American imperialism? Or should that read ‘nationalism’?

American imperialism? Or should that read ‘nationalism’?

Extraordinary piece in Prospect by Anatol Lieven. His general argument is that Jacksonian nationalism is transforming America from a conservative power to a revolutionary one — and that this spells trouble for everyone. Quote:

“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…”

It’s a terrific essay, full of intriguing shafts. This, for example:

“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. ”