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Book Review


Lieven, Anatol. America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004). 272 pp, $30.00.
     In his most recent book Anatol Lieven combines his experience as a journalist and historian to analyze the complex phenomenon of American nationalism. As a journalist, Lieven has contributed to numerous periodicals and journals including the New Republic, Foreign Affairs, and The Economist. He is currently a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment in Washington, D.C. 1
     Treading in the footsteps of Louis Hartz, Samuel P. Huntington, Seymour Lipset, and Michael Lind, Lieven attempts to analyze the contemporary nature of American political culture. He does this through the lens of nationalism and its role in contemporary United States governmental policy after Septermber 11, 2001. In America Right or Wrong, Lieven seeks to understand the nature of contemporary American nationalism by delving into its historic background. 2
     Lieven maintains that there are two "souls" or expressions of American nationalism. The first soul is what he calls the American Creed. According to Lieven, the American Creed is the set of beliefs that animate the civic nationalism of the United States and is based on democratic, legal, and individualist ideology. For Lieven, the Creed is the part of American nationalism that made it possible for the United States to function as a "civilizational" empire that could act in ways that gained the admiration and respect of many people around the world. 3
     According to Lieven, the civic nationalism engendered by the American Creed is rationalist and universalist. Ideologically, this strain of nationalism advocates individualism, rule of law, liberty, constitutions, and democracy. In recent decades it has also included racial tolerance and equality as key ideas. While stressing cultural and political egalitarianism, the Creed does not include economic egalitarianism. One of the most interesting points that Lieven stresses is that the institutions supporting the Creed are older and less changed in the United States than in any other state in the world. 4
     While the American Creed has supported and nurtured this longevity, Lieven notes that American nationalism stresses unanimity of belief and fosters messianism. There is an intolerance of dissent across the political spectrum, and Lieven contends that this intolerance and conformism emerges from the broad swathe of Americans who identity themselves as middle class. Lieven notes that this conformity of belief feeds a sense of messianism that views the United States as historically, politically, culturally, and morally exceptional. After 9/11 these strains of conformity, messianism and exceptionalism have become even more pronounced in the general public and in political culture in the United States. Throughout the book, Lieven contends that the American Creed has worked as a positive force in the United States and throughout the world, but he also notes that when the United States confronts external threats, then conformity, messianism, and exceptionalism have become more prominent features of the political culture in this country and have adversely impacted the role of the U.S. in the world. 5
      According to Lieven, these more negative aspects of the American Creed can also slide into a more radical nationalism, particularly if large groups within the country feel humiliated or defeated. This radical nationalism is identified by Lieven as the antithesis of the American Creed. This is the second "soul" of American nationalism. The paradox of American nationalism is that radical nationalism can coexist with the American Creed to some degree. Lieven argues that this antithesis to the Creed is the result of four distinct but overlapping elements of the American experience; the culture of the core white Anglo Saxon and Scots Irish, the historical experience of the White South, the cultural world of fundamentalism Protestantism, and the memories, fears, and hatreds of specific ethnic groups in the United States. Lieven calls these the ethnoreligious roots of radical American nationalism. 6
     After identifying the roots of radical American nationalism, Lieven presents an in-depth analysis of each element. At this point, Lieven reaches back into the nineteenth century and contends that the frontier experience and the legacy of a Jacksonian populist nationalist tradition have shaped the experiences of whites, especially the Scots Irish. He argues that these groups developed hostility to "East Coast elites," a form of expansionism deeply associated with ruthless violence, and a tradition of folk law that fed deep feelings of dispossession and fears of alien occupation. According to Lieven, these traditions still inform the political culture and the nature of nationalism among broad swathes of the U.S. population, particularly in the South and Midwest. 7
     In addition to the ethnic roots of American radical nationalism, Lieven explores the religious strains evident within this part of American political culture. For Lieven, the United States is one of the great paradoxes of the modern world. He notes that the American Creed and its success in the United States, and to some extent in the world, is a sign of the triumph of modernity. The paradox lies in the fact that the United States is also home to one of the largest and most powerful forces of conservative religion in the world. Lieven claims that evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity is a powerful ideological force in many parts of the United States and that they provide substantial support for a religious nationalism that taps into the civic nationalism of the American Creed but also feels threatened by the secular, modernist, internationalist aspects of the Creed. Lieven asserts that this religious nationalism looks to the past to an idealized golden age of United States history, and that it also has its roots in pre-Enlightenment perspectives and ideologies. 8
     After the analysis of the thesis and antithesis, Lieven addresses two post-1945 forces that have impacted the development and character of American nationalism. According to Lieven, the Cold War strengthened the messianiac, paranoid, and moralistic aspects of both the American Creed and radical nationalist ideology. The experience of the Cold War created a class of bureaucrats and academics steeped in neo-conservatism and more radical versions of American nationalism. He also notes that during the Cold War the messianic and Manichean nature of nationalist culture fought enemies and evil abroad and at home while attempting to fulfill the missionary objectives of spreading American-style democracy and culture around the world. Most importantly, Lieven argues that the Cold War intensified tendencies that already existed within the character of nationalist culture in the United States while creating a permanent militarization of American society that has lasted up to the present. The permanent militarization of the United States, the messianic nature of nationalism, and the belief that we are engaged in a struggle against evil have all combined to make the leap to empire easier. Lieven notes that politicians from both parties have used these aspects of American nationalism to garner mass support for imperialist ventures. 9
     It was not only the Cold War but also ties to Israel in the post World War II era that shaped contemporary nationalism in the United States. Lieven notes that this has taken on a particular importance since 9/11. According to Lieven the unquestioned loyalty to Israel, driven often by religious and nationalist sentiments, has placed the United States in a precarious position in its attempts to orchestrate peace in the Middle East. The spiritual, political, and social entwining of Israel and the United States creates problems for the war on terror and threatens relationships with both allies and opponents. In essence, Lieven argues that the United States and Israel are synonymous in the eyes of many Arabs and Muslims and that the U.S. inability to engage Israel in a critical manner threatens efforts to create genuine democracy in the region. 10
     Lieven's analysis of American nationalism is nuanced and intriguing. He attempts to understand present U.S. policy, especially actions in the war on terror, by dissecting the underlying political ideology that animates much of American political discourse. His presentist perspective is timely and penetrating. His goal is to explain the dual "souls" of American nationalism to citizens within the United States and alert them to the outcomes and dangers that arise from these ideological stances in a post-9/11 world. 11
     One of the great strengths of the book is that Lieven continually uses a comparative approach to his subject. He does not isolate nationalism in the United States from other nationalisms around the world. Instead, he attempts to draw parallels and lessons from historical and contemporary examples of nationalism. For example, Lieven often compares parts of contemporary American nationalism and pre-1914 European nationalisms. In addition, Lieven also brings in non-European examples from India, China, and Africa to give insight into the workings of American nationalism. 12
     Since Lieven discusses contemporary American nationalism, some readers may see his analysis as partisan and unbalanced. His focus on post-9/11 policy and the war on terrorism translate into arguments that critically assess the language and actions of Republican politicians and party apparatus. However, readers should keep in mind that Lieven does not exclude Democrats and the Democratic Party from inclusion in his analysis. Instead, he clearly places both political parties in the midst of American nationalist rhetoric. 13
     American Right or Wrong is an important work on the roots and consequences of contemporary American nationalism. Pedagogically, Lieven's work should be used in undergraduate upper division and graduate courses. The topics addressed in the book would make this an appropriate text for courses addressing imperialism, political culture in the United States, and post-1945 United States history. In addition, Lieven's emphasis on comparative examples would also make his book applicable to graduate level world history courses. The book's contemporary perspective would also serve as a good vehicle for class discussion and debate. Since nationalism is not a category that most Americans use to describe their political culture, Lieven's book could serve as a convenient way to explore how Americans have understood their relationship to nationalism and its connection to imperialism. 14
Robert McCoy
Washington State University

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