Nationalism is not a dirty word

Nationalism has returned to the front pages. The Western intelligentsia is appalled. Should they be?

Detail of “The Israelites gathering manna in the desert”, c.1626, by Rubens

Over the past few years, nationalism has returned to the front pages. The Western intelligentsia is almost uniformly appalled. They decry the cynical leaders using nationalist sentiments to exploit the uneducated masses. They counter with a flawed syllogism they deem so simple that even those masses can understand it: Nationalism caused two world wars. World wars are bad. Therefore, nationalism is bad. For masses too dim to grasp even that argument, they simplify it further: Hitler was a nationalist. Curiously, the masses remain unpersuaded.

Readers content withthat level of analysis should avoid Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism. Hazony has the audacity to pose thoughtful questions: what is nationalism? If you’re not a nationalist, what are you? Is all nationalism the same, or are there different types of nationalism? Are there good nationalisms as well as bad ones? Did nationalism really cause two world wars? Was Hitler’s National Socialism actually a nationalist movement? If not, what are examples of nationalism?

Hazony frames the discussion early on:

[N]ationalism . . . 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 . . . 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.

The rest, as they say, is commentary. Most of the book expands upon the tension between nationalism and imperialism. It does so in ways that many readers may find surprising, and all should find provocative.

Imperial governance has dominated much of the world through much of recorded history. In an empire, one group — the Emperor’s — conquers many others and “unifies” them beneath a single regime. Empires are always multi-ethnic. Their constituent ethnicities are rarely equal. The Emperor’s tribe, faith, laws, customs, and culture always have pride of place. Members of other ethnic groups are expected (or more often, required) to recognise the superiority of the Emperor’s people and ways. If they’re lucky, the Emperor will return the favor by granting them considerable autonomy; many captive peoples have governed their own internal affairs as loyal second-class citizens of an empire. The less fortunate may experience slavery, prostitution, exile, or genocide.

Nationalists are far more concerned with self-determination than with conquest. Nationalists believe that their own bloodlines, ideologies, faiths, laws, customs, or cultures have forged them into an extended family or tribe — a nation. Nationalists believe that their defining national traits are right for them. They’re content assuming that other nations’ defining traits may be fine for others. Nationalists don’t particularly want to conquer other nations — they wouldn’t quite know what to do with them if they did. That’s not to say that nationalists are inherently benevolent or pacifist; they’re simply uninterested in imposing their mores on others. When nationalists wage offensive wars, it’s typically because they want land or resources that some other nation possesses. Victorious nationalists may then become fairly nasty to any people they acquire along with those resources.

Many empires, as Hazony notes, tout their contributions to peace and prosperity — as beneficial for the welfare of the conquered as it is for the conquerors. They even develop catchy slogans, like Pax Romana or White Man’s Burden, to emphasise their benign goal of taming and civilising the savage barbarians they conquer.

Some empires take that argument to an extreme. They begin with a universalist ideology — a set of beliefs designed to improve the world. Christianity, Islam, liberalism, and socialism are all examples of such universal ideologies. Adherents of these philosophies believe that they embody universal truths applicable everywhere and to everyone. Most readers are likely to be far more sympathetic to Woodrow Wilson’s call to “make the world safe for democracy” than to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a global caliphate, , but both stem equally from the belief that a single, universal approach is best for everyone.

Following Hazony’s distinction between nationalism and imperialism, the two world wars should serve as a caution against imperialism — not nationalism. WWI pitted two peaking imperial powers (England and France) and one empire on its last legs (Russia) against two dying empires (Ottoman and Austrian) and one ascendant power with imperial objectives (Germany). The US joined when Wilson’s progressive imperial impulse permitted the country to abandon the anti-imperial nationalism that had governed its thinking from James Monroe until William McKinley. (Significantly, Warren Harding won the first post-WWI election promising “a return to normalcy”.) WWII was even clearer: Hitler’s combination of racial science and national socialism made for a toxic universalist ideology. His Third Reich was organised as an explicit imperial hierarchy.
In today’s world, Hazony identifies the EU as a stealth empire. Though the EU doesn’t see itself in such terms, its battles against the rising nationalist sentiment in its midst are revealing its imperial character. The EU’s governing class consists of sophisticated globalists who have imbibed a French view of rights and a German view of economics. They impose their will on people and businesses through an impenetrable permanent bureaucracy. They impose their will on national governments through courts and tribunals. They are unaccountable to anyone other than themselves. They consider themselves liberal, progressive, enlightened, and benign, and they may well be — but they are far from democratic.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of Europe’s most prominent nationalist leaders hail from the nations that fared poorly during Europe’s last imperialist wave. The Polish, Hungarian, and Czech nations have vivid memories of captivity. They appreciate the hard work necessary to preserve national identity while chafing beneath imperial rule — particularly the rule of a universalist empire. Having regained the rights of self-determination and national self-expression only recently, they are loath to hand it over quietly. Across the EU, nationalism is on the rise among the masses who can’t recall ever agreeing to relinquish — much less to denigrate — the national symbols and cultures that gave their lives meaning. That anger may have bubbled over first in the UK — in the form of Brexit — but similar movements are likely to arise elsewhere, soon.

For his exemplar of a successful nation, Hazony turns to the Hebrew Bible. Unlike Homer’s focus on heroic individuals, the Bible tells the story of a heroic nation — the Nation of Israel. Moses, a secretly-Israelite Prince of Egypt, retrieves the captive nation of his birth from its enslavement in the empire that adopted him. He spends 40 years in the desert building 12 tribes into a coherent nation bound for the national homeland that is its birthright. More importantly, Moses provides the young nation with purpose, definition, and meaning. The Israelites bond with the one true God, and master intricate rules and rituals that make them unique. Moses never suggests that any other nation adopt the Israelite rites or symbols. In fact, the Bible is clear. When it comes to the non-Israelite nations, it commands only a code of basic decency, the seven Noahide laws.

Through wars, alliances, and betrayals spanning the centuries between Moses and David, the Israelite nation encounters many other nations — Amorites, Edomites, Amalekites, Philistines, etc. Each of those nations has its own (false) gods, with whom it has developed a special relationship. False or not, each god makes demands on its own people. Each nation has its own rituals, adheres to its own legal codes, displays its own national symbols, and claims its own territory.
Even at their most successful, the Israelites remain a nation rather than form an empire. David founds a unified kingdom that splits in two the moment his grandson increases an already high tax burden. From there, the Biblical saga follows the relationship between the two states of the Israelite nation and the God that defines them, tracking the times that the Israelites remain true to their distinct national character and those in which they stray to emulate other nations.

The Biblical narrative ends where it began — with the Israelite nation captive of a multi-ethnic empire. Following an extended period of infidelity to the true God at the heart of their national self-definition, the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian Empires subsume the Israelites. Before the canon closes, the conquered Israelite nation experiences both the worst and best fortunes of captive nations. The genocidal downside arises when Haman, Viceroy of a Persian Empire spanning 127 nations from India to Ethiopia, complains: “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of th[e] kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king’s laws; therefore it profiteth not the king to suffer them. If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed.” Shortly after they escape that fate, Cyrus the Great allows the Israelites to return to their homeland and rebuild some of their national institutions — as loyal minority subjects of his Empire.

Hazony’s many references to the Bible are well chosen. Few national stories are as widely known. Most of history details the growth, exploits and subsequent decline of empires. Imperial stories span continents and touch many different peoples. National histories tend to be localised and parochial. Outsiders typically find them far less interesting — and for good reason. Many of the critiques of nationalism are well founded: Nationalists are parochial. Their interests are localised. They’re content to accept behaviour among other nations that they consider unacceptable for their own. They assume responsibility for their own co-nationals without feeling remotely responsible for the plight of others. They believe that charity begins at home, and favour those to whom they feel kinship even if others can demonstrate a greater need. They balk at international laws that conflict with their own. They’re more interested in preserving their own right to do things their own way than in adopting universal norms and standards. They’re even OK setting up a rights-based democracy for their own people while living peacefully with authoritarian neighbours. Terrible, thoughtless, cold people, those nationalists.

Yet Hazony still insists that nationalism is a virtue. Note carefully his choice of titles. A book on “the virtues” of nationalism would characterise nationalism as an approach with many upsides. That book is not this book — though Hazony does include ample material about those upsides. No, to Hazony, nationalism itself is “a virtue”.

Philosophers and theologians like to enumerate virtues — characteristics that make people good people and societies good societies. The “Seven Contrary Virtues” were a seventh-century formulation of specific defences against Pope Gregory’s “Seven Deadly Sins”: humility to counter pride, kindness to counter envy, abstinence to counter gluttony, chastity to counter lust, patience to counter anger, liberality to counter greed, and diligence to counter sloth.

Hazony sees nationalism as a virtue in precisely that sense; it is the counter to the deadly sin of imperialism. And it is indeed a virtue because for all its faults, “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” is the only way to allow us all to be comfortable in our own skins while happily enabling others to live and let live.

There, in a nutshell, is the virtue of nationalism.