that this leads to anarchy is seemingly unimportant, and that in order to keep the peace coercion would be required that would be decidedly illiberal in character. This can sound like the fever dream of the worst kind of Little-Englander. And yet, Ludwig von Mises argued that we must, “create a frame of mind [of] nothing less than unqualified, unconditional acceptance of liberalism. Liberal thinking must permeate all nations, liberal principles must pervade all political institutions.” He further advocated for a “world super-state.”
Friedrich Hayek meanwhile argued that applying the “liberal point of view” would lead to an international federal state, removing the boundaries between nations. On the other hand, as Samuel Goldman argues, not all liberals took this view. J.S. Mill, Alexis de Tocqueville, Benjamin Constant, down to Isaiah Berlin and Raymond Aron all saw the national-state as the best form of human community. Were these people not liberals? Were they liberalizing wrong? It’s even more confusing as Hazony quotes Mill rather extensively and approvingly.
Hazony has a point however when comparing the Holy Roman Empire and the European Union. As Johm Gray argues, the branch of liberalism (social, economic or both) that has been the chief ideology of our governing elites over the last 30 years is just the latest example of man’s religious impulse. This type of liberalism, whether applied to domestic or international politics, is the latest in a strain of dogmatic utopian belief systems that sees its abstract truths as self-evident, on a road to inevitable triumph and the end of history, supposedly reached in 1991. All that remains is for mankind to wake up and adopt these truths for their own benefit or to have them enforced through coercion if necessary.
A prime example of this trend is the EU. Hazony puts the argument that there have been two reactions to Auschwitz: Europe and Israel. European elites took the view that Hitler was an extreme nationalist, Nazism was extreme nationalism, and so World War II was started by nationalism. The answer then was to do away with the idea of nations completely. For Hazony, “Many Europeans, too, see Auschwitz as being at the heart of the lesson of the Second World War. But the conclusions they draw are precisely the opposite of those drawn by Jews. Following Kant, they see Auschwitz as the ultimate expression of that barbarism, that brutal debasement of humanity, which is national particularism … According to this view it is not Israel that is the answer to Auschwitz, but the European Union.” Nevermind that Hitler hated the national-state and was totally invested in recreating the Holy Roman Empire along racial lines: hence, calling it the Third Reich.
As Natan Sharansky argues in Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, those who run the EU would prefer if the people who live in Europe simply gave up their national loyalties completely. From the EU federalists’ point of view, the best way to give their project legitimacy is to weaken people’s ties to their national identity, and redirect them to the EU itself. Historian Pedro Martín Correa-Arroyo has called for a more European history of Europe, “in detriment, to a certain extent, of the traditional national historical traditions,” arguing that “we are witnessing the process of the ‘denationalisation of history.”
The EU, wedded to historicism, wants to free people from their ties to the nation, now viewed as prejudiced and exclusionary. However, as a result, it seems to be on a path to removing constraints that, to paraphrase Arthur Milikh, engender civility, instead encouraging a ‘re-barbarisation’ of the European continent. For the EU, the only way to ensure peace for the future and to avoid Auschwitz is to do eliminate the national state, replacing it with a technocracy that legitimizes the EU machine. The problem is that people need boundaries within which to act. Lacking them, we are lost in a sea of infinite choice, paralyzed by indecision, subject to the misery and nihilism of what Zygmunt Bauman calls liquid modernity.
The EU seems blind to the idea that its historicism has left it unable to grasp the risks it is taking by encouraging the dissolution of the national-state. If the public intellectuals like Arroyo, Habermas and others, and those in charge of policy seriously considered history before the twentieth century, they might realise that the national-state is arguably essential to providing the order that ensures stability, and that it has provided one of the best protections against external and inter-tribal violence in the history of humanity. The EU is playing with fire by presiding over a population split into different sub-national identity groups. This fire could burn us all if it gets out of control and social order breaks down along tribal conflict lines, which is a strong possibility.
There is also a racist double standard here: Israelis are viewed as European, so they’re held to the same moral standards regarding their adherence or not to liberal dogma. Hence, they’re called Nazis for refusing to let themselves be wiped off the map, however legitimate or illegitimate the actions they take may be.
David Ben-Gurion, on the other hand, embodies the opposite view to that of the EU. Auschwitz was possible because there was one nation not in existence: Israel. As he argued, if Israel existed, Jews would have had both a safe haven to escape to and a source of strength. A Jewish nation was the answer so that the Holocaust couldn’t happen again. This is where the intolerance of the imperialist comes into play. Because nationalism is responsible for World War II and all other evil things, Israel is now evil for refusing to submit to the glorious vision of the borderless liberal world. Nevermind that this would likely achieve exactly the thing that Israel was created to prevent ever happening again.
There is also a racist double standard here: Israelis are viewed as European, so they’re held to the same moral standards regarding their adherence or not to liberal dogma. Hence, they’re called Nazis for refusing to let themselves be wiped off the map, however legitimate or illegitimate the actions they take may be. The liberal path to salvation Europe has taken and which has allowed it to reach “moral maturity” is rejected by Israel, which is now seen as a nation of former Europeans who have apostatized from this road to moral self-realization.
This view is now also taken of Britain and America. Meanwhile, the Iranian theocracy, Turkey or any other despotic regime in the region are given a free pass because they’re not European, so, therefore, aren’t morally culpable for their actions, having not reached the age where they can attain morality or reason. While the Serbs, rightly, were condemned for their barbarism, those who continue to oppress the Kurds are let off the hook because they’re still not adult enough to behave in a moral way. Thus are the prejudices of past European imperialism reborn under a façade of moral superiority and a compassion that masks contempt.
Nationalism is not a force to be taken lightly. But then, tribalism and imperialism can be far worse. Nationalism, if disciplined, could provide the best way to organize society by giving people the feeling that they are part of the story, that their voices matter. That is one of the major reasons why people voted the way they did in the Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S. election. When these voices are ignored by those who presume to govern according to some divine plan, frustrations and feelings of powerlessness grow. As Yoram Hazony argues in his book, a system of national states provides the midpoint between tribal conflict and imperial conquest or indifference. While I do not agree with everything he says, his book is an invaluable contribution to the debate currently raging across the West today. It would be nice if we could engage in that debate with the civility and eloquence on display in this book, but that conversation seems sadly unlikely at the moment.
Henry George is a freelance writer living in the UK. He holds an MA in War Studies from King’s College London.