Nationalism, Enemies, and US Foreign Policy

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Nationalism, Enemies, and US Foreign Policy


Democracies across the world have been moving in more nationalist directions over the past few years. This trend seemed to culminate in 2016 in the passage of the Brexit' referendum in the United Kingdom (UK) and the election of Donald Trump in the United States (US). Still, it is impossible to know if this trend will continue[SW1]. A defining characteristic of nationalism in principle and in practice today is an inward focus on one's own country and the exaltation of its own interests as the highest good, the primus inter pares[SW2] over which no other interests can take priority. Depending on the case, this newfound (or revived) dedication to the affairs of one's home state can be a positive development or a negative pivot. But in all cases, this change puts individual states at odds with international mediating institutions, and, often, in conflict with each other as well. So, what does this trend toward nationalism and away from internationalism portend for foreign relations and cooperation between states? This paper seeks to frame and explain that problem as it relates to the work of German political and legal theorist Carl Schmitt. It considers his text The Concept of the Political alongside other books, including Thomas Hobbes's Leviathan and a selection of essays and articles by the foreign policy realist John Mearsheimer to evaluate the pros, cons, and differences of a more nationalist approach to international relations.

Later, the paper contends that the spread of nationalism could be a productive counterweight to the excesses of liberal internationalism that have brought bloodshed and provided that the friend-enemy distinctions that2016 was a year in politics that left virtually everyone, experts included, confused. No less shocked were those who celebrated the outcomes of the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom (UK) and the election in the United States (US). Still, looking back, those events, momentous and surprising as they were, fit into a larger pattern, namely the rise of nationalism in the world. From Austria to Mexico to the Philippines, people are and have been electing leaders to oppose the status quo and to more aggressively advocate for their national interests. A full discussion of the policy implications of these elections is beyond the scope of this brief eight-page paper.

Consequently, this essay looks only at what nationalism means for the future of international relations, both between states and between institutions. This essay does not focus on the factors that give rise to nationalism, however at least not directly. Rather, it examines how nationalism can and likely will change the nature of foreign policy and global cooperation and contends that it may institute positive, stability-improving reforms. To fully appreciate these changes and to see how they might lead to healthy developments in foreign affairs, the paper argues that it is important to read Carl Schmitt, Thomas Hobbes, and selections from John Mearsheimer to make sense of nationalism vis-í -vis global politics and international stability.

Before jumping into a discussion on the effects of nationalism on foreign policy, a brief overview of foreign policy itself is necessary. Broadly speaking, international affairs are not so different from domestic politics. There are self-interested actors with means for reaching resolutions and for escalating conflicts; economic and social considerations to weigh before acting; and there are also coalitions, alliances, and rivalries on this global stage. In many respects international actors are similar to domestic agents. There is one critical difference, however: unlike politics within a state, there is no system of laws or norms to authoritatively guide political disputes between states. The absence of a clear, respected, and powerful sovereign authority ultimately renders international politics distinct from domestic affairs.

Obviously, this creates certain issues of cooperation and proportion, i.e., states may not work together or treat each other well. One way to conceptualize this dilemma inherent in international relations is through Thomas Hobbes's famous conception of a state of nature. In Leviathan, he defines this analytical situation as one in which all [fight against] all in a chaotic scramble for security and access to resources (Veltman p.81). Although bleak, Hobbes's characterization of an authority-less political milieu captures the reality of power politics (machtpolitik), which is that states that can pursue their own interests will even if that means running roughshod over weaker states. The great worry about this situation is that the potential for violence is omnipresent and the likelihood of cooperation is extremely low.

The twentieth century alone is replete with instances in which machtpolitik brought nations, ethnic and religions minorities, and even civilization to the brink of destruction. In an attempt to get out of the Hobbesian security-dilemma that exists in the disorderly state of nature (a type of collective action problem whereby actors arm based on their perception that they are in danger, which in turn causes other actors to arm themselves), nations and empires began trading some of their sovereign authority to larger political institutions to act as a higher power with loose enforcement mechanisms that they could use on belligerent member states. The logic of this move is that it would open permanent lines of communication while also acting as a check against rash action by states, especially those with the power to do tremendous harm to themselves and to others; it would also put limits on the types of antagonisms that exist between states while simultaneously constraining the ability of actors to use force on rivals. Moreover, these institutions would provide states with some degree of stability, the main motivator of states, so the reasoning goes. For a time, it appeared as though these governmental inventions would solve problems in international relations, including those that long prevented healthy relations between neighboring states in Western Europe and the Middle East.

Yet in the last two decades, the small threads that hold together these institutions and their member states have become frayed and even undone. There are myriad reasons for these developments, and they are too numerous to fully explain. Nevertheless, at a fundamental level, it can be said that some of the resentment against these institutions, like the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), derives from the rise of free rider problems and further encroachment on the sovereignty of states. In the American election, for instance, then-candidate Trump criticized members of NATO for not meeting their financial obligations to the organization (Diamond 2017); during the Brexit campaign, advocates for the leave' position derided the EU for its increasing intrusions on the UK's domestic politics (Foster 2016). As mentioned above, there are many reasons for countries and peoples to take issue with international institutions. The examples offered merely show two ways in which people have come into conflict with the leading international organizations of the day. Still, the why is not the focus of the paper; instead, it is concerned with another question: what follows from this?

Without the presence of mediating, law-making, and cooperation-building international institutions, states return to the egocentric and precarious state of nature that Hobbes laments as hellish and brutal. To expand on this problem, it is instructive to look at Carl Schmitt's friend-enemy distinction thesis. A twentieth-century German legal and political theorist, Schmitt was interested in political conflict, an idea he explored in The Concept of the Political (1932). He says that before there is politics, there is a critical and existential decision that states must make the friend-enemy distinction[SW4]. This inescapable and omnipresent determination is at the center of politics since the concept of the state (the domain of politics) presupposes the concept of the political (Schmitt p.19). It is here that states political creatures themselves decide who their friends and enemies will be. In sum, before there can be politics, Schmitt says, the friend-enemy distinction must be made (Schmitt p.20). From this point follows the political itself, which for Schmitt is violent due to the fact that political actions and motives to terms of friend and enemy (Schmitt p.26).

To expand on Schmitt's idea, it should be noted that his theory is not at all normative and that it has no underpinning ideology, aside from the vague realpolitik character of its attitude toward politics itself. In fact, Schmitt himself says that the friend-enemy distinction can occur irrespective of the particular features of the identified friend or enemy. He writes: The friend and enemy concepts are to be understood in their concrete and existential sense, not as metaphors or symbols, not mixed and weakened by economic, moral, and other conceptions, least of all in a private-individualistic sense as a psychological expression of private emotions and tendencies. They are neither normative nor pure spiritual antithesis (Schmitt p.27-28)

This point is important to stress since some might wrongly interpret Schmitt's book as an attempt to justify the genocidal practices of the Nazis. It is not. To reiterate, the friend-enemy distinction has no inherent ideological bent. Instead, it is only an analysis of the ways in which politics is based on and extends from understandings of enemy and friend. It should still be noted that the political is the most intense and extreme antagonism, meaning the friend-enemy distinction could well end in a large-scale, existential conflict (Schmitt p.29). Indeed, Schmitt admits that the enemy concept [entails] the ever present [sic] possibility of combat a grim reminder of the reality that politics, despite the wishes of liberals and utopians, is a deadly endeavor.

In tying Schmitt's theory into a world in which there are no international institutions, it appears obvious as to why the prevalence of nationalism throughout the globe could be problematic for foreign relations. If all a state needs to do is to independently decide that another state or some other people within a territory is its enemy, and if nationalism confers people with twin views of superiority and radical self-interest, and if there are no institutions to limit state action, then the potential for violence on a massive scale increases many times over. This antagonism makes the instability of global politics all the worse. As a result, it appears that nationalism is a great driver of conflict. But is that so? Is nationalism in and of itself a problem for global cooperation and stability?

While nationalism seems prima facie antithetical to the system of international relations that most would want i.e., one in which cooperation, deliberation, and moderation are stressed and the use of force is eschewed there are still reasons to believe that it might be conducive to producing stability in other ways. Reflect on the reality of international politics today. Our age is a unipolar one in which the peerless US exerts tremendous sway over organizations like NATO through funding, sets the proverbial rules of the road in world politics, and breaks its own laws with impunity while also acting as a moral and juridical enforcer. This arrangement might be nice in that it allows European countries to spend less on defense spending, but it is concerning in a host of other ways. Because the US is so wealthy and powerful, it is able to impose its values and its way of life on other countries. Although this is not nationalism in the standard sense, the US is still operating from the presumption that its culture, its economic views, and its conception of rights' are superior to all others, and that permits it to interfere in the affairs of other states. And if countries run afoul the US's opinions on what is right, then they can expect reprisals ranging from sanctions to invasions. That is, unless that country in violation of those norms and laws is the US (there is no issue when it contradicts itself) or Israel or some other state that the US has given a special status to.

While the behavior of the US may seem only hypocritical to this point, the substantive historical record is much worse. When assessing the effects of the US's actions since the Second World War, it is mixed at best and awful at worst. John Mearsheimer, a political scientist and international relations theorist at the University of Chicago, writes that the America's obsession with liberal hegemony and its rejection of the more nationalist, noninterventionist realpolitik alternative has ushered in disaster after disaster at a tremendous cost to US taxpayers, the country's prestige, and the lives of millions (Mearsheimer 2016). By seeing all non-democratic regimes as enemies, the US has committed to a crusade that has spanned Republican and Democratic administrations alike. The upshot of this approach to politics is that the US has been at war for two out of every three years since the Cold War ended a remarkable statistic that should give advocates of liberal internationalist policies, the ones that are diametrically opposed to a nationalistic, pause (Mearsheimer 2016). Given that the US's friend-enemy distinction is so wide-ranging and austere i.e., it is against all leftist regimes and autocratic ones to boot it is worth asking whether a single, all-powerful nation's friend-enemy distinction is inherently worse than those of smaller, weaker states with limited arsenals.

A likely counterargument that a critic would level against the characterization of nationalism above (again, with nationalism referring here only to states acting in their self-interest on the global stage) is that it is irredeemably problematic as it is predisposed to bringing about war and other disputes. Look at the two World Wars, the critic would say, and see how nationalism driven by the friend-enemy reasoning Schmitt explains nearly annihilated mankind. Whatever the arguments are against US-led liberal internationalism, it is, all things considered, eminently preferable to a system in which self-interest and not egalitarian cooperative ideals are the guiding force in shaping international relations.

These are good points, and the problematic reality of the friend-enemy distinction is amplified by nationalism insofar as patriotic political communities see themselves as being above other states. That said, there are reasons to see other friend-enemy distinctions as equally dangerous. For instance, throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the liberal West America, Great Britain, etc. saw its enemies as socialists, communists, and all other non-liberal left-leaning groups. The corollary is that it viewed all groups opposed to those groups as its friends. As Schmitt says, the character, morals, and ideals of the enemy did not matter, and neither did those of the friend (Schmitt p.26). Needless to say, this led to serious conflicts, including the Cold War and the instillation of unsavory authoritarian regimes around the globe, many of which are responsible for egregious human rights abuses, the ramifications of which continue to be felt.

On account of those considerations, it may well be that the US would be better served adopting a more nationalist approach to foreign policy insofar as nationalism is understood as a cautious, realist conception of foreign policy. Were it to adopt such an approach, it would necessarily be forced to reconsider its existing friend-enemy distinctions, ones that, at present, are capacious, inconsistent, and ill-suited to advance the America's immediate interests. Plus, as a democracy, there are various constraints on how the US would go about advancing its interest (i.e., acting), such as elections and a deep democratic tradition. That said, there are reasons to be wary of the US adopting a nationalist foreign policy as it would probably require the domestic politics to become more nationalist, and no one wants to reach the point where President Trump is calling Canada the Sudetenland, for example. But on the whole, a more nationalist modus operandi in foreign affairs would better respect the states' rights to self-determination while also making the world a safer place by giving the US fewer excuses for intervening.

Alternatively, if other states were to act more in their own self-interest and to step back from the US-dominated institutions that are themselves simply conduits through which the US exerts its influence, then there are reasons to believe that this could, deter US actions, many of which have been reckless. One thought is that a diminished commitment to the institutions that the US disproportionately funds might give America pause before acting; it might cause presidents and national security officials to think more about how their actions will be perceived than they do now, a fact that is partially attributable to the quasi-clientelist relationships the US enjoys with numerous countries thanks to those institutions. Another thought is that, by deemphasizing the importance of these institutions, America would be forced to confront other countries head-on rather than through NATO. This could disincentivize the US from acting and might even cause it to reconsider its friends and enemies.

Were there more space available, this paper would more narrowly consider the conditions under which a more nationalist foreign policy would be desirable and when it would be undesirable. Clearly not all countries are the same, so it follows that their interests would not be either. Examining countries' security interests would be one way to go about exploring the conditions for a healthy nationalist foreign policy more fully. A final thought might be to examine the ways in which the US's friend-enemy formation affects its relationships with third-parties. Regrettably these are ideas for future essays.

In conclusion, the world remains in the midst of a nationalist moment. Aside from the obvious impacts this has on domestic affairs, nationalism is also poised to influence world politics. Rather than view this as a negative development, it should be seen as a great opportunity for countries especially the US to adopt more cautious, self-interested approaches to foreign policy while discarding its failed, enemy-and-intervention-obsessed liberal calculus.

Works Cited:

  1. Diamond, Jeremy. Trump Scolds NATO Allies over Defense Spending.CNN, Cable News Network, 25 May 2017,
  2. Foster, Peter. What Would Brexit Mean for British Sovereignty? The Telegraph, 19 May 2016,
  3. Mearsheimer, John J. Donald Trump Should Embrace a Realist Foreign Policy. Foreign Policy, 27 Nov 2016, realist-foreign-policy-18502
  4. Schmitt, Carl.The Concept of the Political.Expanded ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
  5. Veltman, Andrew.Social and Political Philosophy: Classic and Contemporary Readings. 1st ed., Oxford, 2008.
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Nationalism, Enemies, and US Foreign Policy. (2019, Dec 18). Retrieved April 16, 2024 , from

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