Patriotism: Dangerous Pride

Illustration by Justin Walker for La Jeune Politique.

Illustration by Justin Walker for La Jeune Politique.

On January 21, the world witnessed the second inauguration ceremony of the President of the United States of America, Barack Obama. From the panoramas of Independence Avenue, one could see hundreds of thousands of Americans waving their flags in a wonderful demonstration of love for their country and President.

On May 1, 2012, then-candidate for re-election as President of the French Republic, Nicolas Sarkozy held a public rally at the Place de la Concorde in Paris. You could also see thousands of supporters waving the blue, white, and red flags. But the reaction was not the same: commentators discussed how the patriotism of Sarkozy’s supporters could be symptomatic of a dangerous return to nationalism.

This difference is revealing of how the idea of “nation” is perceived on both sides of the Atlantic. To Americans, the nation is an important and positive part of one’s identity. How would it not be? The United States has been the world’s most powerful country for almost a century, and has been the only superpower since the fall of the USSR (although the Chinese may have something to say about that). Its armed forces delivered Europe from the tyranny of Hitler and it has been maintaining peace all over the world for decades. Its culture is the most universal and recognizable on earth.

On the other hand, France has had a much more difficult time dealing with nationalist pride since World War II. The country fought World War I partly over unresolved nationalist issues with Germany. In 1940, in the terror of the Blitzkrieg, France chose Marshal Pétain to run the country, leading to an authoritative state allied to Hitler’s Germany, and the motto of which was “Labor, Family, Nation.” France’s military has not seen the same successes as its American counterpart: shameful defeats in Vietnam and Algeria have turned it into something of an object of ridicule. French culture, furthermore, is now regarded as out-of-date.

Of course, the contrast has been drawn out and simplified here. But the diagnosis stands: while patriotism is common, valued, and even expected in the United States, it is seen either as an archaic or reactionary idea in France. This might, however, be a blessing in disguise for the European country. With only 65 million inhabitants, France is likely to see its position among the most powerful countries continue to fade. National success in the globalized world must then come from the regional alliance in the European Union.

It is surely because French nationalism was rare that politicians were able to achieve the construction of the Economic European Community, later to become the European Union, and of the Euro zone. It requires a profound patriotic renouncement for a country to accept to give up its own currency and all its monetary policies in order to undergo a process such as the creation of the Euro with countries that have different interests. And even if the European construction has been difficult, the European Union territory has been free from war since World War II. When you consider European history, this is a tremendous achievement indeed.

The United States is following a completely different path. Because of their history, Americans have constructed a strong national and patriotic identity that is already creating problems at the global level. As the world’s most powerful country, the United States has always been suspicious of international regulations. The environment is the most revealing case where national interests have been privileged over the global good. But there have been many other occasions in recent history where American imperialism has been more than an old communist slogan: the war in Iraq, the multiple interventions in South America…

Even if Barack Obama has been willing to restore a decent share of multilateralism to American diplomacy, the majority of Americans still find it difficult to admit their country’s responsibility in many of the tensions and conflicts across the world today. Under the guise of the Monroe Doctrine, the United States has contributed to the political instability of South America. Blinded by the Clash of the Civilizations, the Neo-Conservatives prepared America to confront the Islamic world. And outside of the US, a misplaced patriotism is often a cause for violence, as is the case in the Sea of China between Japan, Taiwan, and the People’s Republic of China.

American patriotism might also be an important factor in the reorganization of the international political and economic scene. The triad of the 1990’s (the United States, Europe, and Japan) is no longer the focal point of the global economy. China and India, strong with their billions inhabitants, Brazil and Russia, with their immense territories and resources, and many other countries have emerged as influential actors and make their voices heard on the international scene.

We can then wonder how will the United States will react when China becomes the first world economic power sometime in the 2020’s. France discovered its weakness at a steep price: two World Wars and a dramatic process of decolonization have been necessary to bring the once-powerful nationalism down. Should it indeed be surpassed by China, the United States will face two courses of action: either they will antagonize China and let their patriotism provoke a new period of international tension, or they will admit that in a globalized world, one can build an identity on other grounds than national pride.

This article is the first in a series of three about the place of the Nation-state in the globalization. Next week: a look on governance and democracy.

Hugo Argenton is LJP’s French columnist. He lives in Lille, France. The opinions expressed in this editorial are his own, and are not indicative of LJP’s views.


  1. […] the place of the nation-state in a globalized world. For last week’s article about patriotism, go here. Next week: a look on the possibility of […]

  2. […] article is the last in a series of three about the place of the Nation-state in a globalized world. The first part dealt with the risks of patriotism and the second part pointed out the danger of governance over […]

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