America's Blind Spot

America's Blind Spot

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

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“The Paradoxes of American Nationalism” by
Minxin Pei, in
Foreign Policy "text14"> (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.”


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