Whither American Nationalism?

There is nothing that infuriates us Americans more than a suggestion that our intensely held feelings of patriotism amount to nationalism. Nationalism, we contend, is a quality found in older nations. And it does not take much for actions by other Americans to be considered unpatriotic. Thus, during the build up to the Iraq war, anti-war protestors were called unpatriotic. As the war began, the anti-war community splintered into two groups. The larger group, saying it supported the troops, muted its opposition to the war. The smaller group said it could not support the troops, because they were fighting an immoral war. Not surprisingly, it drew much flak for its “unpatriotic” actions, which some said amounted to treason.

In a similar vein, people outside the U.S. who oppose American policies are labeled as anti-American. This criticism is not confined to the radical groups that operate out of Muslim countries. Even long-time allies in Europe were derisively called “old Europe” not just by the U.S. Secretary of Defense but also by large segments of the American population. France is expecting to lose $500 million of U.S. tourism this summer and one in five Americans stopped buying French products after France opposed the Iraq war. [1]

Just because we fail to recognize their own nationalism does not mean it does not exist. American nationalism is based on values rather than ethnicity or race. According to Paul McCartney of Rutgers University, it embodies two values that are often at cross-purposes with each other.[2] The first value is universalism, which says that Americans share the same moral ideals as the rest of humanity, including freedom, liberty and democracy. The second value is exceptionalism, which says that Americans have a right to pursue policies to preserve their national sovereignty, but other countries do not have a similar right. The dichotomy between these values is as evident to those outside of the U.S. as it is invisible to those living within the U.S.

In the archetypical American view, the U.S. has espoused high moral values since its birth. All its wars have been righteous wars. During the Reagan presidency, the U.S. battled the evil empire of the Soviet Union. During the presidency of the first President Bush, the U.S. proclaimed a new world order based on American primacy. During the Clinton presidency, the U.S. battled the rogue states. During the tenure of the second President Bush, the U.S. is battling three nations that comprise an axis of evil, in addition to battling other nations suspected of harboring terrorists and all terrorists of global reach.

Seen from this vantage point, the war in Vietnam was a necessary war against an evil regime. To protect the free world, it was essential to support military dictatorships in the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Iran and in much of central and Latin America. The fact that these regimes had atrocious human rights records was irrelevant. Even Saddam Hussein deserved to be supported when he was fighting the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini. It is not surprising that in the build up to the recent war in Iraq, former Colonel Oliver North snapped at a reporter who questioned him about the U.S. support for Saddam Hussein. North said that anything that happened in Iraq prior to 1990 was irrelevant.

In the aftermath of 9/11, President Bush seemed to speak for the world community when he said, “We face enemies that hate not our policies but our existence, the tolerance of openness and creative culture that defines us.” However, as noted by McCartney, when he closed by saying, “We did not ask for this mission, yet there is honor in history’s call,” the president slipped unconsciously into nationalistic rhetoric.

The second value of exceptionalism allows Americans to reject the Kyoto protocol, the biotechnology weapons convention, the International Court of Justice and the anti-missile defense treaty. It allows them to say the war in Iraq was justified even if no weapons of mass destruction are found. Indeed, this value provides a justification for the unilateralism that has now become a hallmark of U.S. foreign policy. Its logic can be summed up in two sentences: “No one else can judge our actions, because the U.S. constitution gives us the right to self defense. However, we will judge everyone else’s actions and intentions, because they may pose a threat to our national security.”

In the eyes of many nations, the U.S. resorts to multilateralism when it knows it will get international support and falls back on unilateralism when it knows the world community will not support its actions. A classic example is how the U.S. used Resolution 1441 of the U.N. Security Council to justify attacking Iraq, but has refused to involve the U.N. in setting up a new Iraqi government.

The U.S. is troubled when its enemies possess weapons of mass destruction, but is not troubled when its allies or itself possess similar weapons. Thus, the presence of such weapons by itself is not intrinsically evil. The rest of the world sees this as hypocrisy but most Americans don’t.

This asymmetry goes much beyond owning weapons of mass destruction. Several Americans think that the U.S. is the world’s oldest democracy, while some feel it is the world’s only democracy. When told that democracy is widespread in Europe, they respond by saying that there Europeans practice socialism and call it democracy. Similarly, most Americans are not troubled when their defense secretary says that the Iraqis can elect any government as long as it is not an Islamic theocracy.

Many Americans have accepted the doctrine of pre-emptive war. When asked why most countries did not support a second resolution at the U. N. Security Council, Donald Rumsfeld replied they had not experienced first-hand the horrors of 9/11. However, Colin Powell has stated that should any other country launch a pre-emptive attack on another country, it will be regarded as having committed an act of aggression. Most the world sees this as a double standard, but Americans say each situation is different and deserves to be treated differently.

If someone were to hold a “foreign policy” mirror to Americans, they would see a nation with a self-centered concept of national security and fault it for being chauvinistic. Writing in the current issue of Foreign Policy, Minxin Pei says that American nationalism has galvanized “broad-based anti-Americanism” abroad, making the world less secure for Americans.[3] In a similar vein, McCartney argues that the U.S. can improve its national security by pursuing multilateralism.

Acknowledging that the U.S. will not always be the world’s pre-eminent power, former Governor Howard Dean of Vermont, a presidential aspirant, has asserted that the U.S. needs to work within the fabric of international law to promote its national security, since it “won’t always have the world’s strongest military.” But none of the other presidential aspirants has reciprocated Dean’s view, and some have attacked him for questioning U.S. military superiority.

Writing in the current issue of Time magazine, Joe Klein–a long-time critic of the Bush adminstration– has declared Dean’s statement a blunder and argued that the Democrats need to “recapture the flag.” Klein should not have proffered such gratuitous advice, since the Democratic candidates have been busy outdoing each other in a show of patriotism ever since the debate over Iraq began last September.

Such nationalistic behavior does not bode well for the 2004 presidential campaign of the Democrats. The president has established beyond the shadow of a doubt that no one can be more patriotic than a commander in chief who has two victories under his belt, and who may well bring in one more in the year that remains. Why else would he choose to emerge in full “cockpit regalia” from a Viking aircraft that had just landed on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln? The fact that no one from the Iraqi High Command was present to sign the instrument of surrender was just a minor disappointment.


[1] Time, May 12, 2003, p. 25.

[2] “The Bush Doctrine and American Nationalism,” Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, August 28-September 1, 2002.

[3] “The Paradoxes of American Nationalism,” Foreign Policy, May 2003.

AHMAD FARUQUI, an economist, is a fellow with the American Institute of International Studies and the author of Rethinking the National Security of Pakistan. He can be reached at faruqui@pacbell.net