‘Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism,’ French president Emmanuel Macron said at last weekend’s Armistice Day ceremonies. ‘Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. In saying ‘our interests first, whatever happens to the others,’ you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: its moral values.’
You’d have to be a philosopher to make sense of that. My guest this week on The Green Room, Spectator USA’s Life & Arts podcast, is one: I’m casting the pod with the Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony, an expert on the philosophies of both religion and politics.
Is nationalism, in Macron’s words, an ancient and modern cause of the ‘old demons’ of history? Or, as Hazony argues in his latest book, The Virtue of Nationalism, is the nation state the best way to preserve law and liberty?
The usual answer to this question is to dodge it, by declaring that nationalism is bad but patriotism is good. The difference is mostly semantic. So are the similarities between the terms, because both ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’ derive from Latin, ultimately from the words for ‘birth’ and ‘father’, respectively. There are no easy answers about nationalism, and a lot of hard questions.
Yoram Hazony does not call a spade a manual implement for the displacement of earth and other dry matter. The historic roots of the nation state, he believes, are Biblical. If you have a Biblical strain in your culture, then you have a good chance of prospering as a nation state; if not, it’s still possible, but it’s much harder. He also argues that our world now divides between nation-state particularists and liberal universalists like Emmanuel Macron. The universalists seek to impose a form of ‘liberal imperialism’ which is inherently undemocratic, so it’s no wonder they emphasize the negative side of the history of nationalism.
This was a scintillating podcast to record, and a prime example of how deep historical learning can illuminate present confusions. The conversation flows from discussing whether empires are better than nation states at protecting minorities; to the exceptionalism of Jewish and German nationalism; to whether the European Union can survive in its current form and why the Kurds deserve a state of their own; and then to the United States.
Americans are playing out the contest of liberal imperialism and nation-state particularism within their borders. Their collective identity has weakened, and their factional identities now threaten the collective peace. We call this ‘Balkanisation’ for solid historical reasons. Hazony directs our attention to the breakdown of the Hapsburg Empire, where each increase in individual rights fed into collective agitation for national rights. Is America heading for a similar breakdown?
‘The transition to a Hapsburg America is extremely strange,’ Hazony says. ‘But I can’t say that it’s not a possibility.’