Varieties of American Patriotism — Part I

An interactive chart which the New York Times put up soon after the successful operation of the US Navy Seals showed that responses among the American reading public to Osama Bin Laden’s death were literally all over the map. Even comments logged into the “significant” and “positive” quadrant – which were the majority – expressed apprehension as to what will come next, reservations about triumphalism and doubts that this death could bring closure. Many comments logged into the three other quadrants voiced ambivalence about the killing itself and weariness regarding the ongoing wars; others reflected critically on the concepts of justice, revenge and what the United States stands for in the world.

Among the younger generation some college students stood out through their spontaneous celebration that Sunday night. Explanations as to how the terrorist attacks of 2001 had become the defining moment in their young lives highlighted the Millennials’ patriotism. Responses among students in my Iowa foreign policy courses were more varied and reflective. They exemplified a phenomenon also mentioned in the media: the coexistence of nationalism with internationalism as evidenced in studying and traveling abroad, learning other languages and a genuine interest in other countries and cultures. S. Ann Dunham, Barak Obama’s mother was undoubtedly a singular woman; her non-missionary internationalism, however, is a more widespread phenomenon among young Americans of every generation.

The question of patriotism is an important one that lies at the intersection of domestic political culture and foreign policy. Analyzing the use of nationalist rhetoric by the Bush (43) administration the political scientist Paul McCartney shows how the president linked established tenets of American nationalism (exceptionalism, mission, universalism) to both his administration’s foreign policy agenda and his personal faith. In major speeches the president equated the United States with “freedom, compassion, and tolerance” and argued that it was precisely these qualities that made “the country the target of the evildoers’ enmity.”[i] McCartney demonstrates how a Manichean worldview functions. And he describes what I would call the “injured innocence” appeal of American exceptionalism; the claim that the US never conquers, but sacrifices the lives of its own for the freedom of others. He concludes his analysis by highlighting the conflict between exceptionalism and universalism, or between American nationalism and internationalism.

McCartney also writes that Americans required and welcomed this rhetoric; that this nationalist framework allowed Americans to make sense of what had happened on September 11th and that a “desire for vengeance understandably surged through Americans’ veins.” And this is where my doubts set in because this is not what I remember of September 2001. I recall great sorrow, grief and mourning. I remember how people responded to the tremendous suffering, pain and fear – guided not by President Bush but by their own beliefs and faith which were significantly different from the rhetoric so expertly analyzed by McCartney. Looking at the larger picture of responses both in 2001 and today in 2011 it is clear that many Americans for religious, philosophical or political reasons understand the world differently than George W. Bush and some of his supporters.

Ordinary citizens’ responses matter because they reveal the extent to which any political culture is permeated by more deeply-seated, pre-political ideas and values. Psychological explanations of nationalism (or desire for revenge) are useful but should not obscure the fact that the underlying questions are more properly the domain of philosophical and spiritual traditions: how to respond to natural as well as man-made disasters and, as a variation of the latter, how to confront evil in the world. Theories of international relations, especially realism, resonate with such philosophical conceptions of the human condition. Think of Hans Morgenthau and the notion of tragedy or Reinhold Niebuhr’s Augustinian distinction between divine and human order and unintended “ironic” outcomes of human actions. But ordinary people, too, are quite capable of finding, adopting and articulating essentially philosophical or spiritual ways of thinking about their own lives and the world they live in.

Over the past decade historians of US foreign policy have returned to the question: How central is war to American identity?[ii] Are there forms of American patriotism that do not envision this country fighting, for democracy and freedom or against evil? Three factors are cited in the literature to suggest a sense of militant righteousness: exceptionalism, that peculiar form of American nationalism; the historical fact that American ascendancy was intermittently accompanied by conquest and wars; and the militarization of US foreign policy since the 1940s. Without disputing these factors I would like to bring back into sharper focus two dimensions of this topic which have been neglected, especially over the past decade as many scholars of US foreign policy returned their attention to exposing antecedents to the American empire – so conspicuous after 1945 – and its attendant nationalism. These two dimensions are change and diversity – something that historians are traditionally good at analyzing.

There is a significant divide in the relevant literature between approaches focusing on foreign policy ideology, culture, and national identity which tend to find recurring and persistent patterns, often promoted through elite culture, and those that analyze patriotism as a performance relevant in a domestic context, showing greater class, regional and ethnic variations but mostly without making connections to foreign policies. Approaches that do not exclusively focus on foreign policy ideas and national values, but probe more deeply American religious, ethnic, social and political subcultures can recover more vividly resistance and alternatives to a seemingly dominant discourse.[iii] We should cast our net more widely to practice what Clifford Geertz called a social history of the moral imagination.[iv] For a host of political, religious or philosophical reasons Americans define relationship obligations and ethical responsibilities in ways that lead them to reject policies motivated by greed, fantasies of retribution and visions of national greatness based on dominance.

This is a country where political sub-cultures and belief systems are shaped not only by partisanship and class but also by racial and ethnic affiliations and religion and these beliefs are relevant for questions of American international engagement.  While almost every single tenet of American exceptionalism dissolves in a comparative, transnational light, one important and distinctive feature of the United States, its multi-ethnic, multi-racial composition, has received less attention from diplomatic historians – beyond the “problem” of “particularist” ethnic votes or lobby groups.

Why would we not claim Carl Schurz, Martin Luther King Jr and the freedom riders as patriots? Schurz maintained in the context of the Spanish-American War that “the American people will prove themselves too wise not to detect the false pride, the dangerous ambitions, the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism ‘our country, right or wrong.’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘our country, when right to be kept right, when wrong to be put right.”



[i] Paul T. McCartney, “American Nationalism and U.S. Foreign Policy from September 11 to the Iraq War” Political Science Quarterly Vol 119 No 3 (2004), 399-423, here: 408f.

[ii] Others described the political-cultural phenomenon of “American militarism” (Andrew Bacevich) or explained why military intervention has become the default option for US foreign policy, see Stephen Walt’s blog in Foreign Policy.

[iii] Cecilia O’Leary, To Die For. The Paradox of American Patriotism (2000).

[iv] I am following Robert Westbrook Why We Fought: Forging American Obligations in World War II (2004) on this point.