This essay is part of our collection on nationalism. See the full collection here.
“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him.” The first chapter of Genesis announces that humanity bears the imago dei, a declaration that has long inspired—in both Jewish and Christian thought—the conviction that every human being has innate dignity and value. This conviction leads to the idea that the scope of our moral concern ought to extend further than just ourselves, our family, or even our nation.
The Hebrew Bible begins with such universals, but rapidly narrows its focus to the story of a particular man and a particular nation. A few chapters later, Genesis recounts God’s calling of Abram, from whom He makes for Himself a people, Israel. The particularity of Abram’s calling does not contradict the universality of Genesis 1, but it does produce a profound tension that runs throughout Western thought: innate dignity imposes on us moral obligations that extend to all human beings, but God’s relationship with Israel also shows that we can rightly have loyalties that impose special obligations to particular people.
The recent rise of nationalist sentiment in the West has given this tension renewed significance. Nationalism is among the most powerful of human loyalties, but can this loyalty fit alongside our other important moral commitments?
Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism offers an answer. Hazony, an Israeli biblical scholar and political theorist, affirms loyalty to one’s nation as a force for good. He sets out to establish two related propositions. First, on the international level, independent nation-states are more conducive to human flourishing than a single global government. Second, on the individual level, “nationalist” sentiments are a virtue, not a vice. Both theses are generally correct, but Hazony’s discussion of each fails to confront the tension described above. Hazony is no doubt aware of this tension—he quotes Abram’s blessing and acknowledges that Moses “understood that the tora had been given for the betterment of mankind”—but he leaves the reader wondering how love of nation fits alongside a commitment to the universality of human dignity, and to moral truth generally.
A satisfying answer to this question is surely possible, but it will have to await a different book.
Nation-State or Empire?
Hazony’s first thesis sets “nationalism” and “imperialism” in opposition. Defining these terms, Hazony diverges somewhat from common usage. Rather than using “nationalism” to mean “loyalty to one’s own nation” and contrasting it with the “cosmopolitan” view that our moral obligations extend to all human beings, Hazony defines “nationalism” as a view of the ideal international order: “the world is governed best when nations are able to chart their own course.” This he contrasts with “imperialism”—the belief that peace and prosperity can be brought to the world “by uniting mankind, as much as possible, under a single political regime.”
Using these definitions, Hazony proceeds to defend the “Protestant order” of “post-Westphalian Europe,” contending that the international competition to which it gave birth spurred the scientific, economic, and political advances we now know as modernity.
There is surely a great deal of truth to this account. Europe’s multiplicity of nation-states facilitated experimentation in all manner of social arrangements and helped confine the consequences of vicious or incompetent rulers. But it is only fair that we count the bad as well as the good. While Hazony acknowledges that post-Westphalian Europe saw constant wars, colonialism, and “racialist arrangements,” he largely assigns these evils to imperialism.
Here we see the trouble with Hazony’s terminology. “Imperialism” bears blame for these evils simply by definition: according to Hazony, “nationalism” means non-interference in the affairs of other nations and therefore cannot be aggressive. This leads to some counterintuitive conclusions, such as his assertion that the National Socialists were not nationalist at all, but imperialists. While it is true that the Nazis hoped to impose a “New Order” on Europe—and perhaps the globe—there is no denying that Nazism was born of a valorization of the volk—the German national identity. Indeed, the Nazis famously embraced the ideal of blut und boden—literally “blood and soil”—which has since become a metonym for nationalism itself.
Far from contradicting imperialism, nationalism all too often encourages imperialism. Seen in Europe’s nineteenth-century colonialism and the continent’s twentieth-century fascism, when individuals love their own people to the exclusion of all others, it becomes easy to justify wars of conquest or unjust domination.
But love of one’s nation may inspire virtue as well as vice. It can spur us to heroism, sacrifice, and help us esteem what is noble among us. This love can even help us perceive the beauty others see in their beloveds.
C.S. Lewis understood that individuals can love their country virtuously or viciously. Such virtue or vice would then be reflected in the state: “Demoniac patriotism . . . will make it easier for [rulers] to act wickedly; healthy patriotism may make it harder . . . That is one reason why we private persons should keep a wary eye on the health or disease of our own love for our country.” While Hazony is undoubtedly right that a single global state would be as suffocating as it would be dangerous, the crucial task is not to identify the ideal international order. It is rather closer to home: how should I feel about my nation?
Hazony’s second thesis answers that we should be nationalist. However, Hazony fails to fully confront the tension between moral particularity and moral universalism. Hazony rightly recognizes that there are limits on the exclusiveness of our moral concern; he understands that nationalism ought not make us entirely indifferent to the rights of those outside our nation. But he doubts the universal moral principles necessary to support these limits. As a result, he cannot articulate what a virtuous nationalism would look like.
Hazony praises, for example, the post-Westphalian worldview for identifying the “moral minimum required for legitimate government,” a principle “regarded as a natural law that could be recognized by all men.” But elsewhere Hazony sounds a very skeptical note: “One can have no better destroyer than an individual ablaze with the love of a universal truth.”
Hazony’s skepticism of universal truths is born of his rejection of “rationalism,” which he characterizes as an “abounded trust in human reason.” Instead, Hazony adopts “empiricism,” arguing that there is an “international morality” that binds nations, and that these moral rules are simply “known from experience … as in the natural sciences”—they are not “rationalist assertions of natural law.” Similarly, rights “can be derived only empirically, as norms that have been shown to uphold a given moral or legal system and to benefit those living under it.”
These arguments fail, however, to confront the point of the great Scottish empiricist David Hume: moral “oughts” can be derived from empirical observations only—if at all—with careful attention to the connection between the two. Empiricism is eminently useful: it can show us whether a particular institutional arrangement tends to promote, say, individual autonomy. But it cannot tell us whether autonomy is a virtue to be encouraged or a vice to be avoided. To answer this latter, more fundamental question, we must have recourse to the natural law reasoning Hazony dismisses.
There is no denying that discerning moral principles can be difficult. But that difficulty makes this discernment all the more essential, particularly when it comes to nationalism. Rigorous moral reasoning is necessary to ensure our love of country does not veer into idolatry.
Take Hazony’s perceptive criticism of Locke’s liberalism: it “ignores the responsibilities that are intrinsic to both inherited and adopted membership in collectives,” such as families and nations, which “establish  demands on individuals that do not arise as a result of consent and do not disappear if consent is withheld.” Every society, even Locke’s liberal polity, relies on unchosen loyalties, and Locke is fairly criticized for refusing to justify these loyalties even as his proposed political order relies on them.
Hazony makes a similar error. He recognizes the possibility that nationalism will foster injustice, but he does not provide the resources for preventing it from doing so. He can sidestep the threat of nationalist bigotry and belligerence only because, at least for the last few decades, liberalism has largely reigned unchallenged in the West.
But there is no guarantee that this threat will remain unrealized. The idea that our nation is a particular object of our moral concern can quickly lapse into the idea that our nation is the only object of our moral concern. It is no coincidence that many of Europe’s nationalist movements traffic in anti-Semitic rhetoric. Europe’s Jews, as well as other minority communities, are easily portrayed as a separate nation, with a religion and a history different from those of their fellow citizens. And without universal moral principles to restrain it, the national state is free to concern itself only with the nation’s interest, to the exclusion of others both at home and abroad. Hazony himself suggests this possibility: although he finds it “repugnant to entirely renounce moral concerns” in foreign affairs, he thinks these moral considerations should only be used to “tilt the balance” “without in any respect betraying the statesman’s responsibility to pursue the interests of the nation.”
America: Nationalism Redeemed
There is an alternative. We need not choose between a morally unconstrained nationalism and a “borderless earth.” We can commit to universal moral principles while abstaining from the urge to correct all the world’s injustices; we can love our country’s people without telling ourselves that they are the only people who count. We can, in other words, pursue a noble patriotism that seeks to further the good—including the moral good—of our country.
No group of people has realized this patriotism perfectly, but the people of the United States of America have come closest. America undoubtedly has its flaws, but it remains the most compelling integration of the universal and the particular. America was founded on a claim of universal moral truth—that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights—with roots extending back to the Hebrew Bible’s announcement that humanity bears the imago dei. As the late Senator John McCain said in his farewell letter, Americans “are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideals, not blood and soil.”
Americans love their country: the ideals that inspired it and the citizens who sustain it. This rouses a loyalty to our fellow citizens, and—at our best—our founding principles guide the exercise of this loyalty.
America is thus a country committed to patriotism. Contrary to Hazony, patriotism is not simply nationalism by a “prettier” name. Rather, patriotism identifies a love that has a slightly different object. Nationalism is a love for a group characterized by a common language, history, and culture—and perhaps physiognomy. But patriotism is a love for one’s fellow citizens, regardless of their nationality.
Ronald Reagan aptly described America’s unique perspective on patriotism:
America represents something universal in the human spirit. I received a letter not long ago from a man who said: “You can go to Japan to live, but you cannot become Japanese. You can go to France, and you’d live and not become a Frenchman.” . . . But then he added: “Anybody from any corner of the world can come to America to live and become an American.”
“The nationalist . . . knows that there is great truth and beauty in his own national traditions and in his own loyalty to them; and yet he also knows that they are not the sum of human knowledge,” writes Hazony. If only Hazony had written an entire book on how to balance these two ideas. The West could really use an explanation of how love of one’s country can be integrated into a moral framework of universal human dignity.
Alas, such a book remains unwritten.