Blogs > Cliopatria > Walter Russell Mead: Review of Anatol Lieven's America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism

Nov 29, 2004 9:42 pm

Walter Russell Mead: Review of Anatol Lieven's America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism

Walter Russell Mead, in the Wash Post (11-28-04):

Bedazzled by messianic if secular national myths, besotted with a primitive, pre-modern nationalism and bewitched by fundamentalist religion, well-intentioned Americans are lurching to their doom -- and dragging the rest of the world with them, according to Anatol Lieven's new book. At its dullest, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (Oxford Univ., $30) is yet another example of what has become the most common genre in writing about American foreign policy: the embittered but eloquent and intellectually polished anti-Bush screed. Those who can't read enough about how the United States is isolated from the international community and ignoring wise European and Arab advice about Israel will want to rush right out and purchase several copies. They may want to read passages out loud to their friends.

It would, however, be a mistake to dismiss this book because large chunks of it -- right or wrong -- simply rehash themes already amply covered by others. At times, America Right or Wrong shows a serious intellectual talent and ambition stretching its wings. In particular, Lieven takes on some of the big questions about American identity, ideology and exceptionalism in ways that yield surprising and provocative results. Few readers will agree with everything he says, but at its admirable best America Right or Wrong asks important questions and makes readers review some of their own most cherished convictions.

Lieven's argument resists easy simplification, but he sees two trends at work shaping American ideology and identity. One is what he calls the "American Creed" or the "American Thesis," which includes an optimistic civic faith in American institutions, equality and freedom that most Americans share. The other is a darker, angrier and pessimistic American "nationalism" born largely out of the experience of the mostly poor white Southerners who have been victimized by American history as losers in the Civil War. This nationalism, which Lieven (who calls your current reviewer a "nationalist historian") identifies with the Jacksonian tradition of populist, pugnacious nationalism in American politics, has been the source of the racist and paranoid traditions in American life. The fundamentalist tradition in American religion, while not identical with nativist Jacksonian populism, supplements and strengthens it, especially today.

For Lieven, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment, both traditions are problematic. Both forms of American identity are exceptionalistic; both posit a deep gulf between our enlightened selves and the dangerous, depraved foreigners beyond our frontiers. Believers in the American Creed might want to convert the heathen, while Jacksonian nationalists alternate between wanting to ignore them and wanting to smite them. Still, foreigners have problems with both approaches.

Since 9/11, Lieven worries, Americans have managed to synthesize the worst features of both approaches. The blind, messianic faith in the power of American institutions and values to reshape the world has united with a Jacksonian rage and resentment against the terrorists. From Lieven's perspective, the war on terror is a bigger -- and more dangerous -- Vietnam War that, unless we change course, will cruelly expose the contradictions and incoherence in American culture even as it ends in fiasco. ...

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