The Case for American Nationalism

Enlightened self interest, rather than grand postnationalist designs, would put the United States back on the path to greatness.

Printer-friendly version May-June 2014

THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA HAS lost its mind. To put it more precisely, the United States has lost its collective institutional memory. America achieved its present global preeminence by means of values and strategies that Washington’s current bipartisan elite chooses to repress from memory or actively stigmatize. Foremost among the repressed memories in what Gore Vidal called the United States of Amnesia is nationalism—including self-confident, unapologetic American nationalism.

Until recently, the United States was both the modern liberal nation-state par excellence and the major champion of national self-determination around the world. The country owed its very existence to a war of national liberation from the British Empire. Subsequently, the United States preserved its existence in the Civil War by crushing the South’s attempt to secede from the American nation-state. At the same time, long before Woodrow Wilson included the principle of national self-determination in his Fourteen Points address and Franklin Roosevelt invoked it in the Atlantic Charter, Americans championed the right of ethnocultural nations to secede from multinational empires and form their own (preferably, but not necessarily, democratic) nation-states.

Americans gave moral and rhetorical, though not material, support to Latin Americans who broke away from colonial-era Spain, to Greek patriots opposing the Ottoman Empire, and to the Poles and other rebellious nations in the revolutions of 1848. Americans had scant respect for the British Empire they had exited. They failed to conquer Canada in the War of 1812, but through much of the nineteenth century it was hoped that Canadians would one day voluntarily join the United States. During the two world wars, America championed the rights of small nations against empires—including its imperial allies like Britain—and during the Cold War Americans sympathized with the “captive nations” of the Soviet bloc.

At the same time, the United States practiced the liberal nationalism that it preached. In its security strategy, Washington for most of its history has been guided by self-interested nationalism. By means of the Louisiana Purchase, the Mexican-American War and the defeat of Southern secession, America’s leaders ensured that North America, which for centuries had been a battleground for European empires, would henceforth be dominated by a regional hegemon. As John Mearsheimer has observed, the United States, while jealously guarding its own regional hegemony in North America, ensured that no other great power would be able to enjoy a similar status in Europe or Asia.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, the United States has abandoned enlightened nationalism in order to pursue permanent American global hegemony while preaching a new doctrine of postnationalism. This grand strategy has undermined the very morality, liberty and security it was supposed to enhance. And so, after several misconceived wars and interventions, Washington must repudiate its post–Cold War commitment to global hegemony and the ideology of postnationalism that justifies it, and it must embark upon a wholesale revision of military, trade and immigration policy in the national interest. None of these measures would endanger world order or subvert American ideals. Rather, they would enhance them. It is time, in short, for a new nationalism.

FOR MUCH OF ITS HISTORY, Washington has pursued a security strategy by means that look more like cold, calculating nationalism than crusading idealism. In both world wars, the United States assumed the role of an “offshore balancer,” allowing its allies to suffer tremendous losses of life and wealth before belatedly entering the conflict to tip the balance at a minimum cost in American blood and treasure. With the exception of the wars in Korea and Vietnam, the United States waged the Cold War on the cheap, preferring to subsidize and advise enemies of Communist regimes while using embargoes and arms races to bankrupt the Soviet Union. While the Soviet Union may have spent up to a third of its GDP on the military, America during the Cold War never spent more than around 15 percent, even at the height of the war in Korea; it never mobilized its peacetime industries; and it never adopted a universal draft, relying instead on a limited “selective service” lottery draft. The losses of life in Korea and Vietnam, horrifically disproportionate to the strategic value of the objectives as they may have been, were extremely limited compared to the price paid by the United States for victory in the wars with Germany—a price which, in turn, was much lower than that paid by the other great powers in the world wars.

Cold War America, like America during the world wars, championed the right of national self-determination of small nations like those of Eastern Europe and Taiwan against regional empires, in order to undermine the legitimacy of its Soviet and Chinese rivals. Indeed, during most of the past century, the United States made national self-determination a higher priority than democracy.

This approach was encoded in the fifth of Wilson’s Fourteen Points. To a greater extent than has usually been acknowledged, it became the DNA of American foreign policy. Wilson demanded

a free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined.

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