National identity crisis makes the US more like the Middle East

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The United States invaded Iraq in 2003, arguing that it intended to replace Saddam Hussein with a friendly democratic regime.

Fifteen years later, this goal does not appear to be in sight. Iraq only recently beat back an Islamic State onslaught that included the prolonged occupation of the northern city of Mosul.

{mosads}Parliamentary elections in May still have still not yielded a functioning government; the dominant foreign influence in that country is not the U.S. but Iran, whose meddling is nonetheless highly resented by many Iraqis.

The underlying problem in Iraq is the absence of any sense of overarching national identity. There is no entity called Iraq to which citizens feel loyalty, in preference to their ethnic group, sect, region or tribe.

This lack of an integrative identity has fueled not just violence but also pervasive corruption: The moment a politician gets into office, he or she feels entitled to steal on behalf of that smaller group in what devolves into a zero-sum contest over resources.

Iraq is only one example of state failure resulting from weak national identity. Within the greater Middle East, Syria, Libya, Somalia and Afghanistan have been embroiled in civil wars as a result of out-of-control identity politics.

An Iraqi politician of long experience told me that, after the invasion in 2003, Americans were constantly advising Iraqis to put aside their sectarian and ethnic differences and to seek greater national unity. Today, he somewhat mischievously throws that advice back in the faces of the Americans he knows.

Instead of “Americanizing” the Middle East, he notes, the U.S. has become increasingly “Middle Easternized.” The polarization of American society is so extreme that the Republican and Democratic parties resemble warring tribes that see each other as existential threats.

A large number of Republicans seem to regard loyalty to the person of Donald Trump as more important than their commitment to any higher goals like the rule of law or preservation of democracy internationally.

The Democratic Party, for its part, has shifted away from the broad class-based coalitions of the New Deal and Great Society to advocacy on behalf of its component identity groups: African-Americans, women, the LGBT community and the like.

It is of course too facile to say that the U.S. is becoming a Middle Eastern country: We are thankfully not anywhere near the levels of violent hatred that characterize Iraq or Syria.

But our politics become Middle Eastern-like the moment we begin thinking that the fixed characteristics with which we are born — race, ethnicity, gender, religion, etc. — ought to determine the way we think and act, not just about politics but across culture more generally.

If there is a single lesson to be learned from the contemporary Middle East, it is that national identity is critical to the success of any political system. That identity needs to be liberal and inclusive, encompassing a country’s de facto diversity. But it also needs to be substantive.

Such was the “creedal” identity that had evolved in the U.S. by the late 20th century: America was not to be defined by race or ethnicity but by political ideas such as loyalty to the Constitution, the rule of law and belief in the fundamental law of human equality.

This creedal identity had seemed to be an accomplished fact prior to the rise of Donald Trump. The president has legitimated a new generation of right-wing identitarians who would drag the country back into an ethnic definition of what it means to be an American.

But it is challenged as well by people on the left who don’t believe that immigrants need to be assimilated to such an overarching identity or who think that the latter is necessarily associated with bigotry and exclusion.

A creedal identity can be fostered by the way we teach civics to young people, something that has been seriously neglected in our education system in recent decades. It could also be bolstered by a program of national service, based on the idea that citizens are not simply rights-bearers, but also have duties to support the common good.

A properly-managed system of national service would also help to cut across barriers of race, ethnicity and class, just as military service does today.

But in the end, national identity is sustained by the stories that Americans tell about themselves, and whether these stories emphasize what they hold in common as well as what makes them different.

This integrative narrative has never been put forward in many Middle Eastern countries, and they are paying the price.

Francis Fukuyama is the Olivier Nomellini senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) and the Mosbacher director of FSI’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law at Stanford University. He is the author of, “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and The Politics of Resentment,” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

Tags Anthropology Culture Donald Trump Ethnic group Identity Identity politics Majority–minority relations Middle East National identity Nationalism Political terminology Politics Saddam Hussein
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