An Exceptional Nationalism

excerpted from the book

America Right or Wrong

An Anatomy of American Nationalism

by Anatol Lieven

Oxford University Press, 2005, paper

The messianic aspect of American civic nationalism dominated Bush's inaugural address of February 2, 2005 In his words,
Americas vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights, and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time.

So it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world .... History has an ebb and flow of justice, but history also has a visible direction, set by liberty and the Author of Liberty.

Since 9/11 and during the 2004 elections, the rhetoric of Bush and many of his followers melded secular messianism with an appeal to the old belief in America as a country chosen by God, and in American power as divinely sanctioned.

In the now centrally important field of the struggle against Islamist terrorist and of relations with the Muslim world, American realism also finds itself limited, and even to a degree disabled, by the nature of America's relationship with Israel. In the elections of 2004, Kerry and his team vied with Bush in declaring their unconditional support for Israel, in denouncing Palestinian terrorism, and in demanding that the Palestinians adopt full democracy as a precondition for a peace settlement. As a result, there was in fact no debate on the terms of the U.S.-Israeli alliance in the election campaign of 2004. The Democrats therefore essentially collaborated with the Republicans in denying to the American electorate the ability to consider issues vital to their safety and interests.

In its policy towards the Middle East American fundamentalist Protestantism has its worst effect on U.S. policy because of the widespread belief in apocalyptically-minded sections of Protestantism that Israel has to rule over all the lands given to the Jews by God in the Old Testament if the Christian Messiah is to return. The alliance between the Christian Right and Israeli hardliners has become a serious force in the Republican Party and a serious obstacle to any realistically conceivable Israeli-Palestinian peace.

America is the home of by far the most deep, widespread and conservative religious belief in the Western world, including a section possessed by wild millenarian hopes, fears and hatreds-and these two phenomena are intimately related. As a Pew Research Center Survey of 2002 demonstrates, at the start of the twenty-first century the United States as a whole is much closer to the developing world in terms of religious belief than to the industrialized countries (although a majority of believers in the United States are not fundamentalist Protestants but Catholics and "mainline," more liberal Protestants). The importance of religion in the contemporary United States continues a pattern evident since the early nineteenth century and remarked by Alexis de Tocqueville in the 1830s, when religious belief among the European populations had been shaken by several decades of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution but American religious belief was fervent and nearly universal.

As of 2002, with 59 percent of respondents declaring that "religion plays a very important role in their lives," the United States lies between Mexico (57 percent) and Turkey (65 percent) but is very far from Canada (30 percent), Italy (27 percent), or Japan (12 percent). In terms of sheer percentage points, it is indeed closer on this scale to Pakistan (91 percent) than to France (12 percent). h7 As of 1990, 69 percent of Americans believed in the personal existence of the Devil, compared to less than half that number of Britons."

When a U.S. senator exclaimed (apocryphally) of the Europeans, "What common values? They don't even go to church!" he was expressing a truth, and this is as true of the U.S. political elites (but not of the cultural or economic ones) as of the population in general. Among the fundamentalist Protestant sections of the United States, there has been a strong historical inclination to a paranoid style, originally directed against Catholics, Freemasons and others, and perpetuated by the Cold War and the communist threat." In our own time, "the recent Evangelical engagement with public life reflects religious and cultural habits that AngloAmerican Protestants, both liberal and Evangelical, learned when threatened by Americans of different religious and ethnic backgrounds?

Externally directed chauvinist hatred must therefore be seen as a byproduct of the same hatred displayed by the American Right at home, notably in their pathological loathing of President Bill Clinton. In Europe, Clinton was generally seen as a version of Tony Blair, a centrist who "modernized" his formerly center-Left party by stealing most of the clothes of the center-Right and adopting a largely rightwing economic agenda. To radical conservatives in America, this was irrelevant. They hated him not for what he did, but for what he is: the representative of a multiracial, pluralist and modernist culture and cultural elite which they both despise and fear, just as they hate the atheist, decadent, unmanly Western European nations not only for what they do, but for what they are.

A number of highly distinguished American and other observers have ... seen little basic difference between the international policies of Clinton and Bush. People on the Left view the policies of all U.S. administrations as reflecting above all the enduring dynamics and requirements of an imperial version of American capitalism: the domination of the world by capitalism and the primacy of the United States within the capitalist system."

Andrew Bacevich and Chalmers Johnson, basing their work in part on the analysis of the economic and institutional roots of American imperialism by William Appleman Williams ... the administrations of Clinton and Bush as characterized by an essential continuity when it comes to the extension of American power .

For them, Bush's Iraq is just Clinton's Kosovo or Haiti on a much larger scale and with greatly increased risks. Clinton after all moved rather quickly to combat Russia's plans to retain a sphere of influence on the territory of the former Soviet Union and was not too scrupulous about the regimes he helped in the process. Clinton preserved the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as what was then seen as the essential vehicle of U.S. strategic dominance in Europe and, as Basevich argues, fought the Kosovo war largely to justify NATO's continued existence as this vehicle.

Phyllis Schlafly, one of the leaders of the Christian Right, in 1998

"Global treaties and conferences are a direct threat to every American citizen .... The Senate should reject all UN treaties out of hand. Every single one would reduce our rights, freedom and sovereignty. That goes for treaties on the child, women, an international court, the sea, trade, biodiversity, global warming, and heritage sites ....

... The principles of life, liberty and property must not be joined with the principles of genocide, totalitarianism, socialism and religious persecution. We cannot trust agreements or treaties with infidels."

J. William Fulbright, The Arrogance of Power

Only a nation at peace with itself, with its transgressions as well as its ) achievements, is capable of a generous understanding of others .... When a nation is very powerful but lacking in self-confidence, it is likely to behave in a manner dangerous to itself and to others. Feeling the need to prove what is obvious to everyone else, it begins to confuse great power with total power and great responsibility with total responsibility: It can admit of no error; it must win every argument, no matter how trivial .... Gradually but unmistakably, America is showing signs of that arrogance of power which has afflicted, weakened, and in some cases destroyed great nations in the past. In so doing, we are not living up to our capacity and promise as a civilized example for the world. The measure of our falling short is the measure of the patriot's duty of dissent."


An Exceptional Nationalism

Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus - on the spirit of August 1914 in Germany

We were long since a great power, we were quite used to it, and it did not make us as happy as we had expected. The feeling that it had not made us more attractive, that our relation to the world had rather worsened than improved, lay, unconfessed, deep in our hearts .... War then, and if needs must, war against everybody, to convince everybody and to win. We were bursting with the consciousness that this was Germany's century, that history was holding her hand out over us; that after Spain, France, England, it was our turn to put our stamp on the world and be its leader; that the twentieth century was ours.

In a poll from 1999, 72 percent of adult Americans declared that they were proud of their country. In the country with the next highest score, Britain, the " figure was 53 percent; in France, it was 35 percent. These figures are of long standing: those of 1999 were very little altered from those observed fifteen years earlier, in the mid-1980s (75 percent, 54 percent and 35 percent respectively). Six in ten Americans in 2003 believed that "our culture is superior to others," compared against every stereotype-to only three in ten French people.

American figures, by contrast, have been close to those of parts of the contemporary developing world-or of Europe in the past: in the same poll, 71 percent of Indians, 78 percent of Mexicans and 85 percent of Filipinos expressed a similar strong pride in their countries. What makes this similarity with the United States odd is that among Mexicans and Filipinos at least, this pride usually has been seen reflecting a certain actual national insecurity and even an inferiority complex.

Max Lerner (1902-1992), editor of The Nation magazine

"The cult of the nation as social myth has run as a thread through the whole of American history."

Herbert Croly, the first editor of the New Republic, wrote in 1909

The faith of Americans in their country is religious, if not in its intensity, at any rate in its almost absolute and universal authority. It pervades the air we breathe.

Ernst Glaeser expressed the mood in Germany in 1914

"At last life had regained an ideal significance. The great virtues of humanity, fidelity, patriotism, readiness to die for an ideal ... were triumphing over the trading and shopkeeping spirit The war would cleanse mankind from all its impurities.

Georges Docrocq in 1913 in Germany wrote

"To act. No longer to have doubts about my country or my own powers. To act. To serve.... No more discussions, no more questioning of myself."'

Jill Long Thompson, an ordinary citizen from South Bend, Indiana, before the invasion of Iraq in 2003

"I think people are very uneasy about a potential strike [against Iraq] on our part, but we are very patriotic in the Second District, and we will support our president, and we will support our troops."

Harris poll of February 2004, 74 percent of respondents still believed that a link between Iraq and al Qaeda before the war was either certain or likely. A March NBC poll showed 57 percent still believing that Iraq had possessed weapons of mass destruction .

Like European imperialists of the past, any Americans genuinely see their country's national interests and ambitions as coterminous with goodness, civilization, progress and the interests of all humanity. Communal self-deception among members of a shared political culture, driven by a mixture of ideology and self-interest, is the issue here. In the wonderful phrase of Max Weber, "Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun."'

To put it another way: the heightened culture of nationalism in the European countries prior to World War I was in part the product of deliberate strategies of the European elites to combat socialist movements and preserve heir dominant positions by mobilizing mass support in the name of nationalism.

American capitalists ... like America as a whole escaped the European catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century In this America was very fortunate; but it also means that the United States and its rulers escaped perhaps the most searing lessons the world has ever known in the need to keep social, class, economic and national ambitions, and passions, within certain bounds. The greater radicalism of American capitalism therefore also stems from the nation having been spared the horrible consequences to which such capitalist excesses can contribute; and this form of American capitalism feeds in turn the greater radicalism of the American Right and the culture of American nationalism.

If one were to seek a name for the Republicans which would situate them accurately in a wider historical and international context, there would be no doubt at all as to what that name should be: the Republicans would be renamed the American Nationalist Party.

This is not just because of the Republicans' external policies and the political culture which underpins them. Rather, the entire contemporary Republican mixture is reminiscent of the classic positions of past conservative nationalist movements in Europe and elsewhere. Abroad, these parties stood for "assertive nationalism" and often supported imperialist policies. At home, they were devoted to defending private property in general and the interests of the upper classes in particular, with a special stress on hereditary wealth. They also portrayed themselves as the defenders of traditional national, religious and family values against the rising tide of cosmopolitan, liberal, socialist and foreign decadence. A danger exists that like their counterparts in Europe before 1914, if the Republicans stick to the radical policies in favor of the wealthy which they adopted under the Bush administration of 2000 to 2004, they will be pushed farther and farther in the direction of radical nationalism as their only remaining way of appealing to the mass of the American population.

President Woodrow Wilson during World War I
"America had the infinite privilege of fulfilling her destiny and saving the world.

From time immemorial, nations have conceived of themselves as superior and as endowed with a mission to dominate other peoples or to lead the rest of the world into paths of light. A great many nations throughout history-perhaps even the great majority-have had a sense of themselves as especially "chosen" by God, or destiny, for great and special "tasks' and often have used remarkably similar language to describe this sense of mission, indeed, some of the most articulate proponents of America's universal mission have been British subjects, repeating very much the same lines that their fathers and grandfathers used to employ about the British empire.

In the words of Herman Melville (1819-1891): "We Americans are the peculiar chosen people-the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world. God has predestined, mankind expects, great things from our race; and great things we feel in our souls. The rest of the nations must soon be in our rear. We are pioneers of the world; the advance guard, sent on through the wilderness of untried things, to break a path into the New World that is ours. "

As the leading religious historian Conrad Cherry writes, "The development of the theme of chosen people in both Germany and the United States between 1880 and 1920 illustrates the protean character of the myth of religious nationalism. It has proven itself able to assume the identity of multiple biblical and non-biblical images without loss of its mythic power?' The difference today is, of course, that in Germany this myth was killed off completely (at least in its nationalist form) by the horrors of 1933 to 1945, and to a very considerable degree this was true in the rest of Western Europe as well; in the United States this myth is still very much alive.

The Protestant form of this myth was to be found in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Holland, Sweden and Britain even before it migrated to the United States. In John Milton's words of the mid-seventeenth century, "Let England not forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live." As in America, this myth usually involved the explicit identification of the country concerned with biblical Israel. Such Protestant and biblical imagery pervaded British imperial rhetoric, including that of the not very religious (indeed, Masonic) Rudyard Kipling. It always strangely blended themes of christianization, liberation and development with racial superiority and celebration of victorious force.

Present in all the great powers in modern history has also been an American-style sense of themselves as "universal nations," summing up the best in mankind and also embracing the whole of mankind with their universally applicable values. This sense allowed these nations to claim that theirs was a positive nationalism or patriotism, while those of other nations were negative, because they were morally stunted and concerned only with the interests of nations.

Germans before 1914 believed that "Germany may heal the world" with its own particular mixture of legal order, technological progress and spirit of organic, rooted "culture" and "community" (Gemeinschaft). German thinkers opposed these values to those of the allegedly decadent, shallow "civilization" and atomized, rootless "society" (Gesellschaft) of England, France or the United States and to the "barbarism" of Russia. In the words of Johann Gottlieb Fichte a century earlier, "The German alone... can be a patriot; he alone can for the sake of his nation encompass the whole of mankind; contrasted with him from now on, the patriotism of every other nation must be egoistic, narrow and hostile to the rest of mankind."

Russia too had its own sense of universal mission and nationhood under the tsars, closely linked as in some other nations to religion: the belief in Russia as the heir to the Christian empire of Rome and Constantinople. Konstantin Aksakov wrote that "the Russian people is not a nation, it is a humanity; it only appears to be a people only because it is surrounded by peoples with exclusively national essences, and its humanity is therefore represented as nationality." Dostoyevsky wrote that Russians were "the only God-bearing people on earth, destined to regenerate and save the world." This spirit was later to flow into Soviet communism, which envisaged the Russian language and selected aspects of Russian culture as forming essential building blocks of a new socialist nation which would in turn set a pattern for all humankind.

America Right or Wrong

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