America's Blind Spot

America's Blind Spot

Americans' own patriotism often makes them blind to the nationalism of other nations.

Read Time:
2m 33sec

“The Paradoxes of American Nationalism” by Minxin Pei, in Foreign Policy (May–June 2003), 1779 Massachusetts Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036.

Though Americans are among the most patriotic people on earth, they have a hard time acknowledging and dealing with the nationalism of others—a blind spot that can spell trouble for U.S. foreign policy, argues Pei, codirector of the China program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“American nationalism is hidden in plain sight,” he observes, sustained chiefly by civic volunteerism rather than, as in authoritarian regimes, by the state, and all the more authentic and attractive for it. Even before the 2001 terrorist attacks, a survey showed that 72 percent of Americans were “very proud” of their nationality. That was less than the 80 percent of Mexicans, 81 percent of Egyptians, and 92 percent of Iranians who said they were “very proud” of theirs, but it was far more than the 49 percent of the British, 40 percent of the French, and 20 percent of the Dutch expressing national pride.

Americans do not regard their nationalism as nationalism at all, says Pei, because it is not based on notions of cultural or ethnic superiority. They view it, rather, as being founded on a set of universal political ideals that the rest of the world should gladly embrace. But, as Pei notes, even in Western Europe, “another bastion of liberalism and democracy,” a recent survey found that less than half the respondents “like American ideas about democracy.”

Unlike nationalism in most other countries, he says, American nationalism is based on past triumphs, not past humiliations and defeats. It’s forward-looking, imbued with “a missionary spirit and a short collective memory.” But the U.S. effort to “liberate” Iraq, for example, looks like something else to inhabitants of the Middle East, who are “haunted by memories of Western military invasions since the time of the Crusades.”

Washington’s “insensitivity” to foreign nationalism stirs resentments and prompts accusations of hypocrisy, Pei believes. What’s more, it undermines efforts by the United States to isolate hostile regimes such as North Korea. “The rising nationalism of South Korea’s younger generation . . . hasn’t yet figured in Washington’s calculations concerning Pyongyang’s [nuclear] brinkmanship.”

Americans’ own insularity compounds the problem. Pei cites a survey showing that, in the past five years, only 22 percent of Americans have traveled to a foreign country, compared with 66 percent of Canadians, 73 percent of Britons, 60 percent of the French, and 77 percent of Germans. And even in the wake of September 11, 2001, Americans are not much interested in international affairs. In an early 2002 survey, only 26 percent said that they were following foreign news “very closely.”
Little wonder, then, that American nationalism evokes “mixed feelings” abroad. That might not matter much under other circumstances, says Pei, but when the nationalism drives U.S. foreign policy, the unfortunate result is “broad-based anti-Americanism.”

More From This Issue