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In Defense of Nationalism: Notes on Yoram Hazony and His Critics

July 3rd, 2019 | 18 min read

By Brad Littlejohn

You didn’t have to be a close follower of contemporary political theory to know that Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism was going to be the equivalent of shooting a paintball into a hornet’s nest. Here was a book with something to make nearly everyone mad—or nearly everyone with influence among the American intelligentsia, at any rate. Hazony lost no time in throwing the neo-liberals and neo-conservatives under the bus for their imperialist dreams of global market hegemony or global American hegemony.

The cosmopolitan rights-and-diversity discourse of progressivism was anathematized as yet another imperial project by the brazen particularism of Hazony’s moral and political vision. And as for the Roman Catholic intellectuals who for the last couple decades have stood at the vanguard of morally robust American conservatism, Hazony reminded them that their imperialist DNA runs as deep as anyone’s.

In place of all these imperialisms, Hazony called for the renewal of nationalism, and specifically a nationalism rooted in the soil of the Hebrew Bible and magisterial Protestantism. Indeed, it is difficult to remember the last time any offered such a full-throated defense of Protestant political theory; certainly I cannot recall any Protestant public intellectual half so willing to speak up on behalf of this legacy as Hazony, an Orthodox Jew, has been.

Sure enough, Hazony’s book has been turning heads left and right, provoking a firestorm of criticism from many quarters but also generating a wave of enthusiasm among conservatives starved for authentic political philosophy. ISI awarded Hazony’s book the honor of 2019 Conservative Book of the Year, and, building on its success, Hazony has helped organize a new paleo-conservative thinktank, the Edmund Burke Foundation, and a major gathering in DC scheduled for mid-July, the National Conservatism Conference.

Although The Virtue of Nationalism offers a much-needed blast of fresh perspective to our stale political debates, and an impassioned restatement of discarded but once commonplace conservative principles, it also leaves several important questions unanswered. Sadly, much of the discussion surrounding the book thus far has failed to advance the conversation, since many readers seem more ready to judge the book by its title than by its arguments. “Nationalism” is a dirty word nowadays, so surely anyone professing to praise its virtues does not deserve much of a hearing.

But what does Hazony mean by “nationalism”?

“Nationalism” vs. “Imperialism”

Hazony pointedly refuses to use nationalism in its common popular sense of “excessive patriotism,” or “dedication to advancing the interests of one’s own nation at the expense of others.” It seems safe to say that Hazony’s usage does not fit any of the seven definitions of “nationalism” offered on

Of course, some might say that Hazony can hardly complain about being misunderstood if he insists on using the word in such an idiosyncratic way. However, he could not be much more clear and emphatic than he is, defining the term crisply on page 3 as “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.”[1] Clearly, Hazony does value patriotism, and thinks that statesmen should appropriately prioritize the interests of their own people, but he is not so naïve as to imagine that such pursuit of self-interest will automatically generate peace and harmony.

Rather, Hazony’s nationalism is a principled standpoint that seeks to maximize national self-determination and independence, which means of course that it must be vigilant against the efforts of individual powerful nations to aggrandize themselves at the expense of their neighbors and the rest of the world. Such projects of national self-aggrandizement are not properly speaking nationalistic in Hazony’s sense of the word, but on the contrary imperialistic. Thus Hazony’s many critics who accuse him of failing to recognize that nationalism has historically bred imperialism are simply failing to attend to his stipulated definitions.[2]

Of course, imperialism, for Hazony, takes many forms. In general it is any project “which seeks to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind, as much as possible, under a single political regime.” Thus Hitler’s ambitions for a globally dominant Third Reich built on German ethnicity, Soviet Russia’s ambitions for a world state founded on communism, and the medieval Catholic Church’s policy of a Christendom under the See of Peter were all imperial projects. But so—more controversially and more interestingly—are the United Nations, the European Union, the World Trade Organization, and similar international institutions, in Hazony’s argument. For many readers, this is where Hazony loses them. How can one possibly say that a voluntary multilateral international organization committed to the establishment and upholding of international law is in the same category as Rome or the Hapsburgs or Napoleonic France?

Of course, to ask the question is to at least partially answer it—although we are liable to equate “imperialism” with self-serving domination, many if not most great historic empires consciously saw themselves as the guardians of peace and international order, and many of them rested largely on semi-voluntary relations among their constituent nations. Good intentions, commitment to the rule of law, and even elements of consent do not necessarily exonerate a regime from the charge of imperialism.

In fact, if we dig deeper into Hazony’s argument, we can see why it is that these modern forms of “imperialism,” which he writes chiefly to discredit, are in some ways worse than many older versions. At first glance, Hazony’s preference for nationalism can seem somewhat arbitrary—why should a principled standpoint committed to a plural world order necessarily trump one committed to a unitary order? For Hazony, the crucial difference is one of epistemology, as becomes evident in the way that Immanuel Kant pops up again and again as the bete noire of imperialism. Imperialist political orders, Hazony argues, are at their most pernicious when they arise out of an abstract a priori rationalism that seeks to grasp the good for man as such, that claims to tell us what human nature, in its ideal form, should be, rather than taking its start in men and cultures as they are.

Whether it is the homo sapiens of the Enlightenment or the homo economicus or homo arbitrans of the post-WWII liberal order, Hazony sees these visions as fatally flawed by their inattention to the stubborn pluriformity of human social reality, and the complex loves, hopes, and fears that guide peoples in their search for the political good. Imperialism replaces the rule of old traditions and local customs with formalistic procedures devised by distant bureaucrats. In insisting on a thoroughgoing anthropological and political empiricism, Hazony calls conservatism back to its long-neglected Burkean roots.[3]

The Role of Mutual Loyalties

Among the empirical data that Hazony charges liberal theory with neglecting is the fundamental role of “mutual loyalties.” Suggesting in chapter VIII that modern political thought has been overly preoccupied with the procedural and constitutional questions that belong to what he calls “the philosophy of government,” he proposes to instead turn our attention back to the much more fundamental questions involved in a “philosophy of political order,” questions such as: “What allows a community to be sufficiently cohesive to be ordered as a state? Is the state formed when independent individuals consent to living under government, or through the unification of previously existing cohesive communities?”

In so doing, Hazony wants to shift our attention from questions about the conditions of legitimacy for a political order, which have dominated Western debates since Locke, to the conditions for sustaining a political order, the conditions that ensure that individuals see themselves as part of a larger unit and are willing to see its good as their good, its triumphs as their triumphs, its freedom as their freedom.

Most fundamental among these conditions is the idea of “mutual loyalties.” Using the model of a family and a business as contrasting types, Hazony highlights the extent to which modern political philosophy has come to treat the relations of political order as fundamentally like those of a business: “governed primarily on the basis of the individual’s assessments as to what will enhance his physical welfare and protect and increase his property, and by his ongoing consent to the terms of an agreement with others for the joint attainment of these purposes” (83).

In fact, however, a closer look at both the historical foundations of most political orders, as well as the conditions that enable states to continue to flourish, reveals relations more like those of a family: bonds of mutual loyalty anchored, indeed, by an initial act of mutual consent, but sustained through thick and thin by a sense of mutual belonging, mutual indebtedness, and mutual duty to “pass on to another generation an inheritance that has been bequeathed to us by our parents and their ancestors” (85). Whereas the former model encourages us to ask at every moment whether the arrangement is serving our interests, and to cut loose if it ceases to, the latter model encourages us “to stand true in the face of adversity, to refuse the urge to start everything anew” (88).

Put another way, Hazony grants the first premise of liberal political thought—“that the human individual is by nature fiercely concerned to ensure the integrity of his or her own self”—but he then immediately undercuts it by asking how, in reality, people think of their “selves.” In a powerful stretch of argument that spans the critical chapter IX of the book, Hazony invites us to consider the manifold ways in which individuals learn (from earliest childhood) to think of things outside of themselves as extensions of their “self”—family, close friends, clan, tribe. “What we see across the range of human activities and institutions, then, is that the self of the individual is by nature flexible in its extent, and is constantly being enlarged so that persons and things we might have supposed would be outside of him and alien to him are in fact regarded as if they were part of himself” (64-65).

Hazony calls this extension of the self to include another loyalty, and when it goes in two directions, it is mutual loyalty, “which allows these two individuals to regard themselves as a single entity.” Arguing that this process of psychological extension undergirds every kind of durably successful human social order, Hazony insists that this, and not the contractarianism of liberal politics, must be seen as the real basis for cities, nations, and states.

Offering a richly illuminating account of how these bonds can be progressively extended to larger social organisms, Hazony nevertheless notes that there is an upper limit. It is not really possible to see oneself as a citizen of the world, united by bonds of mutual loyalty to all of humanity, because the bonds are forged and sustained above all by the experiences of adversity and triumph, that is, of struggle and success against outside threats or rivals. Unless and until we meet a race of Martians or face a threat against which the human species must stand as one, a one-world political order will never be able to feel like a form of self-government, as national state orders can, because there will be no authentically imagined people that it represents (69).[4]

Now, it is important to grasp what Hazony is and is not arguing with his account of the foundations of political order. Although there are elements of genealogy in this account—that is, an attempt to narrate how national states have arisen out of the anarchic order of tribes and clans—it is much more an account of “foundations” in the sense of that which undergirds and upholds rather than in these sense of origins.

Hazony is much too good of a political theorist to think that actual history is the decisive consideration in political identity; rather, it is imagination. He freely grants that few larger states have emerged in the idealized way of families voluntarily banding together into clans, clans into tribes, and tribes into nations; usually, there is some element of conquest involved (81). But conquests rarely prove durable if they do not succeed in offering a compelling narrative of real shared identity, history, and traditions that can ground the extension of mutual loyalties.[5]

As insightful and illuminating all of this is, we are liable to have a few stubborn questions about it, especially as Christians and as Americans.

Is vs. Ought: Is Nationalism Moral?

It is one thing to observe that people form tight bonds of mutual loyalties that enable them to endure great adversity and build enduring nations and institutions. It is another thing to turn this is into an ought and to baptize this sort of ethno-nationalism with the conclusion that this is God’s will for the nations. Hazony offers intriguing readings of the Old Testament that offer biblical support for his vision of independent, self-governing nations with distinct traditions, customs, and even varied apprehensions of the good, and to some extent, we might fortify this reading with texts and themes from the New Testament as well (e.g., Rev. 21:24-26). But Scripture, and especially the New Testament, also offer us a vision of the universal reign of Christ and of the universal family of the Church, which forges bonds of mutual loyalty that cut sharply across ethnic and national lines. To be sure, neither Christ’s reign nor the body of the Church may take unitary institutional form this side of the eschaton (contra Roman Catholic political theology), but they do issue moral imperatives that must restrain the pretensions of competing national projects and ethnic identities.

As Oliver O’Donovan has noted, the project of international law arose out of a specifically Christian recognition that nations cannot simply be free to pursue their own interests or visions of the good when these trample on universal norms of justice or basic human dignity. And however many points Hazony may score against the notions of “rights,” “justice” and “dignity” as they have run amok in the liberal internationalism of the past couple generations, the instincts behind international law cannot be wholly ignored.

This is the fundamental concern voiced by Myles Werntz, one of Hazony’s more perceptive critics. In a review article called “The Arrogance of Ethno-nationalism,” Werntz charges Hazony with seeking “a cultural hegemony which becomes impervious to outside intervention,” or, in biblical terms, “idolatry.”

A closer reading of Hazony’s book ought to lay many such worries to rest. First of all, it should be clear that Hazony’s nationalism is in no way an endorsement of racism. The peoplehood that underlies a successful national state rests on many different factors, of which ethnic or racial identity is but one, and a highly fluid one. Just as important are factors such as shared language, religion, customs, history, and shared triumph in adversity (pp. 100-101). Through different combinations of these factors, very different people groups can be successfully knit into one over the course of time. Second, although insisting that a successful state will encapsulate and advance the customs and values of its most dominant people group, Hazony does not give carte blanche for the dominant group to oppress minority tribes or religions.

On the contrary, he argues that as a matter of historical record, well-constructed national states are actually generally better able to offer robust protections for minorities, and that failure to do so will destabilize the national state system and may even provide just grounds for external intervention (see especially pp. 183-84).

One might dispute his empirical claims here, but he is not obviously not deaf to the concern. And we must also understand that Hazony is a sober realist: the question is not which political order will offer perfect protection and equality to minorities, but which will most often and most durably offer the best protection—none will do so perfectly. Nor is carving out a separate national state for every minority a viable solution, because extending the principle of self-determination too far will result in a proliferation of weak unstable states closer to the semi-anarchist order of “tribalism” than authentic nationalism. Hazony’s nuanced discussion of these competing considerations on pp. 180-84 is, I believe, his attempt to offer principles for adjudicating the thorny Palestinian question. More generally, though, these points highlight an important feature of his account that Werntz largely ignores: “the moral minimum for good government.”

Indeed, whether because of the title or some other reason, most of attention given to The Virtue of Nationalism has largely focused on Hazony’s defense of the right of national self-determination. But this is only one-half of what Hazony champions as the “Protestant Construction of the West,” which involved two foundational principles drawn from the Old Testament. The first principle, says Hazony, is “The moral minimum required for legitimate government”—the natural law principles, summarized in the Decalogue, that provided “the minimum requirements for a life of personal freedom and dignity for all. A government incapable of maintaining this moral minimum was one that had failed in its most basic obligations to the well-being of its people” (24). Hazony goes on to say that “the idea that there are natural standards of legitimacy higher than the dictates of any particular government means that nations cannot rightly do whatever they please. They are always subject to judgment by God and man, and this necessarily makes government conditional” (26).

He recognizes that this assertion of universal moral norms—enforceable it would seem not merely by God but by human authority—stands in tension with the right of national self-determination, but he believes that this proved a helpful and creative tension in the development of the modern West. Similarly, as already noted, Hazony’s nationalism is not merely an every-nation-for-itself free-for-all, but seeks to provide a principled framework for responsible statesmen and diplomats to use in seeking to maximize the opportunities for just and stable self-government to be exercised by peoples around the world. In other words, the freedom of nations must still be normed by an objective conception of the good, one which might occasionally authorize external intervention; Hazony’s stance is not isolationist.

Still, Werntz has a point inasmuch as Hazony spends very little space articulating how natural law or international law can and should serve to restrain immoral positive laws of individual nations or protect minority groups against oppression. Much more certainly needs to be said on this question, although I believe there are certainly resources for answering it in the tradition that Hazony is chiefly mining (the Anglo-American conservatism that runs through figures such as Richard Hooker, John Selden, Edmund Burke, and James Wilson).

The Case of America

However, Werntz also notes in passing another concern that should loom large from the American standpoint: is Hazony’s account of national identity actually consistent with how the United States of America has developed and understood itself?[6]

Hazony offers an account of America as a collection of “tribes” with relatively similar history, ethnic background, customs, and religions, who through union against common threats forged a national identity (albeit one with intense internal strains that flared up at the American Civil War and highlighted incoherencies in its compromise constitution. Such a narrative fits well with Hazony’s larger theory, but not with America’s self-understanding.

As Bill Galston pointed out at a debate with Hazony last fall hosted by the Hudson Institute, America at the very least claims to be distinctive in world-history by virtue of founding its mutual loyalties on allegiance to a document and a set of principles, and on this basis has taken pride in its ability to assimilate other very different “tribes” (Irish Catholics, Jews, Eastern Europeans, Mexicans) on an equal footing.

Hazony actually anticipates this objection in chapter XVI, “The Myth of the Neutral State.” He notes that it does appear possible for a constitutional state to replace a concrete loyalty to the tribe with an abstract loyalty to a text, but only “if one were to press the public respect for the constitution in the direction of a genuinely religious awe” (157). Even so, however, this respect is perpetuated and internalized by each successive generation not by the mere force of rational compulsion (“we hold these truths to be self-evident”) but rather through “the framework of family, tribal, and national traditions in which the individual learns to revere and hold sacred certain things and not others” (158). In other words, our chief loyalty is still toward communities that we can feel as extensions of ourselves, and these communities have trained us to revere certain American political documents and principles—but once those communities collapse, and we no longer feel reason to defer to their values, so will our commitment to “the American experiment.”

Moreover, Hazony insists, it is one thing to wax lyrical about America as a multiculturalist “melting pot,” but the fact remains that at least until very recently, the “dominant tribe” has remained “an English-speaking nation whose constitutional and religious traditions were originally rooted in the Bible, Protestantism, republicanism, and the common law of England”; over time, “new tribes have been adopted into this same American nation” but not to the extent of undermining its identity as a nation in Hazony’s sense.

Should America become a majority-minority nation, or—more decisively—should it lose its confidence in the culture and traditions that have actually sustained our political order over two and a half centuries, our abstract ideals of freedom, equality, and democracy would quickly cease to have motivating force to maintain a viable political identity or set of mutual loyalties. Which, come to think of it, sounds an awful lot like a diagnosis of our present condition.


A book as rich and wide-ranging as Hazony’s, and a conversation as important as it has provoked, demands much fuller discussion than I have had space for here. There are numerous important unanswered questions with which Hazony leaves us—how to balance the demands of mutual loyalties and structures of legitimacy, how to balance the interests of cultural continuity and justice for minorities, how to balance the penultimacy of national identity with the ultimacy of Christian identity, how to understand the unique case of America in the story of nations, and—above all—how much Hazony’s project depends on a religious foundation of magisterial Protestantism that is now a nearly spent force in the West. However, if the marks of good theory are conceptual simplicity, intuitive fit, wide explanatory force, and the power to make sound predictions about how agents act in the real world, then Hazony’s Virtue of Nationalism deserves acclaim as a memorable—and remarkably timely—work of political theory.

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  1. It’s worth noting that, although Hazony does not invoke the principle as such, his argument for nationalism is effectively an extension of the principle of subsidiarity—that power ought to be exercised at the lowest and most local level that is viable. Of course, the “viable” bit is also key to Hazony’s argument, for otherwise the principle of subsidiarity might urge us to return to the “order of tribes and clans”; these, however, argues Hazony, are perpetually unstable and exposed to external threats in a way that a well-ordered nation is not.
  2. See, for instance, Zack Beauchamp’s incredibly lazy screed at Vox.
  3. Strangely, some critics seem to have ignored this staunch empiricism and charge Hazony with concocting his theory simply out of an “idiosyncratic readings of Scripture” (so Myles Werntz, “The Arrogance of Ethnonationalism”; cf. Beauchamp: “Hazony defends his heterodox view with a lengthy exegesis of the Old Testament. He takes for granted that the biblical account of Jewish history, a story of tribes merging voluntarily, is historically accurate, and then more or less asserts that the biblical account is typical of all nations”).
  4. It is worth noting that Hazony’s arguments here resonate deeply with those of Oliver O’Donovan in The Ways of Judgment chs. 8-10.
  5. Here too critics seem to have been eager to misunderstand and misrepresent. Beauchamp, for instance, says: “He presents a just-so story about how nations arose, arguing that government is the product of smaller groupings of people with a shared history (‘tribes,’ in Hazony’s language) voluntarily coming together to form a nation. That stands in contrast to empires, which expand beyond one nation, incorporating other tribes by coercion. The bulk of the scholarly literature says otherwise. The process of nation-building is complex but often non-voluntary and quite bloody. European nations, which Hazony holds up as the historical ideal, didn’t arise out of smaller groups choosing to join together: As historian Mark Koyama shows, European states likely grew strong because tribal identities in Europe were weak, making it easier to consolidate power at higher and more remote levels.” Beauchamp seems to have invested little time and effort in reading Hazony’s text; note that Hazony in fact makes precisely the same point: “The state is born out of the relative weakness of the old order of tribes and clans” (78).
  6. Werntz observes that America seems to be a nation defined by “textual fidelity,” something which according to Hazony should be “a disaster waiting to happen.”

Brad Littlejohn

Brad Littlejohn (PhD University of Edinburgh, 2013) is a Senior Fellow with the Edmund Burke Foundation and President of the Davenant Institute, author in the fields of Reformation studies, Christian ethics, and political theology.