German Joys Review: America Right or Wrong

A few days ago, I posted some thoughts on American parochialism. Anatol Lieven, a Cambridge-educated historian and foreign-affairs expert, has a few, too, as he shows in his 2004 book America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism. (ARW) Lieven’s target is not so much America’s the insularity itself; he knows there are good excuses for it. His point is that this insularity is dangerous in a country that Arw_coverthrows its weight around as much as the U.S. does.
Lieven begins ARW with a 1989 conversation he had with a U.S. diplomat then stationed in Pakistan. Lieven had recently ventured into the countryside to speak to the Afghan warlords the U.S was funding. He found they were "a serious threat to peace and progress in Afghanistan [and] pathologically anti-Western." Lieven and a colleague asked the diplomat whether he agreed with the U.S. government’s policy of funding these men.

The diplomat responded that with a long, indignant speech: he was sure the Afghan resistance was going to build a "successful free market democracy." "This diatribe," writes Lieven, "reflected a messianism rooted in the American creed but was accompanied by a total ignorance of Afghan history, society, tradition, or reality in general." As early as page 3, we see, Lieven is not going to pull any punches. In his view, a similar worldview has driven American policy ever since, and helped determined the United States’ response to September 11:

This book seeks to help explain why a country which after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, had the chance to create a concert of all the world’s major States — including Muslim ones — against Islamist revolutionary terrorism chose instead to pursue policies which divided the West, further alienated the Muslim world and exposed America itself to greatly increased danger.

Lieven underpins this bracing critique of American nationalism and insularity with formidable research and anecdotes from his years as a reporter. He also builds a convincing case that defects in American public discourse contributed directly to the foreign-policy blunders that have dominated recent headlines.

Although Lieven is bitingly critical of America’s recent foreign policy, I did not find the book anti-American. Lieven is not a United States citizen — although he now works in Washington. He takes an outsider’s perspective, which is nothing suspect in itself. However, he understands that the United States, as "the most modern and  the most traditional society in the developed world," deserves careful study, not hysterical denunciation. He frequently makes distinctions that would alienate the typical anti-American obsessive; he defends, for instance, the invasion of Afghanistan as a legitimate response to September 11th. Any country, he argues, would have been entitled to mount a similar response to that vicious assault. He respects the United States’ founding principles, its dynamism and its "tremendously valuable and noble" efforts to combat racism inside the USA. However, he argues, a particular strain of American nationalism has begun driving American foreign policy lately. He compares it to the nationalisms prevailing in Europe before 1914, and argues it could have equally disastrous effects.

Lieven builds his argument first by setting out the American Creed — the set of universal, rationalist principles of freedom and democracy that attract a quasi-religious following among most Americans. These combine with the "very old, and very powerful" belief in the nation’s original ‘sinlessness,’ which drives Americans to fret about each new loss of America’s ‘innocence.’ The Creed is "basically optimistic," Lieven argues, but also expansionist: it "suggests both that the United States has achieved the highest possible form of political system and that this system can be extended to the rest of humanity." The Creed is so strong that even American dissidents stress they are not criticizing the Creed as such, but only asking "Americans or American governments [to] return to a purer form of the Creed or to a more faithful adherence to it."

The Creed, for all it promotes civic cohesion and optimism, has two main drawbacks: conformism and messianism. It leads to the boastful pride that irritates so many foreign observers of the United States, and cloaks the nation’s actions in a soothing mantle of benevolence that only Americans perceive. After seeing the simple-minded patriotic idealism being inculcated into his son in a California school, one centrist British observer, while acknowledging that the idealism had many benign and even appealing elements, cautioned that it sometimes "becomes a smokescreen concealing the uglier realities of the United States and the way in which it throws its economic, political and military weight around the globe." Lieven compares America’s human-rights conscience to a strobe light: shining brightly on nations which the U.S. distrusts for one reason or another, but going blank when U.S. allies or actions are at stake. Because average Americans know only superficial facts about their nation’s foreign policy; they are unaware how obvious this selective moral outrage is to international observers.

The Creed is not the only force driving Americans’ picture of themselves, or of the world. He contrasts its open generosity with the currents of alienation and paranoia in the "embittered heartland." "Radical nationalism," Lieven writes, "has many fathers, but its mother is defeat, and her milk is called humiliation." Incredibly enough, Lieven writes, there are huge swaths of the American body politic that feel aggrieved and defeated. This feeling is especially prevalent in the South, in which generations of mainly white Anglo-Saxon settlers nurse a feeling of deep resentment against the "liberal coastal elites" which have launched wars against them and who ridicule their culture as backwards and racist.

Another antithesis is American religious fundamentalism. All caricatures aside, strains of deeply anti-modern religious ideology are present in American culture to an extent unmatched in any other developed nation.  Lieven marshals the evidence: almost 50% of Americans believe the Old Testament account of the origin of man to be literally true; the best-selling fiction series in American history are the bone-chillingly weird Left Behind series of religious ‘Rapture’ novels; every American President after Nixon except for George H.W. Bush has felt the need to declare himself ‘born-again,’ etc. Lieven understands that there are screening mechanisms that ensure American foreign policy is not made by nutcases. However, a voting bloc and funding source this large cannot be ignored. Lieven argues that it does affect certain areas of foreign policy, such as relations with Israel and funding for international contraceptive programs. Further, peculiarly American fundamentalist thought-patterns reinforce a black/white worldview and the image of America as a ‘chosen’ nation.

Both the Creed and its antitheses combine to create four main blind spots in American foreign policy:

  • Americans’ relative ignorance of the world around them
  • Inability to learn from history
  • Tendency to shoehorn international events into contextual framing devices drawn from religion or nationalist ideology
  • Impatience with critiques from non-Americans

Every country, of course, has similar blind spots. What they don’t have, however, is the world’s strongest military and the will to use it. Lieven argues that these blind spots helped the Bush Administration to carry the United States into Iraq in 2003. Broad ignorance of history and world affairs allowed Administration officials and chest-beating nationalist pundits to manipulate public opinion in the run-up to the war — and ensured a devastatingly inept occupation. Talk of spreading ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’ appealed to a naïve patriotism. "Rally ’round the flag" conformity sidelined the many voices warning of the dangers and pitfalls awaiting American occupiers. Lieven’s not arguing dissenting voices were silenced (as many Europeans do, applying paradigms from their own past to a very different country). Rather, Lieven argues, the peculiarities of American nationalism prevented Americans from recognizing that the war’s critics — which included him — obviously had the stronger argument. The analogies to Germany and Japan were surreal, the parallels to Vietnam too obvious to ignore.

Lieven, of course, recognizes that other countries have their own nationalisms. America’s though, is qualitatively different, because it’s driven by a belief in American perfection or sinlessness. Out of thousands of possible examples (trust me, I know they exist because I grew up with them), Lieven cites only President Bush’s ceaseless evocations of the "goodness" or "generosity" of the American people .*  This "we’re the good guys" mentality leads many of America’s representatives to react defensively to any criticism of the United States. They concede only grudgingly and vaguely that the United States has any flaws, or can learn anything from other nations.
Nor, of course, does America have all that much to learn from history: "the official and semiofficial discussions on the subject of democratization which I have attended in Washington," Lieven notes, "have been conducted as if no serious work of history, sociology, or political anthropology had ever been written." The end result of this attitude is a fundamental difference in perspectives that Lieven nicely summarizes: other nationalisms embody a "my country right or wrong" mentality that, while perhaps not admirable, is at least provides a rational basis for discussion and compromise. The American mentality, by contrast, is "my country is always right," which leaves little room for discussion with people who disagree. Put another way, every country has a "strobe light" conscience that exempts its allies and its sensitive policy interests from criticism, but only America tries to pretend it doesn’t.

Lieven also argues that American policy toward Israel is distorted by many of the same impulses. He sees numerous instances of America pursuing policies that make more sense from Israel’s perspective than its own (one example: the U.S. aid budget for Israel is larger than for all of sub-Saharan Africa).  Lieven knows he is grasping the nettle here, and is careful to acknowledge the real dangers facing Israel, as well as the anti-Semitism and hypocrisy that drive some of Israel’s critics, who maintain "a tight-lipped silence about terrorism and dictatorship in the Middle East and elsewhere." Nevertheless, he argues, the U.S.’s overly accommodating stand toward Israel’s Likud party (which go much farther than the security guarantees and support available to most allies) are not so much a matter of the tail wagging the dog but of "the tail whirling the unfortunate dog around the room and banging its head against the ceiling." Pro-Israel sentiment also distorts public discourse.  Lieven compares the reaction criticism of Israel unleashes in the U.S. with the kind of cognitive distortions nationalism causes among otherwise-sensible people: "Otherwise universally accepted standards of behavior, argument and evidence are suspended; facts are conjured from thin air; critics are demonized; wild accusations are leveled; and rational argument becomes impossible."

Overall, I found ARW convincing. Some of Lieven’s sources — such as a landlady’s comments about the Bible, or newspaper clippings — are not sufficient to support his argument, but ARW is generally well-researched. Further, the fact that parts of Lieven’s thesis are less solidly-backed than others doesn’t mean they’re wrong. As Lieven points out, the best proof of his model is American foreign policy itself, which is better explained by Lieven’s model than by many of the self-congratulatory or self-contradictory explanations that U.S. officials provide for it. Lieven’s prose is breathless — the arguments come short, sharp, and quick, without elegant transitions or an easily-graspable structure.  You get the idea that the book was written fairly quickly, perhaps to broadcast what Lieven had to say before the 2004 U.S election. Also, Lieven’s tone sometimes becomes hectoring. He’s not going to tolerate any sentimental fantasies, and is not concerned with crafting arguments that meet the sentimental fantasists halfway. He  knows a lot more than you about these things, and he’s not going to hide that fact.

But these are quibbles. The tone is urgent because the situation is urgent. For every exaggeration, there are countless blunt statements that penetrate to the marrow. Americans, with their disarming frankness, sometimes come right out and just say things that could have come from Lieven’s mouth. And Lieven is there to record them. Here is American neoconservative pundit Irving Kristol speaking in 1989  about the 1983 invasion of Grenada:

If the president goes to the American people and wraps himself in the American flag and lets Congress wrap itself in the white flag of surrender, the president will win… The American people had never heard of Grenada. There was no reason they should have. The reason we gave for the intervention-the risk to American medical students there-was phony but the reaction of the American people was absolutely and overwhelmingly favorable. They had no idea what was going on but they backed the president. They always will.

Kristol’s son William took over the warmongering franchise from his father, and was perhaps the most prominent advocate of the invasion of Iraq. I hope at least a few well-placed Americans will take Lieven’s critique to heart before a third generation of Kristols gets to work…

* Bush is not alone in these cringe-making invocations of Americans’ goodness, but he’s by far the worst offender. Whenever I hear him talking about the goodness of the American people, I think: ‘We’re all good? Even the death row inmates? And if we’re all so darned good, why does the President need to constantly remind us of this? Don’t our red, white and blue halos tell the story?’

10 thoughts on “German Joys Review: America Right or Wrong

  1. Thanks for this.

    I’m still unsure what the “American Creed” (AC) is. My impression from this review under

    is that the AC has two aspects, one positive, the other negative. The reviewer writes:

    “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.”

    The Benevolent American, the Ugly American. Sort of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde nationalism running through American history. Captain Willard, Colonel Kurtz. There may well be something to this.

    Post-war Germans also had their archetypes of the Good German and the Bad German.

    I’m wondering how much is specifically American and how much characteristically human, the light and darkness we all harbor in our souls.

    Not to digress… obviously I need to read Lieven himself.


  2. Andrew,

    Here’s an thought-provoking blog entry about a visit to Deutschland from Peking Duck, an American who is currently living in China.

    Think about it: For two and a half days, a customer with needs, ready and willing to spend money, cannot find an open shop. I compared this with Hong Kong and with China, where the entrepreneurial spirit, annoying as it can be at times, is always on fire. With six years in Asia, I had never seen anything like this even once. The one exception is perhaps Chinese New Year’s day, when things in Greater China do shut down, but only for a day – and still you can find places that are open. Same in America, where on Christmas and Thanksgiving day most businesses shut down, but again only for a single day.

    Maybe this will rouse you a bit from your dogmatic slumber. By the way, can you find the passage where Kant talks about the effect that reading Hume had on his thinking? Is “dogmatic slumber” a reasonable translation of the German phrase?



  3. Jefrey,

    it’s not thought-provoking, it’s simply inaccurate. Why didn’t you also read and mention the first blog comment? [Peking Duck is someone who arrived in Germany on Saturday afternoon around 5 p.m. in Munich “and was surprised to see just about every business shut down for the day”]

    “You’re exaggerating slightly, though. All big shops are open 6 days a week until 8 pm (so it’s simply not true that on a Saturday at 5 pm the shops are closed. Just the mum and pop stores off Schwanthalerstrasse). And Bavaria is the only German Land that still requires shops to close by 8 pm. In most other parts of Germany, shops may be open 24 hours if they so choose, with the only exception of Sunday.”


  4. After a night’s rest, I’ve read more by and about Lieven. Some notes:

    1)What is the American Creed? The phrase stems from Chesterton: “America is the only country ever founded on a creed.” (What I Saw In America, 1922) He saw it expressed with “theological lucidity” in the Declaration of Independence.

    “Theological lucidity”? The main architect of the Creed was Jefferson, a deist who argued for separation of church and state. The Creed does not condemn atheists, nor persons not adhering to fundamentalist beliefs. Recall, too, the influence of Paine, an atheist, and of practical, scientifically minded Franklin.

    What the Creed does do is secure the rights of both believers and nonbelievers.

    So I fail to see any “messianism” in the Creed. Nor “expansionism.” Nor “conformism.” Nor “boastful pride”. To the contrary. What I see are a group of Americans who are misusing the Creed to further their neoconservative program, with disastrous results.

    It is a useful exercise for an American, especially in these dark and dreary times, to re-read the Declaration, but also this:

    How different that is from Lieven’s Creed. Unless Lieven means the misuse of the Creed, not the Creed itself.

    2)American hubris, false innocence, misleading idealism.

    Lieven’s right. You can’t spread freedom at the point of a gun, even in the name of high ideals. Americans need to reflect on use of armed force and on violence in their own society. Ethical realism is called for.

    Note the scene in Greene’s “Quiet American” when Pyle, the American agent in 1950s Vietnam supplying explosives to a rebel “Third Force,” is confronted by Fowler, the cynical, world-weary, but right-on Brit, after the resulting horrendous carnage in a market square: ‘”You’ve got the Third Force and national democracy all over your right shoe.”

    Greene, in the same novel, also defines innocence as ”a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.”

    Meaning no harm, and yet doing immense harm.

    It’s not “all about oil.”

    3)Those dreadful Americans.

    Lieven’s not anti-American, but not pro-American, either. He hectors us. He exaggerates our defects. Above all, he generalizes: Americans are not all ignorant of the world; they can learn from history; they do not all imbue all things with religion; they are not all impatient with criticism.

    It’s not just the nation of Dubya, Cheney, Wolfowitz, and Feith. Nor just a sequence of “Borat” clichés.

    Let’s not forget: on paper, at least, Mr. Gore won the election. The hundreds of thousands demonstrating against Bush are not a mirage. The American outcry now filling newsprint and the Internet is not a hallucination.

    This is the nation that brought democracy and human rights to many parts of the world. That’s not rightist claptrap.

    If Americans are feeling “aggrieved and defeated” these days, it is because they are realizing they have been sold a phony bill of goods.

    Summing up: the most eminent failure of this book is that it is unoriginal; we’ve been reading about the failures of American exceptionalism for years already. The second failure is excessive generalization. The third failure is that Lieven might even be directing attention away from the things that really do matter in his makeover of the American Creed.

    And yet: he is, in the main, on track: and another shrill voice in the choir might, as you say, Andrew, prevent another generation of Kristols from getting to work.


  5. Nicolae,

    I’ve lived both in Germany and China. Peking Duck’s experience is not out of the ordinary for Germany. Listen, I have no problem with Germans having very restricted hours of business. Andrew has written that those enforced periods of quiet are one of the reasons he likes living in Germany. That system reflects German values and choices. All good.

    China is very different, of course. Having lived there and witnessed their capitalist energy first-hand, you realize right away that, in the course of their five-thousand-year history, that experiment in communism was doomed from the beginning. Oddly, though, the Communist Party itself now functions just like one of the old dynasties — and thus the Chinese are comfortable with the arrangement, as long as they are successful, that is, and maintian the “mandate of heaven.”

    In my somewhat expanded interpretation of Peking Duck’s argument, to which he himself offered several qualifiers, Chinese customer’s needs — and the needs of the shop owners and their desire to make more money — are the focal point of the economy. Open doors most of the time, for the Chinese, are good for both the businessman and the customer.

    German businessmen and customers, on the other hand, prefer to make a trade-off: less hours of shopping for more hours of quiet and no working. Are most Germans happy with this trade-off? I would probably say yes.

    So Chinese would rather stay open and make more money while Germans engage in this agreed-upon trade-off. All fine, in my book.

    I myself am not arguing for one system over the other. It is my understanding that economies reflect to a large degree the cultures into which they are embedded.

    I thought, at the same time, that the comments page had a good discussion of the variables between the two systems.

    I still go back to Germany (last fall, two weeks in Berlin) and I still go back to China (Shanghai last). The people and societies are very different, but each great in their own ways.



  6. Jeffrey, did you perhaps mean to post that comment under this entry? Because “Peking Duck”‘s article has nothing to do with Anti-Americanism, other maybe than as an example of certain unpleasant streaks of Americans abroad that have been claimed to have been observed now and then.

    — but yes, if he can’t find an open department store in a major German city on a Saturday at 6pm, then that probably speaks more towards his ability to, shall we say, live on his own than towards the general competitiveness of the German industry.


  7. Yes, Sebastian, true enough. Off topic. Andrew went to some effort to write his good and readable review and so did I (if with much less effort and probably perspicuity as well) in my response. There isn’t much of an echo here.

    In a way, that might be a good thing. Anti-Americanism is such an acrid topic. And getting a grip on it is hard enough with various political interests instrumentalizing discussions. In my case, owing to a bad personal experience, these discussions have a painful edge, anyway.

    Reading H.D. Thoreau’s letters yesterday (what do you expect? I’m a New Englander)I was struck by his advice to a friend not to read newspapers. There is a kind of hysteria in the press, even more so in the Blogosphere, about Bush, Iraq, and anti-Americanism. While the discussions are necessary, there’s something maddening (in both British and American senses of the word) about them.

    Before I go to work, here’s an off-topic (or maybe not so off-topic) excerpt from Thoreau; he’s paddling up a river and arrives at a lake:

    “As the sun went down, I saw a solitary boatman disporting on the smooth lake. The falling dews seemed to strain and purify the air, and I was soothed with an infinite stillness. I got the world, as it were, by the nape of the neck, and held it under in the tide of its own events, till it was drowned, and then I let it go down stream like a dead dog.”


  8. However, he understands that the United States, as “the most modern and the most traditional society in the developed world,”.

    What is meant by modern here? I don’t think the USA is more modern than other first world nations. If it is meant in a technological sense I would think about Japan as the most modern and the most traditional society in the developed world.


  9. ‘The Creed is “basically optimistic,” Lieven argues, but also expansionist: it “suggests both that the United States has achieved the highest possible form of political system and that this system can be extended to the rest of humanity.”‘

    Shouldn’t ‘can’ be ‘must’ ?

    ‘he defends, for instance, the invasion of Afghanistan as a legitimate response to September 11th. Any country, he argues, would have been entitled to mount a similar response to that vicious assault.’

    Scarcely the point: which should have been: ‘Which action will lead to our ( America’s ) best outcome in the region ?’ Revenge is all very well, even a self-destroying revenge such as Samson’s; but it gets kind of arid if one wants to carry on living afterwards.

    ‘Whenever I hear him talking about the goodness of the American people, I think: ‘We’re all good? Even the death row inmates?’

    The remarkable thing about ideal democracy is that it allows every voter to count and make a difference. The thieves, the rapists, the violent, the whiners, the wealthy crooks, the drunks, the druggies, the self-satisfied, the nutters etc…


  10. > Pro-Israel sentiment also distorts public discourse

    Germans, being well informed Europeans, know better: 91% vote for “strict neutrality” when it comes to Israel vs. Palestine, while two thirds feel Israel to be the worst threat to peace in the world, way before Iran and North Korea.


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