Nationalism is growing nearly everywhere, including in the United States. But nationalism is not the same in every country. American nationalism, since the birth of the republic, has been more internationalist than the typical nationalist fare, meaning it has been more inclusive and more open. It has been more inclusive in the sense that anyone, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity, could become a citizen of the United States, and it has been more open in the sense that, with exceptions, America welcomed immigration and freer trade.
It’s easy to forget how novel this kind of nationalism was at the end of the 18th century. Traditional nationalism rallied around monarchs, state churches, mercantilism, and ethnic homogeneity. Early America had no monarch, national church, or strong central government, and was largely born in reaction against all three. Despite flaws—maltreatment of indigenous populations, slavery, and sectarian enmity (mainly anti-Catholic bias)—American nationalism promoted republican values of racial equality and religious freedom. As a rule, for more than two centuries inclusiveness and openness trumped narrow elitism, economic nationalism, and ethnic chauvinism.
In this form, American nationalism has shaped the international system. Even before it became a military power, America discomfited the proponents of traditional nationalism in Europe; elites there hoped that America would fracture and fail, and often convinced themselves it would do both. Then, after America became a world power in the 20th century, republican ideals caused it either to shun a traditional imperial role (the case after World War I) or to embrace an unconventional open-trade model that deliberately shifted relative power to former adversaries and others (the case after World War II). Starting with Germany and Japan, the United States helped other powers rise relatively as the United States declined relatively. The latest great power in this story, for better or worse, is China. America may be the first great power in history to deliberately share its wealth and nurture more open and stronger democratic partners, the first ever to turn the core Enlightenment idea of a non-zero-sum order into a grand strategy. It is an internationalist form of nationalism that is hard to understand in traditional terms. Can anyone imagine today’s open global order under the auspices of German, French, Japanese, Russian, or even British nationalism?
A nationalism of internationalism has been good for America, too. When America pursued inclusiveness and openness abroad, it fashioned a better society at home—and this was no coincidence. For example, America’s open model of world politics after World War II not only built a thriving global economy and defeated the Soviet Union abroad but also accommodated the civil rights revolution, emancipation of women, unprecedented immigration, and rapid economic growth at home. The only time during the 20th century that America faltered was in the interwar period, when it pursued a more traditional nationalism abroad and deepened Jim Crow racism at home.
Is all of this now changing? Have key pillars of the American creed somehow weakened in our times? Is America turning to a more traditional form of nationalism, one that shuns allies, excludes immigrants, and restricts cross-border commerce? If so, will America’s nationalist resurgence in turn increase ethnic and religious polarization and balkanize economic markets throughout the world?
America cannot retreat internationally without fraying its national unity at home. But retreat is unnecessary. Three problems bedevil America’s “nationalism of internationalism”: jobs, trade, and immigration (exacerbated by terrorism). None of these problems is as great as those posed by the Cold War. All of them can be solved without withdrawing to the xenophobia and protectionism of the interwar period. Jobs are the key problem because, as in the 1980s and 1990s, robust economic growth cushions the impact of imports and immigration. Unless we find a way to generate large numbers of middle-class jobs, it will be politically difficult for the United States to remain open and inclusive. If it should fail to do so, America will suffer, but the world may suffer even more.
Interpreting American Nationalism
There are three central paradoxes in American foreign policy history. These paradoxes are better explained by an American nationalism based on republican ideas of inclusiveness and openness than one based on traditional nationalist factors such as military power.
The first paradox is that American ideas and ideals had a powerful impact on world affairs long before the United States became a military power. The early American republic had no power to speak of, yet its ideas advanced liberal or republican causes over authoritarian ones in Europe. The United States frightened Europe’s elites, and Americans were aware of it. As John Quincy Adams wrote his father in 1816, “all the restored governments of Europe are deeply hostile to us.” They see us as “the primary causes of the propagation of those political principles which still make the throne of every European monarch rock under him as with the throes of an earthquake.” Prince Metternich of Austria saw the threat in apocalyptic terms: “If this flood of evil doctrines and pernicious examples should extend over the whole of America, what would become . . . of the moral force of our governments, and of that conservative system which has saved Europe from complete dissolution?”
The first serious use of American power occurred with continental expansion, but that expansion was understood not in traditional terms of conquest but as necessary to the expansion of America’s political ideals: acquiring land to expand the franchise and realize Jefferson’s dream of an “empire of liberty.” A further use of force dealt with the issue of slavery, but even that crucible was understood in terms of America’s founding ideals, not just military coercion to preserve the Union.
The second paradox is that when the United States did become a global power around the time of World War I, it showed an unprecedented reluctance to exercise that power in the traditional way. The Wilson Administration played the major role in inventing a liberal system of international institutions—the League of Nations—to replace the balance of power. When this proved a bridge too far, America lapsed into an insularity that soon caused everyone to suffer.
The third paradox is that, when America did finally exercise geopolitical power after World War II, it pursued a puzzling, ideals-dominated strategy to raise up other powers relative to itself in the hope that other countries, including former and potential adversaries, would draw closer to American ideals. Through the Bretton Woods institutions it fostered open global markets to share America’s wealth—the opposite of mercantilist manipulation. Its military power defended its allies, while Soviet power subjugated Russia’s in Eastern Europe. After the Soviet Union collapsed, it was America’s political and economic ideas that spread into Eastern Europe rather than NATO military forces, which were deliberately not stationed in new member states despite the formal expansion of NATO.
No other imperial power has behaved this way, and traditional nationalism cannot explain any of it. Traditional great power-nationalism, animated by zero-sum thinking, calls for maintaining and even increasing one’s own relative power, not sharing it with former and potential adversaries. It calls for protecting national markets to boost employment at home, not cheaper imports that require labor to move from less to more competitive industries.
European powers sought empire and eventually got decline; America sought a form of decline and inadvertently inherited empire when the Soviet Union collapsed. European empires colonized the world; America helped to decolonize it. European powers practiced mercantilist or exclusivist trade policies designed to preserve their economic advantage and ultimately failed; America pursued liberal, open trade policies that helped others get rich while it, too, prospered.
The American approach has thus worked well for America, and for nearly everyone else. Its nationalism of internationalism has sired a globalized world community that is more democratic and prosperous than ever and, arguably (see further discussion below), American working families have prospered from it as well. By contrast, consider what happened to workers in communist countries. Their governments protected jobs and eventually nearly all of them were lost.
This admittedly rosy sketch of the American experience in the world will not sit well with many observers. I can hear the harrumphs and the “buts” from the skeptical and disaffected. But read on. I believe on balance the sketch is accurate. Yes, the uses to which American power have been put contain elements of both traditional nationalism and unconventional republicanism, but the closer we look, the more the unconventional explains the long-term outcomes.
The Early Republic
Let’s start again, at the beginning. The English settlers of North America were motivated by a mix of economic ambition and religious purpose, not by military conquest. Unlike the Spanish conquistadors, for example, American colonialists settled, not sacked, their slice of the New World. They sought both the promise of commercial reward and the possibility of constructing a more perfect social order. It’s not that they abjured power; they just did not prioritize it. As Felix Gilbert wrote, “the entire colonial experience made foreign policy particularly alien and repulsive to Americans. It was difficult for them to comprehend the importance of the power factor in foreign relations.”1
The new republic’s first use of military power was to send almost the entire navy to the Mediterranean to counter the depredations of the Barbary pirates. No strategy of military conquest dictated this distant deployment; traditional nationalism in a still-young and militarily weak state would have called only for the defense of America’s coastal waters. The Barbary deployment, rather, was meant to establish American honor and, more than that, to redeem the then-unique American notion that commercial trade, not military conquest, should be the primary pursuit of republican foreign policy, which opposed the mercantilist “war system” of the royalist Old World.
In this conception military power was necessary to defend trade, but trade’s main benefits were in turn political. The riches of republicanism would build the new American state, not the wars and conquests that built the old European state. President Jefferson expressed at the time an early but enduring American ambivalence toward military power that derived from the need to safeguard liberty at home as well as abroad. He rejected land forces, which threatened liberty on shore, but favored naval forces, which defended freedom of commerce on the high seas.
Ambivalence toward military power also characterized America’s expansion across the continent. The objective was not plunder but land for yeoman farmers, giving them the right to vote. Writing already in 1776, Jefferson declared that ownership of land was the key to individual freedom and proposed that Virginia give fifty acres of land to each free, landless man, extending suffrage rights to all white male citizens. He purchased the Louisiana Territory mainly for the same reasons.2
But this expansion was not understood as conquest. Jefferson envisioned the possibility of independent “sister republics” in the Louisiana Territory. “Keep them in the union, if it be for their good,” he said, “but separate them, if it be better.” Jefferson’s vision was an early version of the “republican” or democratic peace. And while Jefferson did not allow for black slaves becoming citizens (advocating instead their resettlement in Africa), he did believe that Native Americans would be eligible to own land and become citizens. “Once you have property,” he told Indian chiefs visiting the President’s House, “you will want the laws and magistrates to protect your property and person . . . [and] will find that our laws are good for this purpose.”3
Not all Americans thought this way. Alexander Hamilton advocated seizing the Floridas and New Orleans.4 He thought more like the Spanish conquistadors. And Andrew Jackson did not protect Indian property; he confiscated it. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams insisted, against the view of President Monroe and others (such as Jefferson), that the Monroe Doctrine be proclaimed unilaterally rather than jointly with Great Britain because he wanted to preserve America’s right to expand westward while thwarting opportunities for European powers to do the same. But expansion was never about territorial acquisition alone; it was also about the form of government that would accompany it. Adams later opposed annexing Texas and western expansion generally because this expansion in his view entailed the extension of slavery. He envisioned an expansion of American republicanism rather than imperialism, territory for freedom, not for slavery.
James K. Polk, a slaveholder like Jefferson, also favored a broader franchise. He engineered the acquisition of western territories, both north and south, in four short years and did so by overcoming, not arousing, the sectional differences that later led to civil war. Congressional votes on both treaties cut across sectional and party lines. Polk is easily misunderstood because he used American power to wage war and, for some historians at least, epitomized traditional nationalism. But Polk’s motives were Jeffersonian, not Hamiltonian. “It is the true purpose of the Government,” he said, “to afford facilities to its citizens to become the owners of small portions of our vast public domain at low and moderate prices.”5 Like Jefferson, he sought additional territory to accommodate new voters and made a sincere offer to Mexico to pay for the southwest territories. He used force only when Mexico was unable to negotiate because of repeated coups and indecision.
Polk knew exactly what territory he had in mind before he went to war (above the 32nd parallel, not the 26th). It included only a narrow strip of land suitable for slavery. If slavery had been his dominant motive, he would have sought a bigger chunk of Mexican territory and, indeed, after the U.S. military occupied Mexico City in 1847, Polk could have seized the entire country, the southern portions of which were ideal for slavery. Instead, he accepted an agreement that took no more land than Polk had identified at the outset—and he withdrew all American forces from Mexico within six months. He recognized, unlike some later Presidents, that America’s republican nationalism would not support a long-term occupation of foreign lands. It is easy (and popular) to write off the Mexican War as an act of racist and imperialist banditry. But it is also stale and simplistic in light of the historical record.
From 1789 to 1848 America emerged as the freest country in the world, if one measures freedom by the number of citizens who enjoyed the right to vote and participate in self-government. By 1840, 78 percent of adult white males were eligible to vote in the United States, a higher percentage by far than in any other governmental system with competing political parties. Not all of these Americans thought about expansion in terms of more freedom; there were and still are imperialists and racists in America. Outcomes were decided by struggle and eventually civil war, not by some form of predestination or the just hand of history. For that very reason, however, it is important not to impugn the motives of all Americans in the 1840s, anymore than it is to whitewash them. And it is important to acknowledge that outcomes after 1850 moved steadily toward greater freedom for more people. Would that have happened if Mexico or an assortment of contending European powers had permanently occupied the western territories of North America?
A fair if necessarily speculative question is whether the North would have won the Civil War had America not expanded significantly before the war. Even after the completion of continental expansion, European powers maneuvered during the Civil War to potentially reclaim territory on, or even within, America’s borders: Spain in the Dominican Republic, Britain through a contemplated alliance with the Confederacy, France in Mexico, and Russia on the west coast. Early expansion pushed these efforts farther out and opened up western lands that accommodated a flood of immigrants, which boosted the Union cause. Had the Union lost, America would have divided into at least two countries—one free, the other likely a militarized, authoritarian, agrarian South. European powers might have created additional states in the western territories. A carbon copy of European autocratic anarchy might have chopped up North America and devoured it, along with Europe, in the great wars of the 20th century.
More importantly, had the Civil War ended in stalemate (a possibility as late as August 1864), republican America would never have become a world power. A truncated Northern Union would have lacked the resources for global power, and an agricultural Southern Confederacy would have slowly declined in power as industrial development left it behind. How might that have affected the subsequent fate of freedom in Europe from 1914 to 2014?
In a sense, European liberalism—such as it was at the time, just a dozen years after the defeat of the Revolutions of 1848—held its breath while the American Civil War decided the future of liberalism not only in America but throughout the world. As Don Doyle writes in The Cause of All Nations,
“Had the Confederacy succeeded, it would have meant a new birth of slavery, rather than freedom, possibly throughout the Americas, and it would have been a serious blow to the experiment in egalitarian democracy throughout the Atlantic world.”6
Thus, early expansion probably made the difference for an inclusive and open America. To be sure, white male freedom preceded black, female, and Native American freedom. But would wider freedom have followed if white males, many of whom advocated the ideals of freedom and equality, had themselves never acquired land and achieved the vote?
The Reluctant Power
The best case that American nationalism is really traditional, not internationalist, can be made on the basis of the half-century following the Civil War. The nation resolved its divided self-image, industrialized relentlessly partly on the basis of high tariff walls, built a world-class navy, grabbed the Panama Canal to rule two seas and Hawaii to project its power deep into the Pacific, intervened repeatedly by military means in the Caribbean, Central America, and the Far East, and became a colonial power in the Philippines.
But then, just as suddenly, America pirouetted and pulled back from the world. For a supposedly aggressive imperial power, it entered World War I extremely late. Then, even though it probably played the decisive role in defeating the German empire, President Wilson used its newly gained power not to impose a military imperium but to design a postwar order that rejected power politics altogether. Finally the country rejected the League of Nations as well and went into a deep retreat from global power politics while European empires spiraled out of control. Strange ways, indeed, for “just another traditional imperial power.” What explains this bewildering behavior? Again, a mix of ideology and economics, not geopolitics, provides the answer.
After the Civil War, American ideals sparked emulation abroad. Great Britain widened its franchise, and liberalism poked its head out in France, Prussia, and even Russia. By the end of the 19th century, geopolitics predicted a great war between Britain, the declining power, and America, the emerging power. But ideology trumped geopolitics. Britain and America drew closer to one another as liberal republics and squared off together against the autocratic challenges of the 20th century: monarchism, fascism, and communism.
America was different, too, in its economic policy. American trade was premised from the outset on widening, not restricting, foreign markets. Foreign markets were to be open to all trade, even trade that neutrals seized from countries at war with one another (free ships carrying free goods). Unlike other emerging powers, especially Germany and Japan, America opposed colonization and pursued Open Door policies to challenge colonial restrictions. While American policy was protectionist at home (at least until the late 1930s), it was multilateral and most-favored-nation-oriented abroad. Once domestic markets were liberalized following World War II, U.S. policies created the unique global economy in which its relative share was destined to decline.
What about the use of military force before World War I? America intervened without a doubt, especially in Latin America. But the objective generally was to open or preserve sound trading relationships, not seize colonies. The Navy lagged, not led, the parade. It developed late, in a period when Americans were not particularly threatened but “had growing commercial interests and ambitions in Latin America and Asia and worried that they would be nudged out by stronger imperial powers . . . .”7 With the one exception of the Philippines, the Navy did not exploit the need for coaling stations to colonize foreign territory. (In 1900 the U.S. government rejected setting up a permanent coaling station on the coast of China.)
On balance, therefore, it’s not the use of American power that stands out in the decades before World War I; it’s the rejection of that power after World War I. Wilson’s reversal from an ardent military interventionist in Mexico in 1914 to a global crusader to end the balance of power in world affairs is the real paradox. No one before him, including Britain’s William Gladstone, had argued so forcefully for a whole new system of international affairs, based on the pooling of military power rather than the balancing of it—a power to be used only by multilateral consent. The goal was to guarantee sovereignty and facilitate self-determination, especially for the minority peoples liberated from the German, Russian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian empires. The League of Nations was built on ideology and economics, not military intervention and geopolitics. It again reflected America’s enduring ambivalence toward traditional forms of nationalism and the use of force.
In the end, the United States could countenance neither an imperium based on military power nor a League of Nations bereft of military power. America in effect “occupied” the capital of the world in 1919—Paris, as Wilson arrived there—and might have exercised a traditional imperial role, as Britain did at the Congress of Vienna, or Germany at the Berlin Conference of 1878. Instead, America left Paris in 1919 and kept not a single soldier in Europe until the next calamity occurred. At the moment of its greatest power, America abdicated. No account based on a premise of imperial ambition can explain this. Its roots lie in America’s counter-conventional republican ideology.
The consequences of retreat exacted a toll at home, too. America’s self-imposed isolation from the global mainstream in the 1920s and 1930s weakened America’s commitments to inclusiveness and openness. Racism thrived as the Ku Klux Klan marched down Pennsylvania Avenue, 30,000 strong in white-hooded sheets, in August 1925. The Smoot-Hawley Tariff and rejection of the international gold standard savaged America’s domestic market as well. When the United States withdraws from the world, it hurts itself at home.
The Cold War
If World War I and its aftermath demonstrated the weakness of America’s military motives, World War II and its aftermath demonstrated the salience of its ideological and economic motives. Once again after victory, America demobilized precipitously in 1945–47. As before, America had no stomach for military imperialism. But this time, thanks to Soviet imperialism, America’s ideology and economics took root in Europe. The threat of communist governments in the Balkans, France, and Italy, along with the prospect of economic collapse throughout Western Europe, sparked the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan. The Truman Doctrine defined the conflict as one between two ideologies, freedom and oppression, not as just another episode in the balance of power. And the Marshall Plan championed freer market policies and Western Europe’s economic integration, while the Soviet Union installed statist policies and economic autarchy in Eastern Europe.
Once again, military motives lagged, not led. Both the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan preceded NATO. Neither envisioned rebuilding military forces. No one contemplated NATO until the Berlin Crisis of June 1948. In that crisis, Truman decided to defend West Berlin, against the advice of his principal advisers. Even then the U.S. military buildup in Europe did not come until after the Korean War broke out. Korea confirmed what might have happened in Europe if the German border, like the Korean border, had remained undefended. NSC-68 and the rearmament of Europe fortified that border.
Military ambivalence persisted nonetheless. President Eisenhower looked for a way to build a third force from European resources and warned against the over-militarization of American foreign policy. He toned down Truman’s ideological approach to the Cold War and opposed NATO intervention behind the Iron Curtain (Hungary, Poland), as well as in the Middle East (the Suez Crisis). John Kennedy turned the Cold War rhetoric back up and so, after the painful interregnum of the Vietnam War era, did Ronald Reagan. But while Reagan was known for his military buildup, he believed that ideology and economics mattered more. Like Truman, he reminded the world that the struggle was between two diametrically opposed ideologies and that one side would eventually win.
Some puzzled over Reagan’s willingness to amass (defense buildup) and deploy (intermediate-range missiles in Europe) force but not use it. But there was no puzzle; Reagan was ready to use force where it counted, namely in case of “another Poland” in Europe, but not to risk it where it did not count, for example in Lebanon. Most importantly, he was ready to use the arms race as leverage in world-altering negotiations with the Soviet Union.
Critics at the time neither understood nor supported these policies. Congressional opponents howled against the defense buildup, and Europe convulsed in protests against the deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. Critics also opposed his economic program. It’s easy to forget the condition of the American republic in the 1970s. Doubts about America’s ideals still lingered in the malaise of Watergate and Vietnam, and the U.S. and world economies stagnated in high inflation, commodity price spikes, and alleged “limits to growth.” If the domestic economy had not produced a major breakout, there would have been no military buildup or ideological revival. Reagan’s economic policies helped reverse a decade of stagflation and ushered in thirty years of unprecedented growth and innovation.8
Market, Not Embedded, Liberalism
Conventional accounts miss the ideological and economic origins of America’s post-World War II success. Traditional power perspectives dismiss the ideological component. As Paul Kennedy recounted in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), countries rise and fall for different ideological reasons, but the pattern persists. If countries decline, he and others have argued, they do so because they shortchange domestic investments to sustain imperial ambitions. Yet the United States under Ronald Reagan revved up domestic growth and increased military spending. Traditional accounts explain the Soviet Union’s decline, but not the American rebound.
Traditional economic accounts fare no better. They claim that postwar markets thrived on the basis of a compromise called “embedded liberalism” that gained labor’s commitment to free trade in return for government’s commitment to full employment.9 But this argument is neither factual nor logical. After World War II the United States, Germany, and other Western countries championed freer markets at home than had ever been the case and led a broad-based pullback from the extensive government intervention that had accompanied war. They prioritized privatization, low inflation, and tax cuts. And they dramatically liberalized trade.
Embedded liberalism cannot logically explain what followed. Opening trade entailed a massive dislocation and movement of labor, as U.S. markets opened up for the low-technology products of European and Asian countries. Workers in the United States moved en masse from the northeastern sections of the country to the southeast and then to the southwest, and many of their jobs eventually moved overseas to Asia and other foreign markets. None of this would have happened under a regime intended to protect labor from the dislocations of trade, and over the long run none of it was detrimental to American workers. They moved into better-paying and more environmentally friendly jobs in the service sector.
Indeed, despite the current obsession with growing inequality, incomes increased for all Americans in this period. As Robert Samuelson reports, between 1979 and 2014, the percentage of households (which corrects for individual incomes by taking account of families with two wage earners and a smaller number of children) in the poor or near-poor income category (under $30,000) fell from 24.3 percent to 19.8 percent, in the lower-middle income category ($30,000 to $49,999) from 23.9 percent to 17.1 percent, and in the middle income category ($50,000 to $99,999) from 38.8 percent to 32 percent. Meanwhile, the percentage of upper-middle income households ($100,000 to $349,000) grew from 12.9 percent to 29.4 percent. Even individual incomes advanced. As Harvard economist Martin Feldstein reports, the lower four quintiles gained in real income after taxes and transfers by 40–50 percent.10
A domestic commitment to protect labor would have never accommodated such labor movements or income increases. In fact, the United States pursued a much more conservative market-oriented economic policy after World War II. This policy, in general, nurtured flexible labor markets that facilitated the redeployment of jobs caused by world trade. It involved a government commitment to action in fiscal policy (running deficits in recessions and surpluses in recovery) and modest programs of trade adjustment assistance for displaced workers. But it did not involve a government commitment to full employment (the Employment Act of 1948 explicitly rejected full employment as a goal), loose monetary policy, microeconomic interventions to subsidize specific industries or technologies, or protectionist trade policy. Freer-market policies created new jobs; embedded liberalism would have only protected existing jobs.
Free-market policies under Reagan also helped revive economic growth. From 1980 to 2010, including the “Great Recession” of 2008–09 (which actually was not as severe as the recession of 1980–82 in terms of unemployment or inflation), the American and world economies experienced the “Great Expansion.” They grew in excess of 3 percent per year, equal to the golden era of 1945–73. Millions of new jobs were created to accommodate minorities in America (black Americans, new immigrants, and women entering the work force) and a new middle class in emerging and former communist countries. How did this happen? Reagan reversed all the major policy directions of the 1970s (inflation, protectionism, high taxes, and more) save one, the accumulation of fiscal deficits. And that one, caused mostly by the military buildup, evaporated once the Soviet Union collapsed and defense expenditures receded.
President Clinton perpetuated Reagan’s policies, bucking his own party to pass the historic Uruguay Round and NAFTA trade agreements. He raised taxes modestly but nowhere near the levels that the Reagan tax cuts had unwound; he balanced the budget mostly due to the peace dividend; and he declared an end to the era of big government, signing landmark welfare reform (after vetoing it twice) that his party also opposed. In this respect, Clinton preserved Reagan’s conservative economic program, just as Eisenhower preserved FDR’s liberal economic policies.
Globalization, Nationalism, and Democracy
Today’s America and the globalized world around it have largely been built on an American “nationalism of internationalism.” Both at home and abroad America advocated greater liberty and wider prosperity. At home this unconventional nationalism accommodated the largest labor redeployment in history, while simultaneously expanding civil rights and immigration. Abroad it welcomed an increasing number of countries into the free-market global economy, first the defeated powers of World War II (Germany and Japan), then the Asian tigers, the newly industrializing countries, the former communist countries in Europe, and today the emerging markets of China and India.
Now the new, all-too-conventional nationalism calls for America to restrict trade flows, ban (and deport) immigrants, and let allies defend themselves. In part, the new nationalism is a consequence of the old nationalism: America and the world are so much better off that many people assume that nothing bad will happen if America leaves the world. But that’s wrong. America left the world in 1919, and that world fell off a cliff in 1939, while America itself wallowed in Jim Crow and economic depression. If American abandons the world in 2016 and beyond, does anyone think American society will become more inclusive and prosperous?
Can America become a standard-issue imperial power, winning more trade deals while other countries lose (the mercantilist approach), fighting terrorism at home because the United States is no longer willing to fight it on the ground abroad, protecting our borders from without while violence escalates from within (between black and white, police and protestors, nativists and multiculturalists)? What will hold us together? Ethnicity, religion, and even patriotism can’t supply enduring glue for a nation built on republican ideas. America cannot return to the ethnic (Anglo-Saxon) culture of early America, or the white majorities of 19th-century America, let alone to the rousing patriotism of the 20th century’s world wars.
If America cannot go back, what is the way forward? Three factors account for the decline of public support for America’s nationalism of internationalism. These factors can, I believe, be reversed.
The first factor is the explosion of Chinese imports. From 1991 to 2011, Chinese manufacturing imports into the United States increased from 4.5 to 23.1 percent of the total. Economists estimate that this surge of imports cost at least a million U.S. manufacturing jobs.11 This happened at a time when a second factor, immigration, snowballed, and was compounded by the growing threat of terrorism, injecting a national security dimension into the issue. Finally, economic growth slowed and job creation slumped. The dearth of jobs exacerbated the negative impact of both imports and immigration. The American people and ultimately the American worker, who had accommodated so much liberalized trade, rebelled—and with good reason.
It is therefore time to slow both immigration and imports—I emphasize slow, not end—until the country can absorb them more gradually. In the meantime, the government would be wise to emphasize ways to free the hoard of $3 trillion of cash stashed away by U.S. industries and banks, as investment languishes at the lowest levels in postwar history. The way to do this is not through massive government stimulus and unprecedented monetary laxity—we have tried that recently, and it has not worked—but rather through the reform of tax and regulatory regimes.
Beyond prosperity, America’s nationalism of internationalism brings peace. By any objective measure, the world today is far more peaceful than it was in 1945, and it can become more peaceful still. Here the key question is whether an American nationalism of internationalism is a bridge too far if extended toward China, Russia, and Iran.
Some said that it was in the case of Germany and Japan after World War II, and others said it was in the case of the early Asian tigers such as South Korea and Taiwan or the later Eastern European countries. The answers then as now are not self-evident. Our allies today are much stronger than they were in early Cold War times; they can pay more for their own defense and invest more in their own prosperity, and their successes in democracy and security attest to the long-term success of an American nationalism of internationalism. So imagine a world by the end of this century that includes a somewhat more liberalized, pluralist Russia, China, and Iran. Far-fetched? Perhaps, but remember how far-fetched today’s world seemed in 1916, or even in 1966. If we stick to our still-revolutionary liberal republican ideals, America will continue to shape the world, not with military power, but as always with the power of its ideas.
The three steps recommended here to revitalize an American nationalism of internationalism are not inconsistent with the policy stances adopted by new President-elect Donald Trump. If he gives priority to tax and regulatory reforms (which create jobs), takes interim symbolic but not deeply disruptive steps to slow trade and immigration (which satisfy constituents), and cuts more balanced deals to address terrorism and other security issues first with allies and thereafter with Russia, China, and Iran (which restores measured American leadership), he will right the unique republican ship of state that constitutes an American nationalism of internationalism.
1Gilbert, To the Farewell Address: Ideas of Early American Foreign Policy (Princeton University Press, 1970), p. 17.
2See John Ferling, Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation (Bloomsbury Press, 2013), pp. 53–54. Jefferson’s view was widely shared. John Adams argued at the same time that because “power always followed property,” he hoped “to make the acquisition of land easy to every member of society . . . so that the multitude may be possessed of landed estates.” Quoted in Michael Lind, The American Way of Strategy (Oxford, 2006), p. 12.
3For quotes in this paragraph, see Robert W. Tucker and David C. Hendrickson, Empire of Liberty: The Statecraft of Thomas Jefferson (Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 160–61; see also Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation: America’s Place in the World from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (Knopf, 2006), p. 83.
4Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (HarperPerennial, 1997), p. 231.
5For quotes and my interpretation of Polk, see Henry R. Nau, Conservative Internationalism (Princeton University Press, 2015), chapter 5.
6Doyle, The Cause of All Nations: An International History of the American Civil War (Basic Books, 2015), p. 10.
7Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), p. 347.
8Henry R. Nau, “The ‘Great Expansion’: The Economic Legacy of Ronald Reagan,” in Paul Kengor and Jeffrey J. Chidester, eds., Reagan in a Transformed World (Harvard University Press, 2015), pp. 20–34. For the full story of Reagan’s economic legacy, see Nau, The Myth of America’s Decline (Oxford University Press, 1990).
9John G. Ruggie, “International Regimes, Transactions, and Change: Embedded Liberalism in the Postwar Economic Order,” in Stephen D. Krasner, ed., International Regimes (Cornell University Press, 1983), pp. 195–233. For a debate about the evidence, see my The Myth of America’s Decline, pp. 71–74, 77–128.
10Samuelson, “Is the Middle Class Moving Up?” Washington Post, June 27, 2016; Feldstein, “The U.S. Economy Is in Good Shape,” Wall Street Journal, February 22, 2016.
11Daron Acemoğlu, et al., “Import Competition and the Great Employment Sag of the 2000s,” Journal of Labor Economics (January 2016). Admittedly, most of these imports are not new, having come in before from other Asian countries.