In 1996, when I visited New York to speak at some local universities, I was surprised to read a story on the front page of TheNew York Times. The Republican Governor of the state, George Pataki, had just signed into law a new curriculum for state high schools in the field of patriotism, citizenship, and human rights. The curriculum made it compulsory for schools to teach their students that Britain had committed genocide against the Irish in the Great Famine of 1845–50. The newspaper quoted Governor Pataki saying at a function attended by the Irish President Mary Robinson: “History teaches us the Great Irish Hunger was not the result of a massive failure of the Irish potato crop but rather was the result of a deliberate campaign by the British to deny the Irish people the food they needed to survive.” Similar laws were about to be introduced into the education curriculum of the state of New Jersey and were pending in other states.

I was no expert in Irish history, but I found all this rather strange because, at the time, the debate within academic history over the Great Famine was still a contested one, with mainly American social historians pushing the genocide thesis but economic historians in Ireland itself prominent among the skeptics. Hence, it seemed pretty clear that influential members of the American political and educational elites were exploiting history to mount a campaign to trash the reputation of the British.

Indeed, this all seemed consistent with a wider movement at the time to embed the notions of multiculturalism and ethnic diversity into American culture under the Clinton administration. Bill Clinton himself declared in 1997 that America needed a third “great revolution” (in addition to the first, the War of Independence, and the second, the civil rights movement) to “prove that we literally can live without having a dominant European culture.” In such a scenario, Britain is reduced from the founding source of American culture to just one of numerous transitory cultural influences. Throw in the alleged genocide against the Irish, and Britain becomes an essentially malevolent influence, which can never be forgiven for its crimes against humanity. Accept this, and the question of any Special Relationship is problematic to say the least.

In the 1990s, the immediate post–Cold War world was characterized by intense discussion about the future of nation states, about globalization, and the role of the United States as the world’s sole superpower. From the outset, the leftist members of the political and academic commentariat wanted to assume that the future of America, Britain, and the English-speaking settler countries of the British Commonwealth was multicultural. This was advanced as the logical solution to the disgraceful white racism and genocide that the same people claimed had characterized the history of these nations.

One of the most important interventions into this debate was made by Samuel Huntington, whose name became a household word in 1996 for his prophetic thesis about the looming clash of civilizations but who, in my view, wrote an even more important book in 2004 about American national identity, Who Are We? What makes the latter book more important is not so much its main conclusion—which I actually disagree with—but the way he clarifies and articulates the issues involved, and the firm grasp he has on the slippery concepts of national culture and national identity.

National interests, he argues, derive from national identity. We have to know who we are before we can know what our interests are. Hence, if Americans define their identity as primarily a collection of cultural and ethnic entities, their national interest is in the promotion of those goals and entities, and their nation should have a multicultural foreign policy. But if American identity is defined by a set of universal principles of liberty and democracy, then the promotion of those principles in other countries should be the primary goal. Or, if the United States is primarily defined by its European cultural heritage as a Western nation, then it should direct its attention to strengthening its ties with Western Europe. If, however, the United States is “exceptional,” Huntington says, the rationale for promoting human rights and democracy elsewhere disappears. Other definitions of national identity generate different national interests and policy priorities. In short, conflicts over what America should do abroad, Huntington argues, are rooted in conflicts over who Americans think they are at home.

So how does he define the identity of the United States? He argues its origins as an Anglo-Protestant settler society have, more than anything else, profoundly and lastingly shaped American culture, institutions, historical development, and identity. America is not an immigrant society or a multicultural society, he says, nor is it a melting pot or a salad of ethnicities in which the flavors of many nations merge. To describe America as a “nation of immigrants,” he insists, is to stretch a partial truth into a misleading falsehood and to ignore the central fact of America’s beginning as a society of settlers.

America’s core culture has been and, Huntington argues, remains primarily the culture of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century settlers who founded American society. The central elements of that culture include the Christian religion, Protestant values, morals, and work ethic, the English language, British traditions of law, justice, and the limits of government power, and a legacy of European art, literature, philosophy, and music. Out of this culture, the settlers developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the American Creed with its principles of liberty, equality, individualism, representative government, and private property. Subsequent generations of immigrants were assimilated into the culture of the founding settlers and contributed to and modified it. But they did not change it fundamentally. This was partly because they did not have the numbers. Between 1820 and 2000, at any one time the foreign-born averaged only slightly over ten percent of the American population. Each new immigrant wave was a minority group facing an already Americanized majority. But the primary reason was that immigrants did not want America to change. Until the late-twentieth century, it was Anglo-Protestant culture, and the political liberties and economic opportunities it produced, that constituted their main attraction.

His identification of a core culture of this kind would, you might think, predispose Huntington to look favorably on a special relationship between America and Britain, and perhaps even on the notion of a wider Anglosphere. But that is not the case. Instead, he wants Americans to refocus their national identity and national purposes in their culture and religion. He wants to reinstate American nationalism and the notion of American exceptionalism. A national approach, he says, would recognize and accept what distinguishes the United States from other societies. America cannot become the world and still be America. Other peoples cannot become American and still be themselves. America is different, and that difference is defined in large part by its Anglo-Protestant culture and its religiosity. The alternative to multiculturalism and other pressures, such as the looming demographic dominance of Hispanics in the United States, is an American nationalism devoted to the preservation and enhancement of those qualities that have defined the country since its founding.

Huntington especially emphasizes the religious basis of American culture, a fact which, he observes, often surprises people from other nominally Christian countries:

Religiosity distinguishes America from most other Western societies. Americans are overwhelmingly Christian, which distinguishes them from most non-Western peoples. Their religiosity leads Americans to see the world in terms of good and evil to a much greater extent than others do. The leaders of other societies often find this religiosity not only extraordinary but also exasperating for the deep moralism it engenders in the consideration of political, economic, and social issues.

The deep moralism of evangelical Anglo-Protestantism, he argues, still underpins almost every aspect of politics, from national identity and foreign policy to the American work ethic and social welfare policy. He cites favorably the observation by the historian Martin Marty that America was from the beginning an “evangelical empire.”

Now, I do not want to disagree with Huntington’s characterization of American culture and identity, which I find in many ways illuminating. I do, however, want to disagree strongly with his contention that the phenomenon is as exclusively American as he thinks. In fact, rather than American exceptionalism, I would argue he is describing the culture that underpins Britain itself and most of the societies formed by the English-speaking peoples around the world in the past two or three centuries, in particular the settler societies of North America and the Pacific.

To make this case convincingly, I’d need to write a whole book, but for now let me give two particular examples to show that Huntington’s values are not always as exclusive as he makes out.

The first is the influence of evangelical Protestantism, whose impact was just as defining for Australia as it was for America. As an aside—but an essential one given most Americans’ view of Australian history—Australia was not founded as a dumping ground for the swelling numbers in English prisons. That is a myth perpetuated by every leftist author on the topic, up to Robert Hughes. Instead, a settlement on the east coast of Australia was essential to the grand scheme of the world’s first global empire of trade conceived by William Pitt the Younger and Henry Dundas (Lord Melville) who wanted to create a great triangle of commerce linking all the Pacific with avenues to India and Europe. The principal goal was trade with China, but the Spanish colonies in the Philippines and the Americas also came within their scope. The dispatch of convicts was simply the cheapest way of constructing the necessary infrastructure. The most important single influence on the original manners, customs, and identity of these colonists was William Wilberforce, Pitt’s friend and a devout evangelical Christian, who led the campaign to end the slave trade.

Wilberforce never visited Australia, but from the outset he took a close interest in the area, acting as patron for many church, military, and government appointments. He appointed all the clergy for the first twenty years of the settlement, ensuring they were evangelicals, and saw his co-religionists well represented among the naval captains and officers of the marine corps. When the founding governor, Arthur Phillip, was given his post in 1787, he declared the first law he would pass was: “there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves.” Wilberforce’s 1793 tract, A Practical View of the Prevailing Religious System, which called for an evangelical religious revival to promote church-going, marriage, education, social welfare, and social mobility, became the founding text for the colony’s morals and manners when its recommendations were put into action by the most influential of the early governors, Lachlan Macquarie. Wilberforce’s biographers have credited him with defining the moral earnestness that later shaped the Victorian age, and that was as true in Australia as it was in England.

In the long run, even though Australian religious observance today is among the lowest of all Western countries, the moralism of the evangelical movement lives on, especially among those liberals who imagine themselves emancipated from religion. In Australian politics, to make any major reform, you have to advance the moral case for it first. When he ratified the Kyoto Protocol, the former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd called climate change “the great moral challenge of our generation.” To go to war, Australian politicians cannot simply appeal to national interests or alliances; they have to show the action is morally justified, that they are on the side of good and against evil, just as they must do in the United States. Huntington acknowledges that the American Creed of liberty, equality, individualism, representative government, and private property is “Protestantism without God.” In Australia, that is our political creed as well, to a tee, as I dare say it still is in Britain and each of the settler societies of the English-speaking peoples.

Another example Huntington uses as evidence for his case is the Protestant work ethic. He says the emphasis on work is one distinguishing characteristic of American culture, compared to those of other societies. Overall, he notes, more Americans are in the labor force, work longer hours, have shorter vacations, get less in unemployment and disability benefits, and retire later than people in comparable societies. Americans also take greater pride in their work, tend to view leisure with ambivalence, disdain those who do not work, and see the work ethic as a key element of what it means to be American. I was surprised to find these values used as an example of American exceptionalism, since these were the very rules my Australian Protestant father tried to instill in me throughout my childhood, as did the fathers of most of the boys I grew up with.

In fact, the very data Huntington provides as evidence for his thesis contradicts the notion of exceptionalism. He claims that Americans worked longer hours than people in other industrialized democracies, and quotes average hours worked in 1997 as proof. Yet here are the top five countries on his list in order: America, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Britain. The lowest four countries on the list are France, Sweden, Germany, and Norway. Similarly, Huntington shows a graph recording pride in their work among Americans and Europeans. The top result for those taking a great deal of pride was America at 87 percent, but followed very closely by Britain at 83 percent. Most of the rest of Europe languished between 20 and 30 percent, with the lazy French at only 15 percent. In short, it is true that there is a much greater commitment to the work ethic in America than in Europe, however there is little to no difference in it among English-speaking countries.

As I indicated before, the importance of Huntington’s book lies in his case that national identity influences the perception of national interests, and hence the way a country defines itself can determine its role in the world, now and in the future. He concludes by pushing this logic into three possible scenarios about the directions America can take.

The one he likes least is the currently dominant multicultural scenario, which he calls the cosmopolitan alternative. Projected into the future, he says it destines America to becomes an open society with open borders, encouraging subnational ethnic, racial, and cultural identities, dual citizenship, diasporas, all led by elites who increasingly identify with global institutions, norms, and rules rather than with national ones. Middle-class Americans would identify increasingly with the global corporations for which they work and the activities of Americans would more and more be governed not by federal and state governments they elected themselves but by rules set by international authorities such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the World Court, customary international law, global regimes ruled over by a self-perpetuating priestly class dedicated to preserving their own rule, and enemies of every freedom except those they sanction themselves.

The future scenario which Huntington prefers is, as I have shown, the national alternative. He is convinced that it has the numbers and the will to win. The overwhelming bulk of the American people, he says, are committed to a national alternative and to preserving and strengthening the American identity and American exceptionalism that has existed for centuries. One consequence of this he does not consider, but which seems to me plainly embedded in the logic of his case, is that nationalism and exceptionalism will produce American isolationism, or rather they will revive the isolationism that the same sentiments produced in the era between the two World Wars.

The third alternative Huntington canvasses, but the one his book discusses least, largely because it dominates the thinking of his earlier book The Clash of Civilizations, is what he calls the imperial alternative. He argues that imperialism (albeit with a different name tag) is attractive to American elites in both the liberal and conservative wings of politics. As long as America retains its overwhelming military supremacy, liberals can use foreign policy to promote nation building, humanitarian intervention, and “foreign policy as social work.” Conservatives, he says, would try to use American power to reshape the world according to what they perceive as American values. In both cases the imperial impulse is fueled by a belief in the universality of American values. According to this universalist belief, the people of other societies have basically the same values as Americans, or if they do not have them, they want to have them, or if they do not want to have them, they misjudge what is good for them, and Americans have the responsibility to try to change their minds. Huntington thinks this view is naïve. The cultures, values, traditions, and institutions of other societies are usually not compatible with, and impossible to reconfigure into, American values. Their peoples normally feel deeply committed to their indigenous cultures, traditions, and institutions, and hence fiercely resist efforts to change them by outsiders from alien cultures.

Huntington dislikes the imperial alternative almost as much as the multicultural scenario. He portrays it as an elitist idea, an ideology devised by intellectuals, contradicting both the deep values and real interests of the American people. Moreover, it would transform America completely. “In such a world,” he writes, “America loses its identity as a nation and becomes the dominant component of a supranational empire.”

The problem for his position here, however, is that Americans are a good way down the imperialist track already. In fact, they have been down it a lot longer than he likes to admit. I am referring here not just to the imperial role the United States took on in the nineteenth century in the Americas and the Pacific, but rather to its role in the world at large since the Second World War.

The international disorder of the interwar years, especially the rise to power of totalitarian ideologies in Germany and Russia, which an isolationist United States had not actively resisted, had persuaded American elites on both sides of politics to change tack by 1945. They recognized that their national interest required a strong maritime power to uphold the balance of power in Europe, and to maintain an international economic and political order in the rest of the world. Without fanfare, its members took up the task of building a U.S. imperium to maintain the peace which the British were now both unwilling and unable to support. They constructed, in Deepak Lal’s words, a new Liberal International Economic Order for the postwar world, using transnational institutions to open world markets to trade in goods and the free flow of capital. Initially, a number of third world countries, under the thrall of the Soviet Union and Marxist economists in Western universities, stood aloof, but after the fall of Communism in Europe in 1989, there was a rush to join. The most notable converts were India and China. The Pax Americana that has since prevailed has brought unimagined prosperity to most of the third world, especially its poorest. The only countries that failed to join this newest phase of globalization were those of Africa and the Middle East, plus a few rogue states like Cuba and Venezuela, which thereby excluded themselves from this era of economic progress. The fierce resistance that Huntington warns Americans to expect from indigenous cultures, traditions, and institutions in the rest of the world, was, in the post Cold War era, largely confined to these latter regions.

Moreover, there are different kinds of imperialism and, despite the huge amount of scholarship he has put into this debate, especially in The Clash of Civilizations, Huntington has not considered them all. By the mid-nineteenth century, after 250 years’ experience in the imperial game, Britain found the most workable model was what you might call imperialism lite, confined largely to promoting free trade and keeping the peace. That is, the British Empire focused on civic freedom, or the rule of law, and economic freedom, or laissez-faire, both of which are essential for modern development. The British did not seek to impose any dominant ideology or change indigenous cultures, except by outlawing activities on the extreme edge of acceptability, such as human sacrifice and the incineration of widows. They saw themselves as custodians of traditional laws and sought to maintain civil order within states and between states. The model was not perfect and didn’t always work, but it is hard to argue that it is completely incompatible with the American values that Huntington thinks can only be preserved by American nationalism.

One final point: In preparing this paper I realized there is an important agenda that should be taken up by those of us who are proponents of an Anglosphere. The fact that someone as well-read and dedicated to scholarly values as Huntington could accept the thesis of American exceptionalism, despite all the evidence to the contrary provided by the history of Britain itself, let alone that of its other colonial offshoots, should be a matter of concern. The Anglosphere is not simply a group identified by its language. The values of the American creed—liberty, equality, individualism, representative government, and private property—are also the deep-seated values that define the Anglosphere. So I would hope the Anglosphere project will aim a little higher than identifying useful policies in economics or immigration, and even be more ambitious than supporting the movement for Britain to withdraw from the European Union. It should also be a project to define who we are. This is partly a project for historians but should go much further than intervening in debates about Britain’s alleged genocide against the Irish in the Great Famine, or against the Aborigines on the Australian frontier. For there is one thing Samuel Huntington surely got right: How the peoples of nations identify themselves through their historical traditions and how they articulate their core values—that is, how they define who they are—really do constitute the elements of how they define their national interests today, and, ultimately, of how they determine their future.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 32 Number 5, on page 23
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