Talking Nationalism, Patriotism and Global Citizenship with US Students in Vietnam

Last month, I was invited by a colleague from Augustana College (Illinois) to meet with a group of her students who were in Vietnam on a short-term study abroad program.  The students had spent five weeks at Augustana, followed by another five weeks in southern, central and northern Vietnam.  The website describes the program as follows:  Vietnam is an exciting destination for a U.S. college student. This international learning community draws upon multiple disciplines – political science, literature, economics, business, and history among them – offering students a rich interdisciplinary context in which to study Vietnam.

One of the assigned readings was a co-authored book chapter of mine entitled “Developing Globally Competent Citizens: The Contrasting Cases of the United States and Vietnam” (with Duong Thi Hoanh Oanh) that appeared in The SAGE Handbook of Intercultural Competence (2009).  Frankly, I was surprised and delighted to learn that undergraduates were reading this chapter in a book that is probably read mostly by graduate students and academics.  Here’s a brief description:   

The aim of this chapter is to consider global citizenship and intercultural competence, widely debated and often overlapping concepts, against the backdrop of nationalism and patriotism, “isms” that are rarely discussed in the same context. Yet they are the proverbial elephant in the room, towering issues that profoundly influence the methods and means by which global citizenship and intercultural competence are transformed from theory to practice.

This chapter explores ways in which global citizenship and intercultural competence complement and conflict with the national identity of two diametrically contrasting cultures—the United States of America and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. What U.S. Americans and Vietnamese share, according to anecdotal evidence, the binational experience of both authors, and the results of World Values Surveys, is a deep national pride. Yet as we shall see, this national pride is radically different qualitatively for reasons that are rooted in history. Thus, we examine barriers in both cultures that may inhibit the development of globally competent citizens, as well as factors that may smooth the way.

What are the implications of global citizenship in an interconnected world in which nationalism is still very much a force to be reckoned with? To what extent is global citizenship problematic in countries in which nationalism in its more virulent incarnation forms the mind-set of the majority of citizens? We posit that the path to becoming a global or globally competent citizen may be strewn with more obstacles in some societies than in others as a result of potent historical and cultural forces that have shaped national identity and the dominant ideology, the psychic glue that holds societies together.

Differences Between Patriotism and Nationalism

According to a standard dictionary definition, the distinction between patriotism and nationalism is clear. Patriotism is defined simply as “love for or devotion to one’s country.” This is generally thought of as a benign, sentimental, and inward-looking form of national pride. As such, it does not exclude an openness to and even embrace of other cultures, their values, and the concerns and needs of their members.

In a 2003 essay titled A Kinder, Gentler Patriotism, (the late) U.S. historian Howard Zinn speaks of the need to redefine patriotism and notes that “if national boundaries should not be obstacles to trade—we call it globalization—should they also not be obstacles to compassion and generosity? Should we not begin to consider all children, everywhere, as our own? In that case, war, which in our time is always an assault on children, would be unacceptable as a solution to the problems of the world. Human ingenuity would have to search for other ways.” Patriotism, as defined above, does not preclude the globalization of compassion and generosity.

In contrast, nationalism is described as loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups. It is the second italicized part that distinguishes nationalism from its less strident and bellicose cousin, patriotism. Exaltation of one nation over another automatically assumes a degree of cultural superiority, a lack of openness and objectivity, and the assumption that “others” wish to be like us and, by extension, the desire to mold them in our image (i.e., missionary nationalism).


Most of our discussion in the engaging 1.5 hours that I spent with them and their professors on a rainy February morning in Hanoi revolved around these concepts as they apply to both countries and how to create globally aware and competent citizens, especially given the fact that most young people do not have the opportunity to study overseas.  (Study abroad is no guarantee that this transformation will occur.)  The students asked a range of thoughtful and thought-provoking questions. 

Nationalism is a type of ideology, defined as “a: a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture; b: a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture.”  Irrational and rooted in emotion, it consists of seemingly unchallengeable and commonsensical assumptions, “eternal truths,” believing in something that does not exist or does not reflect reality and empirical facts.  To question the precepts that form that basis of US nationalism, or any nationalism for that matter, is to challenge a very potent ideology, a black/white world view that resists contradictory facts and conflicting views that could begin to dissolve this psychic glue.  In this respect it represents a formidable obstacle to the development of global competence and citizenship.

While I’m well aware that these students are certainly not representative of most US Americans in terms of social class (tuition, fees, housing and meals for the 2012-2013 academic year at Augustana are $43,398), education and world view, I was encouraged by the thought and reflection that many had invested in these important issues. 

As a side note, I noticed that most were women, a trend described in this 19 February 2012 Chronicle article entitled In Study Abroad, Men Are Hard to Find

As a bonus, check out this 19 February 2012 essay entitled The American Century Is Over—Good Riddance by Prof. Andrew Bacevich, who has written extensively about the notion of American exceptionalism and the origins and effects of US nationalism. 


2 thoughts on “Talking Nationalism, Patriotism and Global Citizenship with US Students in Vietnam

  1. “Globalization” (said with a smile) is the latest version of Colonization brought to you by corporate cartels which control the USA and other western nations (the banking cartel, the agra cartel, the pharma cartel and yes…even the education accred cartel) The cartels WRITE laws for western “democracies” via Lobby organizations. I invite you to investigate my claims for yourself.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s