For nearly two centuries following the establishment of the American republic, it was generally accepted that a common identity and purpose bound the nation together even though the population itself had various ethnic origins, languages, and religions. Although there was an acknowledgment that immigrants added to the culture through their unique contributions, unmistakably the American standard was white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and European.
Often referred to as the "melting pot," American society was constantly in transition as new ideas changed it. It remained clear that the dominant values and traditions were still those of the generation of the Founders and their Anglo-Saxon heritage. This tradition provided a standard to which immigrants must strive. Early in the twentieth century the largest influx of immigration in world history brought millions of eastern and southern European immigrants into the United States. Since these newcomers were less familiar with the accepted American values (such as democracy) than previous immigrant groups had been, "Americanization" programs were initiated to ensure that new Americans came to accept the values of the old. Education, politics, and popular culture promoted the bedrock message that America was a single nation, one people, with a common culture regardless of the mixture of backgrounds.
Until the collapse of the Soviet Union there had been a perceived common threat to national security that further emphasized to Americans the importance of consensus and approaching problems with a singleness of purpose. The Cold War created a mood that encouraged solidarity and reinforced the argument that Americans should remain a unified people with shared values. The failure to replace that Cold War consensus with any coherent foreign policy agenda that might have brought the public together has become a factor in the disintegration of consensus for at least a segment of the public.
In recent years a contrary vision concerning how much Americans hold in common has received wide currency and has in turn opened up a serious dialogue concerning what the rights and obligations of individuals and groups should be in a democracy. The question of what it is that holds a nation together is at the heart of the issue. Implications regarding how foreign policy should be determined, as well as the appropriate influence of ethnic and racial groups in the making of policy, are involved.
World War I destroyed the European order and empowered Wilson's doctrine of self-determi-nation, and World War II ended western colonial empires and opened the way for greater racial and ethnic militancy everywhere, including the United States. Changes in immigration law in the 1960s ensured that most immigrants would no longer come from Europe, but rather from Central and South America and Asia. Along with a new militancy on the part of African Americans, millions of non-European immigrants were equally unwilling to accept the old rules of assimilation because their backgrounds were so different from that of the mainstream American ideal.
Among African Americans, other racial minorities such as Native Americans, and new immigrants there has been a growing acceptance of what has been labeled the multiculturalist interpretation of what holds America together. Rejecting assimilation and promoting the concept of America not as one nation but rather a nation of groups, the multiculturalists aim for an acceptance of pluralism without any cultural hegemony. In a nation of groups, race and ethnicity, rather than a national identity, can be the defining experience for individuals. The basic meaning of American history, say the multiculturalists, is as much the divisions into racial and ethnic groups as the traditional explanation of there being one nation and one people.
Is there one national interest that should be protected in the making of foreign policy? In the past, ethnic groups hoping to influence policy had to justify their specific goals as being consistent with basic policy guidelines. Blaming the change on the influence of multiculturalism, Samuel Huntington has written: "They [multiculturalists] deny the existence of a common culture in the United States, denounce assimilation, and promote the primacy of racial, ethnic, and other sub-national cultural identities and groupings."
Critics of multiculturalism decry what they see as a higher priority being placed on ethnic identity than on identifying with the greater American community. By pursuing a diplomatic agenda that is of interest only to itself, an ethnic group is expecting the entire nation to serve its interests. The political scientist Tony Smith, in Foreign Attachments, comes down hard on multi-culturalists, who, he charges, have given a higher priority to one's sense of ethnic identity than to the greater American community. Smith believes that American influence in the world, which should be used for goals related to the common national good, is at risk of being squandered by a process in which ethnic minorities split up the resources and use them for individualized group interests.
With the end of the Cold War leaving America without a defined policy that sets boundaries on what ethnic constituencies can request, and with influencing policy so easy today because of the scramble for money and votes in a political system so evenly balanced between the two major parties, Smith fears that the balance has tipped in favor of pressure groups that include ethnic minorities. While ethnic groups certainly have the right to lobby the government, Smith believes that they also have an obligation to reconcile their ethnic agenda in foreign policy with a broader national interest.
Smith argues that as difficult as it sometimes is to define, America needs a sense of national purpose in world affairs. Individual ethnic groups cannot define that purpose, and they should not have exclusive rights to determine policy, as they sometimes claim they do. Who speaks for America in international affairs? Smith says that the answer should be that it is those who think of themselves first as Americans. Too many multi-culturalists are unable to give that answer.