The nature of us nationalism is an unjustly neglected topic. Few citizens of the us would own to being ‘nationalist’. But ‘patriots’ are not hard to find, nor are those who fly the flag from their porch. Europeans, inhabiting countries that have been devastated by wars that killed 100 million over the last century, and citizens of states that have been forced to withdraw their own imperial projects, now have a more chastened sense of national destiny and national self.

Anatol Lieven is convinced that the strength of the nationalist reflex in the United States helps to explain the belligerent and unilateralist cast of us policy under George W. Bush. He is worried that, in conjunction with the damage wrought by globalization inside the United States itself, American nationalism could breed further aggression and arrogance. In the name of spreading ‘the flame of freedom’ the us actually extends its own crass material interests and military domination. This is bad for Americans and dangerous for everyone else. He believes that after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States ‘had the chance to create a concert of all the world’s major states—including Muslim ones—against Islamic revolutionary terrorism’. But Washington ‘chose instead to pursue policies which divided the West, further alienated the Muslim world and exposed America itself to greatly increased danger’. The White House exploited the wave of nationalist fear and anger to pursue long-pondered projections of us military power. In Lieven’s view, American patriot ideology is peculiarly ill suited to the situation and responsibilities of the world’s sole superpower.

America Right or Wrong is addressed, first and foremost, to the ‘us political classes’—politicians, policy experts and opinion formers—and is a plea to them to renounce the hardline rightwing nationalism which stretches from the Bush White House, via columnists like Charles Krauthammer, Robert Novack and William Safire, to many past and present members of the Democratic party. Lieven believes these ‘classes’ are prone to revel in us power and to imagine that other peoples can be brought by means of aerial bombardments to shake off their backward ways and conform to the American recipe of capitalism and democracy. us politicians, syndicated columnists and aspirant political strategists achieve advancement by currying favour with lobbyists, securing the backing of rightwing media empires and, above all, pandering to the proud ignorance and curdled sense of national injury characteristic of the American heartland. September 11 gave to this sense of injury a fiery emblem: ‘there is probably no more dangerous element in the entire nationalist mix than a sense of righteous victimhood. In the past this sentiment helped to wreck Germany, Serbia and numerous other countries, and it is now in the process of wrecking Israel.’ us citizens saw the slaughter of those in the Twin Towers as validating an escalating series of unilateral military initiatives against the supposed authors of the terrorist act. A sense of intense vulnerability goes far to explain, he believes, the widespread support for the war policy in Congress and among voters. But he also explores the historical roots of the sense of special national destiny and pride.

Lieven argues that us nationalism comprises, firstly, the ‘thesis’: namely the ‘American Creed’, which stresses the centrality of liberty and equality of rights to national identity, and America’s duty to spread this to every part of the globe. Secondly, us nationalism includes the ‘antithesis’, which cherishes us folk traditions nourished by white Southerners and Midwesterners—often contradicting the universalism of the American Creed, with its vaunted willingness to give asylum to the oppressed and persecuted, the ‘huddled masses’ of other lands.

A writer of Russo-German and Irish extraction, Anatol Lieven covered Afghanistan and the former Soviet Union for the British press in the 1980s and 1990s. He has spent the last few years mainly in the United States researching and writing for us foreign-policy think tanks and research centres. America Right or Wrong is a readable, timely and courageous work whose challenging perspective derives from its author’s outsider status. It bristles with original reflections. Some are flawed or one-sided, but its readiness to confront shibboleths of the us foreign-policy establishment is a tonic, and amply compensates for a few missed opportunities.

The organizing dichotomy of ‘thesis’ and ‘antithesis’ sometimes hints at the possibility that the American Creed itself contains the healthy impulses needed to contain and suppress the aggressive chauvinism of the ‘antithesis’. Lieven writes that: ‘imperialist tendencies in the United States have been restrained by the belief, stemming from the Creed, that America does not have and should not have an empire; as well as by isolationism and an unwillingness to make the sacrifices required to have an empire.’ He is not, however, claiming that the ‘Creed’ is a reliable source of anti-imperialism—rather the opposite, as we shall see—and though he does nod towards other possible sources of anti-imperial sentiment, such as isolationism or aversion to sacrifice, these also turn out to be flawed and weak.

Historically, the Creed played some role in limiting the amount of foreign real estate that the us acquired—Puerto Rico and a formidable global network of bases, but nothing resembling the colonial empires of yore. Thus in the aftermath of the Spanish–American War in 1898, a sizeable Anti-Imperial Movement arose demanding an end to the occupation of Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Among a range of arguments it appealed to something like the American Creed. Of course, the original declaration of war against Spain had itself invoked the cause of colonial freedom, championing Cubans against Spanish tyranny. In the short run Cuba alone obtained a circumscribed freedom—but it was saddled with the Platt Amendment, giving the us a right of military intervention, and was obliged to lease the harbour of Guantánamo back to the occupier. Spain’s attempts to crush the Cuban insurgency had so devastated the island that us terms and conditions were accepted with little opposition. In the longer view the us was to abstain from acquiring further colonies and to recognize Philippine independence—with, once again, a huge military base as a parting guarantee. us strategists liked bases and trade concessions; but once the sparsely populated regions of North America itself had been absorbed, they rejected responsibility for administering territory.