Extreme Makeover

For more than two centuries, nationalism in all its various forms—from the high-minded chauvinism of the British Empire to the virulent poison of Nazism—has been a familiar, and often negative, phenomenon. Emerging first in Europe, which it nearly destroyed and which has now apparently learned to control it, extreme nationalism still erupts from time to time in other parts of the world.

The word “nationalism” never quite seemed to fit the United States, where continental vastness and enormous power have hitherto been tempered by an often-expressed distaste for empire and by the notion of world leadership by example. Two American presidents, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, both sponsored world organizations whose primary objective was to contain and disperse the aggressive force of nationalism.

In the first years of the twenty-first century, however, in a dramatic departure from traditional policy, the spirit of unilateralism and militant nationalism began to dominate Washington’s policies and attitudes toward the outside world. Reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001, gave new force and a new direction to this change. Anatol Lieven’s America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism examines the roots of longstanding American nationalistic tendencies that have given public support to this fundamental change in United States policy. As is already clear from some reactions to his book, for a foreigner (a Washington-based British journalist), and a European intellectual at that, this is a courageous, even foolhardy, undertaking, but it may well be that an outside observer can best approach such a sensitive American subject with candor and objectivity.1 Lieven is relentlessly candid, and has produced a remarkably thought-provoking book.


Lieven contrasts the high idealism of American civic nationalism, the “American Creed”—liberty, constitutionalism, law, democracy, individualism, and the separation of church and state—with current hypernationalistic attitudes that influence both domestic and foreign affairs. His book, Lieven writes,

should in no sense be read as an attack either on a reasonable American nationalism or on the war on terrorism in its original form of a struggle against al Qaeda and its allies. As I shall argue throughout this book, American civic nationalism is a central support of American power and influence in the world, and has tremendously positive lessons to offer to humanity.

Lieven maintains that because American-style free-market liberal democracy has now become ideologically acceptable in most of the world, logically the United States should be “behaving as a conservative hegemon, defending the existing international order and spreading its values by example.”

Instead, the George W. Bush administration has attempted to go in the opposite direction. “American power,” Lieven writes, “in the service of narrow American…nationalism is an extremely unstable basis for hegemony.” Particularly after September 11, when there was a chance to “create a concert of all the world’s major states—including Muslim ones—against Islamist revolutionary terrorism,” the Bush administration “chose instead to pursue policies which divided the West, further alienated the Muslim world, and exposed America itself to greatly increased danger.”

It would be foolish…

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