The Case for American Nationalism

May 17, 2015 Topic: Ideology Region: United States Tags: DefenseRealismU.S. Foreign Policy

The Case for American Nationalism

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

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.