Some of the greatest long-term damage done by the Bush administration to the unity of the west has come from US domestic policies. By so flagrantly favouring the American economic elites at the expense of fiscal integrity, social welfare and environmental security, President George W. Bush and his colleagues have strengthened the belief of many Europeans that the American form of capitalism, and the political culture that underpins it, are very different from - and morally inferior to - those of Europe.

This perception is just as strong in eastern as in western Europe, and it poses a serious threat to the sense of ideological, cultural and political community that has always underpinned the idea of "the west".

In an important new book*, Walter Russell Mead, the American historian, draws attention to the many new aspects of what he calls the "millennial capitalism" now emanating from the US. As he points out, an ironic result of the revolutionary nature of this capitalism has been to turn most self-styled western progressives into de facto conservatives, dedicated to protecting existing structures of social welfare from waves of capitalist change.

Millennial capitalism is, in Mr Mead's view, only continuing capitalism's historic role as a force of ruthless world revolution; and the stability and predictability of what he calls the "Fordist" or "social market" economic systems of the middle and later 20th century were something of an aberration.

There are terrible dangers here. If Europe has taken a different capitalist path from the US in recent decades, this is not only because of differences in economic structures on the two sides of the Atlantic. It is also because of the horrible consequences that stemmed from unrestrained capitalism in Europe in the decades before 1945.

In their assumption of unrestrained rights to make and retain profits, to block higher taxation of higher incomes and to determine the political, economic and social policies of their country, powerful sections of the American capitalist elites of today resemble the European elites of 1914 more than they do the European elites of 2004. One aspect of this is the hatred directed by these groups against American leaders who seek to qualify these rights, even with the clear intention of strengthening the American capitalist system as a whole: Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s, Bill Clinton in the 1990s.

In Europe, this belief in an absolutist version of capitalism combined with the radicalism and dogmatism of the old European left to produce many of the great disasters of modern European history. Refusing compromise with moderate leftwing forces, capitalists in parts of Europe in the decades before 1945 preferred instead to make alliances with the forces of radical nationalism.

The wars and revolutions that ensued after 1914 delivered western Europe to fascism and eastern Europe to Communism. If since 1945 European societies have chosen a softened form of capitalism, one reason is that they learnt from these dreadful experiences. America was spared the European horrors of 1914-45 and in consequence did not have to learn from them.

The unreconstructed nature of important strands of American capitalism is reflected in the contemporary character of the Republican party. If today one were to seek a name for the Republicans that would situate them accurately in a wider historical and international context, it would be the American Nationalist party.

This is not just because of the Republicans' external policies and the political culture that underpins them. Rather, the entire contemporary Republican political, social and economic mixture is reminiscent of the classic positions of past rightwing nationalist movements in Europe and elsewhere. And the more radical the Republicans' domestic agenda, the more they may be forced to rely on nationalism in order to seek votes.

From this point of view, a victory for John Kerry in November could perhaps make a significant difference both to America's domestic policies and to its foreign relations and interests. Indeed, by bringing American capitalism closer to the norms pursued elsewhere in the developed world, a Kerry administration could even help to restore the idea of the west.

* Power, Terror, Peace and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk, Alfred A. Knopf, 2004