For Yoram Hazony, governments are either nations or empires. This is a more superficial distinction than Aristotle’s, for whom a regime’s purpose is paramount, whether ruled by one, few, or many. Despite its limitations, however, Hazony’s new book, The Virtue of Nationalism, is worth reading because it focuses so succinctly on what nations are, why they are good, what distinguishes nations from empires, and why Western elites’ attempt to drown nations in “liberal” supra-nationalist institutions is bad. The book presents “an anti-imperialist theory that seeks to establish a world of free and independent nations”—un monde des patries, as Charles de Gaulle would have said.
The president of the Herzl Institute in Jerusalem, and himself an Israeli, Hazony is a proud part of the prototypical nation: a people forever defined by the covenant they made with the Lord God. In quasi-Platonic terms, Israel is thus the idea of the nation. Others are nations insofar as they approach that idea. The Israelites defined themselves by their adherence to God, who shaped His people morally by giving them the Ten Commandments to instruct them in basic personal behavior. Hazony calls these “the moral minimum.” God at once endowed and limited his nation by giving them a land to be their own, while warning them—as he does in Deuteronomy 2:4-19—to “meddle not” with other peoples, whom He had also endowed with lands to be their own.
Ye are to pass through the coast of your brethren the children of Esau, which dwell in Seir . . . . Meddle not with them; for I will not give you of their land, no, not so much as a foot breadth; because I have given mount Seir unto Esau for a possession . . . . Distress not the Moabites, neither contend with them in battle: for I will not give thee of their land for a possession; because I have given Ar unto the children of Lot for a possession . . . . And when thou comest nigh over against the children of Ammon, distress them not, nor meddle with them: for I will not give thee of the land of the children of Ammon any possession; because I have given it unto the children of Lot for a possession.
From the beginning, then, Hazony shows that the prototypical nation was “living within limited borders alongside other independent nations…and uninterested in bringing its neighbors under its rule.” It welcomed strangers who said, as Ruth did, “thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.” God willed that Israel rule itself, as the prophet Jeremiah declared: “And their nobles shall be of themselves, and their governor shall proceed from the midst of them.” Its rulers would serve the people, because only God Himself is master of all. Having freed Israel from the Egyptian empire, the Lord settled His people in the midst of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and other Near Eastern empires, whose masters intended to deprive of self-rule as many peoples—nations—as they could conquer.
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Hazony rightly reminds us that “all states are perpetually on the verge of losing their cohesion and independence.” The Hebrew Bible first taught the fragility of political order, “at every moment either rising or falling, moving toward either consolidation or dissolution,” depending on “whether human freedom is aided or hindered by the state, and whether the extension of the imperial state [leads or not] to mankind’s enslavement.” Peoples who are free to rule themselves are perpetually at risk of giving up the conditions of nationhood—the moral minimum and independence—and hence of being absorbed into empires, as the Israelites eventually became the successive vassals of the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans.
Empire also results from the mistaken faith that only an authority superior to discrete peoples can prevent their pursuit of disparate purposes from ruining peace and prosperity. Hazony may be excused for attributing the Western world’s taste for empire to Catholic Christianity. But regarding the Holy Roman Empire as a continuation of Roman imperialism, as he does, misconstrues Christian political thought . . .
Read the rest in the Winter 2018-2019 issue of the Claremont Review of Books.
Image credit: Elliott Banfield/Claremont Review of Books