You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Man Behind National Conservatism

Yoram Hazony has written the closest thing to a manifesto for intellectuals on the right.

Yoram Hazony (l) with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in March. (Courtesy of the Cabinet Office of the Prime Minister, Hungary)

Last week, the Ritz-Carlton in Washington played host to a much-hyped conference devoted to “national conservatism.” Hosted by the newly-formed Edmund Burke Foundation, the conference sought to sketch the blueprint of a right-wing nationalism shorn of its uglier elements (the mission statement cast itself “in stark opposition to political theories grounded in race”). The keynote speakers were Tucker Carlson, John Bolton, Josh Hawley, and Peter Thiel, but the impresario behind it was the Edmund Burke Foundation’s chairman, Yoram Hazony, whose speech announced that “today is our independence day” from neoconservatism and neoliberalism and called for a return to “Anglo-American traditions.” 

While Steve Bannon has won the headlines, Hazony has emerged in the last year as the leading proponent of a more high-toned conservative nationalism. His current prominence is linked to his 2018 book, The Virtue of Nationalism, which has quickly become the closest thing the movement has to an intellectual manifesto. The book has received rapturous reviews across the right-wing press and won the 2019 Conservative Book of the Year award. While it gained plaudits from the more intellectually respectable precincts of the right (it carries blurbs from leading conservative Trump critics Yuval Levin and Reihan Salam), it has also been acclaimed by the MAGA crowd. In April, former Trump official Michael Anton (another participant in last week’s conference, better known as the pseudonymous author of the 2016 screed “The Flight 93 Election”) invoked Hazony’s book as the intellectual basis for a supposed “Trump Doctrine” in foreign policy—a hard-nosed yet non-crusading creed rooted in the recognition that “there will always be nations, and trying to suppress nationalist sentiment is like trying to suppress nature.” 

Media coverage of Hazony in the United States has tended to refer to him simply as an “Israeli political philosopher,” but the label doesn’t really do justice to his interesting and highly illustrative career. Born in Israel in 1964, but raised and educated in the United States, he described being “mesmerized” by an encounter as a Princeton undergraduate with the ultranationalist Rabbi Meir Kahane, a few years before Kahane’s party was banned in Israel for anti-Arab racism. Going on to earn a doctorate in political theory, Hazony chose not to pursue an academic career, instead moving to Israel with Princeton friends to found the Shalem Center, an American-style think tank based in Jerusalem. Hazony was an early member of Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner circle, and Shalem would remain closely aligned with the Likud Party. It would also serve as a nexus for the Israeli and American right; funding came from American billionaires like Ronald Lauder and Sheldon Adelson, while the roster of fellows tended to feature Israeli political figures who played well inside the Beltway. Hazony and others in the Shalem leadership spent the 1990s living in Eli, an Israeli settlement deep in the West Bank, until security concerns following the Second Intifada convinced them to relocate to East Jerusalem.

In 2007, an entertaining exposé of the center in Haaretz documented financial irregularities, power struggles, and Hazony’s own “peculiar habits,” but he emerged relatively undented. (The center’s admittedly winning statement in defense of its chief protested that “every person, certainly a social or business leader, has his own human distinctiveness.”) He is currently head of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem; the Edmund Burke Foundation—which he founded alongside David Brog, former executive director of the Texas televangelist John Hagee’s Christians United for Israel—gives him an institutional footprint in Washington. Increasingly, Hazony’s appeal extends to Europe (a recent photo-op portrayed him in conversation with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán) and Europe-for-now (an avowed disciple of early English constitutionalists like John Fortescue and Edward Coke, he is highly simpatico to the Little England vision of the Brexiteers).

Equally at ease in Washington or the West Bank, extolling the glories of England’s ancient constitution or schmoozing with the scourge of rootless cosmopolitanism on the continent, Hazony’s career checks every box for the current nationalist international. Whatever one thinks of him as a philosopher, he has undoubtedly proven himself a gifted ideological entrepreneur. For that reason his book deserves our attention. What is its vision of nationalism, and why has it found such a receptive audience?

A set of tacit assumptions underpins the current discussion of nationalism in the media. Nationalism is simple, and internationalism is complicated; nationalism is primal, and internationalism is artificial; nationalism is the default, and internationalism the exception. This is the theory of a nationalist like Michael Anton, for whom nationalism is “an integral part of human nature,” common to “all human beings in all times and places.” But it is equally the theory of many liberal critics, for whom the apparent revival of nationalism (but did it ever really go away?) indicates a reversion to a more primitive form of political consciousness.

The modern study of nationalism begins from the realization that it is not so self-evident a phenomenon at all. No doubt humans are always embedded in communities of various kinds, and no doubt our loyalties are always unevenly distributed. But it took a great deal of historical development before the boundaries of nation-states could appear the most natural mapping of human loyalties, replacing families, religions, clans, or castes. 

Basic Books, 304 pp., $30.00

With over 300 million people, today’s United States is larger than any premodern empire, larger indeed than the entire world population for most of human history. To our ancestors, it would have seemed absurd to imagine that these 300 million could ever really be an “us,” a community evoking real loyalty; anyone who’s begun each school day standing for the Pledge of Allegiance can appreciate the amount of work that goes into maintaining it. For many of the most famous scholars of nationalism, from Elie Kedourie and Ernest Gellner to Benedict Anderson and Eric Hobsbawm, it must therefore be understood as an essentially modern phenomenon, one that revolves around creating nations rather than simply liberating them.

The Virtue of Nationalism has little interest in such questions. The whole “modernist” interpretation of nationalism, the axis around which scholarly debate has revolved for decades, is dismissed in a single footnote. Instead, Hazony frames his theory around a conflict (“as old as the West itself”) between two principles of international order: “an order of free and independent nations,” and a universal empire striving to unite all nations under a single legal regime. The former ideal, he suggests, originates in the Hebrew Bible, with the biblical kingdom of Israel serving as the first national state, but reached its apotheosis in early modern Europe under the “Protestant construction of the West.” The golden age of nation-states stretched from roughly the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 until the end of World War II. But after Hitler discredited nationalism (wrongly, for he was actually an imperialist rather than a nationalist) the imperial principle made a comeback, at least among “educated elites who have, to one degree or another, become committed to a future under an imperial order.”             

Hazony criticizes the neoconservative dream of global American hegemony, which he depicts as one manifestation of this imperial mindset. But the main target of his ire is the European Union, “a universal state … whose reach will be limited only by the power that this empire can bring to bear”—the most insidious of empires because it looks least like one. The slowly spreading power of the EU and other international bodies has, he warns, dire consequences: “When a nation wakes up from its sleep and discovers that it has been slowly, inexorably conquered, at that time no options will remain to it other than to acquiesce in eternal enslavement or go to war.” Fortunately, national populations are beginning to sound the alarm and stand up for their freedom.

The age-old conflict between nation and empire is a clash of particularity and universality. To be a nationalist is to be attached to one’s own particular traditions and way of life, while respecting the similar attachments of others; hence nationalists have an “aversion to the conquest of foreign nations” and a “tolerance of diverse ways of life.” The most fundamental mark of imperialism, on the other hand, is universalism—a belief that “the entire earth should be subjected to a single regime,” and “an ideology of universal salvation and peace.” At bottom, Immanuel Kant’s vision of a global federation of states ensuring perpetual peace is generically similar to Nazi Germany’s dream of becoming “lord of the earth.” Hazony thinks both should be seen as “transformations of a single ideal and passion, that of emperors and imperialists.” 

“Imperialism and nationalism,” Hazony tells us, “represent irreconcilable positions in political thought.” And yet the historical record indicates that they have proven eminently reconcilable. Indeed, on even a little reflection, his historical narrative comes to seem extremely odd. He casts the three centuries from Westphalia to World War II as the high point of the order of self-determining nation-states. Yet these three centuries were, on the contrary, the zenith of the great European empires. It was only the postwar period that brought decolonization and the creation of scores of new self-determining states. Hazony notes in passing the “duality” of the old European state system—nationalist at home, imperialist abroad—but makes no real effort to explain it.

His vision of a world of peaceful nations, content with their lot and respectful of each other’s individuality, is in many ways an attractive one. And if nations were neatly bounded entities, each settled in an uncontested territory with ample resources and cultural consensus, perhaps such a world might have come into being. Yet in practice, nations intermingle, and nationalists are often most enthusiastic about protecting co-nationals abroad and suppressing minority groups at home. Nations find themselves discontented with their territory and resources, marked by the legacy of historical defeats, and nationalists tend to fixate on remedying these apparent injustices. Nations do not always see the value of each others’ cultures, or recognize each other as having cultures at all, and nationalists are sometimes not the most broadminded in this respect. (Hazony stresses that nationalism is about shared language, religion, and history, not race, which is in some sense a well-intentioned gesture to distance himself from uglier racial theories. But it’s undeniable that many nationalists do define their nations racially, and it’s unclear why such versions wouldn’t count as nationalism.)

In such circumstances it is unsurprising that the boundary between nationalism and imperialism can be so blurry. It’s grimly appropriate that just as Hazony’s book was being cast as the foundation of a non-crusading “Trump Doctrine,” the Trump administration itself was stepping up its efforts at regime change in Iran and Venezuela, spearheaded by the unimpeachably nationalist John Bolton. It turns out that misplaced Kantian idealism is not the only or even the major source of global conflict: Paranoia about threats to the nation, exaltation of military force, and obsession with national glory are more frequent triggers.  

Hazony suggests that nations, as opposed to empires, disdain “wars of indefinite expansion,” and the “indefinite” has to bear a lot of weight—but even the most ambitious expansionist programs tend to be finite in their goals. The United States in the era of Manifest Destiny didn’t aim to rule the entire world; it simply had ideas about the territory to which it was entitled that were markedly different from its established borders. (The same could be said of contemporary Israel, as Hazony may know from his years in the West Bank.) Even Nazi Germany’s war aims never seriously set out to control the entire globe. Hazony’s strained attempt to cast the Nazis as simply more-ruthless Kantians—which involves taking their rhetoric about the eventual peace that would follow their victory more seriously than it deserves—stems from the need to show that they were imperialists rather than nationalists; the simpler conclusion is that they were both.

There is another sense in which the line between nations and empires is a blurry one. Anyone who considers what the principle of national self-determination would entail in practice must conclude that it has never come close to being realized. There are thousands of ethnic groups around the world, and only about two hundred states; in that sense, the vast majority of peoples lack a state of their own. One might adopt a more minimal understanding of a “nation,” so that it refers simply to whoever lives within a particular set of national borders. But right-wing nationalists tend to be the least satisfied with this solution, and Hazony is no exception. He is scornful about Jürgen Habermas’s call for a minimal “constitutional patriotism,” and suggests that nations must have a deeper (linguistic, religious, historical) unity.

This means there is a tension between the existing system of national states and the principle of national self-determination. Hazony is not unduly troubled by the tension: “most peoples on earth,” he flatly states, will have to settle for the status of a “protectorate” under the power of a stronger nation. How such protectorates differ from empires, which likewise consist of a stronger nation claiming to rule in the interests of weaker ones, is not specified; Hazony allows that this situation is “perhaps not what everyone would wish for,” but here nationalist principles must take a back seat to the dictates of prudence. The point of the new nationalism is to justify the self-assertion of the nations of the global North, not to hinder the interests of stronger nations out of a misplaced concern for weaker ones.

Although Hazony treats the universal empire as the main alternative to the nation, he also frames his argument against the errors of modern individualism: Just as we could never be citizens of the whole human race, neither are we isolated and rootless individuals. He mocks the “fairy tale” offered by early modern thinkers like Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, who allegedly thought that political community actually originated from a contract of isolated individuals. 

He notes that states in our modern sense haven’t always existed, being preceded by smaller groups of families, tribes, and clans. In explaining where these states comes from, he allows that some of them originate in violence or conquest; these are “despotic” states, corresponding to empires, which rule through fear rather than loyalty. But he also offers a second and sunnier origin story: of “free states,” corresponding to nations (examples include biblical Israel, ancient Athens, medieval England, and the United States), which are formed through the voluntary unification of smaller tribes that share a common culture. 

While the free state is much larger than any family, it is nonetheless “a collective of the same kind as the family,” one brought together and held together “only due to the bonds of mutual loyalty among its members.” And although such a state might expand, it does so through a process of consensual “adoption” rather than subjugation. (For instance, Hazony writes, “the English adopted the Scots, Welsh, and Northern Irish”—this I suppose is one way to describe British policy in Northern Ireland.)  

The result is a communitarian version of the old individualist fairy tale: the nation as a pristine and consensual community, unsullied by coercion or conquest, which might have a history but doesn’t really have a politics. The moment of subordination comes only at the international level, where “empires” of various stripes attempt to impose their will on these cohesive national communities; it stands to reason that nations are now struggling to free themselves.

It has been said ad nauseam that we are witnessing a crisis of international institutions. But it could equally be said that we’re witnessing a crisis of nation-states, precisely because they have never really lived up to this communitarian fairy tale. Far from being primordial units knit together by a pre-political culture, modern nation-states are agglomerations still displaying the fault-lines of the political struggles that produced them. Their rise rested on external expansion, which helps explain why the line between national assertion and imperial expansion is often so tenuous. It equally rested on internal subordination, which helps explain why today’s nationalists can’t simply seal up the borders, but must also confront enemies who are always already inside the gates. (In these respects Brexit has been exemplary: officially targeted at the unaccountable bureaucrats of the EU, but deriving much of its energy from anger at immigration from the former colonies, a legacy of the British empire to the British nation.)  

Today’s nationalists make savvy use of populist and anti-imperialist rhetoric. But the unfractured nations they aim to return to have never really existed, and it’s unlikely that they’ll ever run out of enemies.