Global Governance | Analysis and New Insights

America’s Uncomfortable Relationship With Nationalism

Graham E. Fuller | July 2006

Is there such a thing as American nationalism or is it simply "patriotism"? Why do Americans view "nationalism" in such a negative light? Graham Fuller analyzes Americans' problem with nationalism, and why it is such a dangerous topic to ignore.


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 this Stanley Center publication, 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 explain 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, unrivaled by any power anywhere, poses problems and constraints upon the 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.