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Liberalism vs. Nationalism

Yoram Hazony takes on liberals of all stripes in his latest book, *The Virtue of Nationalism*

23 min readDec 22, 2018


Now that the government appears on the verge of shutdown over the issue of “the Wall,” it’s become impossible to ignore the resurgence of nationalist sentiment both in America and abroad.

What should a libertarian make of trends like Brexit in the UK, and the election of a self-identified nationalist like Donald Trump to the American presidency? Are the philosophies of libertarianism compatible with the principles of an international order made up of a multitude of nationalist countries?

On the one hand, nation states have a centuries-long history of waging war against one another, colonizing and oppressing foreign lands and peoples, and violating the natural rights of their own citizens.

On the other hand, international governing bodies like the European Union and United Nations also pose a threat to the self-determination of the American people and, by extension, our liberty as individuals. Perhaps a realignment is needed.

In his new book The Virtue of Nationalism, Yoram Hazony makes an intellectually rigorous case for nationalism in general and for the specific case of his own country, Israel. Hazony, President of the Zionist Herzl Institute, argues that nationalism is the only stable alternative to a creeping “liberal internationalism,” which he says is merely a modern version of the age-old concept of empire. Sometimes referred to as “globalism” or “transnationalism,” this rules-based order seeks to secure global peace and grow the scope of its power by limiting the ability of nations to chart their own course.

Against the twin extremes of anarchy and internationalist empire, Hazony affirms the nation-state as the ideal political unit for securing individual liberties — supporting them within a context of a particular shared culture, mutual loyalty, and physical borders.

I chafe at some of the ideas in his book, like closed borders, but he makes too many important points not to engage them.

I discussed the Virtue of Nationalism with Yoram for the full hour. It was hardly enough time to dive into the full thesis of his book but we did our best.

The Virtues of Internationalism

At its core, the book is a critique of liberalism — not just progressive liberalism, but also the liberalism of Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek.

It may come as a surprise to libertarians that these giants of classical liberalism thought we needed to move toward a global marketplace, in which borders wouldn’t interfere with free trade, and where peace would be enforced by an over-arching world state or international federation.

In his masterwork, Liberalism in the Classical Tradition, Mises writes:

“The greatest ideological question that mankind has ever faced… is… whether we shall succeed in creating throughout the world a frame of mind… [of] nothing less than the unqualified, unconditional acceptance of liberalism. Liberal thinking must permeate all nations, liberal principles must pervade all political institutions, if the prerequisites of peace are to be created and the causes of war eliminated.”

He elsewhere advocates for “a world super-state really deserving of the name… that would be capable of assuring the nations the peace they require.”

Neither Mises nor Hayek elaborated greatly on how this super-state would operate, or what kinds of checks and balances it would have, leaving the classical liberal in an uncomfortable position of speculating as to what this might look like and how it would prevent the usual problems of big government.

As listeners to my shows (and readers of my new book) know, I believe that federalism — i.e., delegating powers to states and localities — offers a solution to the most bitter political debates within the United States, and could be applied to any other country with a large diverse population. Hayek insisted that individualism was compatible with the mutual loyalties among citizens that Hazony thinks are essential to a body politic. Whether that body is a nation, a state, a county or a neighborhood seems less important than that it is voluntarily chosen by the members through free movement.

However, while an international federation could theoretically guarantee economic and civil liberties to members of nation states while leaving them autonomous in most other areas, Hazony says that such a system will always tend to oppose local, particular interests in favor of the universal interests of the empire. One argument for federalism is the ability of states to experiment with different policies to see what works best. Hazony notes that this same logic can be applied to nation states, and has been used by proponents of the competitive governance movement as a reason to “let 1,000 nations bloom.”

Liberal internationalism clamps down on such experiments, forcing a “one-size-fits-all” solution on countries that may not desire democratic governance or free markets. Can a classical liberal say with certainty that the economic system we support should be foisted on the rest of the world? Hazony says we should question this idea.

The Vices of Nationalism

Of course, the elephant in the room is the reputation nationalism has for inciting ethnic divisions and, in the extremes, racial hatred. Nazi Germany is the most obvious example of national pride and self-determination run amok. Hazony answers this with evidence that Hitler’s plans were in fact rooted in an imperial ambition that can be traced back to Immanuel Kant’s dream of a perpetual peace upheld by a “world state.” Before this, European monarchs joined hands with the Catholic church to extend the universal (temporal and spiritual) authority of a Holy Roman Empire.

Just like the Roman Emperors of an earlier age, Hitler sought to enforce a peace throughout Europe and the rest of the world through an imposed international order buttressed by German hegemony. The “Pax Germana” was prevented by the strong independent nations of the United States and United Kingdom. Since the war, however, mainstream thought among governing elites has tended to view these independent nations as a greater threat to peace than a new international order that limits national independence.

Hazony notes a strange a paradox since World War II, in which the extermination of Jews and Slavs has been used by one side — namely liberal internationalists — as the primary argument against nationalism, while a large faction of Jewish people have seen it as the decisive reason for the existence of an independent state of Israel.

You’ll have to read his entire book to get the full nuance of his perspective, and I encourage you to do so. Whether or not you plan to read the book, you won’t want to miss Hazony’s erudite perspective, combining history, political philosophy, and theology to make the case that liberty is best preserved within distinct and sovereign nations. Listen now:

Transcript & Audio

Rediscovering Nationalism

Bob Zadek: This morning I get to use my favorite word. My favorite word is “why.” What is there about that word that gives me so much pleasure? I always find myself curious about how others feel about certain issues of economics, public policy, international relations and the like. Everybody else’s opinion is always of interest to me, but it is far less interesting than why they feel that way. One can just say “I don’t agree with you,” and that is not much of a conversation and is not very interesting. But once you look under the hood and ask “why?”, now you get a chance to understand how the person you are speaking to got there. This might help you reformulate your point of view and learn something.

This morning we get to use “why” a great deal, and the reason we are going to use it so much is because we are talking to Yoram Hazony. He is an Israeli philosopher, a Bible scholar, and the rarest of all intellectual pursuits, a political theorist. Everybody seems to have an opinion on politics, but the “why” is kind of shallow, vacuous, or nonexistent. With Yoram, the “why” is what makes it so interesting and his “why” will perhaps induce you to think quite a bit. We’re talking about Yoram’s new book, The Virtues of Nationalism.

Now, to many of our listeners, virtues of nationalism seems itself to be an oxymoron. With the Trump administration, or with all the fire and attention the Trump administration has been getting with his so-called “America first” foreign policy, which has been an alternative or a placeholder for nationalism, and with so many people angry at Trump, the person and his policies, if nationalism had a good name before, it sure doesn’t now. Well, to balance the conversation and show us how nationalism is really just federalism on a larger scale, here is Yoram, speaking from Israel.

Yoram Hazony: Good morning to everybody on the west coast.

Imperialism versus Nationalism

Bob Zadek: Because there is so much misunderstanding with labels, “-isms” are profoundly misunderstood. People can debate any “-ism” without knowing what exactly they are talking about, so the conversation is not very interesting and doesn’t get very far. Help us understand what nationalism is as you use the concept and what’s virtuous about it.

Yoram Hazony: Nationalism is a principled standpoint. It sees the world as being governed best when nations are allowed to chart an independent course — to develop their own traditions and to pursue their own interests. Traditionally, this point of view has been seen as opposed to a imperialist or globalist point of view, which says that the world would be best if there were a single rule of law or political enforcement that would govern all the nations. This is a very old distinction. It goes back not just centuries, but thousands of years. Nationalism is the view that says the world will reach justice and freedom when people can have independence and those that say that this just leads to war and conflict, and we should just have one rule for everyone.

Bob Zadek: So there is this dichotomy between one-worlders or supporters of the new world order, as George Bush called it. The New World Order was the export of our way of living, our way of doing business, and our way of organizing our government, because we have “figured it all out.” The only difference between Third World and the First World is that they haven’t learned how we do business. Is that a somewhat simplistic but accurate comparison?

Yoram Hazony: That is exactly accurate. I can still remember the chill that went down my spine the first time I heard on the radio George H.W. Bush talking about the New World Order. This was in 1991. And I thought, “Oh my gosh, we just finished the Cold War. I thought the whole point in the Cold War and all those decades of struggle was that America and its allies were the Freemasons struggling against the imposition of a New World Order that the Marxists wanted to impose.”

The Freemasons did not want one world order. They wanted many different orders and many different countries, with many different kinds of governments, where each nation is an experiment in what it means to be human. We have seen a whole generation of Presidents pursuing this New World Order.

I don’t think it’s a very good idea and I don’t think it’s improved in the implementation. The virtue of nationalism begins with the humility that says that we here in America or in Britain or wherever we are, we think our way of life is best, but if other people want to imitate us, that is fine. But the idea that it needs to be imposed by force, and that there needs to be a world law with world courts and somebody will have to be the world’s policeman, is a completely different idea.

Bob Zadek: It in your book, you mark as a seminal event, both politically and as a timeline, the removal of the Berlin Wall. And what I thought of when I learned that concept from you in your writing and in your presentation was that we first had an imperialist enemy in World War II. That is, Nazi Germany of course. Although the word nationalist was in the title of their movement, they were by no means nationalists. They were imperialists, as you have, as you pointed out to us.

So, we had another group imperialistically trying to impose their worldview. And we fought them because we were not going to allow that worldview to succeed. Instead of merely stopping their attempt at imperialism with by defeating them, we went one step further. We replaced their imperialism with our “good” imperialism. So, rather than stopping halfway and saying, “Okay, here we have rejected this imperialist movement and now we can relax. We went one better and replaced their imperialism with ours. Is that too simplistic? Is it even reasonably accurate?

Yoram Hazony: I think that that’s a very good description of what happened after 1989. The reason that I focus on the fall of the Berlin Wall is that at that point there were no other imperialisms that the the United States needed to fight. We never thought of ourselves as trying to take over the world. We thought of ourselves as trying to defend free countries from communism. When somebody could come and say, “Look, okay, but in the competition with communism, the United States, ended up establishing a presence all over the world.” And I don’t want to object to that.

When you get to 1989 and the Soviet Union disappears, and there is no more imperialist communist threat. At this point there is no more Nazi threat. Then I think the whole question is, what do you do now? There were voices like Margaret Thatcher who had this idea of the world of free nations, but then a utopian fantasy of a liberal empire that covers all of Europe and then the rest of the world.

That fantasy is something that was so powerful that the British dumped Margaret Thatcher because she wasn’t willing to go along with it and she wanted to see an independent Britain. So if you think about World War II from the perspective of the allies, their radio broadcasts into Europe were all about how there were enslaved nations in Europe and it was our job to free them.

Unlike the Nazis and the communists we were going to let each nation be free. So I think 1989 was the moment where we recognized that the war was over and we should bring the boys home. Let’s take care of the many terrible problems afflicting American society. The goal was to just take care of ourselves, but that is not what happened.

Bob Zadek: We had a positive motive — obviously we did not want to take over the rest of the world, but we weren’t content to allow them the freedom to evolve into a more open society and a more Democratic society with a market system and stable currency and all the good stuff that comes with it. We weren’t content to sit back and let them get there or not on their own. We felt we owed a duty to them — like a parent with a young child. We thought we had to push them towards what we knew was best and they could not reach that realization on their own. So we were not content to let them have their own self determination that we had in our history. In effect, aren’t we denying them the self-determination to either get to a society that we think is the best?

Yoram Hazony: I think that’s exactly right. If you ask people in Serbia or Libya or Iraq or Afghanistan how they see the United States, I think you will find very few people who will say, “Well, the Americans and the Europeans interventions were kind and gentle and ended up liberating our country and doing good for the world.” You may find some people that say that, but I think that on the whole, people see these wars as horrific and devastating, and not liberating. Our foreign policy says we here in Washington or in Brussels know how every country in the world should live, and if they don’t live the way we think that they should live, we will make them live the way we want them to live. I don’t think that’s the way to bring people to freedom and I don’t think it’s a way to make friends. I think we’ve seen enough of it.

Persistent Moral Dilemmas

Bob Zadek: What should be our relationship to the struggling group of countries who are living in poverty, and who can’t get it right, and who have oppressive tyrannical governments? Do we sit back and merely observe? I know you have discussed this in your other talks, but our friends out there listening to my show haven’t heard you yet.

What comes to mind of course is events like genocide, Rwanda, and Cambodia. Do we sit back and say it is not our business? How do we deal with those issues? Most importantly, what are the rules, or the core moral standards which govern how we behave regarding these atrocities occurring in other countries which do not pose a threat whatsoever to our country?

Yoram Hazony: I think if you take extreme examples like Rwanda or Cambodia, you are talking about places where the Americans had solid information about atrocities on the scale of hundreds of thousands or millions of people being slaughtered. I think that if you have the military capacity to go in quickly, put an end to it and then get out without yourself being the government of the country for the next 50 or 100 years, it seems like you really should do this. I think that is a pretty basic moral obligation. But I don’t think those extreme genocide cases describe American foreign policy over the last generation. I think we are talking about a completely different framework which assumes not that genocide needs to be stopped, but that any kind of bad government needs to be stopped.

I think this view is utopian, meaning I think that it is well intentioned, but not realistic. I don’t actually think that the United States has the ability to enter a foreign country that it doesn’t understand very well and reshape its culture in such a way as to make it a democracy in America’s image. Democracy in America’s image is something that has been developing in the English-speaking world for the last 900 years. Even in places that we consider to be very civilized, such as France and Germany, people don’t remember that the French state collapsed in the 1950s. There was military intervention and the Constitution had to be re-written.

If you ask the question of how long have the French and the Germans succeeded in being self-determining independent democratic nations since then, I would say they have not done a good job. The European Union is basically a bureaucracy that autocratically imposes laws on countries which have not asked for those laws.

The French and the Germans are not capable of maintaining a self-governing independent nation. So why should we expect the other countries and foreign civilizations in other parts of the worlds should necessarily do things the way we do? Maybe we are right to object to various indecencies or the violence with which they conduct them, but that doesn’t mean that the United States has any power to actually change it. It is hubris and arrogance to think that it does. Take Iraq, which has been governed by dictatorship for thousands of years. Are they just sitting and waiting for America to invade and conquer it, and set up liberal arts colleges and become just like Americans? It sounds crazy.

Bob Zadek: You said America doesn’t have the ability to go into another country and reorganize them in our image. What if we did have the ability? What if we built a template so we know how to do it? Is the only barrier that we don’t do a very good job of it? Well, if we did know how to do it should we still go into Iraq and pass laws and then exit? Isn’t there a morality which says that even if we know how to do it, we still shouldn’t do it?

Yoram Hazony: In practice when you go into a foreign country, knock over its government and then start trying to reshape it, it is extremely expensive. The lives of the people who are killed in that country and wounded and the economy is demolished by the war. It’s a little bit hard to think of a time where there would be no obstacle.

Now, of course I am on your side with the idea of diversity and localism. I think that in general, the world is better off if there are many different experiments. Even if you could just sort of wave a magic wand and get everybody to do the same according to the best practices of the United States in the year 2019, I would still think that would be an arrogant action. It would be like playing the role of God. You are assuming that you know what’s best for the whole world already.

That is kind of what God does. In the story of the Tower of Babel where he looks at this aim of having all of humanity speak one language and have one way of thinking, and he says, “I don’t want that. I want a world of diversity.”

Now, do Americans really know what’s best? I think that the United States, although I don’t have any problem with people who say that America is perhaps the greatest nation that there has ever been in many respects and in many ways, surely people understand that the United States is not some kind of perfected country. When many more traditional societies look at the United States, the first thing they see is that something like 40% of American children are being born outside of marriage. That is an astronomical number.

That speaks to a wholesale destruction of the framework of the traditional family. Now I understand some listeners might say that this does not sound very important, but maybe they can sympathize with another country in Asia or in Africa or someplace else that looks at that and gets afraid. They think that is a social ravaging and destruction the consequences of which we don’t even know yet. So when people in more traditional societies say that your framework for democracy and civil liberties and free markets has some good things to it, but we want to try something modified, it is hard for me to see how some can be so arrogant not to admit that others have some insights we don’t have!

I think that is basically what the virtue of nationalism comes down to. It is being willing to think that our society is the best, but that doesn’t give me the right to make the whole world behave just like me.

Bob Zadek: You have once again said that it is utter hubris and arrogance. We are so confident that our way of doing business is the right way, such that we have a need to export by force this way of doing business. We have used force in the Middle East. We have used force in Africa to some degree. We have used force in Eastern Europe to impose our way of doing business. And it is the use of force that crosses a moral line. It is perfectly okay if you think you are onto something in terms of governance. Go ahead, make the case and persuade if you can and help other countries build what has served us so well. But, to impose it upon them via coercion and force is as anti-libertarian as one can possibly be.

So, much of what you say reminds me of Washington’s instructions to the country in his farewell address. He basically said that we are a friend to all those nations that aspire to be free and open and have our values, but we will not interfere, we will not export it. And that lesson in 1796 is as true today. Washington’s words come through in Yoram’s book, The Virtues of Nationalism. Be a friend to others who are sympathetic to our point of view but not an enemy to those who are not unless they tangibly wish to do us harm.

Donald Trump: A Modern Day George Washington?

Bob Zadek: Donald Trump has labeled his foreign policy as “America First.” Do you sign onto the concept of America First?

Yoram Hazony: Yes. In his United Nations speech I think President Trump made it absolutely clear that he believes that the different nations of the world should be concerned with their own people first. America first is not, as far as I understand it, intended to mean that America should be the first on earth. Rather, it is the antithesis of what Macron said — that none of us should be selfish and we should all pool our interests and have one central pot that determines what is good for everybody. Trump is resisting this. He is saying that government is responsible to its own people, and I completely agree with him. Over the last generation in America and in Europe the idea that politicians are responsible for the wellbeing of their own people has been replaced by “pooled sovereignty” and transnationalism.

This is something that John Stuart Mill wrote about over almost 150 years ago. He said that this is completely impossible, because what happens when local governments give up caring about their own needs — those needs they understand best — they delegate upwards the responsibility, so that there is some kind of central power that is supposed to be rationally making all these decisions. So what ends up happening is that this imperial center, instead of actually working out the best for everybody, works out what is best for itself. It ends up doing good for nobody. Governments should do good for others if they can, but their first responsibility is to do good for their own people.

I don’t think there is any other possible way of doing things. The other alternative we have seen is world empires. If you can just imagine the European Union trying to run the entire planet, that is what it would be like. The first few years seem real nice. And then it starts to turn out that they regulating what size apples the English need to grow, and rejecting the Italian’s budget. And oh, by the way, this is your finance minister, he will be working from Brussels. The Poles want to change their judicial system and the Germans tell them they are not allowed. And the Hungarians want to have immigration policies that favor Christians because they feel like they have been a Christian country for a thousand years. And the EU tell them that is not allowed. It is simply impossible to have some kind of central brain figure out what is right for everybody. There’s no brain that can do that. It can only lead to evil.

Bob Zadek: That, of course, is pure Hayek, who reminds us over and over again that the market place, the unfettered marketplace with millions and millions of human beings, making independent, thoughtful decisions, will dictate the value of any good or any service. Central planning is the arch-enemy of the free markets.Nobody is smart enough to replace the function of millions and millions of people operating in their own self-interest. Putting aside whether they should usurp the freedom of choice, as a practical matter you just aren’t smart enough to do a good job at it and it cannot be done.

And your point is true with respect to the somewhat failed experiment in the European Union, and of course it is true in our own country, which is federalism, where states should have much more of the power. The power should not have been ceded to Washington over the hundreds of years of our life because Washington doesn’t know enough. They can’t manage each and every state. We are suffering on the national level within the United States from the same problem that is on the international level. It is exactly the same conversation with the same limitations.

The Relation of Nationalism and Immigration

Bob Zadek: Now Yoram, you embrace the concept of nations and borders, and your views are quite interesting with respect to immigration. The United States, following the principles of nationalism, should look after its own citizens first. Starting with that point of view, what should be our country’s approach to the very important issue of immigration. How should a nationalist country approach the issue of immigration?

Yoram Hazony: The main problem that is not discussed enough with respect to immigration is the fact that while the benefits of diversity are clear, people tend not to notice or at least to discuss the fact that that is only true up until a certain point. Beyond a certain point, diversity creates tension, which if left unresolved can lead to violence. Those countries which are at rest and have peace tend to be countries that are not exactly homogenous, but rather countries that have one very dominant culture. Countries like England or France or the United States are pointed to as countries where historically freedom was at its most successful, and where most people want to live.

Fair enough, but these countries are also countries that were for centuries internally cohesive to a very large degree. The population was mutually loyal. This meant that if the government decided to do something, you didn’t immediately fall apart into some kind of civil strife in the streets, or even God forbid a civil war. Obviously, there were some civil wars, but in general these were very cohesive societies. The way that the United States succeeded in being a very successful immigrant country over centuries was through a kind of back and forth of allowing for immigration and then toning it down, and then allowing more and then toning it down. The United States has never surpassed the level of immigration that it is at right now.

Right now it is 15% of the population which is foreign born. And I think that it is important even for those of us who are in favor of diversity and believe that immigration can be a good thing, to understand that you cannot bring the country up to 30% immigrants or 50% immigrants and have the country not fall apart. And when I say fall apart, these groups that come in are not just clay in your hands. They have their own ideas and their own aspirations, their own understanding of how you do things, maybe for better or for worse. But the point is that no country can sustain above a certain level of immigration without deteriorating in such a way that it cannot be held together anymore.

I don’t want to see that kind of violence in the United States or any other country that I care about. Immigration cannot be dealt with as an absolute. It is something that can be very good, but it has to be dealt with prudently. If you see that you are causing social friction, then that is a signal to you that you may have to move more carefully.

Bob Zadek: I have two thoughts on that. First of all, when we achieve a higher level of diversity than you feel is the right level, when we get into the yellow zone, not the red zone, there are two kinds of diversity. Number one is the diversity that comes from a different background, perhaps racial. These are external areas of difference. But if these people that are looking differently or speaking differently sign onto the American system of freedom, individual rights, personal property, and do no harm to others, and if they sign on to the declaration of independence to be a bit simplistic, then that diversity that exists is kind of irrelevant.

They are in the program. I don’t think these people could be a source of strife, but I just am so pro-immigration. I don’t fear. Maybe it is uninformed. Maybe I should be more afraid, but I don’t fear a wave of immigration from anywhere in the world — immigrants who are here, whether they know it or not, because they simply want to participate in the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Am I being a bit naive?

Yoram Hazony: It is the same principle we talked about earlier. You can’t just go into Iraq which has for thousands of years had an extremely rich and sophisticated history and civilization and religion, and evaporate it because you read them the Declaration of Independence. It won’t happen and it doesn’t work.

Now, I’m just saying the same thing again, but if you bring some number of Iraqis over here, there is a really good chance they will fit in just great. But you can’t say that 100,000 is the same thing as a million as 10 million and as 100 million. That’s impossible. There is a certain point at which you’re just picking up Iraq with everything good and everything evil about Iraq and placing it within the boundaries of your country. And it doesn’t make any difference that somebody tried to teach them the Declaration of Independence because human beings don’t simply just change software.

Bob Zadek: There is one core difference. When immigrants come here, they are doing so voluntarily. When we go there we are imposing it upon them. The difference is that one has coercion and one is purely voluntary. That is the only difference I would make.

Where can people find your work?

Yoram Hazony: The Virtue of Nationalism is available on and on all of the other online booksellers. You can go to my website And there you have all my books and all my writings and you can subscribe to my newsletter if you’re interested. Thank you so much.


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