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A Reply to Henry George: “The Virtue of Nationalism”

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“Unless there are certain universal mores, then a preference for the national values of the United Kingdom over those of Iran seem purely aesthetic, not moral.”


I read Henry George’s recent review of Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism with interest and admiration. He and I are in agreement that the book is a seminal intellectual contribution to the current debates surrounding nationalism and liberal internationalism. As I indicated in my own recent review of the book for Quillette, the book deserves and appears to have found a large audience. Nonetheless, in that review, I highlighted several problems with the book that I do not think Professor Hazony adequately addresses. While I enjoyed George’s review, I noted that he also did not engage these issues in his positive appraisal of the book. His appraisal appears at the end of George’s review, which is mostly a good summation of the book’s central points. I will quote George at length here:

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.”

This sentiment, that the people’s voice can most directly be heard through the medium of the nation-state, is at the heart of Hazony’s book and seems to be the locus of George’s admiration. Unfortunately, I think there are problems with this sentiment that need to be addressed. I also believe that liberal internationalism needn’t be as alienating and undemocratic as both Hazony and George believe. In this brief Reply, I will try to explain my reasoning on both points. 

Nationalism and Belonging

Professor Hazony’s book has two concurrent ambitions. The first is to develop an intellectual defense of the Westphalian nation-state system, globally predominant between 1648 and 1948. The second is to critique liberal internationalism as it has developed since the end of the Second World War. Professor Hazony sees the Westphalian nation-state system and liberal internationalism as fundamentally incompatible, and he is deeply concerned that the latter has quickly superseded the former. As he puts it in the opening to The Virtue of Nationalism:

“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 or people united under a single regime of law, promulgated and maintained by a single supranational authority.”

It is worth noting that the normative juxtaposition here is already quite striking, with “free and independent” nationhood being contrasted with an “order or people united under a single regime of law” maintained by a “single supranational authority.” This association of freedom with nationhood and “imperialism” and unfreedom with liberal internationalism is at the heart of the book. As I mentioned in my initial review, this is, in many respects, quite problematic. Hazony’s underpinning theory of political legitimacy is consent-based. He believes the nation-state has legitimate authority to govern because it is constituted by individuals granting political authority to clans, then to tribes, and finally to nation states. Hazony believes that this is where the buck should stop—and that nation-states would then be unwise to cede political authority to supra-national orders such as the European Union or United Nations. 

This strikes me as a rather strange leap in logic; if the individual can cede authority to the clan, the clan to the tribe, and the tribe to the nation-state, why can the nation-state not cede authority to an international order?  This is especially true when a considerable number of people in those nation-states may support membership in such an international order, even where it entails restrictions on Westphalian sovereignty. As I indicated, this restriction on the consenting transference of authority to supranational authorities strikes me as arbitrary from the standpoint of a consent-based theory of political legitimacy.

This is where a Reply to Henry George becomes important. I believe that George highlights the main motivation, which actually underpins Hazony’s book: nationalism gives people a way to feel that they are “part of the story.” This emphasis on effective ties between people forming bonds of commonality is central to The Virtue of Nationalism, and it strikes me as the real political insight Hazony is offering. The consent-based account of political legitimacy he offers seems largely secondary. It’s almost as though Hazony is unwilling to entirely dispense with the Lockean and Kantian-type argument that consent is fundamental if a given political order is to be considered just. 

The United Kingdom was only united after decades of military conflict wherein the Welsh and Irish were conquered, and the Scottish gradually subjugated. The modern Netherlands went through an unusual process of expanding through consent, military conquest, military subjection, and so on.

And indeed, even the many examples of virtuous nation-states given by Hazony don’t really mesh with such a consent-based narrative. Ignoring their extensive histories of imperialism, none of the exemplary nation-states presented by Hazony were founded on even domestic processes of consent. The United Kingdom was only united after decades of military conflict wherein the Welsh and Irish were conquered, and the Scottish gradually subjugated. The modern Netherlands went through an unusual process of expanding through consent, military conquest, military subjection, and so on. 

Only modern Israel really embodies such a consent-based narrative. And even in that country, one can point to the significant problems associated with the ongoing conflict with Palestine and controversies surrounding Jewish settlement. So consent was in no ways foundational to their legitimacy. The reason these nations gradually settled into their current and relatively stable forms was a long process—sometimes passive and occasionally brutal—of constructing a shared identity and communal history. The British engaged in immense programs of economic integration and establishing mechanisms of political representation to link gradually its disparate peoples together. This, of course, meant gradually eliminating or marginalizing traditional languages like Welsh or Gaelic in favor of English. The Netherlands gradually came together through a shared commitment to economic gain and military protection. And even the modern Israeli state has gone to great lengths to promote learning Hebrew to strengthen claims to represent worldwide Judaism. 

My point with this narrative is not to dismiss or criticize these efforts at constructing a sense of national identity. Some deserve to be condemned, notably the British invasions, while others, such as the Israeli emphasis on learning Hebrew, are quite admirable.  The point is that arguments that nation-states came together based on consent seem unconvincing. Instead, nation-states emerged through a long and dialectical process of gradually assimilating various local cultural practices and languages into a shared identity promulgated by state institutions. Over time, these processes came to be naturalized and regarded as little more than the way things are.  This is why it took until the 18th and 19th century for nationalism to truly emerge as an explicit political ideology with definite features, in the works of Herder, Burke, and others. It had taken at least a century for the nation to become a naturalized idea associated with the moral formal and legal strictures of the Westphalian state system established in 1648. 

None of this problematizes Hazony and George’s claim that the nation-state, even if not a natural entity, is a source of narrative belonging for many people. That this is a historical accident is, by no means, a knockdown argument against it. And indeed, as Hazony and others might point out, even if the nation-state is an accidental construction of history, that does not imply that it is not a fortunate one. Invoking Hayekian reasoning, Hazony and George might argue that the nation-state “evolved” as a fortunate accident to accommodate our congruent needs for a sense of communal belonging and large scale political organization. Given this, it would be unwise to tinker with it.

Conclusion: The Problems With Nationalism

The potential benefits of nationalism have indeed been underappreciated by liberal internationalists (including myself). The fixation of many liberal internationalists with universal human rights as the basis for statehood has often ignored that there are other forms of communal belonging which hold a political order together. My problem with the reasoning of Hazony and George is the contention that the forms of communal belonging necessary for a stable political order can only be truly developed in a nation-context. My own normative commitment to a form of liberal internationalism is rooted in my belief that it presents the best chance for humanity to overcome its many collective challenges, from war to global climate change. As important as these are, I will not discuss them here. I will simply provide two arguments against the nationalist idea that the nation-state is the only possible form of free and meaningful political order.

The first is the central problem of naturalizing what is, in fact, a highly contingent and accidental form of political order. As I highlighted, the national sensibilities of even Hazony’s chosen examples did not simply evolve organically. They were very much directed and oriented by state institutions concerned to create a national identity. As mentioned, this is not a knock against nationalism as such. But it does problematize claims that no other political order is conceivable. One needn’t buy into some of the progressive teleological visions of history Hazony rightfully criticizes to believe the nation state needn’t be the ideal political form. 

As George nicely puts it “nationalism is not a force to be taken likely,” especially given its own history of promoting xenophobia and violence. This is true even in the examples given by Hazony.  The United Kingdom and the Netherlands both engaged in immense empire building projects at the expense of countless lives and involving the destruction of many other cultures. Indeed, the least convincing segment of The Virtue of Nationalism, as I pointed out in my initial review, is its historical claims that nation-states tend to be more pacific. If the United Kingdom and the Netherlands are the exemplars, I remain disappointed. Certainly, it is no utopian fallacy to imagine that one day a better political form might be conceivable; one which isn’t prone to these same failings.

This brings me to my second problem. As Ian Shapiro has nicely put it when discussing the “Burkean outlook” of many forms of nationalism, there is always a problem in who gets to decide what values the nation-state will uphold. One person’s rich cultural or religious tradition may well be another’s hegemonic ideology. This is where the problem of political consent takes on a new significance, which is why I suspect Hazony has a mixed appreciation for it. On the one hand, having a stable cultural or religious tradition as the core of a national identity may well provide the sense of belonging many crave. On the other hand, it may also prove an exceptionally repressive force in other circumstances. For instance, Hazony and George both bring up the examples of Turkey and Iran to juxtapose the European criticism of Israeli military actions to the more blasé attitude taken towards the former countries and their atrocities. But both of these examples problematize other aspects of Hazony’s arguments.

Both Erdogan and the Iranian Mullah’s have often appealed to national values and state sovereignty to justify their brutally oppressive practices. How does the consistent nationalist criticize them? Hazony might claim this is an empty problem, since the nationalist is, by definition, non-utopian. The nationalist accepts that some nation-states will hold to immoral values, others will not, but this is still preferable to imperialist liberal internationalism and universalism. But then on what basis does one criticize what some nation-states do as bad, and praise others as good, without relying on certain universalistic moral norms? Hazony insists that his argument needn’t incline towards relativism, but that isn’t entirely clear to me. Unless there are certain universal mores, then a preference for the national values of the United Kingdom over those of Iran seem purely aesthetic, not moral. This seems unacceptable. If there are universal mores it problematizes certain nationalist claims, since what some nations choose to do may simply be wrong.

These two problems strike me as the most difficult for Hazony and George to address. Saying that, this shouldn’t detract from the worth of Hazony’s book. As George points out in his Review, it is an excellent contribution to an important conversation. Hopefully, it will continue to provoke ongoing discussion and debate.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

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