The Stanley Foundation
Seeking a secure peace with freedom and justice, built on global citizenship and effective global governance.

America's Uncomfortable Relationship With Nationalism
Graham E. Fuller weighs in on why the United States dismisses the importance of nationalism.

The United States has a big problem with nationalism: it's uncomfortable with everybody else's. Yet there's a great irony here: the United States seems quite unaware of the fact that it is one of the most enthusiastically nationalistic countries of the world.

More remarkably, it regularly miscalculates the force of nationalism abroad. Today nationalism is probably the single most widespread ideology in politics across the globe.

In a new Stanley Foundation Policy Analysis Brief, Graham E. Fuller examines the roots of American views of nationalism and the problems that these views create.

In the United States we like to distinguish sharply between what we call "patriotism" in America and "nationalism" everywhere else. In reality this distinction is somewhat misleading. Fuller writes that American patriotism is in fact a form of nationalism in most respects when it comes up against the outside world.

The weak ethnic basis of American nationalism does not spare the country from periodic descent into chauvinism that can nearly match the intensity of ethnic nationalism elsewhere. Current popular slogans still demonstrate this: "America: love it or leave it," or "Love America, bomb Iraq." When it comes to dealing with foreigners, American can be just as nationalistic as the next, even if that chauvinism is not overtly expressed in racial terms.

Given our belief in the "race-blind" character of America and its patriotism, we tend to think, then, that our society has transcended ethnic particularisms to become something of a "universal culture." Like all peoples, we like to think that we represent the "norm" as opposed to the "peculiarities" of foreign behavior. We are uncomfortable with being (psycho)analyzed as a country, with having our own "national character" described by others, often in unflattering terms.

If you ask most Americans what they think about nationalism, you'll likely get a negative response. Nationalism will be variously characterized as archaic, narrow, intolerant, racist, zealous, irrational, uncompromising, a hindrance to the creation of a more globalized world, and an overall danger to the international order.

In short, America would generally like to see nationalism go away. The United States has problems analyzing nationalism because there is a bias toward "rational" or "scientific" thought. The US policy world and society as a whole increasingly explains events through statistical or theoretical analysis of various types of data—even when the feelings, impulses, beliefs, and views of another culture are integral components of the event.

As a superpower, the United States justifies its global agenda by promoting free trade and capitalism as beneficial to all nations. Other values are similarly used to provide broader justification of America's policies, particularly democratization and human rights in more recent times. A dangerous national self-deception is at play when American statesmen and the public often actually believe that the actions of the state, undertaken selectively in the national interest, are really and truly nothing more than the altruistic pursuit of universal values. Americans need to acknowledge the way in which we selectively employ values as instruments of our national interests.

In addition, Americans are singularly deprived of exposure to in-depth foreign culture and attitudes in our media. We watch domestic versions of CNN rather than watching CNN International, or foreign-based channels like the BBC. Hopefully, sometime in the future Americans will actually be able to view alternative visions of world events as furnished by alternative global news services, sharpening American perception of foreign reality.

Being the world's sole superpower, unrivalled by any power anywhere, poses problems and constraints upon American grasp of foreign reality. "We create our own reality," as many in Washington have suggested. The task of other nations is simply to grasp this reality of the world and get on with the program as outlined in Washington—one that, after all, pursues "universal values."

Thus nationalism on the part of other states, their resistance to the American agenda, is at the very least a complication, an irritant and, at worst, poses a "threat" to American interests. We fear foreign nationalism because its well-springs are different than our own interests, and it can often powerfully drive others to resist the best-laid American plans.

In sum, America's encounter with nationalism is problematic. It reflects some of its own anxieties about the potentially divisive role sub-nationalism can play within American society; it is also perceived as a broad force overseas that is fundamentally programmed to resist the American superpower agenda. American problems in grasping the character and dynamic of foreign nationalism are deeply entrenched.

We must remain alert to a natural tendency toward insensitivity or blindness to nationalist emotions in other states and peoples; awareness of this potential blind spot is the first step toward coping with the problem, Fuller writes. Given the pervasiveness of flourishing nationalisms in places like Iraq, even a superpower is required to take this phenomenon seriously.

— J. Ashley Calkins
Share: Email Facebook Twitter
The Stanley Foundation at COP23 The Stanley Foundation at COP23
The Stanley Foundation is taking part in COP23 as a part of our efforts in successfully limiting global warming to 1.5° C. The foundation put forward policy ideas to achieve a global turning point in emissions by 2020, built upon efforts to catalyze global climate action by countries and sub- and non-state actors, and worked with advocacy groups on mobilizing climate action campaigns. 

Courier Courier
The weather has turned chilly, which means it’s time to sit down with the hot beverage of your choice and peruse the Fall 2017 issue of Courier from the Stanley Foundation. This issue includes a look at unarmed civilian protection, the rise of commercial satellite imagery in the monitoring of nuclear proliferation, the threat of environmental problems in Colombia and a tribute to two diplomats from the Marshall Islands. Fall 2017 PDF (1,151K) Subscribe for FREE.

Stanley Foundation Annual Conferences Stanley Foundation Annual Conferences
The Stanley Foundation holds two annual conferences, UN Issues and the Strategy for Peace Conference. These bring together experts from the public and private sectors to meet in a distraction-free setting and candidly exchange ideas on pressing foreign policy challenges.

Divided into roundtable talks, the cutting-edge discussions are intended to inspire group consensus and shared recommendations to push forward the debate on the foundation’s key policy areas.

A Climate for Conflict: Stories from Somalia A Climate for Conflict: Stories from Somalia
The Ground Truth Project, New America, and the Stanley Foundation are hosting a Screening of “A Climate for Conflict” and discussion with the creators followed by a panel discussion on Climate Security and Societal Resilience on May 30, 2017.

Somalia today is at a crossroads between a deepening crisis and a path to stability. Photographer and filmmaker Nichole Sobecki and writer Laura Heaton spent 18 months documenting personal stories of Somalia, creating a film, photography, and reporting that vividly illustrate the human consequences and security risks of a changing climate. Read more.

Follow the conversation online with #AClimateforConflict.

Stanley Foundation at 60
On December 12, 1956, the Stanley Foundation was certified as a nonprofit corporation in the state of Iowa, bringing to life an organization dedicated to creating a world in which there is a secure peace with freedom and justice. Sixty years later, the organization continues to pursue and advance that vision as a thriving nonpartisan operating foundation. Moreover, it remains an organization with a professional staff and the involvement of family members who have an ongoing role in shaping its strategy and core values. More.

Receive Materials Receive Materials
The Stanley Foundation publishes policy briefs, analytical articles, and reports on a number of international issues. To reduce our carbon footprint and cut waste, we almost exclusively, use electronic distribution for our publications. Sign up to receive our resources via e-mail.

the latest the latest
Our bimonthly newsletter is filled with resources to keep you up to date with our work at the Stanley Foundation. Each edition includes news about recent publications and stories as well as features our people and partners.

You will also find many extras, from upcoming events to multimedia resources. Sign up for the latest to stay engaged on key global issues.

Watch and Learn Watch and Learn
Stanley Foundation events, talks, video reports, and segments from our Now Showing event-in-a-box series can now be viewed on YouTube. To receive regular updates on our video posts, please subscribe today.