A pundit argues that the United States has always been an engine of expansion, not a quiet city on a hill.
America's Place in the World From Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century
By Robert Kagan
Knopf. 527 pp. $30
Robert Kagan created an international sensation in 2002 with his essay "Power and Weakness," later expanded into a bestselling book entitled Of Paradise and Power. His essay announced that "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus." A self-satisfied Europe, he said, had lost both the will and the means to exercise power -- especially military power -- in the international arena. Meanwhile, the United States had developed unrivaled military might and was prepared to wield it globally and with gusto. Europeans bristled at Kagan's devaluation of their half-century-old project of union and peace, while American neoconservatives applauded his contempt for Old World wimpiness and relish for American muscularity.
"The reasons for the transatlantic divide are deep, long in development, and likely to endure," Kagan then wrote. His new book may be read as an effort to make a systematic historical case for just how deeply rooted and stubbornly durable America's international assertiveness has been, thereby suggesting a legitimating pedigree for America's current foreign policies -- or perhaps creating a critical instrument for radically revising them. Kagan's earlier work was about power. Dangerous Nation deals largely in ideas, especially the distinctive assumptions, beliefs and values that have shaped America's singular role in the world. Yet this, too, is in the end a book about power. And it is aptly titled. Americans, he argues, have long worshipped at the altar of Mars, the god of war.
Dangerous Nation lacks Of Paradise and Power 's brio but none of its sass. Its prose is sometimes labored, but its systematic dismantling of accepted dogmas is refreshingly provocative -- though not all readers will buy its central thesis that a kind of high-minded pugnacity is encoded in the national DNA.
Kagan again assumes the stance of enfant terrible, assailing the keepers of the conventional wisdom. The picture he paints is not always edifying. Europeans and others wary of America's motives and influence may find that it confirms their deepest dreads; some neoconservatives may wonder if Kagan has decamped to the Chomskyite, America-bashing left. Dangerous Nation draws from a deep well of historical scholarship about American foreign relations, but it sharply rejects the traditional account of America's rise from its days as a puny and peripheral isolationist state to a belated embrace of "international responsibilities" and great-power -- eventually, "hyperpower" -- status. Instead, Kagan, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a Washington Post columnist, mounts a frontal assault on "the pervasive myth of America as isolationist and passive until provoked . . . . This book is an attempt to tell a different story that is more about expansion and ambition, idealistic as well as materialistic, than about isolationist exemplars and cities upon hills."
The trashing of orthodoxy begins in the book's opening pages. Kagan dismisses the New England Puritans as irrelevant relics of piety and principle. He instead finds the engines of America's national development, including the guiding premises of its foreign policy, in the wolfish restlessness of the 17th-century Chesapeake region, athrob with "aggressive expansionism, acquisitive materialism, and an overarching ideology of civilization that encouraged and justified both."
He goes on to repudiate the customary characterization of the American Revolution as a war against empire, discrediting what he regards as the naive notion that the nation's revolutionary, anti-British origins bequeathed an anti-imperial legacy to future generations. He insists, rather, that the American colonists were themselves grasping imperialists, on fire with aggrandizing ambitions that London refused to support. They chafed especially at the British Proclamation of 1763, which checked trans-Appalachian settlement in a misbegotten attempt to work out an orderly policy toward the Indians of the interior. The American revolutionaries lusted for an empire of their own, writes Kagan, and made war to get it.
Liberated from Britain, Kagan's Americans began to articulate "a recognizable grand strategy" that they pursued ever after. That strategy did not arise from the crafty geopolitical stratagems of statesmen (who often appear in this account as the unwitting instruments of powerful popular yearnings, rather than as purposeful leaders) but from the "ravenous appetites of a generation of Americans whom [Revolutionary leader] Gouverneur Morris recognized as 'the first-born children of the commercial age.' " Kagan says summarily that Adam Smith's 18th-century version of "liberalism" -- by which he means the unfettered "wants and desires of several million free individuals in search of wealth and opportunity, unrestrained by the firm hand of an absolute government, a dominant aristocracy, or even a benevolent constitutional monarch" -- has for 200 years been the mainspring of America's predatory, aggressive foreign policy.
But populist avidity is only half the story. To their dreams of avarice Kagan's questing Americans wedded an ideology that cast their country as the paladin of universal principles of democracy and liberty. Kagan insists that the belief in universal rights was no mere fig leaf to cover baser motives. It became for Americans "the essence of their national identity and therefore had to be a defining characteristic of their participation on the world stage." This potent brew of cupidity unbound and conviction "bordering on hubris," of material greed and moral righteousness, constitutes for Kagan the very soul of America's character and diplomatic tradition alike. Americans pride themselves on the high-mindedness of that tradition. But others may see in it what Edmund Burke saw in the foreign policy of the French Revolutionaries: "an armed doctrine ," self-righteous, unappeasable and inherently subversive of the extant international order.
Thus the proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823 was both a declaration of America's intent to dominate the New World and an audacious "statement of international republican solidarity." For several decades thereafter, America's expansionary machine idled as the slavery controversy generated "two foreign policies" -- Southern expansionism (to annex more slave territory) and Northern containment (to jacket the slave power in a cordon of free states and eventually extinguish it).
But after the Union's victory in the Civil War had purged the contradiction of slavery from the national conscience and fantastically stoked the furnaces of rampant industrialization, the United States pursued its international agenda with what Kagan unapologetically calls "notable belligerence." It built a steel navy in the 1880s, behaved truculently in Venezuela and Samoa, and eagerly sought an imperial war of choice against Spain in 1898. Unlike other historians, Kagan sees the Spanish-American War as neither a transient aberration nor a historic departure but as the culmination "of unfolding historical events and forces reaching back to before the founding of the nation" -- and "the product of deeply ingrained American attitudes toward the nation's place in the world."
Here Kagan's volume ends, with America just stepping onto the world stage as a major power. A second volume, presumably bringing the story up to the present, is forthcoming.
It's sobering to consider where Kagan's narrative line may lead him as he carries his story forward. For despite its emphasis on "liberal" acquisitiveness and ideological righteousness as the molders of American diplomacy, the deeper theme running through this book has to do with the ways that power does not merely permit but actually defines foreign policy objectives. Kagan acknowledges that, as the United States acquired more power, it simultaneously acquired an "expanding sense of both interests and entitlement." What's more, "as perceived interests expanded, so did perceived threats and the perceived need for even more power to address them." As the nation grew more powerful, its dreams became desires; desires became necessities; necessities became imperatives; and imperatives led to empire -- in the fullest sense of the word. Power, in short, constitutes its own self-feeding perpetual-motion machine that relentlessly drives America's -- or any state's -- international behavior. And when a nation arrives at the point in its history when it believes itself to possess unmatchable power and harbors no doubts about the scope of its interests or the rightness of its cause -- when it represents an "armed doctrine," cocksure and implacable -- what dangers does it court for itself, as well as for others? ·
David M. Kennedy won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for "Freedom From Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945." He teaches history at Stanford University.