EDITOR’S NOTE: As part of our interview series, RealClear Authors, Yoram Hazony's recently discussed his his recent book, “The Virtue of Nationalism.”
RealClearBooks: What do you understand by “nationalism”?
Yoram Hazony: Nationalism is a principled standpoint that sees the world as governed best when nations are given their independence and freedom to chart their own course on the basis of their own unique national, religious, and constitutional traditions.
RCB: So, it’s less a sense of love of country akin to patriotism and more a sense of political order?
Hazony: The word is definitely used in both ways. “Patriotism,” as far as I know, is always referring to an individual’s attachment to some kind of country or place or nation. I’ve never heard patriotism used to describe a general political theory; it’s always used as a sentiment, either positive or negative.
Nationalism is broader. It certainly can be used as synonym for patriotism. Sometimes when you say Ghandi is an Indian nationalist or de Gaulle is a French nationalist, you may be referring to their love of their own people. But in the nationalist intellectual tradition the usage is broader: Nationalism is a political theory. It’s opposed usually to imperialism on one side and to localism and tribalism on the other. So it’s a theory about the best political order. Although obviously that theory is built on the reality of patriotic sentiments, of emotional attachments to nations.
RCB: What are the factors that in history have made a national identity?
Hazony: National identity emerges it seems almost always as a result of external adversity. You can have all sorts of tribes that have similar cultural characteristics: Their language is similar or their religious rites are similar. And maybe they even recognize themselves as a nation. You can think of the example of the Greek city-states: internally divided, almost always at war with one another. Yet they did recognize themselves as being part of a larger ethnos, which means nation. They knew there was a larger Greek nation even though it was never united politically. But they did unite for certain purposes. They united in war, for example, against the Persians, and they had certain cultural institutions which were unifying, like famously the Olympics. They all knew they were Greeks even though they never had a unified Greek national state until modern times.
What causes the unification and the possibility of establishing a permanent national state is external threat which we see clearly in the case of biblical Israel, and we see it again with the Greek city-states, and we see it with the Dutch and the English, and with the Americans as well, who might very well never have unified into a single nation and remained thirteen independent countries if they hadn’t been fighting a war against the British. So it’s usually an external threat which serves as a catalyst for creating a solid and permanent national state even if often the nation can be seen to exist before the state.
RCB: What are the negative consequences of our new, more globalized world?
Hazony: The most obvious negative consequence is a completely unrealistic view of the capacity of the United States and other Western countries to impose cultural uniformity on other countries, especially through military power. The examples are well known: Yugoslavia, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan. All of these interventions were, in one way or another, political failures if not disasters, and all of them were motivated in some significant part by a belief that other nations around the globe are simply waiting to adopt an American way of life and an American outlook and all you need to do is apply sufficient coercion and then they’ll suddenly be transformed. I think this is delusional and therefore leads to all sorts of terrible consequences in foreign policy.
In addition, I think that domestically Americans and Europeans are suffering terribly from the hegemony of this utopian idea. If you look at American public life it’s really turned into a battle between two competing universalisms: a kind of neo-Marxist — Americans call it progressive — vision of what’s right for the entire planet versus a liberal internationalist vision of what’s right for the entire planet. More restrained, humble, realistic political views have really been suppressed for a long time.
This is a period where we’ve watched America go from possibly the most tolerant country in the world to a country whose public debates are clearly and constantly marked by fanaticism and intolerance, and that’s a result of, I believe, the embrace of these universalist theories. You come to think that your ideas are so absolutely correct that not only do you personally believe that they are the best, but you believe that they really must be imposed on everybody else because they’re self-evidently correct, and that anybody in your country or anywhere else would simply — if pushed in the right way — come to see the light and accept them. This is just an awful way to run a polity, and Americans internally are careening at alarming speed towards ungovernability because of this belief that many ideas are so absolute that they simply have to be imposed.
RCB: Who are your critics? What don’t they agree with in your analysis?
Hazony: There are plenty of critics. The book has only been out a month and there’s already more than 50 reviews and so there’s plenty of enthusiasm and plenty of critics. The critics are from all sides. There’s a neo-conservative kind of criticism which is hesitant to give up on the picture of Jefferson as the father of the country, Locke as the ideological software, and liberal universalism as the policy consequence of it. There’s a certain school of neo-conservatives who find my arguments to be an attack on what they see as the foundations of America. There are some Catholic critics who are defending a closely related liberal universalism which they see as represented by Pope Francis. They feel that my view of Scripture and its historical role in the West is undermining this liberal internationalist interpretation of Catholicism. Of course, there are critics on the left who just think that the move to try to understand nationalism as a potentially beneficial politically theory is itself akin to some kind of racism. Even if they don’t directly accuse me of racism — that has not happened yet — still they think that I’m empowering a kind of primitive tribalism which will lead in all sorts of terrible directions.
RCB: Do you think that national identity can easily be disentangled from racial identity?
Hazony: I do believe that the biblical tradition of nationalism, meaning nationalisms that are descended from the Hebrew Bible and enter the modern period with a biblical basis can easily be and should properly be non-racialist, and in fact anti-racialist. The biblical examples of what a nation is are not based on race. When the Israelites leave Egypt, Egyptians join them and go stand at Mt. Sinai and becomes Israelites. Ruth the Moabite can become an Israelite by saying, “Your people are my people and your God is my God.” That’s certainly not liberalism; it’s not based strictly on consent. But it does allow for the integration of racially diverse individuals. It allows them to join a given nation if they embrace both the existing people, joining them in a bond of loyalty, and their God, their central values.
RCB: Do you think that the Trump Presidency has forwarded your view of nationalism?
Hazony: Yes. Certainly Brexit and Trump have reopened the issue of national independence in Western countries in a way that hasn’t been discussed really since World War II. This is long overdue. I don’t know whether it’s going to save the West or lead in other directions which are ultimately undesirable. But I do know that this debate is long, long overdue and President Trump and the Brexiteers are the people who put this on the table, opened the issue, and allowed us to have an intelligent conversation about it for the first time in generations.
RCB: During his speech at the UN, President Trump supported what he called “patriotism,” but at the same time he was calling for a turn towards greater national sovereignty. Do you think that in calling for patriotism he was calling for nationalism as you understand it?
Hazony: He said, “We reject the ideology of globalism and embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” That is substantively the theoretical distinction that my book proposes and seeks to advance. The distinction that I draw between imperialist politics and a nationalist politics, you could call that a distinction between a globalist politics and patriotic politics. I think it’s basically the same idea.
RCB: Steve Bannon frequently talks about economic nationalism and a turn against globalism. Do you think there is a commonality in your two projects?
Hazony: I don’t know Bannon’s views well enough to comment on him specifically. I would say that nationalism is not exactly the same thing as populism. I’m not sure what populism means exactly, but I’m worried it’s another form of class warfare. It seems like its basis is saying: The elites are wrong, the broad public is right. Now it happens to be the case that at this moment my views are much, much more aligned with the broad public than they are with the elites. But I don’t see myself as being opposed to elites in principle. I think there could be cases where the elites are right and the broad public is wrong. Nationalism is about attempting to unite the elites and the broad public around a common heritage which is distinct from that of other nations. In proposing nationalism I’m proposing that the kind of mutual loyalty and internal cohesion that unifies different classes in the nation rather than setting them at war one against the other. And that’s what I hope to see in America and in Britain and in other countries: a greater nationalism which will allow for a greater unity between the elites and the broad public, rather than devastating class warfare between them.
RCB: What do you think the role of international organizations like the EU and the United Nations should be? Do you think they should exist at all?
Hazony: Any organization that sees itself as being a voluntary and collaborative forum for discussion among independent nations can possibly fulfill useful functions. I don’t want to simply reject them. But both the UN and the EU have been repeatedly treated as though they have the power to legislate international law, which is then binding on nations and legitimately enforced by foreign military efforts. I reject that completely. If the point of the United Nations is to serve as some kind of world governing body, then I reject it. The European Union certainly since the Treaty of Maastricht has been intended as an international governing body with aspirations to dismantle the independence of its subject nations, and I think it’s a disaster. It’s a disaster for the Europeans but it’s also a disaster for Americans because these European ideas get pumped back into the United States by way of the universities and then the media and they end up being part of the American debate, whereas a generation ago they were completely fringe and irrelevant.
RCB: In “The Virtue of Nationalism” you lay out many dangers of imperialisms, but you don’t appear concerned about the dangers of a world in which nationals pursue their own self-interest. Do you see any concerns here?
Hazony: I’m critiquing imperialism because that is the threat of the moment. The dangers of small nations I think are very well known. They can become, on the one hand, too provincial and bogged down in their own petty local quarrels to care about larger issues. On the other hand, the fragmentation of the world into competing national states may create, in some situations, insufficient deterrent strength to prevent empires from arising. Those criticisms are based on historical reality and they’re completely valid. I just think that at this point we are so deep into trumpeting universalism and that we’ve completely lost track of the importance of particularism as the basis for, for example, the Anglo-American tradition of limited government, which is rooted in particular English and American traditions; or as the basis for the concern for individual liberties which is deeply rooted in the English and American traditions going back to the Bible, and is not something that everybody around the world will just accept because it is self-evident.
RCB: Do you think there is ever a reason to violate national sovereignty other than pure national self-interest? When another country has committed human rights abused for example?
Hazony: Yes, in extreme cases: genocide in Rwanda, or in Cambodia, where there are hundreds of thousands, millions of lives at stake. Someone who has sufficient power to go in, put an end to it, and quickly get out, I would say has a moral obligation to intervene. The problem is that I see that moral obligation as being fundamentally distinct from a belief that any kind of violence, persecution, laws we don’t like, or traditions we don’t like, is automatically a justification for coercion and military action. I think people are very confused about this. It may be utterly wrong for the Serbs, let’s say, to engage in atrocities in Bosnia, and at the same time be imprudent and mistaken to start bombing Serbian cities and killing Serbian civilians in order to try and get the enormities of Bosnia to stop. If you don’t have some kind of clear understanding that you’re going to make things better then it’s just as likely that you’re going to make things worse. And I don’t yet see how the American intervention in Yugoslavia ended up making things better. Military intervention is not a policy to be pursued every time warfare or abuses take place anywhere in the world, and it’s not identical to a clear case of intervention as an imperative where there’s genocide or its equivalent taking place.
RCB: What do you think are the greatest challenges facing conservatism today in the United States?
Hazony: The greatest challenge facing conservatism is to recover the Anglo-American conservative tradition, including its biblical roots and its common law and English constitutional inheritance, which has been pushed aside in favor of liberalism. There are many people who have the two things confused. I’m not saying liberalism doesn’t have a place. It has a place and it can contribute all sorts of things that can be significant and good, but in the absence of a powerful conservative tradition I fear for the future of these nations. And so, the principal job of conservatives at the moment is to recover conservatism, which has largely been lost to liberalism.
Yoram Hazony is president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, and is the author of “The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture” and “The Jewish State: The Struggle for Israel’s Soul.”
Max Diamond is a reporter at RealClearInvestigations.