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  • Victor C. Bolles

The Specter of Nationalism

The Difference between Trust and Loyalty

The specter of nationalism is increasing across the globe bringing forth visions of the dark days of jack-booted Nazis marching across Germany that preceded the start of World War Two. Nationalism has a bad reputation and is closely linked with populism, a combination that has led inevitably to tragic results. So when I came across an article by Hoover Institute Senior Fellow Peter Berkowitz in Real Clear Politics titled, “American Conservatism Clarifies National Conservatism’s Contribution” (April 7, 2024) I wanted to learn more about what the heck was national conservatism.


But it was when Mr. Berkowitz noted in his article that, “Furthermore, national conservatism – at least in the writings of its most prominent theorist, Israeli Yoram Hazony – does not merely abstract from the central features of American nationalism. Hazony, who is chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, which hosts the Natcon statement of principles, attacks them: His version of national conservatism vilifies America’s enlightenment and classically liberal roots. The self-evident truths of the U.S. Declaration of Independence, not least unalienable rights – the rights shared by all human beings – and government’s primary responsibility to secure them, reflect for Hazony falsehoods that undermine “the idea of the nation.”


As an American I am a firm believer in those unalienable rights and define my political viewpoints as classically liberal and based on Enlightenment principles and values. I needed to understand why Mr. Hazony has such a low opinion of what I (and perhaps many of you) hold in such high esteem. So I had buy his book, The Virtue of Nationalism (2018). In essence, the book is a lengthy argument to support the existence of the state of Israel as a Jewish nation. In order to make that assertion he has to prove the superiority of nationalism over other systems of government. But he does have some interesting ideas that I needed to think about.


I have always viewed the advancement of civilization as an ever increasing circle of trust and a successful nation as an edifice of trust, where citizens of such a nation trust each other and the institutions of the society. The role of government is to create a framework that fosters such trust among citizens. Mr. Hazony bases his theory of the importance of nationalism on loyalty, a mutual loyalty of the shared history, traditions and religion linking the citizens of the nation.


He has a point. Many of a person’s beliefs have little to do with reason. If you are a Christian it is probably not because you made a rational decision to become a Christian (although there are some). It is more likely that your parents were Christians and you were born in a Christian country. I loved being an American before I understood what it meant to be an American. George Washington was still my hero even after I learned that he did not really chop down that cherry tree.


Mr. Hazony lumps the Enlightenment-based, American-led “Rules Based World Order along with Hitler’s Third Reich and Stalin’s Soviet Union as proponents of “universal values” that supposedly would bring peace and prosperity to the peoples of the entire world, whether they liked it or not. To him, they are all empires along with Napoleon’s French Empire, the Hapsburg’s Holy Roman Empire and Caesar’s Roman Empire. These empires believed their universal values to be superior to the traditions, cultures and religions of the nations constituting the empire.


Hazony’s hierarchy of political organization begins at the family level and moves on through  clans, tribes, nations and empires. The tribes share a common language, religion and history. Although the tribes fight amongst each other, a key element is that such tribes band together to fight other unrelated tribes or nations when threatened. This common defense is the motive to form a nation so that, although there might be some variations between the tribes, the nation as a whole shares many of the same values. Because of these shared values in the nation, the loyalty of families, clans and tribes is transferred to the nation as a whole.


Empires constitute an amalgamation of nations. Each of these nations has its own unique values and traditions (along with language and religion) that it doesn’t share with other nations. Lacking such shared values and traditions the people of these amalgamated nations have no loyalty to the empire, only to their own particular nation. Thus an empire, by its very nature, lacks the unity that a nation can achieve. Without the loyalty of the people, the policies of the empire must be implemented through the use of coercion and force to assure compliance. This can only breed dissension and rebellion.


There are some problems with Mr. Hazony’s theory, however. Few nations are as homogenous as his theory implies. Minorities must either assimilate into the dominant culture or be content to be second class citizens. The Ainu minority in Japan was forced to assimilate by the dominant Yamato population to the extent that most Ainu descendants have no knowledge of their cultural heritage. Mr. Hazony points out the “adoption” of the Druze minority in Israel as an example of how a unified nation with a unique history, tradition and religion can integrate a minority into its community. The Druze, however, have not been so lucky in other countries in the region. And while many Druzites serve in the Israeli Defense Force, the extent of the loyalty of this reclusive minority to Israel compared to fellow Druzites in other countries is unknown.


National Conservatism believes that each country must choose a form of government consistent with its history, traditions, culture and religion. Without the universal values that Mr. Hazony disparages, nations can choose monarchs, autocrats and dictators as they so desire. He admits that certain nations can become “bad actors” and try to impose their will on other nations. However, he asserts that the actions of such bad actors is motivated by the desire to create an empire and so such actions are inconsistent with national conservatism. Although non-interference in the affairs of other nations is a key principle of national conservatism, Mr. Hazony states that other nations must act to counter such tendencies to expand territories or create a new empire. How this would occur is unclear.


With the rapid dissolution of the globalist “rules based world order” disparaged by Mr. Hazony happening all around us, it is likely that the world will soon confront a multipolar world where many nations can exercise their rights at will. I doubt that it will be the just and peaceful world Mr. Hazony envisions. Certain powerful nations insist on maintaining zones of influence such that neighboring nations must align their interests those of their more powerful neighbors. Not quite paying tribute as in the past, but quite close. And Russian dictator Vladimir Putin is not shy about trying to recreate the Russian Empire of Peter the Great. So as the rules based world order founded upon the universal values of the Enlightenment dissolves, rising violence is likely to increase across the globe.




We Americans esteem our Enlightenment values and principles because they are based on reason and humans are rational beings that can thrive in an environment based on reason. And we have. We have benefitted greatly from a modern world based on reason and science. But I am always drawn back to the theory of Dr. Daniel Kahneman who passed away just recently.


Dr. Kahneman explained in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow that humans can be thought of as having two brains, one brain that is fast thinking (necessary for survival in a dangerous prehistoric world) while the other brain thinks slowly but with reason (which has given us wondrous scientific discoveries and a prosperous economy that has lifted the human race out of poverty). But Dr. Kahneman discovered that humans use their slow thinking brain sparingly and spend most of their lives guided by their fast thinking instinctual brains.

The creation of all the marvels of the modern world is founded on the trust people have in their fellow citizens and our western institutions including limited government, the judicial system and democracy. But trust is not freely given, it must be earned. As Ronald Reagan said, “trust but verify.” Trust is a product of our slow thinking brains.


The loyalty that Mr. Hazony believes is the basis for national conservatism is not based on reason. It is based on history, tradition and a common culture (plus language and religion) that bind people together. You may not trust your fellow tribesman with your wife or silver but you will swear vengeance on any outsider that harms that untrustworthy cousin. That sense of loyalty lies in the fast thinking instinctual brain, but that does not mean that loyalty should be less valued than trust. Loyalty is part of who we are and, as Dr. Kahneman noted, drives most of the decisions we make in our daily lives.


The problem that Mr. Hazony faces is that the history, tradition and all the other baggage that creates the sense of nationhood mostly originated in the pre-modern world. And while mass migrations did occur in the past (such as the waves of Goths, Visigoths and others that eventually destroyed the Roman Empire), most groups lived in relative isolation such that they could develop the independent language, culture and religion that made a nation. The modern Goths and Visigoths that are swarming across the borders of Western nations are finding it difficult to assimilate into traditional cultures, contributing to the breakdown of the rules based Western world order just like Rome


But the dominant theme of the breakdown of the American led rules based empire that Mr. Hazony applauds, is that the Western order is not being replaced by rising independent nations as Mr. Hazony theorized but by new and potentially malevolent empires, Russia and China in particular. The global benefits of the Western world order (longer healthier lives, prosperity and the reduction of poverty, reduced violence and relative peace for most people on the planet) are likely to evaporate in coming decades if the West collapses.


In the current divisive America that we live in, we have lost trust in our fellow citizens and in American democratic institutions. Trust has been replaced by loyalty. But not the loyalty I grew up with. Loyalty to the city on a hill. Loyalty to exceptional America. Loyalty to the American leadership of the free world.  We now have new loyalties. Loyalty to a person – a great leader. Or loyalty to a new and foreign ideology. And these new loyalties are tearing America apart.


Mr. Hazony is wrong. Just because we are loyal to a particular culture or tradition, it doesn’t mean we cannot aspire to a higher calling. The universal values of the Enlightenment that led America to greatness are still valid. Those values and principles are being tested. Riots to overthrow elections at the behest of the so-called great leader. Antisemitic riots to sacrifice an entire people on the cross of a perverse ideology. We must call out these actions as unpatriotic and reclaim the republic that the Founders created.

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