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What the ‘National Conservatives’ Get Wrong About Liberalism

It is inseparable from the rise of the modern nation-state whose sovereignty they hold dear.
July 6, 2022
What the ‘National Conservatives’ Get Wrong About Liberalism
(Composite: Photos: GettyImages / Shutterstock)

“As far as my personal opinion is concerned, to care only for well-being seems to me positively ill-bred. Whether it’s good or bad, it is sometimes very pleasant, too, to smash things.” So said that incorrigible critic of reason, Dostoevsky’s Underground Man. Disillusioned as he was by the direction of the modern world, he might have found a few kindred spirits today among the public intellectuals associated with “national conservatism.”

They would reject the comparison, of course. National conservatives claim the mantle of Edmund Burke and have even issued a statement of principles recommending the “tradition” of nationalism as “the only genuine alternative to universalist ideologies now seeking to impose a homogenizing, locality-destroying imperium over the entire globe.” Yet their criticisms of so-called liberal imperialism are careless and sweeping. As Burke himself pointed out in Reflections on the Revolution in France, “The errors and defects of old establishments are visible and palpable. It calls for little ability to point them out.”

Indeed, listening to national conservatives brings to mind G.K. Chesterton’s story about an overzealous reformer who, looking at a fence, announced, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” Chesterton continued, “The more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: ‘If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.’”

This particular fence has a use that is of special interest to its critics: What national conservatives deride as the “global ‘rules-based liberal order” was constructed deliberately to protect the sovereignty of states. The United Nations Charter itself stipulates that “all members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” A more intelligent group of “conservative” reformers might ask whether dismantling the current world order could weaken, rather than enhance, the national sovereignty they prize.

National conservatives propose a vision of nationalism—what Yoram Hazony calls an “order of national states”—that proves incoherent upon close examination. This becomes especially clear when reading Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism, which can be taken for a kind of national conservative manifesto. Hazony’s theory of nationalism relies heavily on a false dichotomy between imperialism and nationalism. This dichotomy generates all sorts of inaccurate historical claims, and it collapses completely when one considers the situation in Ukraine.

I. The True Origin of Nation-States and the Need for International Order

“The historian’s task,” Wilhelm von Humboldt said, “is to present what actually happened.” In The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony instead presents what he thinks ought to have happened, which requires him to turn political history into a morality play between imperialism and nationalism. While Aristotle identified six types of regime that could also be combined, Hazony identifies only two: imperialist and nationalist. Imperialist states are inherently oppressive, seeking to unite the whole of humanity under a single rule. Nationalist states are committed to self-determination, recognizing natural borders and the rights of other peoples, and this inclines them toward peace.

According to Hazony, nationalism appeared first in ancient Israel, but then went incognito for more than a thousand years before returning in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. The Westphalian system, Hazony says, struck a decisive blow against the universalist pretensions of the Holy Roman Empire, and it gave rise to “a ring of independent national states on the Western rim of Europe—England, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Sweden, and Denmark.” In point of fact, Denmark at the time ruled Norway. Sweden was an empire in possession of Finland as well as parts of Germany and the Baltics next to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Dutch Republic was an emerging commercial empire. The French and English were starting to colonize the Americas, and the borders of the Ottoman Empire extended far into southern Europe.

This is not to deny that the Peace of Westphalia marked an important moment in a larger development toward centralized forms of sovereignty in Europe. But centralized sovereignty needed to combine with the ideals of the Enlightenment before Europe would become a continent of nation-states.

Prior to the twentieth century, no European ruler doubted that monarchs could dispose of territories the way they saw fit. The ones who dreamed of self-determining nation-states were liberal revolutionaries. As Lord Acton noted, they appealed to theories of equality and nationality that challenged European concepts of sovereignty rooted in traditional ideas like natural hierarchy, nobility, hereditary possession, and monarchy. The process by which the Europe of nation-states emerged was long, arduous, and full of historical ironies unappreciated by today’s national conservatives.

In the nineteenth century, the sovereigns of Europe sought to suppress liberal ideals unleashed by the French Revolution. The so-called Concert of Europe nearly collapsed in 1848 when revolutions erupted throughout Europe. But the revolutions failed—and they failed in no small part because the principle of self-determination could not be reconciled with inherited concepts of statehood and sovereignty. Self-determination in Austria-Hungary would have required dismembering the dual monarchy. Uniting Germans under one government was impossible because of competing sovereignties within the German Confederation, which themselves traced back to the Holy Roman Empire. The unification of Italy would entail eliminating the Papal States.

The old system of sovereignties persisted until it came to a final, crashing end in the First World War, which was concluded in a series of treaties inspired by President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Conservatives often dismiss Wilson as a naïve liberal, but nothing in the Fourteen Points will strike a reader today as especially fanciful. Indeed, in calling for Italian borders to align with nationality, insisting on the restoration of Poland, and urging autonomy for the peoples of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, Wilson was cautiously articulating the very same principles of national freedom and self-determination that Hazony and the national conservatives believe should serve as the foundation of global order.

Still, the liberal architects of Europe’s new order were naïve to believe that the defeated powers would simply acquiesce to their system of nation-states. Under the old sovereignties, many nationalities had intermingled in ways that did not align with natural borders. Others were too small to organize into ethnically homogenous countries. Even with the best of intentions, the new states could not conform perfectly to the nationalist ideal, and the victors’ intentions were not always the best. The Treaty of Trianon broke apart the Kingdom of Hungary to create a series of successor states, none of which was ethnically homogenous. The new state of Czechoslovakia included, in addition to Hungarians, three million Germans in the Sudetenland acquired from Austria. Austria was reduced to a rump state, prevented by the Treaty of Saint-Germain from uniting with Germany even though both peoples belonged to the same nationality. A large German minority also ended up in Poland, thanks to the Treaty of Versailles.

The hypocrisy in these settlements, imposed in the name of liberal ideals they did not live up to, discredited democracy among the vanquished. A new kind of nationalism emerged in reaction— one that explicitly rejected liberalism, but that resembled nineteenth-century nationalism in its desire to overturn the prevailing order in Europe. In Germany, this reactionary nationalism led to Nazism.

Hazony denies that Hitler was a nationalist, and predictably labels him an imperialist instead. Yet many of Hitler’s actions followed the logic of nationalism: His restriction of citizenship to the German “race” took the theory of the nation-state to its logical conclusion; the Anschluss of Austria and the annexation of the Sudetenland were obvious extensions of the idea of national self-determination, and given Poland’s recent acquisition of German territory, even the Nazis’ invasion of that country had nationalist justifications.

The horror of two world wars and the dangers posed by reactionary nationalism convinced Western statesmen that they needed to construct a better international order to secure peace and protect the freedom of nation-states. Unless sovereign nations could structure their relations through international agreements, the shape of global order would be determined solely by dynamics of power. That might have worked in the age of kings and emperors, when territories were possessions that could be traded to establish a balance of power, but in the age of nation-states, territory was no longer up for barter. Without a robust international order, strong states would consume weak ones, and soon there would be no nation-states at all.

II. The Search for Stable Peace in Europe

After the Second World War, Western leaders looked for new ways to secure peace in Europe. In 1950, French foreign minister Robert Schuman proposed forming the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), writing that, “The coming together of the nations of Europe requires the elimination of the age-old opposition of France and Germany.” Members of the ECSC submitted their coal and steel production to a supranational authority in exchange for access to a common market. Then, in 1958, the project of European integration took a step further with the formation of the European Economic Community (EEC). After the Cold War, the EEC and ECSC would both be incorporated into the European Community, a founding pillar of the newly established European Union.

The purpose behind this movement toward greater integration has always been to secure the conditions of peace and prosperity in Europe. Looking back at the past 75 years, Chesterton’s intelligent reformer might conclude that the project of European integration rests on authentic political insights. But national conservatives won’t be impressed. According to Hazony, Europe’s long peace is merely the byproduct of American hegemony: “Had there been no European Union, no political unification of France or the Netherlands with Germany, America’s military presence and protection would in any case have guaranteed the peace of Europe.” But like much else in his book, this is an oversimplification.

If we accept Hazony’s framing, then during the Cold War the peace of Europe was “guaranteed” by two superpowers. But the peace behind the Iron Curtain was disrupted repeatedly by national uprisings: Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and Poland throughout the 1980s. Nothing similar happened in Western Europe because the peace it enjoyed was not imposed at all: It was constructed by sovereign states voluntarily consenting to enter into mutual alliances and international agreements.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, conflicting territorial claims among the nationalities of Yugoslavia led to a horrific genocidal war. Many other ethnic groups and nationalities in Europe also harbor historic resentments that could easily give occasion for war. Yet despite historic tensions that run as deep as those in the former Yugoslavia, the members of the European Union remain at peace. Europe has witnessed several military conflicts since 1945 (including the Cold War uprisings), but none has occurred within the zone of Western integration.

The reasons for this run deeper than economic collaboration and the common market. The European Union is an association of democracies, and democracies are reluctant to wage war. Democratic institutions impose checks and balances, which force leaders to justify war to the public. Because war imposes costs, democracies have trouble sustaining the long-term commitment needed to wage wars of aggression and conquest. Although, as Michael Doyle argued, democracies do sometimes go to war, they almost never go to war against each other. This fact helps explain Europe’s longstanding liberal peace.

Ironically enough, national conservatives concede the point inadvertently. Hazony writes, “This is what empires do. They offer peace in exchange for the renunciation of a nation’s independence.” It turns out nearly eighty years of peace and prosperity in Europe is just a big scam: In order to get it, the nations of Europe had to agree to be oppressed by an empire called the European Union.

Yet compared to the nineteenth-century system of competing sovereignties, the European Union enhances the influence of small states in international affairs. All member states belong to the European Commission and the European Council, which are responsible for most EU policies. In the European Council, many major decisions require unanimous consent, a policy that gives small states disproportionate leverage. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has repeatedly used his position on the European Council to win concessions on behalf of what he perceives to be Hungary’s national interests. The eras in European history when a country of under 10 million with a GDP per capita smaller than that of Puerto Rico has been able to stipulate conditions to Germany and France are rare indeed. Were Hungary not a member of the European Union, Orbán would have about as much influence in international politics as the governor of North Dakota.

In actual empires, client states pay tribute. The imperial power expropriates wealth and resources from the provinces to strengthen its center. In the European Union, wealth is redistributed from the center to the periphery by way of cohesion funds, which are intended to reduce economic disparity among member states. In what may be a first in the annals of empire, the EU will distribute 392 billion euros in subsidies to its poorest members between 2021 and 2027.

National conservatives overlook these things apparently because they conceive of sovereignty exclusively as an internal matter. But sovereignty has external dimensions as well. A nation’s access to natural resources, its freedom to trade, its ability to pick alliances, and even at times its choice of political leadership can be constrained by the international relations of power. The ability of a state to determine its internal affairs depends on the extent of its ability to project power abroad. Without an international order to mitigate and regulate conflicts of power with power, only states with big armies are truly sovereign—an important lesson the war in Ukraine is teaching us once again.

III. Ukraine’s Struggle for Sovereignty

Russia’s aggression against Ukraine is wrong and evil, a fact which may explain why national conservatives have insisted on calling the invasion imperialist rather than nationalist. It is the only way to declaim against this kind of evil within the national conservative framework—yet the dichotomy they propose between imperialism and nationalism is an intellectual construct that unravels completely when applied to Ukraine.

To start, Putin’s war is both imperialist and nationalist. It is imperialist because Putin wants to reconstruct the “Russian World,” which is conceived of as extending as far as Russia’s “natural” sphere of influence. The war is also nationalist because Putin sees Ukraine as part of the Russian nation. As Putin said in his long television address before launching the invasion:

Ukraine . . . is an inalienable part of our own history, culture and spiritual space. These are our comrades, those dearest to us . . . relatives, people bound by blood, by family ties. Since time immemorial, the people living in the south-west of what has historically been Russian land have called themselves Russians and Orthodox Christians. . . . The Ukrainian authorities . . . began by building their statehood on the negation of everything that united us, trying to distort the mentality and historical memory of millions of people, of entire generations living in Ukraine. . . . It should be noted that Ukraine actually never had stable traditions of real statehood.

We needn’t agree with Putin to recognize that, granted certain reference points, he has a case to make. Ukraine does not have a long history as a separate state. It traces its origins back to ancient Rus, but viewed with Russian eyes, that’s Russian history. The territory that makes up modern Ukraine has been cobbled together from land that once belonged to Polish-Lithuania, Austria-Hungary, and Russia. If nation-states are justified by possessing a separate history, then Ukraine’s claim to statehood is tenuous.

In fact, Ukrainian statehood is hard to justify within the terms of Hazony’s own theory of nationalism. Hazony believes international politics should be ordered by “parsimony in the establishment of independent states.” This means not all nations have a right to self-determination. To secure that right, nations must win it through war: “If a nation can, over time, muster sufficient military and economic strength to prevent its own conquest by foreign powers, then other national states will recognize it as an independent nation within the order of national states.” Since new states can threaten the viability of existing states, they should be created only in extreme cases: “Nothing is gained by placing one national state in jeopardy by establishing a new state on its borders that renders it greatly more difficult to maintain, whether militarily, economically, or as a cohesive cultural unity.”

What is this if not Putin’s argument? Putin claims Ukraine is unable to sustain itself as an independent state without Western aid, and that it was formed after the Cold War to establish a beachhead for Western interests on Russia’s doorstep. Hazony may have his reasons for labeling Russia’s invasion imperialist, but at the level of principle, his thinking about when to allow nations a right of self-determination appears to align closely with Putin’s.

Before one can define a war as imperialist, one must first decide which nations have the right to exist as a state. Insofar as that right rests on history, “nations without a history” can only prove their right to statehood through military victory. Ukraine claims to be a separate nation; Russia denies this. The question has been engaged. Whether future generations should consider Russia’s aims imperial or nationalist will depend on how the war ends. From the standpoint of a nationalist—or a national conservative—there’s no other way to answer this question than in Putin’s preferred terms: war.

A simpler and better explanation of the crime of aggression was offered by the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant in Toward Perpetual Peace: “a state is not a possession. . . . It is, rather, a society of human beings, whom no one but the state itself may command or dispose of.” A state represents a people, one whose members are bound together through their commitment to common rights and obligations. By virtue of those commitments a people is sovereign. To annex a state is therefore to annul a people by destroying its freedom of self-determination.

Alas: Given its liberal pedigree, this straightforward description of the crime of aggression is unavailable to national conservatives; they must instead appeal to the common patrimony of nebulous tribes and clans to explain why a people ought not be invaded. In their view, a nation at war is defending its cultural heritage rather than the right of its citizens to determine their form of political association and the shape of their future.

This may explain why national conservatives have eschewed any suggestion that Ukrainians might be fighting for something as simple as their freedom. Brad Littlejohn, for example, has asserted that the Ukrainians are fighting from a sense of nationalism, which he calls pride in shared language, culture, and traditions, rather than for “some idealistic defense of freedom, democracy, or Western values.” Rich Lowry, although not a national conservative, has claimed that the “fight to save Ukraine represents a righteous nationalism. The Ukrainians aren’t defending democracy per se or freedom in the sense of abstract rights . . . but their land and birthright.” Both Littlejohn and Lowry seem to believe that love of land, language, and culture somehow competes with the aspiration to freedom and democracy; they miss, or refuse to acknowledge, that the two are often mutually reinforcing.

National conservatives are right to observe that a nation is bound together by shared customs, places, and a cultural heritage transmitted through common language and passed on to the next generation by recalling and then in turn transmitting the past. But they are wrong to reduce a nation to these things. A nation ought not be conceived analogously to a herd of buffalo, which through accidents of birth and place happen to graze on the same prairie. A nation in the political sense exists only when a people bind themselves together through a set of moral commitments, embodied and institutionalized in a constitutional order, which we moderns call the state.

The dependence of statehood on this forging of moral and political community is not a modern innovation. Two thousand years ago, Cicero, that great defender of the Roman Republic, claimed that individuals have two countries, one by birth and one by citizenship. He argued in The Laws that while we naturally love the country of our birth, the country “which takes its name from the state as a whole should have first place in our affections. That is the country for which we should be willing to die, to which we should devote ourselves heart and soul.” It is the state that grants us citizenship, recognizes and protects our rights, and safeguards the social institutions necessary for human beings to flourish.

The difference between the state and a pre-political nation is the difference between a commonwealth and a horde of barbarians. It is the basis for the distinction between patriotism and nationalism that national conservatives tend to dismiss. A patriot loves his country as a community constituted by its commitment to moral goods. A nationalist loves his country insofar as it is a reflection of himself. To grasp the difference between these two kinds of love is to perceive the origins of civilization. In the words of Acton:

The difference between nationality and the State is exhibited in the nature of patriotic attachment. Our connection with the race is merely natural or physical, whilst our duties to the political nation are ethical. One is a community of affections and instincts infinitely important and powerful in savage life, but pertaining more to the animal than to the civilised man; the other is an authority governing by laws, imposing obligations, and giving a moral sanction and character to the natural relations of society.

Like Cicero, the patriot loves both the land of his birth and his country of citizenship. According to the nationalist, this is a distinction without a difference.

The people of Ukraine are fighting and dying not simply for the sake of shared culture, but in defense of a sovereign state. The Ukrainian nation consists of Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, Hungarians, and even Germans. What binds these nationalities together is not a mythic tribal past, but the free, self-determining acts of a sovereign people. Ethnic Russian Ukrainians have for the most part not embraced their kinsmen from “Mother Russia,” but are resisting them at the cost of their lives. Polish Ukrainians are not clamoring to transfer territory back to Poland now that Ukraine’s territorial integrity is in question. Hungarian Ukrainians are fighting alongside fellow Ukrainian citizens in defense of a common state.

Moreover, despite a shared history with Russia, the sovereign people of Ukraine have decided they belong to Europe. The Western, pro-European and pro-democratic aspirations of the Ukrainian people have manifested themselves repeatedly since the end of the Cold War: in the referendum for independence in 1991, in the Orange Revolution of 2004, in the Maidan Revolution of 2014, and in the explicitly stated desire to join the European Union.

However, Russia’s aggression has made clear that Ukraine cannot secure its sovereignty by its own means. Without assistance from NATO and without sanctions against Russia coordinated by international bodies like the European Union, Ukraine will eventually be absorbed into the Russian sphere of influence. History is familiar with such great power systems. They held sway in Europe before the liberal principles of popular sovereignty and national self-determination were embedded in the international liberal order.

Without the liberal order that national conservatives dislike, the sovereignty of nation-states would quickly give way to a different and older form of politics—one where great states vie with each other to expand their influence, using small states as pawns to be traded or sacrificed in their contests of power. To dismantle the liberal world order would be to invite just such a scenario back into the present. Perhaps national conservatives should read Edmund Burke a little more carefully: Because “circumspection and caution are a part of wisdom,” he tells us, the prudent statesman seeks “at once to preserve and to reform.”

But national conservatives are neither cautious nor prudent. They more closely resemble the very radicals Burke chided, critics of the establishment who “regard all things only on the side of their vices and faults, and view those vices and faults under every color of exaggeration.” Instead of working for its careful reform, national conservatives would raze the established global order to the ground. Blinded by revolutionary fervor, they are unable to see how the nation-states they profess to love depend upon the very liberalism they so deeply despise.

H. David Baer

H. David Baer is the Pastor Gerhard A. and Marion Poehlmann Professor in Theology at Texas Lutheran University. Twitter: @h_david_baer.