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America right or wrong

About the author
Anatol Lieven is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. A new, updated edition of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, was republished in September 2012 by Oxford University Press.

The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 were an atrocious assault on the American homeland. Any United States administration would have had to respond to them by seeking to destroy the perpetrators. The war to destroy the al-Qaida forces in Afghanistan and their Taliban backers was therefore a completely legitimate response to “9/11”, as are US actions against al-Qaida and its allies elsewhere.

What the George W Bush administration did, however, was to instil in the American public a fear of much wider threats to the homeland – from Iraq, Iran and North Korea. These states had no connection to al-Qaida. By acting thus, the administration created a belief that anything America does is essentially defensive and a response to “terrorism”.

What were the roots of this belief? Traumatised by the events of 11 September, Americans very naturally reacted by falling back on old patterns of thinking and behaviour shaped by their nationalism. This nationalism embodies beliefs and principles of great and permanent value for America and the world. But it also contains very great dangers. Aspects of American nationalism imperil both America’s global leadership and its success in the struggle against Islamist terrorism and revolution.

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More than any other factor, it is the nature and extent of this nationalism which at the start of the 21st century divides the United States from a largely post-nationalist western Europe. Some neo-conservative and realist writers have argued that American behaviour in the world, and American differences with Europe, stem simply from the nation’s possession of greater power and responsibility. It would be truer to say that this power enables America to do certain things. What it does, and how it reacts to the behaviour of others, is dictated by America’s political culture. Different strands of nationalism are critically important parts in this.

The disaster of 9/11 should have been enough to produce a serious examination among Washington policy elites not only of past US policies, but of the American political cultures which helped to produce them.

In fact, as the genesis and conduct of the Iraq war of 2003 demonstrated, large sections of those elites have learned precisely nothing from the folly and wickedness of their past conduct. And this failure is above all because they have been blocked from doing so by certain key features of American nationalism.

Also by Anatol Lieven in openDemocracy: “Missionaries and marines: Bush, Blair and democratisation”
(September 2002)

Moreover, insofar as American nationalism has become mixed up with a chauvinist version of Israeli nationalism, it also plays an absolutely disastrous role in the US’s own relations with the Muslim world, and in fuelling terrorism. One might say, therefore, that while America keeps a splendid and welcoming house, it also keeps a family of demons in its cellar. These demons, usually kept under certain restraints, were released by 9/11.

Neither patriotism or imperialism

After the 9/11 terrorist attacks the United States had the chance to create a concert of all the world’s major states (including Muslim ones) against Islamist revolutionary terrorism. Why instead did it choose to pursue policies which divided the west, further alienated the Muslim world, and exposed America itself to greatly increased danger?

The most important reason is the character of American nationalism. This explains why many Americans reacted in the way that they did to 9/11 and why it was possible for the Bush administration later to extend the “war on terror” to Iraq, and in doing so to retain the support of a majority of Americans.

Nationalism has not been the usual prism through which American behaviour has been viewed. Most Americans have spoken of their attachment to their country as “patriotism”, or in an extreme form, superpatriotism. Critics of the United States, at home and abroad, have tended to focus on what has been called American imperialism.

Is the United States an empire? In openDemocracy, Stephen Howe retrieves past answers to the question, and surveys the work of one of the foremost current advocates of American hegemony, Niall Ferguson:

The US today does harbour important forces that can be called imperialist in their outlook and aims. However, although large in influence, people holding these views are relatively few in number. They are to be found above all in overlapping sections of the intelligentsia and the foreign policy and security establishments, with a particular concentration among the so-called neo-conservatives.

Unlike large numbers of Englishmen and Frenchmen during their countries’ imperial phase, the vast majority of ordinary Americans do not think of themselves as imperialist, or as possessing an empire. The aftermath of the Iraq war seems to be demonstrating that they are not prepared to make the massive long-term commitments and sacrifices necessary to maintain a direct American empire in the middle east and elsewhere.

Apart from the effects of modern culture on attitudes to military service and sacrifice, American culture historically has embodied a strong strain of isolationism. This isolationism is, however, a complex phenomenon, which should not be understood simply as a desire to withdraw from the world. Rather, American isolationism forms another face, both of American chauvinism and American messianism – united by a belief in America as a unique “city on a hill”.

The result is a view that if the US really has no choice but to involve itself with disgusting and inferior foreigners, it must absolutely control the process, and must under no circumstances subject itself to foreign control or even advice.

Again, unlike previous empires, the US national identity and what has been called the “American Creed” are founded on adherence to democracy. However imperfectly democracy may be practiced at home, and hypocritically preached abroad, this democratic faith does set real limits to how far the US can exert direct rule over other peoples. Therefore, since 1945 the United States has been an indirect empire, resembling more closely the Dutch in the East Indies in the 17th and 18th centuries than the British in India.

As far as the mass of the American people is concerned, even an indirect American empire is still an empire in denial. In presenting its imperial plans to the American people, the Bush administration has been careful to package them as something else: on one hand, as part of a benevolent strategy of spreading American values of democracy and freedom; on the other, as an essential part of the defence not of an American empire, but of the American nation itself.

Under the George W Bush administration the United States has driven towards empire, but the domestic political fuel fed into the engine was that of a wounded and vengeful nationalism. After 9/11, this sentiment is entirely sincere as far as most Americans are concerned, and it is all the more dangerous for that. In fact, to judge by world history, there is probably no more dangerous element in the entire nationalist mix than a sense of righteous victimhood. In the past this sentiment helped wreck Germany, Serbia and numerous other countries, and is now in the process of wrecking Israel.

The two souls of American nationalism

Like other nationalisms, American nationalism has many different faces. Erik Erikson wrote that “every national character is constructed out of polarities.” This is certainly true of the United States, which embodies amongst other things both the most modern and the most traditionalist society in the developed world.

Have changes in American society helped increase the political dominance of the American right? Read Godfrey Hodgson in openDemocracy:

The clash between the two is contributing to the growing political polarisation of American society. At the time of writing, the American people are more sharply and more evenly divided along party lines than at any time in modern American history. This political division in turn reflects greater differences in social and cultural attitudes than at any time since the Vietnam war. White evangelical Protestants vote Republican rather than Democrat by a factor of almost two-to-one, with corresponding effects on the parties’ stances on abortion and other moral issues.

The gap is almost as great in regard to nationalism: 71% of Republicans in 2003 describe themselves as “very patriotic” compared to 48% of Democrats. This partly reflects racial political allegiances; 65% of whites describe themselves as “very patriotic” compared with 38% of blacks. Gaps concerning attitudes to crime and faith in American business are even greater.

It is however not the opposition, but the combination of these different strands which determines the overall nature of the American national identity and largely shapes American attitudes and policies towards the outside world.

The first of these strands stems from American Creed (or the “American Thesis”): the set of great democratic, legal and individualist beliefs and principles on which the American state and constitution is founded. These principles form the foundation of American civic nationalism, and also help bind the United States to the wider community of democratic states. They are shared with other democratic societies, but in America they have a special role in holding a disparate nation together. As the term Creed implies, they are held with an ideological and almost religious fervour.

The second element forms what I call the American nationalist “antithesis”. It stems above all from ethno-religious roots. Aspects of this tradition have also been called “Jacksonian nationalism”, after President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845). Because the US is so large and complex compared to other countries, and has changed so much over time, this nationalist tradition is correspondingly complex.

Rather than the simple, monolithic identity of a Polish or Thai ethno-religious nationalism, this tradition in the United States forms a diffuse mass of identities and impulses, including nativist sentiments on the part of America’s original white population, the particular culture of the white south, and the beliefs and agendas of ethnic lobbies.

Nonetheless, these nationalist features can often be clearly distinguished from the principles of the American Creed and of American civic nationalism; and although many of their features are specifically American – notably, the role of fundamentalist Protestantism – they are also related to wider patterns of ethno-religious nationalism across the world.

These strands in American nationalism are usually subordinate to American civic nationalism stemming from the Creed, which dominates America’s official and public political culture. However, they have a natural tendency to rise to the surface at times of crisis and conflict. In the specific case of America’s attachment to Israel, ethno-religious factors have become dominant, with extremely dangerous consequences for the war on terror.

In 1983, one of the fathers of the neo-conservative school in the US, Irving Kristol drew a distinction between a patriotism that “springs from love of the nation’s past” and a nationalism that “arises out of hope for the nation’s future, distinctive greatness”; American foreign policy, he went on, “is the national interest of a world power, as this is defined by a sense of national destiny.”

In the perspective of such thinkers, nationalism has always had a certain revolutionary edge to it. In American political culture at the start of the 21st century, there is certainly a very strong element of patriotism, of attachment to American institutions and to America in its present form; but as Kristol’s words indicate, there is also a revolutionary element, a commitment to a messianic vision of the nation and its role in the world.

It is this feature that links the American nationalism of today to the “unsatisfied”, late-coming nationalisms of Germany, Italy and Russia, rather than the satisfied and status-quo patriotism of the British.

But if one strand of American nationalism is radical because it looks forward to “the nation’s future, distinctive greatness”, another is radical because it continuously looks backwards, to a vanished and idealised national past. This “American antithesis” is a central feature of American radical conservatism: the world of the Republican right, and especially the Christian right, with their rhetoric of “taking back” America, and restoring an older, purer American society. This longstanding tendency in American culture and politics reflects the continuing conservative religiosity of many Americans; however, it also has been an expression of social, economic, ethnic and above all racial anxieties.

In part, these anxieties stem from the progressive loss of control over society by the “original” white Anglo-Saxon and Scots-Irish populations, later joined by other similar groups. Connected to this are class anxieties – in the past, the hostility of the small towns and countryside to the new immigrant-populated cities; today, the economic decline of the traditional white working classes recently examined by Thomas Frank.

As a result of economic, cultural and demographic change, large numbers of Americans feel defeated even though their country is the supremely victorious nation of the modern age. The domestic anxieties this generates spill over into attitudes to the outside world.

These fears help give many American nationalists their curiously embittered, mean-spirited and defensive edge, so curiously at variance with America’s image and self-image as a land of success, openness, wealth and generosity. Over the years, the hatred generated by this sense of defeat and alienation has been extended to both domestic and foreign enemies.

This too is a very old pattern in different nationalisms worldwide. In European history, radical conservatism and nationalism have tended to stem from classes and groups in actual or perceived decline as a result of socio-economic change. One way of looking at American nationalism, and America’s troubled relationship with the contemporary world, is to understand that many Americans feel threatened by and are in revolt against the world which America itself has made.

Living in an American nightmare

However, except for the extreme fringe among the various “militia” groups and neo-Nazis, these forces of the American antithesis are not in public revolt against the American Creed and American civic, or democratic, nationalism as such. Most radical nationalist and radical conservatives movements elsewhere in the world have in the past opposed democracy and demanded authoritarian rule; by contrast, Americans from this tradition generally believe strongly in the American democratic and liberal Creed.

However, they also believe – consciously or unconsciously, openly or in private – that the Creed is the product of a specific white Christian American civilisation, and that it is threatened by immigration, racial minorities, and foreign influence. The many contemporary trends that can be seen as justifying this belief naturally leave its adherents feeling embattled, embittered, and defensive.

American Protestant fundamentalist groups also do not reject the Creed as such. But their attitudes to culture and the intellect mean that their rejection of contemporary America is even deeper, for they refuse key aspects of modernity itself. For them, modern American mass culture is a form of daily assault on their passionately held values; their reactionary religious ideology in turn reflects the sense of social, cultural and racial embattlement among their white middle class constituency. Even as America is marketing the “American dream” to the world, at home many Americans feel that they are living in an American nightmare.

For America is the home of by far the most deep, widespread, and conservative religious belief in the western world, including a section of society possessed by wild millenarian hopes, fears and hatreds.

Moreover, these two phenomena are intimately related: a Pew Research Centre survey of 2002 demonstrates that the United States as a whole is much closer to the developing world in terms of religious belief than to the advanced industrial countries. For example, 59% of American respondents agreed that religion plays a very important role in their lives - a figure that put the US closer to Pakistan (91%) than to France (12%); as of 1990, 69% of Americans believed in the personal existence of the Devil.

The religious beliefs of large sections of this core population are under constant, daily challenge from modern secular culture, above all via the mass media. And perhaps of equal importance in the long term will be the relative decline in recent decades in the real incomes of the American “middle classes”, where these groups are situated socially. This decline and the wider economic changes which began with the oil shock of 1973 have had the side-effect of forcing more and more women to go to work, thereby undermining traditional family structures even among those groups most devoted to them.

The relationship between this traditional white Protestant world and the forces of American economic, demographic, social and cultural change may be compared to the genesis of a hurricane. A mass of warm, humid air rises from the constantly churning sea of American capitalism, to meet a mass of cooler layers of air, and as it rises it sucks in yet more air from the sides, in the form of immigration.

The cooler layers are made up of the white middle classes and their small-town and suburban worlds in much of the United States; the old white populations of the greater south with their specific culture; and the especially frigid strata of old Anglo-Saxon and Scots-Irish fundamentalist Protestantism.

The result of this collision is the release of great bolts and explosions of political and cultural electricity. Like a hurricane, the resulting storm system is essentially circular, continually chasing its own tail; and essentially self-supporting, generating its own energy – until, at some unforeseeable point in future, either the boiling seas of economic change cool down, or the strata of religious belief and traditional culture dissolve. Among these bolts is hatred, including nationalist hatred.

In the United States context it is also crucial to remember that – as in a hurricane or thunderstorm – the two elements combining to produce this system work together rather than in opposition. In a curious paradox, the political representatives of Protestant America’s old conservative religious and cultural communities are encouraging the very unrestrained free-market capitalism that promises to dissolve those communities.

This was not always so. In the 1890s and 1900s, this sector of America formed the backbone of the Populist protest against the excesses of American capitalism, and in the 1930s it voted solidly for Roosevelt’s New Deal. Today, however, the religious right has allied itself solidly with extreme free-market forces in the Republican party – although it is precisely the workings of unanchored American capitalism which are eroding the world which the religious conservatives wish to defend.

The threat to America is America

In the vision set out in its National Security Strategy of 2002 (NSS 2002), embodying the so-called Bush doctrine, American sovereignty was to remain absolute and unqualified. The sovereignty of other countries was to be heavily qualified by America, and no other country was to be allowed a sphere of influence, even in its own neighbourhood.

In this conception, “balance of power” – a phrase used repeatedly in the NSS – was a form of Orwellian doublespeak. The clear intention actually was to be so strong that other countries had no choice but to rally to the side of the United States, concentrating all real power and freedom of action in the hands of America.

This approach was basically an attempt to extend a tough, interventionist version of the Monroe doctrine (1823) to the entire world. This plan is megalomaniac, completely impracticable (as the occupation of Iraq has shown) and totally unacceptable to most of the world. Because, however, this programme was expressed in traditional American nationalist terms of self-defence and the messianic role of the US in spreading freedom, many Americans found it entirely acceptable, and indeed natural.

The Bush administration, then, like European elites before 1914, has allowed its own national chauvinism and limitless ambition to compromise the security and stability of the world capitalist system of which they are the custodians and greatest beneficiaries. In other words, they have been irresponsible and dangerous not in Marxist terms, but in their own.

What ideology drives the Bush administration? In openDemocracy, Danny Postel interviews Shadia Drury, anatomist of the influence of the political philosopher Leo Strauss: “Noble lies and perpetual war: Leo Strauss, the neo-cons, and Iraq” (October 2003)

This point is vitally important in relation to the stability of the world and of United States hegemony in the world. A relatively benign version of American hegemony is by no means unacceptable to many people round the world – both because they often have neighbours whom they fear more than America, and because their elites are to an increasing extent integrated into a global capitalist elite whose values are largely defined by those of America.

But American imperial power in the service of narrow American nationalism is a very different matter, and an extremely unstable base for hegemony. It involves power over the world without accepting any responsibility for global problems and the effects of US behaviour on other countries – and power without responsibility was defined by Rudyard Kipling as “the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages.”

American nationalism has already played a key role in preventing America from taking advantage of the uniquely beneficent world-historical moment following the fall of communism. Instead of using this moment to create a “concert of powers” in support of regulated capitalist growth world stability, and the relief of poverty, preventable disease and other social ills, nationalism has helped direct America into a search for new enemies.

Such nationalism may encourage its adherents to cultivate not only specific national hatreds, but also hostility to all ideals, goals, movements, laws and institutions which aim to transcend the nation and speak for the general interests of mankind. This form of nationalism is therefore in direct opposition to the universalist ideals and ambitions of the American Creed – upon which, in the end, rests America’s role as a great civilisational empire and heir to Rome and China; and upon which is based America’s claim to represent a positive example to the world.

The historical evidence of the dangers of unreflecting nationalist sentiments should be all too obvious, and are all too relevant to US policy today. Nationalism thrives on irrational hatreds and on the portrayal of other nations or ethno-religious groups as congenitally, irredeemably wicked and hostile. Yesterday many American nationalists felt this way about Russia. Today those or other nationalists may regard the Arab and Muslim worlds, and to a lesser extent any country that defies American wishes, in the same way. Hence the astonishing explosion of chauvinism directed against France and Germany in the approach to the war in Iraq.

When other nations are declared to be irrationally, incorrigibly and unchangingly hostile, it is obviously pointless to seek compromises with them or to try to accommodate their interests and views. And because they are irrational and barbarous, America is free to dictate to them or even conquer them for their own good. This is precisely the discourse of nationalists in the leading European states towards each other and “lesser breeds without the law” (Kipling again) before 1914, which helped drag Europe into the great catastrophes of the 20th century. It was also a central part of the old hideous discourse of anti-Semitism.

If such visions spread in the United States, they will be disastrous not only for American interests and American security but for America’s soul. Pathological hatred and fear of the outside world will feed the same emotions in American domestic politics, until the nation’s moral and cultural greatness lies in ruins, and its legacy to the future is broken beyond repair.


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