||One way of looking at the United States today is as a European state that has avoided the catastrophes nationalism brought upon Europe in the twentieth century, and whose nationalism therefore retains some of the power, intensity, bellicosity, and self-absorption that European nationalisms have had kicked out of them by history.
The nature and degree of American nationalism imperil both America's global leadership and American success in the war against terrorism. More than any other factor, it is this nationalism that at the start of the twenty-first century divides the United States from a postnationalist Europe. One way of looking at the United States today is as a European state that has avoided the catastrophes nationalism brought upon Europe in the twentieth century, and whose nationalism therefore retains some of the power, intensity, bellicosity, and self-absorption that European nationalisms have had kicked out of them by history. Insofar as American nationalism has become mixed up with a chauvinist version of Israeli nationalism, it also plays an absolutely disastrous role in US relations with the Muslim world, and in fueling terrorism.
America enjoys more global power than any previous state. It dominates the world not only militarily but also to a great extent culturally and economically, and derives immense benefits from the present world system. Following the death of communism as an alternative version of modernization, American "free market" liberal democracy also enjoys global ideological hegemony. According to all precedents, the United States should be behaving as a conservative hegemon, defending the existing international order and spreading its values by example.
Instead, it has been drawn toward the role of an unsatisfied and even revolutionary power, smashing to pieces the hill of which it is the king. Why did this country, which after the terrorist attacks of 9-11 had the chance to lead an alliance of all the world's major states-including Muslims ones-against Islamist revolutionary terrorism, choose instead to pursue policies that divided the West, further alienated the Muslim world, and exposed America itself to greatly increased danger? The answer can be found in the character of American nationalism.
"Nationalism" has not been the usual prism through which this American behavior has been viewed. Critics of the United States, at home and abroad, have tended to focus on what has been called American "imperialism." The United States today does harbor important voices that can be called imperialist in their outlook and aims. However, although large in influence, these people are relatively 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 do not predominate.
Unlike large numbers of English, French, and others at the time of their empires, the vast majority of ordinary Americans do not think of themselves as imperialist, or as possessing an empire. As the aftermath of the Iraq War appears to be demonstrating, they are also simply not prepared to make the massive commitments and sacrifices necessary to maintain a direct American empire in the Middle East and elsewhere.
Moreover, unlike previous empires, America's national identity is founded on adherence to democracy. However imperfectly democracy may be practiced at home and hypocritically preached abroad, this democratic faith does set real limits on how far the United States can exert direct rule over other peoples. The United States has therefore been an indirect empire, resembling more closely the Dutch in the East Indies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries than the British in India.
As far as the mass of the American people is concerned, this is still "an empire in denial"; and in presenting its imperial plans to the American people, the Bush administration has been careful to package them as something else: as part of a benevolent strategy of spreading American values of democracy and freedom; and as an essential part of the defense not of an American empire, but of the American nation itself.
A great many Americans are not only intensely nationalistic, but bellicose in their response to any perceived attack or slight against the United States: "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, and with particular prejudices against Islam, this readiness to find offense has allowed a catastrophic extension of the "war against terrorism" from its original-and legitimate-targets in Al Qaeda and the Taliban to embrace the Baathist regime in Iraq, and possibly other countries in the future.
All this is genuinely believed by most Americans to be a matter of self-defense. The United States under George W. Bush is indeed driving toward empire, but the domestic political fuel being fed into the 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; in fact, to judge by world history, there is probably no more dangerous element in the entire nationalist mix than a sense of righteous victimhood. This sentiment in the past has helped wreck Germany, Serbia, and numerous other countries, an is now in the process of wrecking Israel. The instinctive aversion of most of the west European political and intellectual elites to this kind of nationalism is perhaps the single most important underlying factor driving European hostility to the Bush administration and its policies, and to those of Israel with regard to the Palestinians.
The dissatisfied nationalist
Why "nationalism" rather than "patriotism" as a description of this phenomenon in America? Curiously, part of the answer is provided by one of the fathers of the neoconservative tradition in the United States, Irving Kristol, who wrote in Reflections of a Neoconservative: "Patriotism springs from love of the nation's past; nationalism arises out of hope for the nation's future, distinctive greatness…. The goals of American foreign policy must go well beyond a narrow, too literal definition of 'national security.' It is the national interest of a world power, as this is defined by a sense of national destiny."
In drawing this distinction, Kristol echoed a classic argument by one of the great historians of nationalism, Kenneth Minogue. He defined patriotism as essentially conservative, a desire to defend your country as it actually is. Nationalism is devotion to an ideal, abstract, unrealized notion of your country, often coupled with a belief in some wider national mission to humanity. In other words, nationalism has always had a certain revolutionary edge to it. In America at the start of the twenty-first century, 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.
If this distinction is valid, then it must be acknowledged that nationalism, rather than patriotism, is indeed the correct word for describing the characteristic national feeling of Americans. This unsettling feature also links the American nationalism of today to the "unsatisfied" late-coming nationalisms of Germany, Italy, and Russia rather than the satisfied and status quo patriotism of the British. It helps explain the strangely "unsatisfied" Wilhelmine air of US policy and attitudes at the start of the twenty-first century. (I am using "unsatisfied" here in the sense that American commentators who fear the growth of Chinese power portray that country as being hostile to the "status quo" or the "balance of power" in the Far East. Such "unsatisfied" countries are anxious to change the present to their own strategic benefit, rather than simply defend their existing positions. Germany in this sense was an "unsatisfied" power in the years before 1914, while Britain was a "satisfied" power.)
But if one strand of American nationalism is radical because it looks forward to "the nation's future, distinctive greatness," another is radical because it continuously looks backward, to a vanished and idealized national past. This is the world of the Republican Right, and especially the Christian Right, with its rhetoric of "taking back" America and restoring an older, purer American society. This longstanding tendency in American culture and politics reflects the continuing conservative religiosity of many Americans; it has also, however, always been an expression of social, economic, and ethnic anxieties.
Defeat in victory
In part, these anxieties stem from the progressive loss of control over society by the "original" white Anglo-Saxon and Scots Irish populations, later joined by others. 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 experience of economic decline by the traditional white working classes. In America, the supremely victorious nation of the modern age, large numbers of Americans feel defeated. This helps give American nationalists their embittered, mean-spirited, and defensive edge, so at variance with America's image and self-image as a land of success, openness, wealth, and generosity.
This too is a very old pattern in various nationalisms worldwide. Historically, in Europe at least, radical conservatism and nationalism have generally stemmed from classes and groups in actual or perceived decline as a result of socioeconomic change. One way of looking at American nationalism, and America's troubled relationship with the contemporary world that America dominates, is to understand that many Americans are in revolt against the world that America itself has made.
Many middle-class Americans (especially from what in Europe would be called the industrial working class) are deeply troubled by the effects of globalization and the immigration that comes in its train. 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, as well as a decline in the study of history in American academe, Americans are not accustomed to studying their nationalism in a Western historical context. It is vitally important that they begin to do so. For surely no sane person, looking at the history of nationalist Europe in the century or so before 1945, would suggest that the United States should voluntarily follow such a path. In particular, American nationalism is beginning to come into serious conflict with any enlightened or even rational version of American imperialism-that is, with the interests of the United States as the world hegemon and heir to the roles of ancient Rome and Chine within their regions.
A relatively benign version of indirect American imperial dominance is by no means unacceptable to many people around the world-both because they often have neighbors whom they fear more than America, and because their elites increasingly are 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 nationalism is a very different matter, and an extremely unstable base for hegemony. It involves power over the world without any responsibility for global problems and without any responsiveness to others' concerns-the power without responsibility defined by Rudyard Kipling as "the prerogative of the harlot throughout the ages."
A nationalism that believes in the need to advance an uncompromising version of perceived US national interests in every international situation, and to prevail by means of a more-or-less tough version of machtpolitik, would be more appropriate to some struggling and "unsatisfied" lesser power trying to scrabble its way to a higher level in the international heap. Nationalism has already played a key role in preventing America from taking advantage of the uniquely beneficent world-historical moment following the fall of communism. Instead of using this moment to create a "concert of powers" in support of capitalist growth and world stability, America has been driven into a search for new enemies. This involved the attempt to portray Russia as a continuing threat to vital US interests, and to advance China to the role of a new cold war enemy. It is worth noting, however, that among the neoconservatives, relatively few before 9-11 identified "terrorism" as a major threat, because this did not fit into the cold war paradigm of an enemy superpower.
Treason of the intellectuals
Nationalism may encourage its proponents to cultivate not only specific national hatreds, but also hostility to all ideals, goals, movements, laws, and institutions that aim to transcend the nation and speak for the general interests of mankind. The Bush administration claims to be advancing these general interests and principles in the Middle East, but this claim is continually undermined by its contempt for the opinions and wishes of the great majority of people in the region, its failure to take an even-handed stance over the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and its wider hostility to international institutions and world opinion. Calls for multilateralism are dubbed empty and naïve when contrasted with the tough "realism" of the nationalists. In 1928, Julien Benda wrote in La Trahison des clercs (The Treason of the Intellectuals) of the corruption of European intellectuals by nationalism, and in doing so warned of still greater catastrophes to come: "I shall be told that during the past fifty years…the attitude of foreigners to France was such that the most violent national partiality was forced upon all Frenchmen who wished to safeguard the nation, and that the only true patriots are those who have consented to this fanaticism. I say nothing to the contrary; I only say that the intellectuals who indulged in this fanaticism betrayed their duty, which is precisely to set up a corporation whose sole cult is that of justice and truth…."
Nationalism risks undermining precisely those American values that make America most admired in the world, and that in the end provide both a pillar for present American global power and the assurance that future ages will look back on America as a benign and positive leader of humanity.
This is not a matter of sentimental or naïve liberal humanism. The United States, as unquestioned king of the international hill, has a truly vital national and imperial interest in preserving the existing international order, and strengthening it with new rules and conventions. Its ideologues like to cast America in the role of the British Empire before World War I-the quintessential "satisfied power" aiming at balance and stability. But to the rest of the world, their policies make America look more like a new version of Wilhelmine Germany, not an upholder but an enemy of order. And as in the case of Germany before World War I, this posture risks creating unnecessary hostile coalitions against the United States. Far from being "realist," American nationalism in its attitude toward global politics and policies is in fact unreal, and sometimes positively surreal.
The historical evidence of the dangers of unreflective nationalist sentiments should be all to obvious, and remains all too relevant to US policy today. Nationalism thrives on irrational hatreds and the portrayal of other nations or ethnoreligious groups as congenitally, irredeemably wicked and hostile. Yesterday this was true of the attitudes of many American nationalists regarding Soviet Russia. Today it risks becoming the case with regard to the Arab and Muslim worlds, and to a lesser extent with regard to any country in the world that defies American wishes. Thus the run-up to the war in Iraq saw an astonishing explosion of chauvinism directed against France and Germany. This language was strongly reminiscent of old nationalist discourses that portrayed national enemies and rivals as simultaneously malignant, treacherous, weak, and effiminate.
In a striking essay in the September 2003 issue of Foreign Policy, Fouad Ajami unwittingly summed up the central danger of chauvinist American nationalism for the United States and the world, and also placed this nationalism squarely in the context of nationalist history. The only specifically American aspect of his nationalist expression is his own non-American origins-and even this would have been entirely normal for great civilizational empires of the past (including in aspiration at least the Soviet Union); they also did not distinguish between the ethnic origins of their subjects as long as they served the imperial state and accepted unreservedly the imperial ideology.
Ajami's essay ostensibly concerned anti-Americanism. He dismissed out of hand the evidence of Pew, Gallup, and other survey organizations showing that hostility to America had mounted greatly as a result of the Bush administration's policies. Instead, Ajami argued, across the world-not just the Arab and Muslim worlds, but across Europe, Asia, and Latin America-anti-Americanism is congenital, ingrained, and a response to America's wealth, success, and modernity, which is forcing other countries to change their systems. The essay suggests that US policies are completely irrelevant, and the sympathy displayed by France and other countries after 9-11 completely hypocritical: "To maintain France's sympathy, and that of Le Monde, the United States would have had to turn the other cheek to the murderers of Al Qaeda, spare the Taliban, and engage the Muslim World in some high civilizational dialogue. But who needs high approval ratings in Marseille?"
Ajami's argument was taken up in an even cruder form in an article in November 2003 by leading right-wing commentator Charled Krauthammer in Time magazine, entitled simply "To Hell With Sympathy." In this 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 September 11th, they gave it a rest for one day. Big deal."
It should hardly be necessary to point out the essential falsity of these arguments. How would the writers explain the shift in majority opinion in Britain between the war in Afghanistan (which public opinion strongly supported) and the war in Iraq (which it, like most other European publics, opposed)? Is British society also supposed to be congenitally anti-American and an example of failed modernity? Or try applying the logic of these arguments to other countries. Many Poles do not much like Russians and probably never will, for old historical reasons. Does this mean that Polish-Russian relations would be unaffected by new Russian policies that Poland saw as contemptuous and hostile? What about Turkey and Greece? Or Japan and South Korea?
These arguments-like all such nationalist discourses-are intended to free America from moral responsibility for the consequences of its actions, and therefore to leave America free to do anything. To this end, facts are falsified or ignored (for example, the strong support France gave the United States in Afghanistan), and usual standards of evidence suspended. Thus reputable opinion polls, used as basic sources of reliable information in every other context, are suddenly declared irrelevant-leaving national prejudice and an assumption of national superiority as the only standards of judgement.
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 toward each other before 1914, which helped drag Europe into the great catastrophes of the twentieth century. It was also a central part of the old hideous discourse of anti-Semitism. But American chauvinists like Krauthammer have given it a new twist. Nationalists in other countries restrict their hostility to a limited number of other nations-and indeed, over the years I have seen the assertion of incorrigible anti-Americanism applied to Russians, Arabs, and Chinese as an excuse for America's adopting whatever policies it likes toward them. But perhaps only in America could a serious and influential political writer declare the world itself to be the mad enemy. And this poisonous rubbish did not appear on some backwoods talk show, but in America's leading news magazine.
The curious mixture
The optimistic thesis about America that America presents to itself and the rest of the world is based on what Gunnar Myrdal, Samuel Huntington, and others have called the "American Creed": a set of universalist ideological and cultural principles that historically have included liberty, democracy, law, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, laissez-faire economics, and general "progress." Closely associated with these has been an almost religious respect for American institutions, above all the Constitution. In recent decades, to these principles have been added-in public at least-racial equality and cultural pluralism. This is the creed of optimistic American nationalism, in its wider sense.
These principles are of inestimable value both to America and mankind. Along with the appeal of American economic success and mass culture, they form the basis of American "soft power" in the world-the power that attracts by example rather than compels by force. On these principles rests America's role as a great civilizational empire and heir to Rome, China, and the early Muslim caliphate. They are what will remain of America when America's power, and even the United States, have vanished. However, they also contain two immense flaws, which are indeed 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 universally held within America, they contribute to a national conformism that both limits debate within America and in some respects cuts America off from the outside world.
The antithesis to the American Creed is the complex attitudes that some have dubbed "Jacksonian nationalism," after the populist and military hero President Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), and the cultural, social, and ethnic worlds that have historically engendered these attitudes. This is the world of the traditional white South and the Frontier, and the groups that have adhered to this tradition over time. It stems from the aggrieved, defeated, embittered, and defensive America of which I have written, and of which I became aware during a stay in the deep South of the United States many years ago. Over time this tradition has forged alliances with sections of new white ethnoreligious groups that have brought to the United States their own traditions of defeat, oppression, and consequent bellicosity: in the past the Catholic Irish, more recently the Jews.
Where the principles of the American Creed are universalist, this "Jacksonian" tradition stresses closed communities, historically defined by race, religion, and ethnicity. Where the creed stresses democracy and justice-and more recently, tolerance and pluralism-the "Jacksonian" tradition has been characterized by ruthless violence against racial enemies, both by American state forces and by groups spontaneously formed from local society.
This tradition is also closely linked to a religious fundamentalism that rejects key elements of modernity, and is indeed largely premodern in much of its culture. In a country that presents itself as the epitome of modernity, the presence of seventeenth-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 that in turn spills over into American attitudes toward the outside world.
If the American Creed is affirmative and basically progressive, this other tradition today is in many ways profoundly reactionary. Nonetheless, like many premodern cultures, it also embraces certain values of undying importance that the rest of modern America is in danger of losing: honesty, community, loyalty to family, hospitality, personal honor, dignity, and courage. There is much to be said of a tradition that, well into the twentieth century, could still speak of an "untarnished name" as the greatest gift a father could leave to his son.
American behavior since 9-11 may be seen in terms of a synthesis between the American Creed and Jacksonian nationalism, particularly when it comes to policy toward the Muslim world. A curious mixture of chauvinism, imperial ambition, and idealism has driven the policies of the Bush administration. We have seen the co-option of parts of the formerly internationalist America liberal intelligentsia by nationalism, and the role in this co-option both of democratic messianism and in some cases of a misplaced form of loyalty to Israel.
The question of a relationship between Israeli and American nationalism is one I have avoided for most of my life and approach with the deepest reluctance. Unfortunately, after 9-11 and the launch of the US "war against terrorism," avoidance of this issue is no longer possible for any honorable student of American foreign and security policy. The question of US relations with the Muslim world has obviously moved into the very center of US strategic concerns and strategic planning; and Israeli policies, and the nature of the US alliance with Israel, are in turn key to those relations. The issue is also increasingly becoming a point of tension between the United States and its European allies.