This essay first appeared in the March 2004 edition of Prospect magazine.
America's "Jacksonian" nationalism is responsible for turning the US from a conservative power to a revolutionary one
American nationalism today imperils America's global leadership and its success in the war against terrorism. More than any other factor, it is this nationalism which divides the US from a post-nationalist Europe. And insofar as it has become mixed up with a chauvinist strain of Israeli nationalism, it also plays a disastrous role in US relations with the Muslim world.
America enjoys more global power than any previous state. Following the death of communism as an alternative path of modernisation, it dominates the world not only militarily but also culturally and economically, and derives immense benefit from the present world system. According to all precedents, therefore, the US ought to be behaving as a conservative hegemon, defending the existing international order and spreading its values by example. Indeed, this is exactly how it did behave for most of the period between 1989 and 11th September 2001. Not marching on Baghdad in the first Gulf war, seeking to persuade the Ukraine to stay in the Soviet Union, intervening with great reluctance in the Balkans - these were all the actions of a mostly status quo power.
So why did a country which, after the attacks of 11th September, had the chance to lead an alliance of all the major states - including Muslim ones - against Islamist terrorism choose instead to pursue policies which divided the west, further alienated the Muslim world and exposed America itself to increased danger? Why has it been drawn towards the role of an unsatisfied and even revolutionary power, kicking to pieces the hill of which it is the king? The most important reason lies in the character of American nationalism.
Nationalism is not the usual prism through which recent American behaviour has been viewed. Critics, at home and abroad, have tended to focus on what has been called American imperialism. The US today does harbour important forces which can be called imperialist, and whose members in the past two years have, for the first time, even begun to describe America as an empire. However, though large in influence, these people are few in number. They are to be found above all in overlapping sections of the intelligentsia and the foreign policy and security establishments, and even there they are far from predominant.
But unlike large numbers of Englishmen, Frenchmen and others at the time of their empires, the vast majority of Americans do not think of their country as imperialist, or as possessing an empire. As the aftermath of the Iraq war seems to be demonstrating, they are also not prepared to make the commitments and sacrifices which would be necessary to maintain a direct empire in the middle east and elsewhere.
Moreover, unlike previous empires, the US national identity, and what has been called the "American creed," are founded on adherence to democracy. However imperfectly democracy may be practised at home, and hypocritically preached abroad, this democratic faith does set real limits on how far the US can exert direct rule over other peoples. America is therefore more an indirect empire, closer to the Dutch in the East Indies than the British in India.
In presenting its imperial plans to the American people, therefore, the Bush administration - like others before it - has been careful to package them both as part of a benevolent strategy of spreading American values of democracy and freedom and as an essential part of the defence of the American nation itself.
A great many Americans are not only intensely nationalistic, but also bellicose in their response to any perceived attack on their country: "Don't Tread on Me!" as the rattlesnake on the American revolutionary flag declared. Coupled with an intense national solipsism and ignorance of the outside world, this has allowed an unwise extension of the "war on terror" from its original - and legitimate - targets in al Qaeda and the Taleban to embrace the Ba'athist regime in Iraq, and possibly other regimes in the future. This nationalism has also been turned against a range of proposals that have been portrayed as hurting the US or infringing its national sovereignty, from the international criminal court to proposed restrictions on greenhouse gas emissions.
Most Americans genuinely believe all this to be a matter of self-defence - of their economy, their "way of life," their freedoms or the nation itself. The US under George W Bush is indeed driving towards empire, but the domestic political fuel being fed into the imperial engine is that of a wounded and vengeful nationalism. After 9/11, this sentiment is entirely sincere as far as most Americans are concerned and all the more dangerous for that; there is probably no more dangerous element in the nationalist mix than a righteous sense of victimhood. This is a sentiment which has in the past helped wreck Germany, Serbia and numerous other countries, and is now in the process of gravely harming Israel.
Why "nationalism" rather than "patriotism" as a description of this phenomenon in America? The answer is provided by one of the fathers of the neoconservative tradition in the US, Irving Kristol: "Patriotism springs from love of the nation's past; nationalism arises out of hope for the nation's future, distinctive greatness..."
Kristol here echoed the classic distinction between patriotism and nationalism drawn by Kenneth Minogue, the historian of nationalism. Minogue defined patriotism as essentially conservative, a desire to defend your country as it actually is; whereas nationalism is a devotion to an ideal, abstract, unrealised notion of your country, often coupled with a belief in some wider national mission to humanity. In America today, there is certainly a very strong element of patriotism, of attachment to American institutions and to America as it is, but as Kristol's words indicate, there is also a revolutionary element, a commitment to a messianic version of the nation and its role in the world. This element links the US nationalism of today to the "unsatisfied," late-arriving nationalisms of Germany, Italy and Russia, rather than the satisfied and status quo patriotism of the British, and thereby helps explain the strangely Wilhelmine air of US policy and attitudes.
If one strand of nationalism is radical because it looks to "the nation's future, distinctive greatness," another is radical because it looks back, to a vanished and idealised national past. This strand is associated with the world of the Republican right, and especially the Christian right, with its rhetoric of "taking back" America, and restoring an older, purer society. This longstanding tendency in the country's culture and politics reflects the continuing conservative religiosity of many Americans; it has also always been an expression of social, economic and ethnic anxieties.
These anxieties stem originally from the progressive loss of control over society by the original white Anglo-Saxon and Scots Irish settlers. Connected to this are class anxieties - in the past, the hostility of the small towns and countryside to the new immigrant-populated cities; today, the decline of the traditional white working class as a result of economic change, globalisation, and the retreat of industry. In America, the supremely victorious nation of the modern age, large numbers of citizens feel defeated. This gives many American nationalists their mean and defensive edge, so curiously at variance with America's image and self-image as a land of success, openness, wealth and generosity. America also contains one large and important region with a legacy of crushing military and political defeat: the white south.
This too is a familiar pattern in other nationalisms. In Europe, radical conservatism and nationalism stemmed from classes and groups in actual or perceived decline as a result of socio-economic change. One way of looking at American nationalism, and America's troubled relationship with the contemporary world, is indeed to understand that many Americans are in revolt against the world which America itself has made. Many middle and lower-income Americans are deeply troubled by the effects of globalisation and the immigration which comes in its train, while conservative religious Americans are appalled by the effects of modern American mass culture on family life and traditional values.
Because of a deep-rooted (and partly justified) belief in American exceptionalism, and the decline of the study of history, Americans are not used to studying their nationalism in a western historical context. It is important that they begin to do so. Nobody looking at the history of nationalist Europe in the century or so before 1945 would suggest that the US should follow such a path. In particular, American nationalism is beginning to conflict with any enlightened or even rational version of American imperialism: that is to say, with the interests of the US as world hegemon.
A relatively benign version of indirect American imperial dominance is by no means unacceptable to many people round the world - both because they often have neighbours whom they fear more than America, and because their leaders are increasingly integrated into a global capitalist elite whose values are largely defined by those of America. But American imperial power in the service of narrow American and Israeli nationalism is a very different matter, and an unstable base for hegemony. It involves power over the world without any responsibility for global problems and without any responsiveness to others' concerns. This is not a matter of sentimental or naive liberal humanism. The US, as unquestioned king of the international order, has a truly vital national and imperial interest in preserving and strengthening it with new rules and conventions.
The us is in part simply an old European state which avoided the catastrophes that nationalism brought upon Europe in the 20th century. Its nationalism thus retains an intensity which Europeans have had kicked out of them by history. 72 per cent of Americans say they are "very proud" of their nationality, compared to 49 per cent of Britons, 39 per cent of Italians and just 20 per cent of the Dutch.
But the dangers of unreflective nationalist sentiments remain all too obvious. Nationalism thrives on irrational hatreds, and the portrayal of other nations or ethno-religious groups as irredeemably wicked and hostile. Yesterday this was true of the attitudes of many American nationalists to the Soviet Union. Today it risks becoming the case with regard to the Arab and Muslim worlds, or to any country which defies American wishes. The run-up to the war in Iraq saw an astonishing explosion of chauvinism directed against France and Germany.
In a striking essay on anti-Americanism in Foreign Policy (September/October 2003), Fouad Ajami unwittingly summed up the central danger of American nationalism for the US and the world. He dismissed out of hand the evidence of Pew, Gallup and other polling organisations showing that hostility to America had mounted as a result of the policies of the Bush administration. Instead, Ajami argued that across the world - not just the Arab and Muslim worlds, but across Europe, Asia and Latin America too - anti-Americanism is an ingrained response to America's wealth, success and modernity, which are forcing other countries to adapt their systems. The essay suggested that US policies are completely irrelevant, and the sympathy displayed by France and other countries after 9/11 was completely hypocritical: "To maintain France's sympathy, and that of Le Monde, the US would have had to turn the other cheek to the murderers of al Qaeda, spare the Taleban, and engage the Muslim world in some high civilisational dialogue. But who needs high approval ratings in Marseille?"
Ajami's argument was taken up in cruder form by the right-wing commentator Charles Krauthammer in a piece for Time magazine. He both attacked "the world" and sought to tar his domestic political opponents with the same anti-American brush: "The world apparently likes the US when it is on its knees. From that the Democrats deduce a foreign policy - remain on our knees, humble and supplicant, and enjoy the applause and 'support' of the world... The search for logic in anti-Americanism is fruitless. It is in the air the world breathes. Its roots are envy and self-loathing - by peoples who, yearning for modernity but having failed at it, find their one satisfaction in despising modernity's great exemplar. On 11th September, they gave it a rest for one day. Big deal."
But if these arguments are valid how do the writers explain the shift in opinion in Britain between the war in Afghanistan (which public opinion strongly supported) and the war in Iraq? Is British society, too, supposed to be congenitally anti-American and an example of failed modernity? Try applying the logic of these arguments to other national enmities. Many Poles do not much like Russians and probably never will, for historical reasons. Does this mean that Polish-Russian relations would be unaffected by new Russian policies which Poland saw as hostile to its interests? The global hegemon is bound to attract some enmity and hostility, but the point is that its policies towards the rest of the world can exacerbate or diminish such hostility, and increase or decrease the perceived legitimacy of its actions.
Like all such nationalist discourses, these arguments are intended to free America from moral responsibility for the consequences of its actions, and so leave it free to do anything. To this end facts are falsified or ignored (for example, that France strongly supported the US in Afghanistan), and usual standards of evidence suspended.
Other nations are declared to be irrationally, incorrigibly and unchangingly hostile. This being so, it is obviously pointless to seek compromises with them or to try to accommodate their interests and views. And because they are irrational and barbarous, America is free to dictate to them or even conquer them for their own good. This is precisely the discourse of nationalists in the leading European states towards each other and lesser breeds before 1914, which helped drag Europe into the great catastrophes of the 20th century. It was also a central part of the twisted discourse of antisemitism.
Nationalism often encourages its proponents to cultivate not only specific national hatreds, but also hostility to all ideals, goals, movements, laws and institutions which aim to transcend the nation and speak for the general interests of mankind. These are dubbed empty and naive utopianism, when contrasted with the tough realism of the nationalists.
But this sort of nationalism is in many ways antithetical to what Gunnar Myrdal, Samuel Huntington and others have called the "American creed," that optimistic thesis about America which America presents to itself and the rest of the world. The thesis is made up of a set of universalist principles which have included liberty, democracy, law, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, laissez-faire economics and general "progress.
" Associated with these has been an almost religious respect for US institutions, and above all the constitution. In recent decades, to these principles have been added - in public at least - racial equality and cultural pluralism. During the 1990s, the "Washington consensus" of belief in the supreme value of free markets also became part of the creed.
These principles are of inestimable value both to America and mankind. Along with the appeal of US economic success and mass culture, they form the basis of American "soft power" in the world. On them rests America's role as a great civilising empire: the heir to Rome, China and the early Muslim caliphate. But they also contain two immense flaws, which are implicit in the term "creed." The first is that they provide a fertile seedbed for nationalist messianism. The second is that precisely because they are so generally held within America, they contribute to a worrying degree of national conformism, and an inability to understand or to acknowledge the legitimacy of other cultures.
Thus the very strength of the ideological bonds that are necessary to hold the diverse American people together also cuts them off from the rest of the world. This spirit of messianism has inspired Americans and foreigners alike, but it has also had a tendency to blind Americans to their own crimes, to shut their ears to foreign advice and criticism, to engage in unrealistic and megalomaniac projects abroad, and even to encourage projects of utter ruthlessness in the name of causes seen as righteous. Since 9/11, this democratic messianism has also played a part in the co-opting of parts of the once internationalist American liberal intelligentsia for nationalism.
The antithesis to the American creed is made up of different elements, all of which share a vision of America based in a particular American religious or ethnic culture. Among them is the kind of chauvinist, Cromwellian Protestant fundamentalism displayed by General Jerry Boykin and his like. Boykin's widely reported beliefs about America's God being stronger than the God of Islam and the direct intervention of the devil in human affairs come straight from the 17th century.
Closely related to this religious tradition are the attitudes which some have dubbed "Jacksonian nationalism," after the populist and military hero President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845). This is the world of the traditional white south and the frontier. It stems from the aggrieved, defeated, white America of which I became aware during a stay in the deep south many years ago. Over time, this tradition has forged alliances with sections of other white ethnic groups who have brought to the US their own traditions of defeat, oppression and consequent bellicosity: the Catholic Irish, and more recently the Jews. Michael Lind and others have described the importance of this southern tradition in the policies and attitudes of the Bush administration.
Of course, the nature of this tradition and its hate figures have changed over time. In the mid-19th century, the nativist "know nothings" dreamed of a return to an earlier Anglo-Saxon and Scots-Irish Protestant America without Irish Catholics and without the growth of the new capitalism. In the early 20th century, Protestant nativists dreamed of a white Protestant America without the automobile (or at least its back seat) and its effects on sexual morality. Today, much of the white lower-middle and working classes dream of an idealised version of the Eisenhower years of the 1950s, before the sexual revolution and the rise of blacks, gays, feminists and other groups. Such nostalgia suffused the language of the "Republican revolution" of the mid-1990s.
This dream has often included a mixture of isolationism and aggressive nationalism. Republican hardliners like Senators Robert Taft and Herman Welker in the late 1940s and early 1950s were aggressively anti-communist and yet also hostile to Nato, the Marshall plan and other pillars of the world anti-communist struggle. Some have seen in this stance the covert resentment of many German Americans at the second world war, especially in parts of the midwest. The politics of Joseph McCarthy, who was Irish-German by descent, reflected a continuing resentment at Roosevelt and his foreign policy elite for entering the war against Germany and on the side of Britain.
One characteristic that has helped give many modern nationalisms their great strength - and their edge over socialism, even before the socialist economic model collapsed - is the ability to ingest and draw energy from a wide range of collective and even personal grievances. But it is the edgy, socially and economically insecure petty bourgeoisie, terrified of sinking into the proletariat, that is the classic group in the genesis of radical nationalism. Sometimes it is flanked by the ruined farmer, forced into the city and horrified by what he finds there.
"Having gained a foothold in the world of bourgeois respectability, they stood in danger of being plunged back into what they viewed as an abyss of powerlessness and dependence. It was that fear that made the middle class, even more than those who were truly rootless and indigent, a politically volatile group." These words were written by Alan Brinkley about the American lower-middle classes of the 1930s (with particular reference to the appeal of demagogues like Huey Long and Father Coughlin, and later of McCarthy), but they stand true in general for this class throughout the west in the past.
To situate American nationalism in this context would seem to fly in the face of every stereotype of America as the epitome of successful modernisation, and - with relatively rare and brief interruptions like the great depression - of widespread and steadily growing prosperity; as a country which, far from embodying ancient and endangered social and cultural traditions, has virtually founded its identity on continual change and the continual rejection of the past - including the immediate past.
This is indeed a central part of American culture; and it is the vision projected by US consumerism and the media, advertising and industrial interests which power it. As a portrait of the US as a whole, however, it is misleading, and has contributed greatly to the bewilderment with which the rest of the world - dazzled by the advertising - looks upon the US.
Where the principles of the American creed are universalist, the Jacksonian tradition stresses closed communities defined by race, religion and ethnicity. Where the creed stresses democracy and justice, and more recently tolerance and pluralism, the Jacksonian tradition is characterised by ruthless violence against racial enemies, both by US state forces and groups spontaneously formed from local society. Blacks in the south and native Americans on the frontier were suppressed or dispossessed not chiefly by the state, but by white militia and vigilante groups.
The tradition is also closely linked to a religious fundamentalism that rejects key elements of modernity, is indeed largely pre-modern in much of its culture, and is deeply mixed up with a millenarianism which draws its view of history, and the middle east in particular, from the books of Isaiah, Daniel and Revelation. Attorney General John Ashcroft or General Boykin would have been completely at home in the ranks of Cromwell's Ironsides, from whom their religious ideology is descended. Ethnically, culturally and historically, this tradition stems from precisely the same roots as the Ulster Protestantism of Ian Paisley. But Ulster is the only place in western Europe where this fusion of fundamentalist religion, politics and nationalism still exists. In the US, it is all too common.
In a country which presents itself as the epitome of modernity, the presence of 17th-century Protestant fundamentalists is, to put it mildly, somewhat anomalous. The clash between these two cultures generates some of the atmosphere of hatred in US domestic politics, which in turn spills over into American attitudes to the outside world.
If the American creed is affirmative and progressive, the Protestant fundamentalist tradition today is profoundly reactionary. However, like many pre-modern cultures, it also embraces values of undying importance which the rest of modern America is in danger of losing: honesty, community, loyalty to family, hospitality, personal honour, dignity and courage. This helps to account for the curious mixture of chauvinism, imperial ambition and democratising idealism which has driven the Bush administration.
US support for Israel has been justified to the American public in terms of the American creed: that Israel should be helped because it is "the only democracy in the middle east." Unfortunately, Israeli policies towards the Palestinians - especially planting settlements in the occupied territories - cannot be justified by reference to the principles of the creed. They are, however, entirely in tune with the Jacksonian tradition, both in terms of racial conquest and dispossession, and the justification of this through fundamentalist and millenarian religion. The emergence of the Christian right in the US as a key part of the Israel lobby is not an aberration. Alas, it makes good historical and ideological sense.
After 9/11 and the launch of the US "war against terror," no serious student of US foreign and security policy can, alas, avoid the tangled question of the relationship between Israeli and American nationalism. US relations with the Muslim world have obviously moved to the centre of US strategic concerns, and Israeli policies, and the nature of the US-Israel alliance, are in turn key to those relations. This issue is also increasingly a point of tension between the US and its European allies.
The US-Israeli relationship, and Israeli influence in the US, have certainly played an important part in the wider growth of nationalist attitudes in the US in recent times and in weakening the commitment of the (often Jewish) American liberal intelligentsia to internationalism. The gap between perceptions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict among most of the dominant US political, media and intellectual elites, and perceptions of this conflict in the rest of the world, is now immense. And the international isolation of America over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict more or less forces those who support US and Israeli policies to take the view that America is so morally superior to all other countries that its opinions naturally outweigh them: first on Israel, but by implication on every other issue on which the US has a strong position. In Madeleine Albright's words, "America is taller than other nations and therefore sees further."
I do not want to sound too pessimistic. Many Americans are, after all, profoundly opposed to the tendencies which I have outlined, and are profoundly committed not only to democracy, but to pluralism and the rule of law, internationally as well as domestically. American democratic values and institutions have immense and enduring strength. In the past, these values and institutions have always given the US a kind of self-correcting mechanism. Periods of intense chauvinism such as the panic leading to the passage of the Aliens and Sedition Acts in the 1790s, the "know nothings" of the 1840s, the anti-German hysteria of the first world war, the anti-Japanese chauvinism of the second, and McCarthyism in the 1950s, have been followed by a return to a more tolerant and pluralist equilibrium. Chauvinist and bellicose nationalism, though always present, has not become the US norm and has not led to democratic institutions being replaced by authoritarian ones.
There are good grounds to hope that this will also be the case in future. But there are also grounds for concern. One is obviously that the rise of international Islamist terrorism means that, for the first time in almost two centuries (the nuclear threat of the cold war excepted), the American mainland is under real threat of attack, with all that this would mean for bellicose nationalism. September 11th knocked US pluralist democracy off balance. Further attacks might increase the list, and make it permanent.
Another doubt hangs over the future of the economy. Of critical importance in returning the US to an even keel has been the capacity of the economy to recover from its periodic crises, and to provide steadily rising living standards to a large majority of Americans. Over the past four decades, however, the decline of industry, and the effects of globalisation, have thrown this capacity into question.
For large sections of the white middle class - the constituency which in the end decides America's political course - real incomes have stagnated or declined, even as mass immigration has resumed, while the top section of American society has become immeasurably richer. If this decline and growing social polarisation continue in the decades to come, then the experience of other nations and nationalisms provides some truly sinister warnings of what the consequences may be for American pluralist democracy, as well as for America's international behaviour.
America today needs to rediscover some of the lessons it learned from Vietnam - without, I hope, having to lose tens of thousands of American lives in the process. Among them is that, in the belated recognition of Robespierre, "People don't usually like armed missionaries." But perhaps most important of all, Americans should have both more confidence in, and more concern for, the example they set to the world, through their institutions and their values. It is this example which forms the basis of America's "soft power," and which thereby makes possible a form of US hegemony by consent. It is these institutions and values which constitute America's "civilisational empire," heir to that of Rome, and which like the values of Rome, will endure long after the American empire, and even the US itself, have disappeared. The image of America as an economically successful pluralist democracy, open to all races, and basically peaceful, is so powerful because it is largely true. Americans must make sure it goes on being true.