Who's Really Afraid of Nationalism?

October 18, 2018 Topic: Politics Region: Europe Tags: NationalismPopulismPoliticsEuropeEuropean Union

Who's Really Afraid of Nationalism?

Yoram Hazony has written a polemic against what he perceives as the conventional wisdom—a refutation of the “paradigm of the European liberals” for whom the European Union is the highest stage of political excellence.

The ethics of nationalism, for Hazony, are a blessing in international affairs. Here he has in mind an international order of the future rather than anything close at hand. Hazony envisions a peaceful order of autonomous nations. This would be a world without empire and the coercive internationalism represented by the European Union and the United Nations—“international institutions that seek to wield coercive authority over their member nations.” Each nation would rule over itself and only itself. They would be proud to do so, and in their pride would lie the foundation for mutual respect. The “mutual loyalty” within the nation would translate into bonds of international empathy. A multiplicity of political forms broken into local and regional patterns would suit something deeply felt in human nature—that which is tribal and national in the best sense of the word.

HAZONY’S BOOK offers an antidote to the transnational vogue of recent years. It offers an interesting alternate morality, not the overcoming of national sentiment as the path to cooperation and peace but the fulfilment of national sentiment as a precondition for cooperation and peace. Hazony is most insightful on the emotional bonds of nationhood, the heroic image of the “we” that is crucial to any political culture and that if sufficiently watered down will result in an abnegation of citizenship. Citizens sacrifice for what they see as “ours,” and a political order fashioned to meet the needs of humanity is simply too abstract, too cold and too distant to inspire sacrifice. Without sacrifice, burdens will not be shared, and without the sharing of burdens a state ceases to be a state or a nation ceases to be a nation.

To accomplish his philosophical ends, however, Hazony forces himself to idealize the nation-state and to demonize non-national political structures. Even a superficial review of nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalism would reveal a dynamic whereby humility, tolerance and maturity are not necessarily—and not so often—the virtues lodged in the soul of the nationalist. Nationalism may be all Hazony says it is. It has also been the source of immense brutality, violence and hatred. Of this Hitler’s Germany, vastly more Völkisch than it was imperial or universalistic, was emblematic. Hitler played on the nationalism of Eastern and Central Europe to commit his crimes. Hazony knows this history but is reluctant to admit it into his philosophy.

Hazony generalizes from Jewish rather than European history. On the one hand, this is a refreshing reversal of roles and a welcome challenge to kneejerk Eurocentrism. On the other, by celebrating nationhood as ethically uplifting peoplehood he underestimates the problems inherent in the interactions among nation-states. It is easy to dismiss “the irrelevance of Wilsonian idealism to world affairs.” It might have been worthwhile for Hazony to worry about ethnic self-determination, another Wilsonian aspiration, and its long record of generating conflict. Ethnic and national awakenings, especially where borders are unsettled, have typically been the enemies of international order.

Hazony is strangely soft on German and Central European nationalism and strangely hostile toward the European Union. What he misses is the complexity of the EU. Brussels is not an imperial capital. The nations of the EU can enhance their relative power by being in the EU. For example, the military and economic clout of Holland outside the EU would be small. As an EU member, Holland can better defend its economic and national-security priorities. To maintain membership in the EU, though, Holland must yield some measure of national sovereignty and be prepared to lose out at times to Brussels and to blocs of other EU member states.

From these intricacies of the EU and the nation-state two lessons can be drawn. One is that the EU makes sense for today’s Europe and that the biblical Israel, the old Protestant order and the organic nation Hazony prefers is not practical for Europe. These frames are too homogeneous a model for a heterogeneous Europe. Between the imperial and the national is the civilizational dimension, and the EU reflects European civilization—a European commonality amid the diverse nations and cultures of the European continent. The second conclusion is that the EU could never be superimposed on the Middle East. Rather than abstracting a universal nationhood from Jewish history, Hazony might have focused on Jewish nationhood in Israel and the more local virtues of Jewish nationalism as he sees them. Hazony is right about the wrongness of any one template for world politics. He is right to question the imperial instinct in the abstract, but then he goes ahead and converts the national into the universal, into a single template, fantasizing unpersuasively about the harmony and calm that would come from an empire of nationalisms.

TO SUBSTITUTE Russia for Israel alters Hazony’s argument in interesting ways. Putin is an adept nationalist, and for Russians the quality of life and the niceties of the law are less stirring than the tribulations of the Russian nation that is theirs. Hence, Russians have sacrificed for their foreign policy. As soldiers, as mercenaries, as volunteers, they have fought and died in Syria and Ukraine. For the sake of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Russians have endured punishing economic sanctions. Their history, their language, their culture and their land prompt them to serve their singular nation-state. Hazony helps us to comprehend this Russian instinct which is prevalent in many countries.

Nationalism has real political utility. It is a source of power, and this should not be forgotten. Yet there is no guarantee that the nationalist’s soul will be balanced between an inward loyalty and an outward maturity. Nationalism thrives no less on conflict than on tradition. The theological fires of biblical Jewish history are hard to find in modern history in part because the righteousness of monotheism has been narrowed to the righteousness of a nation or of my nation, a highly combustible form of righteousness. The Russian national revival since the 1990s is inseparable from the annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. Nationalism now, as it has so often been in the past, is an impediment to compromise and a spur to conflict.

The virtue of nationalism pales beside the reality of nationalism. Nationalism animates “postnational” Europe as much as it does Putin’s Russia. Yet since 1945, Europe has devised ingenious systems for qualifying nationalism and for stimulating compromise. Since 1945, the United States has been a European partner in this project. What they accomplished together was imperfect, and the imperfections have led to nationalist uprisings across Europe. The United States is in the midst of a nationalist uprising of its own. If these uprisings are to be the wave of the future, not too much virtue should be expected from them. A nationalist future, which is robustly plausible, is likely to have the hard edges and sharp elbows of Putin’s Russia. For those seeking an ethical international order, the reality of nationalism will have to be tempered, channeled and contained, and the virtue of an intelligent internationalism will have to be maintained.

Michael C. Kimmage is a professor and department chair of History at Catholic University of America. He is the author of the forthcoming book, The Decline of the West: An American Story, on transatlantic relations and U.S.-Russian relations from the 1890s to the present.

Image: Reuters