The Arrogance of Ethnonationalism: A Review of The Virtue of Nationalism

March 14, 2019
Title: The Virtue of Nationalism
Author: Yoram Hazony
Publisher: Basic Books
Publishing Date: September 4, 2018
Pages: 304 pages (Hardcover)
ISBN: 978-1541645370

Cosmopolitanism is dead, and Yoram Hazony is here to bury it.

In The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony makes an unapologetic argument for the pragmatic benefits of nationalism. Against recent trends toward internationalism, this book presents its case in mild-mannered history and theory but is bolstered by an amalgam of idiosyncratic readings of Scripture, geopolitical blind spots, and overstated arguments. A scholar of international politics, Hazony makes his case: what is needed in a modern world fraught with ethnic violence is nothing less than sovereign nations built on common cultural heritages. Whether such a vision of a nation banding together internally free from outside interference is the best way forward, I will leave for the reader to decide.

The Virtue of Nationalism positions the nation and nationalism over other forms of multi-lateral governance—between anarchy of tribes and imperialism, defined as “an international government or regime that imposes its will on subject nations when its officials regard this as necessary”(3). Nationalism, which he seeks to defend, consists of the “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” (3).

At this point, Hazony is positioning nationalism between anarchic tribal relations on the one hand and internationalist world order on the other, that a nation-state of self-interest stands as a bulwark between internal chaos and external tyranny. Nationalism has been under assault, he contends, since the rise of the United Nations, which seeks to consolidate, but more specifically, he has in view an American “world order,” “in which nations that do not abide by international law will be coerced into doing so, principally by means of American military might, and that of the European Union” (3). “Imperialism”—represented by the American and EU types, are modern-day versions of the Roman Empire, the British Empire, the Nazi regime which sought global domination (39), the Babylonians, Catholicism (44), and host of other nefarious bedfellows.

To be clear, the first part of the book, in which he delineates what he means by “nationalism” is a bit of a desk-clearing exercise. By linking together the political imperialism of the Nazis with the ideology or economic forms of imperialism such as the EU, he is providing the reader with no place to go other than into the open arms of a self-defined nation state that simply wants to be free in the world for its own culture and its own good. What on earth could be so offensive about self-definition? And, honestly, if the alternatives are tribal warfare and external domination by either force or ideology, who wouldn’t opt for a strong nation-state?

At this point, Hazony’s defense of the nation-state, is innocuous. But the empires of the past world—whether in their British, Assyrian, or Caliphate form—are in decline, though not without their modern defenders.1 And to be sure, it is unclear that anyone is looking to actively resurrect such models. But, by equating “imperialism” with the expansion of influence by proponents of economic or philosophical liberalism—and then casting that as the alternative vice to anarchy, with only a robust nationalism to save us—Hazony is carefully laying the groundwork for his defense of the nation-state not only as a political ideal, but also as a internally impervious cultural ideal.

At the onset, I confess that this linkage of all manners of external influence under the heading of “imperialism” seems to be nothing more than sour grapes.It is one thing for a colony to be unable to politically rule itself, subject to a true empire, but another for a culture to have willingly shifted to reflect non-native values. To baldly lump these forms of influence together to decry all of them simultaneously is Hazony’s way of ensuring that a nation can rule itself not only politically but also  culturally (which is problematic for reasons I will describe shortly). If a nation decides to not play by international economic or democratic norms, it is certainly able to do so, but it cannot simultaneously cry foul and say that it is being punished for making choices which are culturally authentic. If, for example, Britain wishes to go through with Brexit in the name of national sovereignty, its exclusion from the EU zone of commerce are simply the consequences of its political self-determination, not some vast liberal conspiracy.

In contrast to imperialist nations, who are joined together not by blood but by ideology, Hazony describes the nation-state exists as an extension of natural cultural alliances which exist at the tribal level; as tribes find common heritage and cause with other tribes, this provides the warrant for supra-tribal structures. If a nation emerges in this way, as a culturally generated body, Hazony affirms this entity as right and true; nations which emerge by fiat, coercion, or (importantly) as generated by textual fidelity (as the United States) are disasters waiting to happen.

This vision of the self-governing state by its own cultural expectations and assumptions is one which Hazony says comes from the Old Testament itself. As the author of a previous book on the philosophy of the Old Testament2, this is perhaps one of the strangest portions of the book, and one of the most revealing. In recounting the ways in which nations—as tribes “with a shared heritage, usually including a common language or religious traditions, and past history of joining against common enemies” (100), Hazony builds his vision of the nation off of a reading of Israel’s development from a collective of tribes to a nation. In this way, the nation is neither a cosmopolitan people, but a cultural community which emerges out of the ground of a common history, ethos, religion, and language.

This definition of nation is what most nations are in origin, born of common cultures and heritages. But in the modern world, this is not the kind of nation that most nations are, as migration, economic growth and transmission of cultural ideas prevents this kind of “cultural community” from ever occurring too long in the kind of homeostasis which would engender a true nation-state as Hazony describes it.

Nonetheless, this is, for Hazony what a nation-state must be, and thus what nationalism should rightly defend: internal norms built on common cultural values. For Hazony, however, this vision of nation-state is not just natural, but biblical. Drawing upon the Old Testament history of Israel, Hazony teases out Israel’s emergence as an ethnonationalist state as the desirable picture for all modern nations to emulate. What is particularly spurious about this account is that such an insular nation—living according to immutable norms and dealing with its problems according to its own lights—is neither the ideal of the Old Testament, nor is it the vision of Israel as an impervious nation state the story which the Old Testament conveys. Throughout the Law, for example, the assumption is that strangers and aliens will be in the land, be they Canaanites or others, and that they are to be treated “as one would treat a citizen” (Lev. 19:34). There is, to be sure, no indication that the religion of the Canaanites is to be tolerated in Israel, but the equality called for by God in the Law is striking, especially considering the ethnic and cultural unity which undergirds national Israel. Israel, far from being impervious to judgment, is laid open before the nations when it violates the Law.

Hazony is ultimately providing, it seems, an apologia for the modern state of Israel to operate as a nation among nations, to no longer be singled out for punitive treatment by other nations. But in adopting an Old Testament vision of national sovereignty, Hazony forgets that the vision of Israel in the Old Testament is one in which national sovereignty is inherently limited, always and ever open under God! It is quite a peculiar version of “national sovereignty” which exists in the Old Testament, in which God freely topples kings, allows for Babylonians to destroy the Temple, and for the Assyrians to decimate the borders of Israel. What Hazony names as national sovereignty of this kind—a cultural hegemony which becomes impervious to outside intervention—the Scriptures call a different name: idolatry.

To be clear, what Hazony ultimately allows for—and indeed, sees as desirable in terms of a nation (in distinction from imperialism and anarchy)—is not just adherence to a common constitution, or procedural unity; what Hazony has in view as the most desirable is the nation as ethnonationalist. This kind of cultural unity, Hazony sees as not at odds with the right treatment of minority cultures within those spaces, though what is desired is assimilation by these minority cultures in deference to the common history of the nation, pointing to America, Britain, and France as successes on this count (166). If nations develop along a common culture, violence against minorities will indeed be far less than in countries which do not have this common core.

But it is in this reading of the best nation as an ethnic nation that his own reading betrays him. For as was the case with Israel—who mistreated foreigners among them, and was called to account by God—so America, with its ostensible common white, English, Protestant heritage, has enforced this unity by violence. Whether in the forcible removal of Native Americans, the renaming of immigrants to Anglicized names, the subjugation of slaves, Jim Crow, or Catholic persecutions until the 20th century, ethnonationalism is the fever dream which America—Hazony’s best version of a federal government founded in a common culture—cannot seem to shake without recourse to violence. From Wounded Knee to Tulsa to Chinese internment camps, it is puzzling how Hazony can possibly argue that a vision for a nation—rooted in a common culture, heritage, religion, and language—can ever sufficiently make room for an outsider or operate in less violence than other alternatives. If anything, rendering oneself impervious to external judgment makes more possible ethnic violence—not less.

The reasons for Hazony defending the nation in this way are not for the virtuous formation of the people, but for “virtue” in a pragmatic sense—nations represent the best way to ensure a group of people’s survival in an agonistic world. Virtue, as he uses it, is not as a moral perfection, but as a political ideal (228). And to be sure, the creation of space for a self-determining people is one which allows for a people to flourish, whether the Kurds, the Israelis, or the Slovenians. But to claim that the best way for a nation to flourish—as an ethnonationalist entity able to govern itself and yet not answerable to international critiques—is not idolatrous by a Scriptural measure, but arrogant. He criticizes Europe for demanding that all nations exemplify European standards, and rightly so, asking why Israel alone seems to be subject to such scrutiny in its internal policy. But the answer to this disproportionate critique is not to make Israel more immune from criticism—to double down into an ethnostate—but for all other nations to take heed from the Old Testament’s true message to the nations: God will judge the injustices of the world, and no nation can pretend to be immune from that judgment.

Hazony is right to point out the manifold failures of cosmopolitan dreams, of internationalist organizations which will melt all cultures into a monoculture (which are driven by the aspirations of one people over others). All of this is right and good to criticize. But to turn to a vision of cultural similitude as the basis for a strong nation is to invite disaster, to justify internal injustice in the name of national autonomy as well as internal assimilation in the name of sound political philosophy.

About the Author
  • Myles Werntz is Director of Baptist Studies and Associate Professor of Theology at Abilene Christian University, where he directs the Baptist Studies Center in the Graduate School of Theology. He is the author and editor of five books in theology and ethics, and writes broadly on Christian ethics of war and peace, immigration, ecclesiology, and discipleship.



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