The Rise of American Nationalism

, by Lucio Levi

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The Rise of American Nationalism

The terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon five years ago on September 11, 2001, are now generally perceived as an historic event which marked the beginning of a new era in world politics. The principal characteristic of this new era is the loss of US invulnerability, demonstrated by the actions of an international terrorist organization; that is, a global non-state actor.

Even though the main target was the US, the terrorist bombings in Madrid and London show that all the West is under attack and, besides the West, also moderate Islamic countries, such as Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Indonesia and so forth.

What is new is the fact that the threat to our security does not come from another state: this enemy hides within our own societies. And yet, the obsession with terrorism has pushed the US to use the same tools against a non-state actor as those usually utilized against states. Hence, the misleading expression “war on terrorism”. The stated goal of eradicating international terrorism is far from being reached, although to date the campaign has lasted one year more than WWI and one year less than WWII.

External consequences

The American response to terrorism is based on nationalism, unilateralism and war. While Europe is progressively giving up nationalism, on the opposite coast of the Atlantic Ocean the US is promoting institutions and policies, which reproduce the same evolution toward power centralization, authoritarianism and militarism which was characteristic of the history of the European great powers during the 19th and 20th centuries until 1945. In Iraq, far from being welcomed as a liberation army, American troops are perceived by the population as the vehicle of a foreign mastery. The growing influence of insurgency in Afghanistan shows that a similar process is in progress in that country too.

In the world now taking shape in this era of globalization, US foreign policy looks like the vestige of a bygone age.

The main justification for the Iraqi war – to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction – has been proven groundless. The subsequent justification – the exportation of democracy to the Middle East – has been demolished by the revelation of abuse and torture in the Abu Ghraib prison. Moreover, the occupation of Iraq paved the way to terrorism, which was an unknown phenomenon there before the war.

Internal consequences

Nor is this all. The struggle against terrorism has proved to be the occasion for an authoritarian turning point in the US, the world’s oldest democracy. The new powers conferred by the Patriot Act have enabled the government to restrict individual freedom and to erode the structures established for the protection of human rights against arbitrary state action. The government can now suspend the right of habeas corpus for non-citizens suspected of being connected with terrorism and detain them indefinitely without trial. The Patriot Act permits intelligence activities to infringe the right to privacy and gives unprecedented powers to listen, read and monitor US citizens’ activities. Another blatant abuse of power are the so-called extraordinary renditions, i.e. the arrest of suspected terrorists and their transport to foreign countries for imprisonment and interrogation, in order to shun US laws prescribing due process and prohibiting torture. The notorious Guantanamo camp in Cuba, where prisoners are denied the right to challenge their detention in court, is only one example.

In order to prevent terrorists from entering the US and enhance border security, new barriers to restrict international mobility have been instituted.

The US is abandoning the cultural flexibility, which allowed it to integrate and assimilate millions of immigrants.

Now it is blocking claims for citizenship from among the eleven million immigrants without legal status. The tendency towards strengthening the cohesion of the American people has pushed the government to declare English as the national language of the US. The decision to build a wall along the US-Mexico border recalls the Great Wall of China, which was built to withstand the pressure of nomadic populations. Lastly, the Homeland Security Act established a new Department, namely a Ministry of Internal Affairs – the type of ministry which used to be typical of the centralized states of the European continent with their illiberal and police traditions.

History repeats itself

More than 200 years ago Alexander Hamilton wrote in The Federalist Papers that “Safety from external danger is the most powerful director of national conduct. … Nations the most attached to liberty [are compelled] to resort for repose and security to institutions which have a tendency to destroy their civil and political rights. To be more safe, they at length become willing to run the risk of being less free”. This is the lesson he learnt from observing the policy of countries on the European continent.

He was able to foresee that, because of its isolation and the lack of prominent military pressures on its borders, the US would not need to develop any imposing military machinery, nor an oppressive police apparatus like those of the continental powers of Europe. Until the World Wars, therefore, the US did not pursue (except for the wars against Mexico and Spain) power politics, but confined itself mostly to preventing foreign countries from invading its territory. The navy was sufficient for this task. Nor was there any need to control citizens’ and foreign residents’ lives for security reasons.

Yet today, owing to the threat of international terrorism, the US is embarking on the same course of action followed in the past by the continental powers of Europe.

US nationalism is the symptom of a dangerous illness, which is the effect of the overload of responsibilities lying on the federal government.

Following the European nation-state model – after a delay of two centuries – it is trying to build a homogeneous and closed society based on the adoption of one single language, the fortification of its borders, and suspicion of foreigners who are considered as potential enemies.


If the ultimate cause of the American nationalism lies at the international level, it is here that the remedy must be sought. The defeat of American nationalism and the evolution of the world toward a more peaceful situation can be best assured by the mutual checks created by a balance of forces. The new forces which are emerging in the world states system should convince the US that alone it cannot prevail over terrorism. Only by co-operation among the most responsible countries in the struggle against terrorism, within a strengthened and democratised United Nations, can world peace be achieved.

- Source:

This article was originally published in the November 2006 edition of The Federalist Debate, Papers for Federalists in Europe and the World.

- Image:

’’Nationalism kills’’ by Adam Hirsch, source: Flickr.

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