Reviews

Lieven is relentlessly candid, and has produced a remarkably thought-provoking book.

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.

Brian Urquhart, New York Review of Books

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A mortal nation too

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.

Linda Colley, Prospect

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About the Author

Anatol Lieven is a professor in Georgetown University in Qatar. He is a visiting professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London, a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC and a member of the academic board of the Valdai discussion club in Russia. He also serves on the advisory committee of the South Asia Department of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. He holds a BA and PhD from Cambridge University in England.

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Description

Origins of the Book

America Right or Wrong (not my title – I was perfectly happy with just “An Anatomy of American nationalism”, which really describes the book) had its origins in my deep opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and my desire to understand what led not just the Bush administration and the Republican Party but a majority of the Democratic Party establishment into a war which I was convinced would have disastrous consequences. To this end, it was necessary to analyse not just the elements of chauvinism and militarism in the US tradition, but also the basis for the US sense of global ideological mission that has had both noble and dreadful consequences.

I could only make this attempt because I stood (or crouched) on the shoulders of giants; most especially, the generation of great American thinkers who responded to McCarthyism and the Vietnam War with searching analyses of the American tradition: Richard Hofstadter, whose Paranoid Style in American Politics and Anti-Intellectualism in American Life remain the basic and indispensable works for an understanding of what is now called “Trumpism”, and the crazed and grotesque conspiracy theories that flourish in much of the political Right and parts of the Left in the USA; Louis Hartz, who brilliantly evoked both the absolute hegemony of democratic belief in American society, and the ways in which in moments of crisis it could take the form of mass hysteria and popular persecution; C. Vann Woodward, who showed how belief in America’s democratic mission could not just justify but encourage extreme ruthlessness and illegality in international affairs; and Reinhold Niebuhr, that great intellectual defender of liberal democracy against totalitarianism; but who also, in The Irony of American History, issued a stark and prophetic warning of the perils of national ideological arrogance and moral self-satisfaction.

I was shocked in the run-up to the Iraq War by how completely the lessons of these men had been forgotten by the US establishment; and even more shocked by the way in which the Vietnam War itself had been forgotten by US society in general. Subsidiary aims of the book were to recall these great works and to understand how and why this mass historical amnesia had been generated.

This book made me bitterly unpopular in many powerful quarters, and cost me very dear in career terms. However, I have at least had the (bitter and unwelcome) satisfaction of seeing its analysis amply vindicated both by the disastrous course of the Iraq War and its consequences, and by the rise of Trump and the menacing US domestic political developments of 2016-2021. I only hope that on the one hand the appearance of even more insane and vile conspiracy theories on the Right, and on the other the revival of the language of America’s global ideological mission by the incoming Biden administration, do not portend more disasters to come.

The structure of the book

The introduction sets out my general picture of American nationalism, and looks in particular at the generation of ideologies of mass paranoia and chauvinism on the American Right. I describe this as akin to the physical processes that produce hurricanes: The churning sea of American capitalism creates constant economic, social and cultural change, and also sucks in huge numbers of immigrants from abroad, often with cultures very different to those of much of the existing population. This mass of hot air then rises until it meets the impermeable cold layer of conservative Americans’ racial consciousness, cultural loyalty and religious fundamentalism. The result is explosions of mass political hysteria.

Chapter One, “An Exceptional Nationalism?” justifies my use of the term nationalism (as opposed to that weaselly and self-satisfied Anglo-American euphemism, “patriotism”) in the US case, and makes the point that if we speak of “civic nationalism” in other cases around the world, there is no honest reason not to do so in the case of the USA. In particular, it examines the parallels between the two strands of civic and chauvinist American nationalism and similar bifurcated nationalisms in France and India. 

Chapter Two, “Splendour and Tragedy of the American Creed”, examines the light and dark sides of American civic nationalism. On the brighter side, it evokes the inspiring image of American democracy and Americans’ faith in their democracy  for Americans themselves and the world in general; it describes in particular the crucial importance of civic nationalism for the assimilation of huge numbers of immigrants; and it gives due credit to the USA and its ideology for saving the world both from Nazi and Communist totalitarianism, and for rebuilding Western Europe and (eventually), maritime east Asia along liberal democratic lines.

On the darker side, it brings out the intense intellectual conformism generated by the Creed, a conformism already noted by Alexis de Tocqueville and brilliantly described by Louis Hartz with the words “Even a good idea can be dangerous when it is the only idea a man has ever had.” This conformism is specifically American in that it is mostly not instilled from above by the state but is generated spontaneously from the culture of the American masses. Above all, this chapter examines and critiques the way in which American civic nationalism can generate internationalism messianism in the service of American empire (a combination displayed above all by the “neo-conservatives”), and can thereby help bring about disasters like Iraq and Vietnam; generate the belief that since America is innately good, and rival of America must be naturally and innately evil; and blind Americans themselves (including many American liberals) to aggressive American imperialism and the hostile reactions it is bound to cause in much of the world.

Chapter Three, “The Embittered Heartland”, looks at the roots of American chauvinist nationalism in both racist traditions and the sense of alienation, subordination and neglect felt by much of the white populations of what Thomas Jefferson called “the honester South and West”. It brought out (years before this became generally accepted) the ways in which the working classes and much of the middle classes had failed to benefit or had actually declined economically and socially as a result of economic change and state policies since the 1970s. In a perception that proved more grimly accurate than I myself foresaw, it pointed out that while economic decline and despair has historically driven working classes to communism, it has driven middle classes to fascism – and most white Americans consider themselves middle class. The new 2012 edition expressed the hope that the election of Barack Obama, and a certain shift of American conservative prejudice from colour of skin to culture, marked the beginning of a definitive shift from these traditions by the great majority of white Americans – a hope that tragically has not been fulfilled.

Chapter Four, “Fundamentalists and Great Fears”, looks at the specific role of conservative religion in the USA, and the way that over the past century – and even more since the transformations of the 1960s – it has reacted to the menace of cultural change. This chapter looks in particular at the tendencies of this tradition to do two things: to foster episodes of mass anxiety, focused on some particular evil (prostitution, alcohol, communism, drugs, terrorism) but with a hysterical tone generated by wider anxieties about economic and social status, cultural change, and above all racial chauvinism and anxiety. It then examines the historic role of wild conspiracy theories in the USA, and in the 2012 edition, looked at how these emerged with regard to Barack Obama.

Chapter Five examines the role of the Cold War in terms of consolidating Americans’ sense of global ideological mission, and embedding this in new American institutions (making in the process the point that so many of these institutions only appeared as a result of the Second World War and the Cold War. It also argues that these intellectual and ideological structures made the US system especially unfitted to confront Islamist extremism after 9/1. On the other hand, they encouraged the return to an ideologically-inflected great power rivalry with Russia and China – combined, as during the Cold war, with demonization of the enemy.

Chapter Six analyses the specific role of the Israeli lobby both in US disasters in the Middle East and more generally in encouraging a combination of chauvinist Americans’ hostility to the outside world  and a particular strand of US isolationism. This is the indirect effect of fostering a sense that the entire outside world is anti-semitic, and therefore that only the USA and Israel are in a true sense worthwhile democracies. It is helped by the decline of historical teaching in US schools (and universities), whereby the whole of European history is reduced to Nazism, the Holocaust and the US role in the Second World War; while Middle eastern history is not taught at all. This has strengthened the combination of isolationism and bellicosity characteristic of the Jacksonian tradition in general, and Trump’s attitudes in particular.