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.
Free elections everywhere in the world are not mentioned in the Fourteen Points. Nor is there any mention of internal democracy in the Atlantic Charter, which declared that all peoples had a right to self-determination in world politics. Franklin Roosevelt also left the right to vote in free elections out of his Four Freedoms. This ranking of priorities did not reflect any hostility to democracy; Wilson and Roosevelt would have agreed that liberal democracy is the best form of government for an independent nation-state. Rather, the emphasis on national independence rather than internal democracy reflected the recognition that a world of many sovereign nation-states, most of which are small and weak, is safer for the United States than a world of a few powerful multinational empires.
Neither Woodrow Wilson nor Franklin Roosevelt was a postnational globalist in the contemporary sense. Quite the contrary. They were both old-fashioned liberal nationalists in the tradition of Giuseppe Mazzini, John Stuart Mill and William Gladstone, for whom international organizations were intended to coordinate—not replace—sovereign nation-states. After all, the word “nations” is found in the titles of the international organizations they founded. The League of Nations was not the League of Citizens of the World, just as the United Nations is not United Humanity.
The Nuremberg trials and the UN Charter focused on banning not only genocide but also “aggressive war.” Indeed, the central norm of the United Nations is the norm against the violation of state sovereignty by outside powers—a norm that postnational champions of “humanitarian intervention” and “liberal imperialism” lamented and sought to alter in the Cold War’s aftermath.
During the world wars and the Cold War, the United States did not allow its preference for liberal democracy to interfere with its self-interested national strategy. Before and during World War II, the Roosevelt administration pursued a policy of appeasement toward dictatorial regimes in Latin America in the hope of minimizing Axis influence in America’s neighborhood. During the Cold War, the United States pragmatically allied itself with military dictators and royal autocrats in Latin America, Asia, Africa and the Middle East as well as with Communist China against the immediate threat of the Soviet Union. Only with the end of the Cold War did the United States push for democratization in South Korea, the Philippines and Latin America—when the geopolitical risk involved in doing so was greatly reduced.
IN ITS ECONOMIC STRATEGY as well as its security strategy, America traditionally has pursued policies of enlightened, self-interested nationalism. Many otherwise educated people today believe that the United States has always championed free trade and free markets. Nothing could be further from the truth.
From America’s founding until World War II, the country used tariffs not only for revenue but also to protect “infant industries” from competition with exports from industrial rivals like Britain. In its rise from a postcolonial agrarian backwater to the world’s leading industrial power, the United States successfully used protectionism (in the form of tariffs), state capitalism (for example, subsidies to the private contractors who built the transcontinental railroad), and public research and development (such as government-funded research for the telegraph, agriculture and aviation). During this period, free trade was chiefly championed by the agrarians of the South and West, many of whom would have been content for the United States to specialize as a second-tier, commodity-exporting nation.
America’s repudiation of free-market ideology in favor of an American version of the developmental capitalist state extended to the intellectual sphere. To justify government policies to help U.S. industry catch up with British industry, American nationalists in the tradition of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay contrasted the “American School” of “national economy” with the “English School” of free-market liberalism. As an exile in the United States, the German liberal nationalist Friedrich List absorbed American nationalist economic doctrines and publicized them in Europe. Thanks partly to List, the American model of economic nationalism inspired the state-sponsored industrialization of Bismarck’s Germany and Meiji Japan, as well as economic nationalists in other countries.
Having successfully used protectionism and state capitalism to industrialize the United States behind a wall of tariffs, the U.S. government then adopted a different—but equally self-interested—strategy of reciprocal trade liberalization in the first half of the twentieth century. By that time, America’s powerful, mature industries were better served by a federal policy of seeking to open foreign consumer markets than by further protection from import competition. America was now ready to battle the other industrial powers for market share in their own markets. To the distress of British and French imperialists, the United States used its power and wealth after World War II to force the rapid dismantling of colonial empires and their replacement with an integrated global economy centered on New York and Washington, DC. As Britain had done in the 1840s, the United States became a champion of free trade only in the 1940s, when its industrial supremacy seemed assured.
IF ENLIGHTENED LIBERAL NATIONALISM served the country so well for two centuries, how is it that “nationalism”—including American nationalism—is now frequently identified as the evil that all right-minded Americans are supposed to oppose?
In hindsight, the shift from American liberal nationalism to American postnationalism took place between the Nixon and Clinton administrations. A case can be made that Nixonian nationalism represented the makings of an alternate grand strategy that was ultimately rejected.
What I am calling Nixonian nationalism was a response to the perception of American military overextension and relative economic decline. Like Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon sought to wind down an unpopular, expensive proxy war with the Soviets in Asia begun under Democratic predecessors. In his inaugural address, John F. Kennedy had declared, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Nixon implicitly rejected Kennedy’s grandiose vision. Instead, Nixon sought to achieve security at a reduced cost by means of détente—a divide-and-rule strategy, pitting China against the Soviet Union—and the “Nixon Doctrine,” according to which America’s client states and allies would be expected to do their own fighting, rather than relying on American soldiers to fight their battles for them. In his address to the nation on the war in Vietnam of November 3, 1969, Nixon declared:
In cases involving other types of aggression, we shall furnish military and economic assistance when requested in accordance with our treaty commitments. But we shall look to the nation directly threatened to assume the primary responsibility of providing the manpower for its defense.
Like his security strategy, Nixon’s economic strategy put the American national interest first. During the 1950s and 1960s, following the loss of Japan’s Chinese market and Germany’s Eastern European and Russian markets, the United States unilaterally opened its prosperous market to help its Cold War allies and protectorates export their way to recovery, while turning a blind eye to mercantilist policies that discriminated against American exporters or investors. By the Nixon years, however, the costs of this generous policy were apparent. Japan and West Germany had recovered, and the United States was beginning to run the chronic merchandise trade deficits that continue to this day.
The Nixon administration responded by trying to defend the interests of American industry, by means of policies that included delinking the dollar from gold and imposing quotas on Japanese imports. Whatever the merits of these particular measures, they illustrated a recognition that the post-1945 policy of sacrificing national economic interests for the purpose of holding together Cold War alliances allowed free-riding trading partners to prosper at America’s expense.
Unfortunately, the Nixonian nationalist turn in American security and economic policy did not last. The realpolitik of Nixon and Henry Kissinger was denounced as amoral by many on the left and right alike. On the center-left, Jimmy Carter sought to make the promotion of human rights central to U.S. foreign policy at the price of undermining allies like the shah of Iran and Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza. On the center-right, the neoconservatives—some of them former Democrats—denounced realism as amoral appeasement and argued for a grand strategy of crusades for global democracy, showing a Kennedyesque insouciance toward costs.
The Reagan administration was divided between neocons and those who might be described as realists, including Vice President George H. W. Bush, James Baker and Brent Scowcroft. In economic policy, too, the Reagan administration was of two minds—defending U.S. manufacturers against Japanese mercantilism while simultaneously preaching free trade and free markets. The one-term administration of George H. W. Bush tilted even more toward realism in its sober and prudent foreign policy. Although he presided over the end of the Cold War and the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the elder Bush refrained from the American triumphalism that became a staple of neoconservatism and helped inspire the 2003 Iraq War.
American realism went into decline in the 1990s, largely because an increasingly favorable global environment altered the calculation of costs and benefits. Nixonian nationalism had been the policy of an embattled United States confronted by rising powers—an increasingly sophisticated and assertive Soviet Union and China in the security realm, and increasingly competitive trade rivals in Japan and West Germany. In the 1990s, both security and trade threats temporarily receded. The Soviet Union collapsed. Post-Maoist China was viewed as a huge potential consumer market for American corporations, rather than as a serious rival. The puncturing of the Japanese real-estate and stock-market bubbles plunged the Japanese economy into decades of stagnation. Germany was plagued by a decade of slow growth because of the costs of absorbing the former East Germany.
Meanwhile, the United States was the sole remaining superpower and the initial beneficiary of the information-technology revolution, identified with Silicon Valley. The ease with which the United States defeated the armed forces of Saddam Hussein and the Serbs in the Balkans added to the giddy triumphalism of America’s foreign-policy elites. Talk of the limits of American power—and of the need to balance commitments against resources—was seen as passé. It became an article of faith that Washington could afford quick, high-tech and relatively bloodless wars to promote democracy and human rights, like the Gulf War and the Balkan wars. At the same time, the Nixon-era concern about predatory trade and currency policies by other countries gave way, in the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, to complacency about foreign mercantilism.
THE POST–COLD WAR GRAND STRATEGY of American global hegemony, shared by mainstream elites in both parties, was buttressed by a new ideology of postnational globalism. Unlike the old-fashioned internationalism of Wilson and Roosevelt, the new postnationalism argued that the American national interest and the interest of humanity were one and the same.
In U.S. national-security policy, the new postnationalism meant rejecting America’s traditional support for national self-determination in favor of a policy of freezing arbitrary, European-drawn colonial borders forever. The United States initially opposed the breakup of the Soviet Union, the partition of Yugoslavia, the secession of Eritrea and the division of Sudan. American policy makers did not seriously consider the partition of Iraq or Afghanistan, arbitrary territorial states that combine antagonistic nationalities.
While the new postnationalists reflexively opposed the redrawing of borders and national secessionist movements, they favored weakening state sovereignty to legitimate U.S. bombings, invasions and other forms of intervention. Postnationalists called for a new norm in which the United States and its allies could annul state sovereignty at will, not only in cases in which governments sought to carry out genocide (as in the post–World War II United Nations system) but also in cases in which a government failed to carry out its “responsibility to protect” (R2P) its citizens. The R2P doctrine had the potential to serve as a hunting license for the United States and its dependent allies to intervene militarily in purely internal conflicts unrelated either to genocide or cross-border aggression. This was postnationalism, not internationalism.
In trade policy, postnationalists favored continuing and extending America’s Cold War policy of unilateral free trade—allowing other countries like China access to America’s market, even if they used various mercantilist techniques to keep American goods and services out of their own. Critics of foreign mercantilism were marginalized and derided as protectionists.
In immigration policy, the refusal of presidents and members of Congress of both parties to enforce immigration law seriously created a de facto open-borders policy in which the number of illegal immigrants ballooned to more than ten million. At the same time, the traditional idea of the melting pot was abandoned for “multiculturalism”—the notion that the United States was not a diverse nation-state, but rather a collection of separate ethnically or racially defined nations. Not only radical leftists but also centrist pundits compared immigration limits to racial segregation. The traditional American idea that immigrants should be expected to assimilate to the American majority’s language and culture in time was often stigmatized as repressive and illiberal.
This new postnationalist consensus, however, was found only among the American elite, not among the general public, who, except during the brief panic following 9/11, remained suspicious of foreign wars, supportive of policies to defend American manufacturing industries and hostile to illegal immigration.
The appeal of the post–Cold War American hegemony strategy had rested on the widespread belief that Washington enjoyed overwhelming advantages in military power and economic strength. The U.S. military was so advanced and powerful, the thinking went, that the United States could police the world and intervene in local conflict after local conflict in which it had little or no stake at minimal cost in American lives and dollars. And America was so rich, or so it was often assumed, that it could easily shed “old” industries like manufacturing for new “sunrise” industries like software, even as it easily absorbed huge numbers of poor, low-skilled immigrants.
By the second decade of the twenty-first century, the post–Cold War fantasy of limitless American power collided with reality, in the form of the Iraq and Afghan wars, the Great Recession and—most important of all—the rise of China. Of all the trends forcing a reconsideration of the fashionable postnationalist consensus, none may be of greater significance than the rise of China as both an economic and military power. In the 1990s, optimists predicted that China’s entry into the world economy would lead the world’s most populous nation to adopt free-market capitalism and multiparty democracy. Not so. On both the economic and strategic fronts, China has grown more aggressive in recent years—taking a harsher line with foreign corporations and alarming Japan and other neighbors by means of a military buildup and attempts at unilateral redefinition of its regional security prerogatives.
Today’s China is often compared to Imperial Germany a century ago. But China presents a challenge unlike any that Americans have faced in their national history, including those posed by Germany and the Soviet Union.
As a giant nation-state, the United States has enjoyed significant advantages over medium-sized nation-states whose hopes for enduring great-power status depended on possessing foreign empires, like Britain, France, Germany, Japan and Russia. Likewise, the United States is not threatened by the feeble, multiheaded hydra of the European Union, even if on paper the EU rivals America in population and GDP. And with the exception of China, the other countries that will have the greatest populations in the generations ahead, such as India, Nigeria and Pakistan, are multinational agglomerations, some or all of which in the future might split into more homogeneous successor nation-states. Only China rivals America in combining a majority population whose members share a strong sense of common national identity with a huge domestic market and a high level of industrialization. The fact that China has surpassed the United States already as the world’s leading manufacturing power—and will soon surpass it in total GDP—makes the triumphalist American vision of a unipolar world in which other great powers like China forever accept the subordinate status of American Cold War satellites like Japan and the former West Germany appear even more delusional.
When confronted with any challenge to their newly minted orthodoxy, postnationalists often try to foreclose debate by claiming that the only alternative to their grand strategy of American hegemony is retreat into the bad old days of isolationism, protectionism and nativism. But one can reject the project of a hugely expensive American global hegemony without favoring a return to pre–World War II isolation. Likewise, one can reject the policy of allowing other industrial nations to export their way to riches and military power by exploiting one-way access to the American consumer market and U.S. technological innovations without favoring a revival of nineteenth-century infant industry tariffs. And one can reject the combination of lax immigration enforcement with multiculturalism without embracing xenophobia or rejecting immigration tout court.
A new strategy of enlightened nationalism would revive the Nixon-era themes of shifting more of the burden of defense to America’s allies and clients and treating the country’s remaining manufacturing industries as national-security assets to be defended against foreign mercantilist assault, not as bribes to be given away to American allies and protectorates.
INSTEAD OF SEEKING GLOBAL HEGEMONY, the United States should seek what Samuel P. Huntington called primacy, as the primus inter pares in a world of multiple great powers. The hegemony strategy is based on the idea that the best way for the country to prevent hostile hegemons from dominating Europe, Asia and the Middle East is for the United States itself to be the hegemon of Europe, the hegemon of Asia and the hegemon of the Middle East. The hegemony strategy not only permits but also encourages free riding by America’s European and Asian allies, which, relieved of much of the burden of defense spending, can devote greater resources to investment in economy-growing infrastructure, civilian industry and generous social-welfare spending.
As part of a strategy of primacy rather than hegemony, America should replace its policy of unilateral protection of other great powers with a less expensive strategy of offshore balancing—or what I call a concert-balance strategy. Unilateral American protection would be replaced by regional concerts in Europe and Northeast Asia, to which the local nations would be expected to contribute more while the United States contributed less. Hostile regional great powers would be met, not by unilateral protection for which American taxpayers and soldiers pay most of the costs, but by traditional balance-of-power coalitions in which Washington takes part, like the coalitions of World Wars I and II.
A concert-balance strategy would allow the country to spend less on the military, without compromising its security. The United States could remove most of its troops from Europe and Asia, as allies in those regions assumed more responsibility for their own defense. The army could be downsized to a modest expeditionary force, stationed most of the time in the United States and expected to fight alongside American allies in regional concerts or balance-of-power coalitions—not to fight for them while they watch from the sidelines. The navy, air force and Marines would grow in relative importance.
Nor is this all. Unlike the Cold War, in which the Soviet Union was a first-rate military power but a third-rate economic power, rivalries in the future are likely to take place chiefly in the realm of geoeconomics. In a world in which geopolitics is becoming indistinguishable from geoeconomics, the three most important states in the world for the United States are the next three biggest economies: China, Japan and Germany (the European Union is a single economy only in theory). All to some degree are nonliberal mercantilist economies, using various methods to maintain permanent merchandise trade surpluses. These trade surpluses come directly or indirectly at the expense of the United States, which has run chronic trade deficits since the 1970s. In China, Japan and Germany, chronic export surpluses have been obtained in part with the help of mercantilist policies of wage suppression, which in turn suppress consumption, to the detriment of the world economy in general.
It is not only absurd but also dangerous for American strategists to focus on the Iranian threat to the Strait of Hormuz or the Chinese naval threat to this or that island, while complacently accepting the decline of the domestic American industrial base on which U.S. military power depends. America’s strategy toward China is particularly perverse, combining military encirclement with economic appeasement. A sensible strategy would do the reverse, combining limited military appeasement of China in its own neighborhood with robust defense of American industry against Chinese mercantilism. Encircling China with bases in Japan, Korea, Australia and elsewhere will only aggravate Chinese nationalism, without any impact on the major sources of Chinese power—its domestic population and its domestic industry.
Much contemporary American strategic thinking appears to be shaped by the archaic geopolitical theories of Alfred Thayer Mahan and Brooks Adams, who thought that the control of sea-lanes was the basis of world power, and of Halford Mackinder, who grandiosely argued that the “Heartland”—Russia and Eastern Europe—was the “pivot of history.” A sounder approach was set forth by Leo Amery: “The successful powers will be those who have the greatest industrial basis. It will not matter whether they are in the centre of a continent or on an island; those people who have the industrial power and the power of invention and science will be able to defeat all others.”
As Amery recognized, in the modern world a deindustrialized country can never be a great power, no matter how rich its financiers, realtors and insurance executives or how efficient its retail distribution networks. It would be dangerous in the extreme for a country to allow its manufacturing industries to vanish, and its skilled industrial workforce to atrophy, on the hopeful theory that it can always reconstitute them at a moment’s notice, in a time of danger.
According to Global Firepower, the world’s leading military powers are currently the United States, Russia, China, India, Britain, France, Germany, Turkey, South Korea and Japan. And according to the World Bank, in 2012 the leading nations by GDP were the United States, China, Japan, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Brazil, Russia, Italy and India. The close correlation between GDP and military power is striking. (Because of World War II memories, Japan and Germany continue to spend proportionally less on their militaries than the victors.)
A great power must both produce and innovate within its own borders. And it must innovate repeatedly, merely to maintain its relative rank in the world. Innovative technology increasingly is a wasting asset, given the growing ease with which intellectual property can be transferred by high-tech espionage.
Even if the great powers of the future are deterred from direct attacks on one another, great-power conflicts might take the form of new cold wars. Like the Soviet-American rivalry, tomorrow’s cold wars may be fought by several means, including arms races, proxy wars and embargoes. In each of these arenas of competition, the country with the superior domestic manufacturing base, and a large economy to support it, will have the advantage. The greater industrial power will find it easier to ramp up weapons production in arms races, without severely curtailing production for civilian consumption; easier to supply allies, client states and insurgents with state-of-the-art technology and supplies; and easier to withstand hostile embargoes of finished goods, industrial components and critical resources.
Dual-use manufacturing capability that can be quickly converted from civilian to military production will become all the more important, as expensive robots and drones move to the center of international security competition. Today’s incipient revolutions in manufacturing are not likely to undermine the logic of security-conscious, manufacturing-focused economic nationalism. Automation may eliminate the jobs of most industrial workers—but for purposes of national security, a robot factory on American soil will always be preferable to a robot factory in a foreign nation that can embargo exports to the United States or have them cut off by a blockade. Rapid prototyping or 3-D printing may allow greater customization of production. But visions of 3-D printing leading to a revival of home and village industry are probably wishful thinking. It is more likely that 3-D printing will be adopted most successfully by large industrial concerns, many of them state backed or state owned, which can exploit economies of scale and scope.
IMMIGRATION POLICY IS SELDOM thought of as an element of national strategy, but an immigration policy in the national interest should also be a central component of a new American grand strategy of primacy.
A generous immigration policy helps the United States tap into a global pool of talent and enterprise. Another country’s brain drain can be America’s brain gain. Today’s American immigration is based chiefly on nepotism, with most slots for legal immigrants going to the relatives of American citizens. Because poor people in poor countries tend to have larger families, this policy promotes chain migration by unskilled people from Third World countries. Meanwhile, skilled immigrants from developed and developing countries alike must compete for limited quotas, including H1-B quotas, which represent a modern form of indentured servitude, binding immigrant workers to their employers. The United States should follow the lead of the other English-speaking countries and allot most of its quotas for legal immigration on the basis of skills, not nepotism.
Immigration will be even more necessary in the future to prevent population decline and perhaps to enable gradual expansion of the U.S. population. While it would be folly to bring in immigrants at a rate that drove down wages or overwhelmed the processes of cultural and economic integration, a moderate level of immigration combined with domestic fecundity could permit the U.S. population to grow even as the populations of China and India, absent immigration, peak and begin to decline. Moreover, if the world population crests at 9–12 billion and starts to diminish, the United States could account for a growing relative share of global population, markets and military power.
The promotion of population growth is a venerable American tradition. Benjamin Franklin, in his 1751 Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, noted that Americans saw population growth as proof of the benefits of enterprise and freedom. In 1806, the famous American novelist Charles Brockden Brown predicted that in a century the United States would have three hundred million people (a number that was reached only around 2006). Abraham Lincoln looked forward to the day when the United States would have “five hundred millions of happy and prosperous people.” In his 1890 book The Cosmopolitan Railway, William Gilpin, the former territorial governor of Colorado, predicted: “The basin of the Mississippi will then more easily contain and feed ten times the population [of the Roman Empire], or 1,310,000,000 of inhabitants!” If Canada were added, he wrote, “2,000,000,000 will easily find room—a population double the existing human race!” The really surprising thing would be an abrupt stop to America’s historic population growth, which has ballooned from four million in 1790 to seventy-six million in 1900 to nearly 320 million today.
The United States will not run out of land. Only 3 percent of America’s land area is urbanized. Will population growth lead to mass poverty? It hasn’t to date. Between 1900 and 2000, average American income rose seven-fold, even as the population swelled from seventy-six million to about three hundred million.
In recent years, the U.S. population has grown at the slowest rate since the Great Depression, around 0.7 percent a year. But even at this slow growth rate, the U.S. population could be more than half a billion in 2100 and nearly a billion in 2200. China’s population is expected to peak at 1.4 billion around 2026, while India’s is expected to peak at about 1.6 billion around 2060. If China’s population, along with that of India, stabilizes and begins to decline, while America’s population, fed by immigration from other countries, continues to grow, then, as odd as it sounds, at some point in the next century or two the United States really could become the world’s most populous nation.
Needless to say, the proposal that U.S. immigration policy should aim at gradually expanding the U.S. population, without undermining assimilation to a common national identity, will horrify neo-Malthusians who think the United States is already overpopulated. But from America’s founding to the present, the country has eclipsed its great-power rivals mainly by outgrowing them in population and GDP.
IN THE FALL 1990 ISSUE of this magazine, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, published an essay entitled “A Normal Country in a Normal Time.” She wrote: “The United States performed heroically in a time when heroism was required; altruistically during the long years when freedom was endangered.” But now, she argued, it was time for the United States to pay more attention to its domestic needs, while adapting to a multipolar world: “With a return to ‘normal’ times, we can again become a normal nation—and take care of pressing problems of education, family, industry, and technology. We can be an independent nation in a world of independent nations.”
Nearly a quarter century later, Kirkpatrick’s prescription is more relevant than ever. It is time to reject the strategy of perpetual U.S. global military hegemony and the doctrine of postnationalism that justifies it, and replace them with enlightened American nationalism. In the pursuit of primacy, the United States would shift much of the burden of the defense of its allies and protectorates to those countries themselves, while insisting on strictly reciprocal trade rather than access to American markets by mercantilist nations that protect or subsidize their own industries. America would combine its security strategy of offshore balancing with intelligent economic nationalism. Finally, an immigration policy in the national interest would shift the emphasis from family reunification to skills, while using immigration to enable long-term population growth, of a kind compatible with the economic integration and cultural assimilation of newcomers to the United States.
This is the path to the restoration of American security and solvency, one that should have been taken following the Cold War. After a quarter century of delusion and debacle and folly, it is time for an American foreign policy based on the national interest.
Michael Lind is a contributing editor at The National Interest, cofounder of the New America Foundation and policy director of its Economic Growth Program. He is the author of The American Way of Strategy (Oxford University Press, 2006).
Note: This piece was first published in TNI's May-June 2014 print edition.