Roberto Rivera

A Kinder, Gentler Nationalism


Roberto Rivera

This past Sunday, May 29, 2017, Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno, the former military dictator of Panama, died in a Panamanian hospital. He was 83.

As the president of Panama, Juan Carlos Varela, tweeted (!), “The death of Manuel A. Noriega closes a chapter in our history. His daughters and his relatives deserve a peaceful funeral.”

I won’t gainsay the president of Panama, and I agree that Noriega’s family should be left in peace to grieve their loss. But, while Noriega’s death may have closed a chapter in Panama’s history, the Noriega chapter in our history remains, if not unfinished, at least unread.

Manuel Noriega was the actual casus belli, the reason for going to war, of the most unjust American war of my lifetime: the 1989 invasion of Panama. For all the talk about safeguarding the Panama Canal, human rights, and protecting American citizens, Operation Just Cause (there’s your first clue, Sherlock), which cost the lives of 23 American servicemen and approximately 600 Panamanians, was the costliest execution of an arrest warrant in American history.

Noriega had been indicted on drug-related charges in the United States, but, for obvious reasons, he wasn’t going to agree to his own extradition. So we invaded Panama, captured and deposed Noriega, and brought him to the United States, where he was eventually convicted on drug-trafficking charges and sentenced to 30 years in prison, of which he served 17.

Was he complicit in the international drug trade? Absolutely! Then again, we knew that long before the invasion of Panama. We overlooked it because, among other reasons, he was helpful in our efforts against leftist rebels in El Salvador and the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. To paraphrase a quip attributed to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Noriega may have been a drug-dealing SOB but he was our drug-dealing SOB.

Until he wasn’t. Then, his status as the caudillo of a nation of less than 4 million people whose conventional war-making capability ranks 124th out of 126, and whose total military expenditures ($145 million) are less than one fourth of D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department, became an intolerable threat to the security of the United States.

(Note that I said “security,” not “national interests.” They are not the same thing, although our leaders, both Democrats and Republicans, would have us believe so. Virtually no nation poses a viable, non-suicidal threat to the national security of the United States. We spend more on defense than the next eight countries—China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India, France, United Kingdom, Japan, and Germany—combined).

The justness—or to be more precise, the lack of it—of the invasion that transformed Noriega from a caudillo into a federal prisoner came to my mind, not only because of his death, but also because of the resurgent interest in nationalism among conservative intellectuals.

In February, Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry published an essay titled “For Love of Country,” which defended what they called a “benign nationalism.” This kinder, gentler nationalism “includes loyalty to one’s country: a sense of belonging, allegiance, and gratitude to it. And this sense attaches to the country’s people and culture, not just to its political institutions and laws. Such nationalism includes solidarity with one’s countrymen, whose welfare comes before, albeit not to the complete exclusion of, that of foreigners.”

As the saying goes, “when you put it like that. . . .” It’s difficult to object to the sentiments expressed by the authors. The question is, are they describing nationalism or patriotism?

Mona Charen thinks that it’s the latter. As she writes in her rebuttal to Ponnuru and Lowry, “Everything they assert about the naturalness of nationalism — it arises out of the same soil as love of family, community, church, etc.—is true of patriotism.”

“Nationalism,” she continues, “is something else. It’s hard to think of a nationalist who does not pervert patriotism into something aggressive—either against foreign adversaries or against domestic minorities, or both.”

I suspect that Charen has read George Orwell’s essay “On Nationalism.” In it, he, like Charen, distinguishes nationalism from patriotism. Patriotism is “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

As Charen says, while it’s possible to imagine a kind of nationalism that doesn’t follow this bellicose path, it’s difficult to cite a real-world example, at least among nations that aspire to regional or global power status, such as the United States.

Charen is correct (and unusual on the right) when she writes, “We’ve had our moments of belligerent nationalism.” She cites the Mexican-American War, but there are plenty of other examples. Fifty years after what she calls a “pure land grab,” the United States, looking to enter the first rank of nations, declared war on the feeble Spanish Empire on the thinnest of pretexts, and helped itself to Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam.

This is just the tip of the tip of the proverbial iceberg. A 2016 report by the Congressional Research Service listed “hundreds of instances in which the United States has used its Armed Forces abroad in situations of military conflict or potential conflict or for other than normal peacetime purposes.” Few of these “instances” were responses to aggression, such as World War II or the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11. Few were even a response to a perceived potential threat, such as the Vietnam War or the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The vast majority were either expressions of what Charen would call “belligerent nationalism” or undertaken on behalf of the economic interests of a tiny sliver of Americans.

This history makes the case for a benign nationalism at best ahistorical, and, at worst, willfully naïve. It is also, as Charen rightly notes, unnecessary. You can have virtues such as “love of family, community, church, etc.,” without risking the perversions of nationalism. That’s called patriotism.

A patriot can love his country and its people while, at the same, acknowledging that it and they haven’t always lived up to their professed ideals. He can see the United States as a work-in-progress and love the United States no less for that fact.

What’s more, that love can be generous in its understanding of “community.” I marvel at the diversity of places like Astoria, New York, and my son’s middle school. I also marvel at the decency and kindness on display in far-less diverse places like Jenks, Oklahoma, and Clara City, Minnesota.

While it would be nearly a century before my family set foot in the United States, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address brings tears to my eyes every time I hear or read it. And I know, deep in my bones, that only America could have produced Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

A Christian can and should be a patriot. It’s an expression of both love of neighbor and gratitude to God. But he should resist the siren song of nationalism, which so often leads to unjust results because it is far more interested in who isn’t my neighbor than who is.

Image copyright by oztsbc at iStock by Getty Images.

Roberto Rivera is senior fellow at the Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview. For nearly 20 years he has been chief writer for the BreakPoint Radio commentary program. His “Internally Displaced Person” is a mostly regular column at His writings have appeared in Touchstone, First Things, and Sojourners. He lives with his son in Alexandria, Virginia.

Articles on the BreakPoint website are the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BreakPoint. Outside links are for informational purposes and do not necessarily imply endorsement of their content.


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Have a Follow-up Question?

Want to dig deeper?

If you want to challenge yourself as many others have done, sign up below.


Short Courses

Related Content