There Is No Good Kind of Nationalism

Trump is for nationalism. So the “Resistance” is predictably for . . . wait for it . . . the right kind of nationalism — or nationalism worn properly, as The Week advises. The problem isn’t nationalism, The Hill informs us, it’s phony nationalism and spurious nationalism, or as the Washington Post explains along with CNN, the problem is actually white nationalism. Of course, white nationalism is a problem, but not just because it’s white — also because of the nationalism. Unless you read Esquire which comes up with the oh-so-novel pronouncement that nationalism is indeed bad, but patriotism is good.

Excuse me. I’m sorry. This is why the Resistance doesn’t resist. This is why people offering flags and manure win. The loyal opposition is offering smaller flags, manure, and air fresheners.

What’s wrong with nationalism, you ask. Can’t I love a location? Can’t I care for my loved ones? Must I hate babies and apple pie? What is wrong with you?

Well, if you love your town why not try out townism? Does your town have a flag? An anthem? Can you perform the proper rituals? Why not? You’re not a traitor, are you? Did Putin hire you to tear up treaties with Russia, and sanction Russia, and take over markets from . . . oh, forget it.

Do you love your state? Your region? Your continent? Well why aren’t you insisting on all of those isms? I’ll tell you why. Because they aren’t needed. It’s not that they aren’t needed because those levels of collective identity aren’t associated with war machines. Rather it is that nationalism consists of association with a war machine, identification with that war machine, and belief that you and your war machine are superior to others.

Well, can’t that be a harmless private matter?

Some have seriously tried to make that case, and I’ve found it completely unconvincing.[i]

Here’s a brief excerpt from Curing Exceptionalism:

What we’re dealing with in U.S. nationalism is not just valuing the United States, but also devaluing the rest of the world — and not just as observers, but as people who believe they have the right, if not the duty, to impose their will on the rest of the world. Exceptionalism is an attitude that tends to include arrogance, ignorance, and aggression, and these tend to do a great deal of damage.

In recent polling on possible future wars, a majority in the United States is willing to support an air attack, even a nuclear attack, on a foreign country, such as Iran or North Korea, that kills 100,000 civilians if it is an alternative to a ground attack that could kill 20,000 Americans.[ii] In fact, the U.S. public has largely sat by for the past 17 years of wars in which the nations attacked have suffered tens and hundreds of times more deaths than the U.S. military.[iii] Americans overwhelmingly tell pollsters that it is fine to kill non-Americans with U.S. drones, but illegal to kill U.S. citizens.[iv] Keith Payne, a drafter of the 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review, back in 1980, parroting Dr. Strangelove, defined success to allow up to 20 million dead Americans as the price for killing a much higher number of non-Americans.[v] The U.S. government has placed compensation for an Iraqi life at no more than $15,000, but the value of a U.S. life at no less than $5 million.[vi]

When people ask how President Harry Truman could have used nuclear weapons that killed so many Japanese people unless he actually believed he was saving at least some significant number of U.S. lives, they are assuming that Truman placed some positive value on the life of a Japanese person. Truman was the same man who had earlier remarked, “If we see that Germany is winning we ought to help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany, and that way let them kill as many as possible.”[vii] U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously remarked that the deaths of a half million Iraqi children was “worth it,” without really being pressed to explain what the “it” was.[viii] During the war on Vietnam, the U.S. military bragged on a weekly basis about how many people it killed. In recent wars, it has avoided mentioning that topic. But in neither case does it weigh the non-U.S. lives taken against whatever the supposed good is that’s being attempted, as it might do if it believed those lives had any value.

This is where exceptionalism looks like a form of bigotry. One type of person is much more valuable. The other 96 percent of humanity is just not worth very much. If people in the United States valued all human lives equally, or even remotely close to equally, discussions of foreign aid funded by the U.S. government would sound very different. The U.S. government budget devotes less than 1 percent to foreign aid (including weapons “aid”) but the U.S. public on average believes that 31 percent of the budget goes to foreign aid.[ix] Reducing this mythical generosity is extremely popular with the U.S. public.[x] The U.S. public usually sees itself as enormously generous to the rest of the world, but often believes its imagined generosity to be unappreciated. Several years into the war on Iraq that began in 2003, a plurality in the United States believed, not only that Iraqis should be grateful, but that Iraqis were in fact grateful for a war that had scholars using the term “sociocide” to describe its impact on Iraqi society.[xi]

U.S. exceptionalism does not just devalue the individual lives of others. It also devalues the earth as a whole. U.S. policy is generally not shaped by concern for its impact on the planet’s environment. And the attitude of constant competition for the most growth on a finite planet is destructive and ultimately self-defeating. As an exceptionalist — or, as the U.S. government would call the same attitude in someone else, a rogue — the United States keeps itself out of more international treaties than do its peers. It also keeps itself out of the jurisdiction of courts of international law and arbitration. This position hurts the U.S. public, by denying it new developments in human rights. And it deals a severe blow to the rule of law elsewhere, because of the prominence and power of the world’s leading rogue nation.

The U.S. Constitution and U.S. laws are not independently updated to match world standards. In fact, it seems that the further the United States’ ancient constitution falls behind, the more it is treated as a sacred relic never to be improved. In an exceptionalist outlook, it is the responsibility of foreigners to learn from the U.S. Constitution, not the responsibility of the U.S. public to learn from the constitutions or laws more recently developed elsewhere. If you give rights to the environment or to indigenous people, you’re being silly. If we give rights to corporations, we’re being American — and that’s not to be questioned. End of discussion.

In an exceptionalist worldview it is of absolutely zero interest that many countries have figured out big advances in healthcare coverage or gun control or fast trains or green energy or drug treatment. Why would anyone in the United States care to hear such news! A study of presidents’ state of the union speeches between 1934 and 2008 found 2,500 mentions of other countries, but only 3 suggestions that the United States might learn anything from any of them.[xii] As the Greatest Nation on Earth it is the rightful U.S. role to continue bumbling along with its always greatest policies, even if those policies kill us — but especially if they merely kill other people.

The United States not only turns away ideas. It also turns away actual emergency aid offered by other countries following natural disasters.[xiii] What are human lives in comparison with the pleasures of nationalism?


[i] Andrew Kohut and Bruce Stokes, “The Problem of American Exceptionalism,” Pew Research Center, (May 9, 2006).

[ii] Christopher Preble, “How Americans Feel About Going to (Nuclear) War,” War on the Rocks, (August 15, 2017).

[iii] Nicolas J.S. Davies, “The Illusion of War Without Casualties,” Consortium News, (March 9, 2018).

[iv] “Public Says It’s Illegal to Target Americans Abroad As Some Question CIA Drone Attacks,”, (February 7, 2013).

[v] Marjorie Cohn, “Pentagon to Allow Nuclear Responses to Non-Nuclear Attacks,” Truthout, (February 6, 2018).

[vi] While the U.S. has typically paid $0 to $5,000 dollars as compensation for an Iraqi life, (see the State Department and Blackwater arrived at the figure of $15,000, (see At the same time, the lowest government value for a U.S. life was $5 million assigned by the Food and Drug Administration, (see

[vii] “Harry S. Truman,” Wikipedia,

[viii] “Madeleine Albright – The deaths of 500,000 Iraqi children was worth it for Iraq’s non existent WMD’s,” Youtube,

[ix] Jon Greenberg, “Most people clueless on U.S. foreign aid spending,” Politifact, (November 9, 2016).

[x] Kevin Robillard, “Poll: Most only want foreign aid cuts,” Politico, (February 22, 2013).

[xi] David Swanson, “Ever More Shocked, Never Yet Awed,” Let’s Try Democracy, (March 18, 2013).

[xii] Hilde Eliassen Restad, “Are We Coming to the End of ‘American Exceptionalism’?,” Newsweek, (March 6, 2016).

[xiii] — Lucia Newman, “Castro: U.S. hasn’t responded to Katrina offer,” CNN, (September 5, 2005).

— “Despite oil donations, offers of Katrina aid, Chavez never caught on as savior of poor in US,” Associated Press, (March 7, 2013).


11 thoughts on “There Is No Good Kind of Nationalism”

  1. Pingback: There Is No Good Kind of Nationalism – War Is A Crime

  2. David, You are certainly correct in denouncing any form of aggressive nationalism, but you are also throwing the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak. When a small nation is invaded in an act of aggression by a more powerful one, and it resists by mobilizing its population against that aggression by appealing to national sovereignty, I regard that as a just form of nationalism. One can think of many examples, so to keep it short, I leave that to the readers’ imaginations. All your other points are well taken.

      1. Did you think I was making the case for war? What I was saying is that when faced with the intrusive and oppressive presence of an empire, resistance by a small at-peace country by an appeal to its own national interest is not only politically but morally appropriate. Hawai’i and Lithuania, as mentioned in my book LIBERATE HAWAI’I come to mind.

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  4. Pingback: There Is No Good Kind of Nationalism by David Swanson – Dandelion Salad

  5. Swanson is saying it’s not meaningful to call resistance to invasion “nationalism”. It’s not useful. Doesn’t help us understand our world better.

    Were the Vietnamese “nationalists”?

    I’m from Brazil. Is there “nationalism” in that country?

    Brazil: Love it or Leave it. Yeah the military dictatorship did import that slogan for a bit in the 1970s. It sounded ridiculous, in translation. It sounded foreign.

    No. There’s no Brazilian nationalism. There’s love of country, love of culture, sometimes. Often there’s a lot of debasing Brazil, insulting Brazil, in Brazil. There’s no “nationalism”.

    1. “Were the Vietnamese “nationalists”? ” Absolutely! They were intent, under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh for some 50 years to achieve national independence, much like the aim in 1776. Ho was much impressed by our Declaration of Independence. Much the same for countries in Africa, despite the later emergence of neo-colonialism when the local ruling elite betrayed their people, usually for money or under severe threat.

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