Debates over national identity are a pervasive characteristic of our time. In part, they raise rhetorical questions, but they also have profound implications for American society and American policy at home and abroad. Different perceptions--especially between the citizenry and the more cosmopolitan elites--of what constitutes national identity generate different national interests and policy priorities.
The views of the general public on issues of national identity differ significantly from those of many elites. The public, overall, is concerned with physical security but also with societal security, which involves the sustainability--within acceptable conditions for evolution--of existing patterns of language, culture, association, religion and national identity. For many elites, these concerns are secondary to participating in the global economy, supporting international trade and migration, strengthening international institutions, promoting American values abroad, and encouraging minority identities and cultures at home. The central distinction between the public and elites is not isolationism versus internationalism, but nationalism versus cosmopolitanism.
In August 1804, Walter Scott finished writing The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Therein, he asked whether
"Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said:
'This is my own, my native Land?'
Whose heart hath ne'er within him burned
As home his footsteps he hath turned, . . .
From wandering on a foreign strand?"
A contemporary answer to Scott's question is: Yes, the number of dead souls is small but growing among America's business, professional, intellectual and academic elites. Possessing in Scott's words, "titles, power and pelf", they also have decreasing ties with the American nation. Coming back to America from a foreign strand, they are not likely to be overwhelmed with deep feelings of commitment to their "native land." Their attitudes and behavior contrast with the overwhelming patriotism and nationalistic identification of the rest of the American public. A major gap is growing in America between the dead or dying souls among its elites and its "Thank God for America" public. This gap was temporarily obscured by the patriotic rallying after September 11. In the absence of repeated comparable attacks, however, the pervasive and fundamental forces of economic globalization make it likely that the denationalizing of elites will continue.
Globalization involves a huge expansion in the international interactions among individuals, corporations, governments, NGOs and other entities; growth in number and size of multinational corporations investing, producing and marketing globally; and the multiplication of international organizations, regimes and regulations. The impact of these developments differs among groups and among countries. The involvement of individuals in globalizing processes varies almost directly with their socio-economic status. Elites have more and deeper transnational interests, commitments and identities than non-elites. American elites, government agencies, businesses and other organizations have been far more important in the globalization process than those of other countries. Hence there is reason for their commitments to national identities and national interests to be relatively weaker.
These developments resemble on a global basis what happened in the United States after the Civil War. As industrialization moved ahead, businesses could no longer succeed if their operations were confined to a particular locality or state. They had to go national in order to get the capital, workers and markets they needed. Ambitious individuals had to become geographically, organizationally and, to some extent, occupationally mobile, and pursue their careers on a national rather than a local basis. The growth of national corporations and other national associations promoted national viewpoints, national interests and national power. National laws and standards took precedence over state ones. National consciousness and national identity became preeminent over state and regional identities. The rise of transnationalism, although in its early stages, is somewhat similar.
Transnational ideas and people fall into three categories: universalist, economic and moralist. The universalist approach is, in effect, American nationalism and exceptionalism taken to the extreme. In this view, America is exceptional not because it is a unique nation but because it has become the "universal nation." It has merged with the world through the coming to America of people from other societies and through the widespread acceptance of American popular culture and values by other societies. The distinction between America and the world is disappearing because of the triumph of American power and the appeal of American society and culture. The economic approach focuses on economic globalization as a transcendent force breaking down national boundaries, merging national economies into a single global whole, and rapidly eroding the authority and functions of national governments. This view is prevalent among executives of multinational corporations, large NGOs, and comparable organizations operating on a global basis and among individuals with skills, usually of a highly technical nature, for which there is a global demand and who are thus able to pursue careers moving from country to country. The moralistic approach decries patriotism and nationalism as evil forces and argues that international law, institutions, regimes and norms are morally superior to those of individual nations. Commitment to humanity must supersede commitment to nation. This view is found among intellectuals, academics and journalists. Economic transnationalism is rooted in the bourgeoisie, moralistic transnationalism in the intelligentsia.