An Exceptional Nationalism
excerpted from the book
America Right or Wrong
An Anatomy of American Nationalism
by Anatol Lieven
Oxford University Press, 2005,
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.
Right or Wrong