Of the scores of good books published in the last year about American foreign policy, the young British scholar Anatol Lieven’s America Right or Wrong stands ahead and apart. An erudite analysis of the historical and cultural strands that have forged contemporary American nationalism, it is the antidote to a view now popular among Bush administration critics: there is little wrong with American foreign policy that reducing the influence of several dozen Beltway neoconservatives would not cure. While Lieven carries no water for the neocons, he will convince many readers that if William Kristol, Richard Perle, and company had not been around after 9/11 to push a unilateralist war plan, Americans would have somehow invented them. Lieven is one of the rare authors who can change minds on a subject where opinions are firmly entrenched.

He sets out to 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.” His answer is that the terror attacks roused from slumber a not-so-attractive American nationalism—a doctrine that incorporates in roughly equal measure both what is “best” in the American experience (respect for formal liberties and republican government) and what he most dislikes (religious, anti-elitist, racially tinged populism). The result is a kind of isolationist spirit with a global reach, which he likens at one point to a sort of national autism. Some will resist seeing their country through the eyes of a European intellectual, especially one not given to diplomatic euphemism. But they will miss something: the author knows the United States deeply, has lived here for a long time, and without question wishes us well. Yet this affection hardly mutes his criticism. ~Scott McConnell, The American Conservative

Very much like Prof. Lukacs’ new book, Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred, it would appear that Mr. Lieven’s book, which I have not read yet, is a similar diagnosis of the degraded populist-nationalist part of Prof. Lukacs’ thesis about contemporary democracy but focuses on the phenomenon in a different way. He does hit upon some of the same themes as Democracy and Populism, though, and one of these is fear, namely the fear of the self-styled democracy and guardian of democracy of any potentially ideologically hostile element in the world. From this fear is born, as Prof. Lukacs would have it, the hatred of the populist reaction, which has manifested itself in the blind, carte blanche approach of much of “conservative” America to the aggression and torture by the government and the militarisation of society going on around us.

There is likely very much common ground between Mr. Lieven’s critique and Prof. Lukacs more sweeping indictment of decaying democracy. Where Mr. Lieven’s account seems to fall short, according to Mr. McConnell, and where he falls back on caricatures of populist America, as Prof. Lukacs is even prone to do from time to time, is when he seeks to determine the origins of American nationalism. The perennial scapegoat for understanding a vicious nationalism is racism and religious extremism, not understanding that it has historically been nationalism that creates the racists, such as they are, and the false perversions of religious identity that the Orthodox Church, for instance, condemned over 120 years ago as “phyletism.” To tell us that nationalism comes out of such constituencies tells us virtually nothing, except that these are the sorts of people with whom the author does not care to associate or understand. What function does American nationalism serve? It serves to create a cultural and political identity where there is no longer any authoritative or clear definition of who Americans are.

As the ethnic and religious composition of America continues to become even more varied, the incoherent fanaticism of American nationalism can only increase in intensity, not as a reaction against the new multiracial and “multicultural” order (though there may be that as well in other forms), but as the means of the political class to provide some bond for people who have little if anything in common with each other. The need for creating some unity out of the disparate, ghettoised peoples of this country will make the appeal of an increasingly vague, empty, violent Americanism all the greater: Americans will know who they are when they are in the process of destroying and fighting someone else. Such is the sorry state to which populism has brought us, about which Prof. Lukacs seems to have much more interesting things to say than Mr. Lieven.