Solving the Problem of Nationalism

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Solving the Problem of Nationalism

Dec 20, 2019 8 min read
James Jay Carafano

Senior Counselor to the President and E.W. Richardson Fellow

James Jay Carafano is a leading expert in national security and foreign policy challenges.
For the serious policy community that’s interested in governance and keeping America free, safe, and prosperous, we simply have to do better. catnap72/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

We shouldn’t do anything that undermines the sovereignty of the American people, or allows international, multinational organizations to impinge upon that.

That’s not about being a nationalist. That’s being about preserving the freedoms of the American people.

If we’re stuck in a debate about nationalism, then we have lost.

This article s adapted from a lecture James Carafano gave at The Heritage Foundation’s Dec. 9 event, “The Problem of Nationalism.”

I have two recommendations to address nationalism. One is called parsing and the other is called spade work.

This is not about arguing about bumper stickers, and the problem cannot be solved by discussing bumper stickers. When my Heritage Foundation colleague Jack Spencer says liberalism, he’s talking about Adam Smith. When Sen. Elizabeth Warren is talking about liberalism, she’s talking about the opposite from Adam Smith.

A really good illustrative example is “America First.”

America First was a fine bumper sticker. Right after Donald Trump used it for the first time in a campaign speech, I went to the guys in the corner. I said, “Hey guys.” I said, “You know where this comes from, right? Lindbergh, isolationism?” 

And the response was really interesting. They said, “Ninety-nine percent of the people that vote for us, they have no idea where it comes from. And the other thing is, it’s not what we mean.” 

That might be a fine argument for a campaign slogan, but it’s a completely inadequate basis for governance. So as much as America First helped get the Trump administration elected, it spent as much time explaining to American people and the world how what they mean by America First is not isolationism, that America may be fighting for self-interest, but it doesn’t mean America is selfish [because] we engage with friends and allies.

The bumper sticker can’t solve the fundamental, underlying policy debate that has to be had and has to be taken more serious than that, because when people say nationalism, I think Kim Holmes covered the waterfront well

For some people, it’s just about how do we engage conservative voters, or how do we energize the popular space? Other people, when they use that term, they have a much darker, insidious, and evil meaning for that and you cannot solve that debate by replacing that bumper sticker with a different bumper sticker. 

For the serious policy community that’s interested in governance and keeping America free, safe, and prosperous, we simply have to do better than that. So I have really divided this into two categories, the parsing and the spade work.

I think the parsing falls into two areas. One is we have to have the courage and seriousness and honesty to differentiate between tolerance and the polity. 

Tolerance is about our understanding of the right of free speech and the willingness that a person say any kind of wacky thing they really want to as long as nobody gets hurt or died. Tolerate that all you want. That’s very different from saying that person has a legitimate part in the national conversation, that that is a legitimate part of the polity, that that person deserves a seat at the table. 

>>>Read “The Problem of Nationalism” by Kim Holmes

If somebody wants to be a white nationalist or a racist or a fascist or a communist, that’s their business. But that doesn’t mean that they’re a legitimate part of this national conversation. Those are tough things that I think we have to do to make those distinctions.

The other kind of parsing I think is between sovereignty and popular sovereignty. We believe in a state system because it’s the best alternative to global anarchy. It’s not God-given. It’s not a natural right. It’s just a practical system of governance, which has worked over years, and actually serves America’s interests fairly well. 

So, we would broadly respect the sovereignty of other states, because they should broadly respect ours and we would only impinge on theirs when they impinged on our vital interests and we’re not surprised when they do likewise. 

That is very different from the concept of popular sovereignty, in which the United States should remain legitimately and importantly a global champion. The difference is between a nation where the people serve the state and a state that exists to serve the people. Those are two very different conversations and we have to be particular and careful to differentiate those two different discussions. Sovereignty and popular sovereignty, tolerance and the polity.

This gets to the second category, which I call spade work. We have to do our homework, both in the parsing and in the policy.

In the parsing, I don’t think it’s legitimate to sit down at a table with communists and racists and white supremacists and have a discussion about what the future of America should be. 

Some say, “Well, having them at the table shows that you’re respecting free speech.” No, it doesn’t. It means I’m giving legitimacy to their ideas. I think we have to have the courage to recognize there are people that rightfully should be excluded from the national conversation about serious governance in the United States. I think that’s fair.

>>>Read “'Founded on a Creed’: Understanding America’s Unique Beginning” by Mike Gonzalez

Now having said that, I don’t think it’s fair if somebody is excluded because somebody says, “Well, he’s a fascist,” or, “He’s a racist,” or, “He’s a white nationalist,” or, “He’s a communist,” because that’s just a tactic of exclusion. 

We’ve seen the Russians do this all the time. I mean, nobody’s more fascist than [Russian President] Vladimir Putin, and Putin’s No. 1 instrument is to run around and call everybody in Europe a fascist so they’re excluded from the conversation.

You can’t make those kind of difficult judgment calls between whether somebody that organized a riot to purposefully get people killed in Charlottesville should be part of your conversation from maybe a government in Western Europe that decides that they want to have a different judicial system or organize their elections differently. That’s something that’s not covered in a bumper sticker, and that requires all of us to do a bit of our homework.

There also needs to be spade work in policy. The Heritage Foundation recently published “True North: The Principles of Conservatism.” They’re not policy prescriptions, but they’re statements that really go back to the purpose of what we tried to achieve in the Constitution, which is how do we create a fair and equitable society that respects natural rights and human liberties and create a system that fosters that? 

The bumper sticker debate is never going to get those issues, never get to those serious questions, and so I think it’s impingement upon us to take the conversation beyond the bumper stickers and actually get to the particular policies. 

I don’t want to sit down and have a conversation with a white nationalist because I know already I don’t think they’re part of that conversation because they don’t believe in natural rights. They don’t believe in individual human freedoms.

On the other hand, you like Obamacare? I don’t know why, but we should sit down and have a conversation together about what is the best way to do this, and I think we have to be prepared for that conversation and these kind of ideas really get us to that next level that’ll enable us to do that. And I’ll just cite one: “International agreements and international organizations should not infringe on American’s constitutional rights, nor should they diminish American sovereignty.”

We shouldn’t do anything that undermines the sovereignty of the American people, or allows international, multinational organizations to impinge upon that. That’s not about being a nationalist. That’s being about preserving the freedoms of the American people.

For example, China has a particular policy of taking Chinese nationals and placing them in various U.N. organizations because their view is that those Chinese nationalists are, above all, subservient and report to and act on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party. 

Their purpose in those organizations is not to assist in the governance or the operation of the organizations. It’s to drive the policies that China wants, to create the norms and outcomes that China demands. 

We should oppose that, not because we’re nationalists. That is antithetical to American interests. That is a direct assault on our popular sovereignty, to create international norms and international institutions which are designed at the behest of a foreign power essentially to undermine our freedoms and liberties.

>>>Read “Nationalism Would Transfer Power From the People to Washington” by Jack Spencer

If we’re stuck in a debate about nationalism, then we have lost. If we’re not into the weeds of discussing actual policies and how they operationalize the protections of human freedom, then we have a great problem. 

Just to cite one example, I think what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has done with the commission he’s organized on unalienable human rights, defining what are actual human liberties, human rights, that fundamentally should not be abridged and that should be foundational to understanding of our policy of what we do and shouldn’t do in the world.

That’s not just a reflection of our sovereignty. It’s a reflection of the nation of popular sovereignty and the foundational idea of exceptionalism, why America was created. That’s the kind of effort that’s worthwhile.

We could have done a lot to get beyond America First. We’ve been slow in filling out the community of policymakers and representatives that deal in international organizations, that deal with the U.N., that deal with public diplomacy and some of these other areas because we’ve got to get to a level beyond a bumper sticker. 

There’s much more that can be done, and I challenge you. We have to be part of that conversation and, if we’re not in the business of parsing, if we’re not in the business of doing the spade work to get to the real depth of issues, then we have failed as advisers, thinkers, policymakers in the community. 

Because at the end of the day, it’s about we own this. And what are we doing to advance the ideas that the role of government is limited, that it’s there to facilitate our freedom and our prosperity and our security in equal measure?

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal


The Problem of Nationalism

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