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.