Resisting Today’s Imperialist Temptation

The strongest argument in Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony’s new book comes right up front: all political regimes can be divided into three types—tribal, national, and imperial. A tribal regime is pre-modern; it operates according to tradition, guided by elders or a chief. A national regime has formalized its governance; the state thus presides over a specific people—which is to say, a modernized tribe. And an imperial regime is a modern state that rules over many different peoples.

Resisting Today’s Imperialist Temptation

Hazony’s trigonous delineation is compelling for three reasons. First, it reaffirms that thenatural unit for people is the family; the tribe, after all, is just an extended family. Second, it reminds us that tribes have, for their own betterment and survival, wished to rationalize their arrangements into a formal state. And third, it helps us see the aggrandizing instinct that sweeps tribes and nations into empires.

As suggested in the title The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony sees this type of regime as the happy medium between the primitiveness of tribalism on the one hand and the oppressiveness of imperialism on the other. As he writes, nationalism is “a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course.” So that’s the gist of Hazony’s argument: the world is happiest when it’s organized into distinct nations.

Alas, in the course of 304 pages, Hazony puts forth other arguments, which are, even to a sympathetic reader, arguable. For instance, he fixates on the idea that the ancient Hebrews provide us today with an exemplar of peaceable nationalism. As he writes, “Throughout the Bible, we find that the political aspiration of the prophets of Israel is not empire but a free and unified nation living in justice and peace amid other free nations.”

To bolster his pacific assessment, Hazony quotes the Book of Deuteronomy, in which God, speaking through Moses, tells the Israelites: “Ye are to pass through the coast of your brethren the children of Esau…. 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.”

Yes, those live-and-let-live words are in Deuteronomy, but so, too, is this divine injunction not cited by Hazony: “Cast out many nations before thee, the Hittites, and the Girgashites, and the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” The Israelites are ordered to “smite them, and utterly destroy them; thou shalt make no covenant with them, nor shew mercy unto them.”

Nor were the ancient Hebrews particularly concerned about political freedom; in fact, the Almighty was the top enforcer of top-down order, as when He opened up a cleft in the earth to swallow the rebellious Korah and his 249 co-conspirators.

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The point here is not to pick a fight over theology; after all, God has His ways. However, for mere mortals, it is, well, arguable whether or not the political science of the Old Testament—often thought of as a saga of “quarrelsome tribes”—offers pointers for modern times.

Indeed, about now, the reader might ask, If the issue is ancient political role models, what about the Greeks? You know, “politics,” “democracy,” and all the other words tossed around by the likes of Plato and Aristotle. It is notable that Hazony scants Hellenism in favor of Hebraism. And when he does bring up the Greeks, he does so in minimizing ways, as when he conflates the two very different systems: “Both the Israelite and Athenian states were thus able to function on the whole as free states.”

Fortunately, from such shaky intellectual ground, Hazony soon moves to firmer turf, as he identifies the real villain of his book—namely, empire, then and now.


Hazony argues that the essence of imperialism is the quashing of the nationalistic impulses of people. Not surprisingly, he launches his imperial survey with a consideration of the Roman imperatores, who were hardly good for the Jews.

To be sure, two millennia later, the Roman Empire seems to enjoy a generally positive aura—but then, of course, history is written by the winners. And one of those winners, the Roman historian Tacitus, was candid when he wrote that the conquering legions “make a desert and call it peace.”

As Hazony points out, empire-builders almost always say that they are operating in the name of peace—even if that means, first, a lot of killing. Cicero typified this empire-serving mindset when he declared, “In the future, but one eternal and unchangeable law will be valid for all nations and for all times.” Hazony sums up this familiar pro-imperialist spin as “seek[ing] to bring peace and prosperity to the world by uniting mankind, as much as possible, under a single political regime.” That sounds nice, we can observe, until it’s actually tried.

From the Roman Empire, in Hazony’s telling, it was an easy jump to the Roman Catholic Church. That is, the churchmen adopted the fallen imperial forms as they built up their new Augustinian spiritual empire. And yet, of course, the unified City of God was still an Empire of Men—even as the subjects, now in scattered domains, were Christians, not pagans.

So now that Hazony has his target in front of him, he fires at will: “For more than a thousand years, Christianity thus aligned itself, not with the idea of setting the nations free as had been proposed by the Israelite prophets, but with much the same aspiration that had given rise to imperial Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia.”

To be sure, the idea of a Catholic imperium has its champions, even in the modern era; one thinks, for example, of Ernst Robert Curtius’s irenic 1948 ode to the old days, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages.

Yet any warm nostalgia for Big Catholicism will have to be found in somebody else’s book. In the meantime, in Hazony’s book, progress toward virtuous nationalism came only with the Reformation in the 16th century. As Hazony puts it, the Catholic order finally gave way to a new “Protestant order based on independent national states.”

Indeed, for Hazony, an Israeli, it’s a treat that the new Protestants often looked to the Old Testament for inspiration as to godly covenants; thus the ancient Hebrew nationalism, however idealized, became a part of the modern nationalism.

The signal victory for the new order came in the 17th century: “It was in the Thirty Years’ War,” writes Hazony, “that the concept of a universal Christian empire, which had held sway over the West’s political imagination for thirteen centuries, was decisively defeated.” After 1648, the rule would be cuius regio, eius religio—that is, his realm, his religion.

To be sure, not everyone was on board with this new way of doing things. One such was Innocent X, who declared in a papal bull that the new Westphalian order “is and forever will be, null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, and entirely devoid of effect.”

Yet the Vatican’s protestations notwithstanding, for the next few centuries, nationalism was unmistakably on the rise—even in Catholic countries. It was nationalism, for example, that animated Spanish Catholics to rise up against Napoleonic French Catholics in 1808, and it was nationalism, too, that inspired Latin American Catholics to revolt against the Spanish a decade later.

Thus the nationalist template was established, much to Hazony’s delight, as specific peoples sought to carve out specific nations. And yes, of course, Zionism, another nationalist dream, also emerged in the 19th century.

Even in the first half of the 20th century, as colonialism disintegrated, it was widely assumed that nationalism was the worldwide wave of the future. As Hazony puts it, “A nationalist politics was commonly associated with broadmindedness and a generous spirit. Progressives regarded Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the Atlantic Charter of Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill as beacons of hope for mankind—and this precisely because they were considered expressions of nationalism.”

And yet the world wars won by Wilson, Roosevelt, and Churchill were the hinge toward today’s “post-nationalism.” Hazony concedes that the popular view is that “nationalism caused two world wars and the Holocaust”—and that linkage bothers him.

Thus to vindicate his nationalism-is-virtuous thesis, Hazony seeks to draw a bright line between good nationalism and bad imperialism, even if that entails the challenging task of distinguishing German nationalism from German warmongering. Hazony insists, “Nazi Germany was, in fact, an imperial state in every sense.” That is, not nationalistic.

Here, the historical record is not necessarily a friend to Hazony’s stance—and not just with regard to Hitler. After all, it was in 1916, during World War I, that the Kaiser’s government ordered the words Dem Deutschen Volke (“To the German People”) inscribed on the main facade of the Reichstag as a way of underscoring that this was a collective war for the Vaterland. And a generation later, Hitler’s incantatory invocations of Ein Volk became the stuff of Riefenstahlian legend.

So rather than arguing that early 20th century German nationalism was not, in fact, nationalism, perhaps Hazony might have had an easier time if he had simply argued that Germany produced a uniquely malignant form of nationalism—a disastrous one-off. Nationalism might have its virtues, but as with anything, there can be a dark lining.

In an