Exporting Democracy


Because the United States was founded on Enlightenment ideas, and nationalism is usually connected to romantic notions of terrain, history, and a unique cultural experience, little is ordinarily said about American nationalism. But, of course, the United States is perhaps the most nationalistic society on earth.

China strikes me as its only plausible rival in this respect, insisting that civilization and China are indistinguishable, which resembles the claim Americans are inclined to make about the United States and democracy. The New World settlement was considered providential, and the constitutional origin of the American political nation deliberately broke with Europe.

Thus the United States was thought politically completed at its very start; and ever since, every innovation has to be tested for its conformation to the constitutional order. This has meant that any reexamination of the norms of American society can be and frequently is attacked as anti-Americanism, since American society is considered to represent universal values, if not divine ones.

Even sophisticated critics of American society argue that the idea of an American nationalism seems incongruous, since presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt both "sponsored world organizations whose primary objective was to contain and disperse the aggressive force of nationalism" (I quote the UN's Brian ‘Urquhart). This fails to grasp that both the League of Nations and the United Nations...

To read the rest of this article please login or become a subscriber.

About the Author

William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).