Nationalism is What We Need Now—The Case for an “Unpatriotic Conservatism”

In most intellectual circles on the right, as well many in the center and on the left, it is fashionable to damn nationalism. Among conservatives, patriotism is held to be something almost always worthy of praise—though exactly what patriotism might entail has never been settled upon.

As is so often true, the conventional views of the Left and Right, if not entirely unfounded, are limiting and sometimes simply wrong. The United States, at present, suffers from an excess of patriotism and a generally defective sense of nationalism. European countries, too, would benefit from being more nationalistic, though in the Old World the excess is not of patriotism but of a leftist internationalism that has rendered Europeans helpless in the face of Islamic immigration. In the case of U.S. foreign policy, it has not been “jingoistic nationalism,” as many critics like to claim, that has driven our country into an interminable and unjust war in Iraq but a genuine, if misguided, patriotism. The United States should act more like a nation among nations: jealous of her own sovereignty and national borders, respectful of those of other countries.

To say this is not to deny that nationalism can be taken to excess, and historically it often has been in Europe. Nationalism was an active ingredient—though not the only one—in Nazism and Fascism and the bloodletting unleashed in the Balkans after the fall of Communism. But not all nationalism has led to carnage: as Michael Lind and others have noted, the secession of the Baltic states from Russia and the peaceful separation of Slovakia and the Czech Republic were classic expressions of nationalism—the desire of ethnocultural groups for homelands of their own and freedom from foreign government. Benign nationalism is not without precedent—and beither is hubristic patriotism.

Of late, “The American Scene” blog has been discussing nationalism and patriotism at some length, spinning off from a debate in the Cato Institute’s web journal, Cato Unbound. At “The American Scene” and on his personal blog, “Eunomia,” Daniel Larison has been particularly insistent about the distinction between patriotism and nationalism and about the positive value of the former and negative connotations of the latter. The view Larison champions derives in large part from historian John Luckacs and the chapter “About Historical Factors, or the Hierarchy of Powers” from his 1968 book Historical Consciousness. Lukacs, in turn, takes his inspiration from a passage in George Orwell’s 1945 essay “Notes on Nationalism.” By “nationalism,” Orwell writes,

”I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.”

There are several problems with Orwell’s essay. For one thing, as he admits at the outset, “nationalism” it not quite the right word for the subject he wishes to address: “There is a habit of mind which is now so widespread that it affects our thinking on nearly every subject,” he writes, “but which has not yet been given a name. As the nearest existing equivalent I have chosen the word ‘nationalism,’ but it will be seen in a moment that I am not using it in quite the ordinary sense.” Indeed, Orwell’s “nationalism” is an expansive category for just about anything Eric Blair dislikes: “Nationalism, in the extended sense in which I am using the word, includes such movements and tendencies as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Anti-semitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism.”

One might suggest “ideology” or “partisanship” as a better word for what Orwell chooses to call “nationalism.” But in any case, Orwell’s definitions are tendentious: what we call patriotism is always good (“no wish to force upon other people,” “defensive”) while what we call nationalism sounds inherently bad (“desire for power”). One cannot argue with loaded terms, so let me suggest less value-laden definitions: patriotism is indeed simply love of one’s country. Nationalism is the more specific desire for one’s people to have a sovereign territory of their own. Either sentiment can be defensive; both can be abused and militarized.

Take the case of the U.S. war with Iraq. Larison contends, “The Iraq war was made possible by a propaganda campaign by the government, the exploitation of public fear and anger, the warmongering of nationalists and the twisting of patriotic sentiment into support for a war of aggression by casting the war dishonestly as one of self-defense.” Just about everything there is right—except for the use of the term “nationalists.” For in what sense, other than the purely tendentious, are George W. Bush and his neocon cronies “nationalists”?

President Bush has explicitly attacked beliefs historically associated with American nationalism. Patrick J. Buchanan recently wrote an excellent column on the president’s vendetta against “isolationists,” “nativists,” and “protectionists.” A synonym for the last of those terms is “economic nationalism.” Nativism is a nasty word for the ethnic solidarity at the heart of nationalist sentiment. And historically, American nationalism has often aligned with “isolationism,” or non-interventionism, although that story is rather complicated. For one thing, immigrant groups such as the Germans opposed U.S. entry into both World Wars in part out of nationalist sympathy with their homelands. And whether or not the preference of East Coast elites for intervention in both wars was nationalist—born of ancestral Anglophilia—or transnational in motivation is open to debate. It depends on whether you take American and English nationality to be fungible or not.

(I’m strongly on the side of “not,” our common heritage and language notwithstanding.  America is, and ought to be, America, and England England. I’m not one to tell other countries what their business is, but if I were Scottish, I would want the distinction between Scotland and England to be very clear as well. “Britain” is a political and historical reality—but it is an island of multiple nationalities.)

American anti-imperialism and “isolationism” have often been attached to what can fairly be called nationalism. Sometimes this has added an ugly taint to an admirable ideal: Bill Kauffman’s new book Ain’t My America: The Long, Noble History of Anti-War Conservatism and Middle-American Anti-Imperialism catalogues some of the nationalistic attitudes of American anti-imperialists of the early 1900s, who feared that America’s historic ethnocultutural identity would be adulterated by empire. Kauffman cites a poem by James T. DuBois, anti-imperialist U.S. consul to Switzerland, “in which,” writes Kauffman, “the bemused narrator encounter a series of exotic characters, clad outlandishly or barely at all, and upon asking ‘Where do you hail f’m, pardner?’ is informed ‘Porto Rico, U.S.A.,’ ‘Honeyluler, U.S.A.,’ ‘Santiago, U.S.A.,’ and ‘Manila, U.S.A.’” The narrator replies, “Nex’ you know you’ll ask a feller / Whur he’s frum, he’ll up an ‘ say / With a lordly kind o’ flourish, / ‘All creation, U.S.A.’”

To be sure, anti-interventionism, the desire to restrict immigration, and protectionism do not always go together. But they are allied so frequently that we might suggest that they have a natural affinity with one another and make coherent sense as a species of American nationalism. Bush’s immigration views alone ought to acquit him of the accusation of “nationalism”—what nationalist anywhere has ever favored open borders?

I am not a nationalist, and there is much that I find repellent in nationalist views of ethnicity, culture, and economics. There are larger and smaller loyalties that must trump national sentiment, and nation-states are not properly economic entities—states survive by expropriation, not exchange, after all. But all of that said, and even acknowledging the ideological racism into which American nationalism can degenerate, one can conclude that there is a wholesome component to nationalism on these shores. In its desire to preserve a degree (not an absolute degree, however) of ethnocultural solidarity within defined borders, American nationalism is a healthy thing—more anti-imperial than expansionist.

The United States presently finds itself facing two intractable problems. First is a foreign-policy committing the country to providing defense for most of the developed world—from Japan and Korea to Germany, indeed almost to the very borders of Russia, as well as in the Middle East—and to intervening militarily in theaters ranging from Colombia to Kosovo to Iraq. The cost in lives and treasure is staggering and will sooner or later bankrupt the country. This aggravates the second problem, a federal government whose spending is utterly without brake, and which provides transient tax cuts while borrowing trillions that will have to be repaid one day through tax hikes or inflation. On top of these issues, a third has stirred considerable passion: unchecked illegal immigration, and mass legal immigration, which together in a souring economy exacerbate anxieties over employment and, in a era of rising terrorism, raise fears for national security.

Nationalism attempts to address all three of these concerns. It possesses the right answer to one of them, the right answer for perhaps the wrong reasons to another, and the wrong answer to the third. In foreign policy, the U.S. would be well served to behave more like a traditional nation-state and not an ideological empire: it ought to respect other nations’ sovereignty, including the sovereignty of unfriendly powers like Iraq and Iran, and it should not be providing national defense for countries that are fully capable of protecting themselves. As destructive as German and Japanese nationalisms have been in decades past, it is time that those nations assumed the burden for their own military protection. Neither country has the same imperial will that led to mass-murder in the last century, and even to the extent that a militaristic nationalism may be incipient in Japan, that state is checked by a far more powerful China.

Economic nationalism is a subject for another essay, but in short, welfare in the form of tariffs is every bit as unjust and ultimately impoverishing and debilitating as welfare in the form of direct subsidy to businesses or individuals. As for immigration, the question of who should be admitted to citizenship and who should have access to public institutions—health care and education especially—is properly a question for the people of a country. The American people prefer less immigration in general and much less illegal immigration in particular. The economic arguments against immigration are themselves a form of economic nationalism and faulty, but on whatever the grounds, the citizenry of a republic may properly choose for themselves how much immigration they want. There is no Constitutional or natural right that says anyone and everyone can be an American. No one is denied his due by being denied entry into the country, nor is anyone thereby deprived of his property.

Hyper-nationalism, or the abuse of nationalism, is a real danger, but not one the United States faces at this time. If American nationalists were clamoring to annex Canada for Lebensraum or demanding the ethnic cleansing of Hispanic Americans—or for that matter German-Americans or Slavic Americans—that would indeed be a violation of other nations’ sovereignty or other people’s legal rights, as well as being simply morally wrong. But only a marginal fringe fantasizes about such excessive, malevolent manifestations of nationalism. Middle American desires for limited, legal immigration and for a foreign policy of national defense, not global empire-building, are nationalistic but benign. Just as democracy need not mean giving a majority power to do anything it wishes, nationalism does not have to mean justifying crimes in the name of the nation.

On the flipside, there can indeed be times when heinous actions are justified—that is, rationalized—in the name of patriotism. Bush and his voters are not inflamed by nationalism, which the president has vociferously abjured, but by—among other things—overweening patriotism. If patriotism is simply love of country, it is nonetheless possible, as with love of anything else, to love one’s country too much—to overlook her flaws and excuse her errors. A man may love his wife, and he may love her so much that he would kill to make her happy. The motive for murder would be love, but that would not make it right. Love of country, like love of anything else in this world, can be taken to excess.

The neocons are a special case, and Bush is a politician, so his motives are more complex, and darker, than mere patriotism. But the support of ordinary Americans for the Iraq misadventure is most certainly deriving from patriotic feeling. They love their country; they know it is good. They make the mistake, however, of conflating America with all that is good and nothing that is not. They don’t hate Iraqis or Arabs generally; on the contrary, they wish them well. They want what is good for them. And since “America” and “good” are interchangeable terms, they think it cannot be anything other than good for Iraq to be more like America. The whole world should be more like America. This is still patriotism run amuck.

Orwell claims that patriotism “has no wish to force [a country or its values] upon other people.” But hubristic patriots do not believe they are forcing their country on other people. They believe they are helping other people achieve what they really desire. Everyone wants to be like us, and we can help them along by bombing the bejeezus out of anything—secular dictators, 1500-year-old religions, tribal loyalties, national borders—that stands between them and the American Way. The hubristic patriot believes his country always acts defensively, even if, as in the case of the Iraq War, it acts in defense against a nonexistent threat.

Hubristic patriotism supplied the context in which David Frum, a Canadian transplant, could get away with calling right-wing critics of the Iraq War “unpatriotic conservatives.” Those men of the Right had the temerity to criticize America on any number of points, not just foreign policy—some of them even said nice things about the cultural achievements of the French relative to Americans. The unpatriotic conservatives denied the identification of America with all things good and nothing evil.

Patriotism need not always be taken to such abusive and ridiculous lengths. But in the America of 2003, and among many conservative Americans even today, it was and is. Some of this is a reaction against the genuinely unpatriotic sentiments expressed by the hard Left in the Vietnam era and after. Yet extremism in one direction is no cure for extremism in another—too often, the extremes feed off of one another, as the über-patriotic Right and anti-patriotic Left do—and excessive patriotism is at least as dangerous as defective patriotism. What the United States needs now is less passionate love for our country right or wrong, and more prudent adherence to national interests and national borders. More nationalism, less patriotism.

Europe sadly does not have enough of either at the moment, but nationalism is the quality in greater need. The excessive nationalism of the Nazis discredited national solidarity throughout Western Europe, and particularly in Germany. But unchecked Third World immigration is today a greater danger to peace and liberty in Western Europe than excessive nationalism is. Germany, France, and other countries are reluctant to assert their historic national identities—including their religious and political traditions—against newcomers who have few hesitations about expressing their own ethnocultural identities and the political and social practices associated with them—practices of Sharia, for example, or forced marriage. A dose of nationalism could fortify European liberalism against this onslaught. (I do not suggesting anything illiberal here: only that immigration be restricted and Muslims and other minorities not be exempted from laws that apply to everyone else.)

The Left in America and Europe has largely rejected both patriotism and nationalism in favor of an anti-traditional cosmopolitanism: bringing people together by destroying their historic identities, whether religious or ethnocultural or of whatever other kind. If we were all alike, we would not fight any more—no more shooting wars, culture wars, or bitter political disputes. Unfortunately, these leftists do not seem to consider how much cultural, political, or real warfare must take place in order to make everyone alike.

Cultural and political war to end all wars suits the Left just fine, but contemporary leftists are usually a little queasy about real blood-and-guts warfare, their penchant for humanitarian intervention notwithstanding. Unluckily for the rest of us, this is precisely where America’s neoconservatives are most passionate. The neocons and the Left complement each other fully. The Left wants to wipe out traditional Christianity and historic Western nations through legal and cultural change, but it shies away from open warfare and from applying the same anti-traditionalist stance to non-Western cultures. The neocons want nothing more than to make non-Western cultures more like us, and they will gladly use cruise missiles and Marines to do it. Theirs is a peculiar form of post-national patriotism. It is peculiar ideology created by the intellectual elite, it is one that can make sense to ordinary Americans. If you cannot pray in school, the neocons seem to say, why not take out your frustrations by joining the military and bringing the blessings of liberty to other lands? The neocons appeal to Americans on the wavelength of something they can be proud of: their military traditions. Other traditions fall to desuetude.

Samuel Huntington describes the choice confronting America in Who Are We?:

“Cosmopolitanism and [democratic] imperialism attempt to reduce or to eliminate the social, political, and cultural differences between America and other societies. A national approach would recognize and accept what distinguishes America from those societies. America cannot become the world and still be America. Other peoples cannot become American and still be themselves. America is different, and that difference is defined in large part by its Anglo-Protestant culture and its religiosity. The alternative to cosmopolitanism and imperialism is nationalism devoted to the preservation and enhancement of those qualities that have defined America since its founding.

The transformation of the United States from a confederated Republic into a consolidated nation after the War Between the States was a tragedy, and expressions of American nationalism from the Civil War to the Cold War were often risible and typically took root at the expense of earlier local identities. Traditional conservatives romanticize an American patriotism of hearth and home, but such a thing has not existed, not in measurable quantities at least, for at least a century. The place of the old local loyalties has been taken by the national flag and the Pledge of Allegiance, and the one institution to which almost all Americans remain devoted—the military. What small patriotism survives in little platoons—not Army brigades—is to be cherished. But the road back to the humane scale is a long one, and a mild nationalism, as antidote to leftist cosmopolitanism and neocon imperialism, may be a necessary first step. Even secession, a favored cause of radical localists and libertarians, is most likely to come about in the 21st century through nationalism, as Scots and Quebecois independence movements suggest.

Nationalism is no unqualified good, even in small doses. But it is preferable to the immediate alternatives. Patriotism can and ought to be a pure and noble sentiment dedicated only to defense—but in 21st-century America, it has all too often been inflamed into a mad passion.

Daniel McCarthy is Associate Editor at The American Conservative.

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