A mortal nation too

An inability to listen to others is common to the nationalism of small countries with troubled histories—like Israel. So why is it also true of the US?
June 18, 2005
America Right or Wrong by Anatol Lieven
(HarperCollins, £18.99)

In recent years the publishers' lists have been crowded with books on George W Bush, American empire, Iraq, 9/11 and the purported neocon revolution in US foreign policy, most of them shallow and relentlessly present-minded. Anatol Lieven's contribution is very different and far more significant. A British-born senior associate at Washington's Carnegie Endowment, he roots his discussion of these matters firmly in American history. Among many other things, America Right or Wrong is a challenge to those US historians who still incline towards exceptionalism and parochialism.

With some distinguished exceptions, like Wilbur Zelinsky, Seymour Lipset and Rogers Smith, American scholars have been reluctant to acknowledge and dissect their polity's brand of nationalism, while Americans at large still tend to view nationalism as a characteristic only of "the other." Foreign—and especially fading European—countries may have espoused lethal nationalisms in the past, but Americans, it is widely believed, only embrace patriotism, a more positive and generous emotion. Yet, as Lieven makes clear, most Americans take for granted a very powerful and distinctive national ideology that has been forged over the centuries.

More even than most of its rivals, this nationalism is a composite of many different, sometimes contradictory influences. From the British the American colonists inherited a strong Protestant tradition, a conviction of superior liberties, a commitment to the rule of law, and a belief that they were the citizens of a new Israel. Victory in 1776 was seen as confirmation that Americans—and no longer Britons—were God's chosen people, the true city on the hill. At one level, this belief in America's uniqueness fostered introversion and isolationism, as in some respects it still does. At another level, however, this same conviction nourished an aggressive, missionary zeal towards the rest of the world. As Woodrow Wilson put it: "every nation of the world needs to be drawn into the tutelage of America"; or in Madeleine Albright's better known version: "We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall, and we see further into the future."

Of course, other world powers—Victorian Britain, Napoleonic France and Soviet Russia—have also viewed themselves as the agents of God or history or both. But because the US is such a vast, rich and successful country, possessed of many real virtues, such ideas there have proved especially durable and broad-based. As Lieven says: "Many Americans genuinely see their country's national interests and ambitions as coterminous with goodness, civilisation, progress and the interests of all humanity."

At its best, this conviction that America is a particularistic community of universal significance can lead to acts of great international generosity like the Marshall plan. At its worse, it fosters arrogance, an inability to cope with criticism from abroad and a kind of autism in regard to the sensitivities and aspirations of other, different, peoples—not least, Lieven argues, because America's nationalist cocktail has acquired some volatile ingredients over the centuries. The US has given shelter to many formerly marginalised, persecuted and embattled groupings: Scots-Irish, Catholic Irish, Russian Jews, Poles, anti-communist Cubans and more. Once ensconced in the land of the free, Lieven suggests, such folk and their descendants have shown "a certain tendency to compensate for past humiliations and suffering by glorying in American national power."

America's racialist past also continues to have an impact on its nationalism. The country was forged by wars and aggressive settlement at the expense not just of the old European empires, but of native Americans, African slaves and Mexicans. Official America is now pointedly colour-blind and even positively discriminatory. Bush's enthusiasm for advancing black men and women and Chicanos to high office has been impressive. But this strenuous political correctness on the domestic front does not mean, Lieven argues, that American nationalism has been stripped of all its ethnic components. Suppressed and glossed over at home, nativist hostility to those perceived as culturally different has found vent instead in aspects of US policy abroad.

Lieven's insistence on American nationalism's historic roots has implications for the present. His book is a warning to those who believe the more controversial aspects of current US policy will fade once the neocons and Bush himself leave the stage. On the contrary, Bush's political success is due in large part to the fact that he gives such effective voice to ideas and imaginings that have existed in parts of the US population for a very long time.

This said, there are also new ingredients in the US nationalist brew. The most obvious is 9/11, and the fear that there will be further outrages on American soil. A sense of America being under siege has sharpened hostility against foreigners, and in some quarters against those on the home front who appear deviant in some way. It is alarming to hear people like Newt Gingrich claim that universities, liberals, feminists and others are perverting the nation—this at a time when Republicans control both houses of congress and a growing portion of America's media. Such accusations are part paranoia, part political calculation. As Lieven argues, many of the Republicans' blue-collar supporters are under pressure not simply from fear of terrorism, but also from the state of the US economy—the falling dollar, cheap imports, rising healthcare costs and a tax system that increasingly favours the rich. It is arguable therefore—and has been argued by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter with America?—that whipping up populist nationalism and fostering resentment against east coast and west coast elites supplies the US administration with a kind of opiate for its masses, a means to distract "unfashionable, poor, small town whites" from some of the real causes of their troubles.

This strategy has been particularly successful in the American south. There is a sense in which southerners resemble Scottish Highlanders after the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Defeated and despoiled, Highland Scots compensated for their humiliation by becoming the shock troops of the British empire. In rather the same way, southerners have reacted to the successive blows of civil war defeat, northern contempt, poverty and the imposition of civil rights by becoming a disproportionate part of America's armed forces, and a disproportionate part of the Republican right's grassroots support. Whatever he did or did not do during the Vietnam war, Bush's swaggering masculinity and chauvinistic rhetoric are balm and solace to many genuine southerners who still kick against folk memories of defeat.

Of equal importance has been Bush's born-again Protestantism. For Lieven, religious fundamentalism is the most potentially toxic ingredient of present-day radical American nationalism. To begin with, he insists, it fosters irrationality and further reinforces American exceptionalism. The US fundamentalist churches are intensely national institutions, quite different from worldwide denominations like Roman Catholicism and Anglicanism that have congregations in every continent, and so necessarily have to make some concessions to cultural relativism. In addition, Lieven argues—perhaps to excess—fundamentalism feeds into America's insufficiently critical commitment to Israel. Even among Americans who are not on the Christian right, Jerry Falwell's claim can still strike a chord: "To stand against Israel is to stand against God"—so much so, that criticism of Israel is often dismissed as antisemitism. This largely unconditional support for Israel, in Lieven's view, damages US foreign policy concerns in the middle east, and contaminates its own nationalism: "The Israeli-Palestine conflict… contributes to wider tendencies to US national autism, an inability either to listen to others or to understand their reactions to US behaviour…This is a strange feeling to encounter in a country as powerful, wealthy and open as America. It is, however, characteristic of small and embattled nations, especially when their populations have in the past been subjected to ferocious massacre and persecution—as in the case of Israel. The aggrieved and embattled sentiments of Israel have spread back to the US and strengthened already existing tendencies to paranoia, resentment and chauvinism."

Reactions to the book in the US have predictably been mixed. Yet Lieven is in no way anti-American, or even anti-American dominance. He accepts that "a relatively benign version of American hegemony is by no means unacceptable to many people around the world." His point is that instead of consolidating the status quo and buttressing its hegemony, America's hyperactivity and nationalism threaten to disrupt them. To this extent, he likens the US now to Britain and Germany before the first world war. Back then, both of these European empires felt unconfident in their power, under threat and aggrieved. As a result, they overcompensated in ways that proved destructive to themselves and to others.

Accordingly, he urges Americans to step outside their national myths "and look at [their]… nation with detachment, not as an exceptional city on a hill, but as a mortal nation among other nations." But if Lieven's most important target is American opinion, his book deserves a much wider audience, not least in Britain. The journalist Philip Stephens has recently supplied an acute analysis of why Tony Blair took the foreign policy road he did in the wake of 9/11: "Soon after the attacks I heard him remark that the first task for the rest of the world was to 'keep the US in the international system.' The danger he perceived even then was that the US administration would throw off all constraints in the unilateral pursuit of its enemies. His role, as he saw it, was to get up close enough to Bush to bind the US into the multilateral system."

This was a fine aspiration. But if this book demonstrates anything, it is that such a policy, on the part of Britain or any other moderate power, may not always prove feasible. As Lieven recognises, America's rulers may revert in time to a "more tolerant, pluralist equilibrium," but what if they do not? What if America, with all its power and centuries-old but newly radicalised nationalism, behaves in the future not just in an exceptionalist fashion but also in an unwelcome and disruptive one? Like the rest of western Europe, Britain has sheltered under America's umbrella for so long it has no answer to the question. The anger over Iraq on display during the British election is one answer but it does not amount to a proper national strategy. If Americans need to step outside their myths and look at matters with a proper detachment, the same is true for us.