America Right or Wrong, by Anatol Lieven

The perils of descending into nationalism
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The Independent Culture

Anatol Lieven was the Moscow correspondent of The Times and now works at the Carnegie Endowment, a research institution in Washington. This is his learned, penetrating and alarming analysis of American nationalism. His argument is worked out in subtle and complex detail, but in essence it is simple. Americans reacted to the shock of 11 September by falling back on nationalism. That nationalism now "risks undermining precisely those American values which make the nation most admired in the world".

Lieven is ambivalent about what he calls the "American Creed". Its elements are all good: faith in liberty, constitutionalism, the law, democracy, individualism and equality. At its best, it promises a "civilisational empire", like that of Rome, and he detects healthy signs that the racism that long disfigured it is diminishing.

He is, however, unsparing about its defects, which include an exceptionalism that makes it hard for Americans even to understand what is happening in the world. And he can be sharp in his criticisms, as when he dismisses the fashionable Rational Choice doctrine as "an almost theological faith in the universal validity of a dogmatic (and, in part, imaginary) American-style economic individualism".

Lieven contrasts this creed with its twin antitheses. One is the radical nationalism of the US heartland, bred of the harsh experience of the frontier and the even harsher frontier philosophy. Lieven traces this back beyond Andrew Jackson, the Indian fighter and duellist, to the fierce traditions of the Scots Irish who were dominant on the frontiers of the South. To this inheritance, Lieven attributes such views as those of President Bush's White House counsel that the Geneva conventions are "quaint", and the radio jocks who tell millions that Arabs are "non-humans".

The other dangerous antithesis is the religious tradition - millenarian, fundamentalist, evangelical or pentecostal - that contrasts with the attitudes of a Europe whose peoples painfully learned in the 20th century about the dangers of a religion of nationalism. The most courageous and controversial part of America Right or Wrong is a chapter on the links between American nationalism, Israel and US policy in the Middle East. The tendency to denounce any dissent from right-wing Israeli policies as anti-Semitism, Lieven says, undermines hopes of defeating terrorism. It also, he feels, corrodes US political culture "by increasing nationalist paranoia, arrogance, hatred and irrationality".

This is a rich book. Lieven hopes it will help to persuade American intellectuals to reflect on their own nationalism, as Europeans were forced to do. Let us hope not all of them will be deterred by the shower of insult it is likely, in the nationalist climate he analyses so well, to provoke.

The reviewer's book 'More Equal than Others' is published by Princeton University Press