Yoram Hazony presents himself as the leader of a rejuvenated American nationalist right: an impresario, organizing conferences in the United States and Europe; and as a theorist, setting out a programme for the new movement in his latest book, The Virtue of Nationalism. The book may be read on two levels, on the one hand for its argument and on the other as an indicator of the coalitions and fissures on the contemporary American right. The son of an Israeli nuclear physicist, Yoram was raised in the United States. As an undergraduate at Princeton in the mid-eighties, he founded the Princeton Tory, a conservative, Reaganite-Thatcherite student journal of the sort that was being established at many American universities at the time. An encounter with the Jewish Defence League’s Meir Kahane inspired Hazony and a handful of his friends to return to the faith in which they had been raised. After completing his doctorate at Rutgers, Hazony joined several of this same group in Israel, where he served as an advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu, administered a think-tank and lived in a settlement across the Green Line until the outbreak of the Second Intifada occasioned a move to Jerusalem. Hazony quickly found himself implacably opposed to prevailing opinion in Israeli intellectual circles: the result, a fierce critique of the ‘post-Zionism’, avowed and tacit, of the country’s elite in his book The Jewish State (2000), announced him as a leading intellectual figure of Jewish conservatism.

In The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony’s project is ambitious: wielding two ideal types, the nation and the empire, he proposes to vindicate the former. Following his mentor Steven Grosby, he asserts that modern nations in fact represent a revival of the ancient form of political order exhibited by the ancient Jewish nation, or people. The independent rule of the Jewish people over themselves was established in fact ‘under the Seleucids’, and the theory that a world of limited, self-governing nations is preferable was propounded in the Old Testament, with its descriptions of the survival of the Jewish nation against Egyptian and Babylonian empire. Hazony’s definition of the nation is drawn from Deuteronomy: ‘The political aspiration of the prophets of Israel’, he writes, ‘is not empire but a free and unified nation living in justice and peace amid other free nations’.

This nationalism is to be distinguished from imperialism, which promises peace through the unification of all mankind under a single regime. Christianity is the prototypical imperial ideology, but a paradoxical one, since it contains within it a seed of nationalism in the form of the Hebrew scriptures. Hazony sketches a history of nationalism in eclipses and revivals: during the long centuries which followed the conquests of Titus, the national principle lay dormant as empires rose and fell, all until the Reformation—with its attention to the Old Testament—unleashed it once more. The Thirty Years’ War pitted Catholic champions of universal empire against Protestant nationalists, with the latter emerging victorious. The new Protestant order rested on two principles, revived from the Old Testament: first, a ‘moral minimum’ needed for government to be considered legitimate, requiring the ruler to obey the pre-existing laws of the realm; and second, the notion that it was rightful for those nations strong enough to win their independence to maintain it. Still, imperialism has proven as resilient as nationalism, with the post-Westphalian period witnessing first a Napoleonic bid for empire in the nineteenth century and, in the twentieth, twin bids by Nazism and communism. Hazony is firm in classifying Nazi Germany as an imperialist rather than nationalist force: ‘Hitler’, he writes with the utmost confidence, ‘was no advocate of nationalism’.

The Second World War, Hazony maintains, did not put an end to empire but was rather the occasion of the defection to the imperial side by a previously stalwart nationalist force, the United States. American imperialism more often goes by other names—the ‘liberal international order’, the ‘rules-based order’, the ‘indispensable nation’—but Hazony is contemptuous of such ‘murky newspeak’. The criticism extends to the European Union, whose similar deployment of euphemism (‘pooled sovereignty’, ‘ever closer union’) is mere window-dressing for an imperial project in the German or Catholic tradition. The appearance of the term ‘subsidiarity’ in eu law does not escape notice. Yet the eu is not an empire so much as an empire-in-waiting: Europe remains under American rule, with the eu as Washington’s ‘protectorate’. It will not be until American troops leave Europe that the bloc’s imperial ambitions will be actualized in the form of German dominance of the European continent. Hazony applauds the ‘new nationalism’ of Reagan and Thatcher, as well as the recent Anglo-American rebellion from empire—for the us, retreat from its role as liberal imperialist; for the uk, withdrawal from the European Union.

Hazony then proposes to show how nations, ancient and modern, arise organically through the development of bonds of loyalty between families, ‘clans’ and ‘tribes’. Acknowledging the anachronism of these Biblical terms, Hazony insists they remain applicable today. The nation comes about when a number of tribes agree to join for their mutual security and protection against outsiders. The result is the birth of impersonal justice along fixed standards: the ‘rule of law’. But the underlying tribal structure does not disappear, nor do the ties of loyalty and the cultural practices it fixes in place. Here is Hazony’s implicit rebuke of Benedict Anderson: the nation is not an imagined community per se, rather a coalition of smaller communities which are not imagined but natural. It is a midpoint between the insecurity and personalized justice of the tribe and the homogenizing uniformity of empire. If nationalists are tribesmen compared to cosmopolitans, they are cosmopolitans compared to tribesmen.

While Hazony maintains these tribal roots of the nation are not based entirely on ties of blood—he considers the matter settled after citing the example of Ruth the Moabite—he rejects two flavours of civic nationalism, Habermasian ‘constitutional patriotism’ and the ambient American notion of the ‘creedal’ or ‘propositional’ nation. (He does not cite Renan but seems no less hostile to French-style voluntarist notions of a nationalism based in a plébiscite de tous les jours.) Such notions deny the historically and culturally specific origin of the nation, in America’s case arising from English common law and Old Testament-inspired Protestantism. Jefferson’s supposed liberal universalism and revolutionary fervour is excoriated while Hamilton is recast as a Tory. America’s immigrants, such as its Catholics, must be considered additional ‘tribes’ adopted into the larger family. Hazony stops short of unequivocal endorsement of a right to national independence. Demanding ‘parsimony’ in his order of national states and citing logistical constraints, Hazony regretfully informs the reader that many groups that perhaps might like to become nations must remain mere tribes in a larger national body. He attacks European colonialism for drawing up the borders of what are now postcolonial states without regard for national division, making the development of free national states through consent of tribal leaders nearly impossible. This is the only moment in the book in which an area of the world beyond Europe, the United States and Israel comes into view.

Hazony pairs his ideal types with rival epistemologies: nationalists, he says, are generally empiricists, while imperialists are rationalists. Drawing upon his 2017 essay in American Affairs with confrère Ofir Haivry, Hazony contrasts the tradition of ancient-constitutionalist English thinkers (John Fortescue, John Selden, Edward Coke—roughly the subject of J. G. A. Pocock’s 1957 monograph The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law) with a liberal tradition that stretches from Locke through Rousseau and Kant to Hayek, Mises and Rawls. The former he praises, Selden especially because of his study of Talmudic law, and terms historical empiricists. These thinkers recognize the contingent and specific character of the uniquely virtuous English political system, as do their conservative successors, most significantly Burke. Locke, too, praised the English constitution but committed the error of attempting to derive it from the reasoned consent of individuals by means of a state-of-nature argument. The universalizing tendency of this move opened the way for liberal imperialism, from the French Revolution to ‘democracy promotion’ in the Middle East, as Locke’s successors sought to impose English-style government on societies plainly unfit for it, or even to collapse the world’s nations into a single federation. Moreover, liberal theory threatens the ties of ‘tribal’ loyalty on which nations depend because it does not recognize them and instead imagines all associations to derive from rational, self-interested individual consent, as if the nation were a mere business partnership.