Novelists are from time to time capable of rousing expectations for their upcoming works. That’s far more difficult for authors of non fiction. For this reason, I do much admire Yoram Hazony, who has been able to advertise his upcoming book for a full year, which is finally due this week, with a series of op-eds in The Wall Street Journal. They were all truly thought-provoking and those who strongly disagree with Hazony’s argument should be grateful for him making it, in a clear and interesting way.

The latest piece was published on August 25. In that article, Hazony sees the current populist upheaval as “resistance to the European Union and its policies in Britain, Italy, Austria, Poland and Hungary”. Certainly Hazony’s book would be welcomed (were they ever to show a greater interest in books) by movements like the Northern League, the FPO, PIS and Fidesz. I wish him not to regret, in the future, these bedfellows.

The book is indeed rooted in his sense of allegiance to Israel and his profound disregard for international bodies such as the UN and the EU.

In the article, Hazony summarises a few of key points of his book:

1. Nationalism is unjustly blamed for the two world wars. The first was the result of imperial plots, the second was prompted by Hitler, who was (mostly) an imperialist and not (that much of) a nationalist;

2. Nationalism is related with the emergence of religious tolerance, as the treaty of Westphalia of 1648 “marked Europe’s turn away from the ideal of a universal monarchy—a Christian aspiration since Roman times—in favor of a diversity of constitutional and religious arrangements in different states”;

3. The nation state is the fertile ground upon which constitutionalism and relatively limited government blossomed.


In the article, as opposed to the disregard he shows in his book, Hazony engages with Elie Kedourie, the author of a splendid book, Nationalism (1960), which I see as building upon the great 1862 article by Lord Acton on “Nationality”.

I find Hazony’s view of European history troublesome. For one thing, saying that Hitler wasn’t a “nationalist” is, to use a euphemism, a far more controversial claim than he acknowledges. Let’s put it in this way: can you picture national socialism raising to power without Herder, Fichte, and all the other prophets of nationalism? I doubt it.

Second, the treaty of Augsburg (1555) and then Wesphalia indeed established the principle “cuius regio, eius religio” (whose place whose religion). This was a reaction to an event that destroyed the unity of Christianity, namely the Reformation. Whatever your sentiments and views on the matter, the Reformation grew the potential for belligerency and aggression in Europe, providing princes with a powerful justification: religion, indeed, that led to religious wars. Blaming them on the Catholic Church’s pretence of universality seems to me an exercise in putting cause and effect upside down. To be sure, sovereigns of all kind always had a tendency to wage wars one against the other. But the difference, in this regard, is the legitimization they can claim.

In a sense, this is THE problem with nationalism. Before it, wars aimed at changing borders were due to limited confrontations, they were often solved with marriage diplomacy, always ended up in some sort of treaty regulating the matter. After the rise of nationalism, changing borders became a matter concerned with the sanctity of the nation. Nationalism is, together with technology, the essential ingredient for modern war, which is mass war both because of the weapons government can employ up to annihilation of million _and_ because of its ability to mobilise millions to fight one against the other.

In actual fact, national identities are often very recent things (think about Italy, or Germany indeed) which were clearly instrumental to the democratisation and mobilisation of the masses for some political goal.

In this sense, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Hazony’s criticism of Kedourie do not get to the core of Kedourie’s book and its thesis. Kedourie saw in nationalism the offspring of romanticism, a theory which claimed sovereignty for manufactured identities: nations that were to be defined by the distinctness of its culture (typically identified with the possession of a distinct language).

This was a revolutionary doctrine, that claimed that the legitimacy of power rested in something else than what had prevailed for most of the history of humankind. It was instrumental in transforming politics from a “limited” enterprise to an ideological quest where masses were promised salvation from all the hardships they suffered, by the means of national emancipation. I’m not doing justice to the book, which is incredibly rich, and profound, and ought to be considered a true classic in 20th century political thought. But you get the gist of it, I hope.

Claiming that we owe constitutionalism to the nation state doesn’t mean much. The nation state has been a tremendously successful institution: it claimed the world for itself, it destroyed alternatives to it (even international bodies like the EU are basically cartels of nation states, no more no less), it became the arena for political confrontations. Limited government and economic planning, as we conceive them now, are limited government and economic planning within its boundaries. The welfare state is, in some way, another project that aimed to sustain its own legitimacy (basically, today a nation is that political unity within which redistribution can take place). But are we sure we cannot conceived liberty in other institutional setting?

Arnold Kling righty points out “this is an issue that is particularly challenging for libertarians. that We believe that national borders restrict freedom, including the freedom to live where you want. But what if every project to get rid of national borders is one in which power is concentrated in a central authority?”

This is a old debate, and it won’t end any soon. I’d like only to point out that it is not that the only alternative to the nation state is “larger scale” government. It can also be a mix of larger scale government and much “smaller scale” government. One thing the nation state typically despises is localism: which competes for people’s allegiance and their understanding of their own identity, but typically doesn’t have that monopolistic ambition over it which made nationalism so bloody and dreaded.