Much of his previous research has focused on nationalism and identity politics, a subfield of International Relations. This intersects with the study of genocide and ethnic conflict, which has more historical and sociological dimensions. His first book sought to understand how the Americanization [clarification needed] (or cosmopolitanization) of the Jewish Holocaust and its accompanying imagery has been used by national and sub-national groups seeking to achieve greater internal cohesion, while mobilizing their populations to achieve collective goals, anything from state apologies and compensation to territorial aggrandizement. At one level, the Holocaust privileges marginalized groups and their claims for justice or redress at national and international levels. It reframes group history, and promotes the belief that vulnerable groups have the right to ensure their security in a hostile environment. The Americanization process has influenced identity politics, from American Indians, and Serbs and Croats, to more recent attempts by American conservatives to redefine anti-Americanism, promoting their country's vulnerability and new-found mission after 9/11. However, as his research has shown, there is a twin danger involved. Many groups who use the Holocaust end up trivializing its imagery and belittling its victims, while ironically decontextualizing their own histories in the process. During field research in the former Yugoslavia during 1994 and 1999, MacDonald tried to solve the puzzle of why actors assiduously claimed victim status, while simultaneously engaging in ethnic cleansing and other war crimes. His first critically acclaimed book Balkan holocausts? critiqued the widespread use of Holocaust imagery, while examining how the history of Serbian-Croatian relations was rewritten during the 1990s. The “borrowing” of Holocaust imagery reflected the success of its Americanization, and its emergence in popular discourse as a symbol for absolute evil. Claims to victimhood performed an instrumental function. They rallied co-nationals behind the government. Internationally, such claims helped confuse outside observers, leading to myths of “ancient ethnic hatreds” which helped Western leaders avoid plunging too deeply into the conflict. MacDonald led a team of scholars within the “Scholar's Initiative” at Purdue University.
His second book, Identity Politics in the Age of Genocide examined how Holocaust "Americanization" impacted other ethnic and social groups. The book featured theoretical chapters about the use/misuse of the term (Holocaust) by ethnic and social groups, and dissected claims of Holocaust uniqueness (with analysis of fourteen arguments).
Thinking History, Fighting Evil applies his theoretical work to the study of American domestic and foreign policy. The presents the most thorough exploration to date of how World War II analogies, particularly those focused on the Holocaust, have colored American foreign policy-making after 9/11. In particular, MacDonald's book highlights how influential neoconservatives inside and outside the Bush administration used analogies of the “Good War” to reinterpret domestic and international events. This book explores the misuse of ten key analogies arising from World War II, and charts their deployment after the 9/11 attacks.
MacDonald's current work focuses on Aboriginal Politics and the UN Genocide Convention in Canada. In 2009 he received an SSHRCC research grant to look at the genocidal implications of residential schooling. His research has been focused on answering the following questions:
In societies marked by genocide, how are we as individuals and as members of human groups to overcome past injustices and achieve harmonious relationships with other people, when inequalities that stem from these injustices persist?
How do groups collectively remember genocide and other atrocities? How do memories of the past, dynamic and changing, affect how we approach the present and the future? How are schema and analogies, and the impacts of trauma transmitted inter-generationally? How do collective memories inhibit our ability to think “rationally”?
How is genocide legally defined and interpreted and how could it better be understood and applied? What groups have been privileged and what groups marginalized by the ways genocide has been interpreted in international and domestic law?
What are collective memories and what roles to they play in group identities? How are they commemorated, memorialized, and even instrumentalized and mobilized to achieve political ends?
How does a society overcome the negative legacies of the past, when one group has primarily positive collective memories, while the other maintains predominantly negative and even traumatic collective memories of the same events?
Is (re)conciliation possible after genocide? If so what forms of material, political, and moral reconciliation can work effectively to bridge deep divides between the historical perpetrator and victim groups?
“Australia and New Zealand: Special Relationships in the Anglo-American World”, with Brendon O’Connor in Peter J Katzenstein (ed.) Anglo-America and its Discontents: Civilizational Identities beyond West and East (New York: Routledge, 2012)
“The Power of Ideas in International Relations” in D. Nabers and N. Godehardt (eds), Regional Powers and Regional Orders (London: Routledge, 2011)
Co-authored “Introduction” and “Conclusion” with R.G. Patman and D. Nabers in The Bush Leadership, the Power of Ideas and the War on Terror (2012)
“Historical Analogies and Leadership in Bush Administration Foreign Policy” in The Bush Leadership, the Power of Ideas and the War on Terror (2012)
“Americanization” in George Kurian, et al., The Encyclopedia of Political Science (Washington, DC: CQ Press/SAGE, forthcoming 2010)
“America’s Memory Problems: Diaspora Groups, Civil Society and the Perils of ‘Chosen Amnesia’” in Jing-Bao Nie, Nanyan Guo, and Arthur Kleinman (eds), Japanese Wartime Medical Atrocities: Comparative Perspectives on Science, History and Ethics (Routledge: 2010)
“Subaltern Discourse and Genocide: Serbian Victimization and Historical Justifications for War: 1980-2000”, in Nicholas Robins and Adam Jones (eds), Genocides By The Oppressed: Subaltern Movements and Retributive Genocide (Indiana University Press, 2009).
(editor and primary contributor), “Living Together or Hating Each Other?,” in Charles Ingrao and Thomas Emmert (eds) Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies: A Scholar’s Initiative (Lafayette, ID: Purdue University Press, 2009)
“Subaltern Discourse and Genocide: Serbian Victimization and Historical Justifications for War: 1980-2000”, in Nicholas Robins and Adam Jones (eds), Genocides By The Oppressed: Subaltern Movements and Retributive Genocide (Indiana University Press, 2008).
“Putting Canada’s ‘Canadian Holocaust’ in Perspective: Comparative Indigenous History in Western Settler Societies” in Shuli Barzilai, Arza Churchman, and Allen Zysblatt (eds) Coping with Crisis: Conflict Management and Resolution (Jerusalem: Magnes Press / Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2008)
“America’s Memory Problems: Diaspora Groups, Civil Society and the Perils of ‘Chosen Amnesia’” in Jing-Bao Nie, Nanyan Guo, Arthur Kleinman (eds), Japanese Wartime Medical Atrocities: Comparative Perspectives on Science, History and Ethics (Routledge: forthcoming 2009)
“The Importance of Being European: Narratives of East and West in Serbian and Croatian Nationalism” in Ireneusz Pawel Karolewski and Andrzej Marcin Suszycki (eds), Nationalism in Contemporary Europe (Berlin: LIT Verlag; Lanham, MD: Lexington Books / Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming 2008).
“Exceptionalism, the Holocaust and American Foreign Policy”, in The Ethics of Foreign Policy (London: Ashgate, 2007).
(co-authored with Robert G. Patman) “Introduction: Ethics and International Relations” in The Ethics of Foreign Policy (London: Ashgate, 2007).
(co-authored with Stephen Haigh and Robert G. Patman) “Conclusion: Some Reflections on Ethics and Foreign Policy” in The Ethics of Foreign Policy (London: Ashgate, 2007).
“India: Security in the Twentieth Century and After” in Paul Bellamy and Karl De Rouen (eds) International Security and the United States: An Encyclopedia (Greenwood Publishing, 2007).
“Serbs and the Jewish Trope: Nationalism, Victimhood and the Successor Wars in Yugoslavia: 1986-2000”, in Wojciech Burszta, Tomasz Kamusella and Sebastian Wojciechowski (eds) Nationalisms Across the Globe: An overview of the nationalisms of state-endowed and stateless nations (Poznan: Wyzsza Szkola Nauk Humanistycznych i Dziennikarstwa, 2005) pp. 97-129.
“Regionalism: New Zealand, Asia, the Pacific, and Australia” in Robert G. Patman and Chris Rudd (eds.) Sovereignty Under Siege? The Case of New Zealand (London: Ashgate Press, 2005) pp. 171-92.
“Balkansturm 1999? Die Vereinigten Staaten, die NATO und die Bombardierung Jugoslawiens”, in Adam Jones (ed.), Völkermord, Kriegsverbrechen und der Westen, trans. Ulrike Seith, Petra Weber, and Alexis Rada (Berlin: Parthas Verlag GmbH, 2005) pp 324–50.
“The Fire in 1999?: The United States, NATO, and the Bombing of Yugoslavia”, in Adam Jones (ed.) Genocide, War Crimes, and the West: Ending the Culture of Impunity (London: Zed Books, 2004), pp. 276–99.
“Reflections on Anti-Americanism in among the Antipodes: Australia and New Zealand”, co-authored with Brendon O’Connor, New Zealand Law Review (2012)
“The Genocide Question and Indian Residential Schools in Canada” co-authored with Graham Hudson Canadian Journal of Political Science (June 2012)
“Bush’s America and the New Exceptionalism: The Holocaust, Victimhood and the Trans-Atlantic Rift” Third World Quarterly Vol. 29 No. 6 (September 2008)
“First Nations, Residential Schools, and the Americanization of the Holocaust: Rewriting Indigenous History in America, Australia, and Canada”, Canadian Journal of Political Science (December 2007). pp. 1–21. Lead Article.
“Imagining the Twentieth Century: Retrospective, Myth, and the Colonial Question” PORTAL Journal of Multidisciplinary International Studies Vol. 4, No. 1 (2007) pp. 1-27.
“Pushing the Limits of Humanity?: Reinterpreting Animal Rights and ‘Personhood’ through the Prism of the Holocaust”, Journal of Human Rights Vol. 5, No. 4 (2006) pp. 417-39.
“Globalizing the Holocaust: A Jewish “useable past” in Serbian and Croatian nationalism”, PORTAL, Vol. 2, No. 2 (2005) pp. 1–31.
“Forgetting and Denying: Iris Chang, the Holocaust and the Challenge of Nanking”, International Politics (2005) pp. 403–28. Lead Article.
“Daring to compare: The debate about a Maori ‘holocaust’ in New Zealand”, Journal of Genocide Research (September 2003) pp. 383–404.
“The Quest for Purity: Linguistic Politics and the War in Croatia”, Slovo: An inter-disciplinary journal of Russian, East European and Eurasian Affairs, Vol. 15 No. 1 (2003) pp. 5-21. Lead Article.
« La Croatie: un exemple d’épuration langagière? », Raisons Politiques, No. 2 (May 2001) pp. 127-48.
“The Myth of “Europe” in Croatian Politics and Economics”, Slovo Vol 12 (2000) pp. 68-103.
“Political Zionism and the ‘Nebeski Narodniks’: Towards an Understanding of the Serbian National Self”, Slovo Vol. 10, Nos. 1-2 (1998) pp. 91-114.