The delusion of nationalism

Nationalism is perhaps the most interesting delusion of modern times. Its power is illustrated by the fact that lots of otherwise sensible people are unapologetic nationalists, even though nationalism requires its adherents to subscribe to various bizarre beliefs.

For example, the nationalist believes that while other nations act invariably on the basis of self-interest, his country is historically unique, in that it makes great sacrifices for the good of others. This thesis has been put forth with complete seriousness by many a well-credentialed supporter of the Iraq war, such as the historian Francis Fukuyama, who argues that the invasion of that country represented a kind of “virtuous imperialism.”

Fukuyama’s main regret about the invasion is that the unpleasant consequences of the occupation (such as the deaths of between one and five percent of Iraq’s population and the transformation of a significant minority of the rest into refugees) may deter similarly “idealistic” efforts to use American military force to advance democracy and human rights.

Fukuyama is a neo-conservative, so his surreal interpretation of events comes as no surprise. But his view is shared by legions of liberal hawks, who five years ago lined up behind President Bush’s proposed invasion like so many well-trained parrots, thus providing crucial political cover for the extraordinary decision to invade a nation that no rational person believed posed a real threat to the United States.

Consider the words of the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen: “The Iraq war is not the product of oil avarice, or CIA evil, but of a surfeit of altruism, a naive compulsion to do good. That entire collection of neo- and retro-conservatives — George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and particularly Paul Wolfowitz — made war not for oil or for empire. This is why so many liberals, myself included, originally supported the war. It engaged us emotionally. It seemed . . . well, right — a just cause.”

The irony is that Cohen is on one level correct. I have no doubt that both the neo-cons and their liberal hawk enablers believe that their devotion to neo-imperialism is based not on the crass considerations that have always driven international politics, i.e., power and money, but on a virtuous urge to use whatever means were necessary to bring what Mark Twain referred to as The Person Sitting in Darkness into the light of freedom, democracy, etc. etc.

That every imperial power since the dawn of time has claimed exactly the same thing has not the slightest effect on this touching faith in the purity of our own motives.

Similarly, it never gives the nationalist pause that he would burst into incredulous laughter if he were to hear a citizen of any other country make such claims.

The American nationalist believes that, in the words of Michael Cohen of the “liberal” blog Democracy Arsenal, America is “inherently good,” and that therefore our imperialist adventures have nothing in common with those of other great powers.

Try this thought experiment: Imagine Jacques Chirac defending French foreign policy by pointing out that France is “inherently good,” or Vladimir Putin claiming the right to imprison suspected terrorists for life without trial, because the Russian security forces can be trusted not to make mistakes.

Yet when similarly absurd nonsense is spouted by apologists for “American exceptionalism” — basically, the doctrine that the rules don’t apply to us, because we’re special – it’s treated with the utmost respect by supposedly serious people.

In short, when a political leader claims he is the head of a unique nation, anointed by history or even God himself to be a light unto the world, we tend to consider him either an amusing crank or a dangerous lunatic.

Unless that leader happens to an American president — then he’s merely stating a self-evident truth.

(Paul F. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)

One Response to "The delusion of nationalism"

  1. pondering_it_all   October 3, 2007 at 11:13 pm

    Exceptionalism is the root of so many evils: Sincere Christians ignore all the simple parables that Jesus used to teach humility and acceptance of our fellow men’s frailties, and instead take only the sense of being “the chosen people” from their religion and then use that to justify anything. Otherwise devout Muslims ignore the many requirements given in the Koran to treat others with fairness and compassion, and use “the will of God” to justify the slaughter of innocents to make a political statement.

    In America we start early: We teach our young by example that our country is the best, our religion is the best, our local sports teams are the best and therefore can do no wrong. Winning is everything, and whatever it takes to “win” is okay.

    But its not okay. Iraqi children killed in the crossfire are children, just like yours or mine. Iraqi insurgents are doing exactly what Americans were portrayed as doing in the movie Red Dawn. Palestineans see themselves as victims of a powerful state, just like American colonists who fought British rule in the American Revolution.

    Every conflict has two sides. If you can’t stop your ego for a few minutes to think about your opponents’s point of view, then you need to grow up.