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?by Linda Colley / June 19, 2005 / Leave a comment
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…