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May 2007

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Not the Quiet City on a Hill
Review by Michael Hornblow

Dangerous Nation, by Robert Kagan (New York: Knopf, 2006)

In his Washington Post review of Michael Oren's new history of the United States in the Middle East, Robert Kagan wrote “We often hear that Americans know too little about other nations; a bigger problem is that we know too little about ourselves, our history and our national character. When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, in particular, we were all born yesterday, unaware of how present policies and attitudes fit into persistent historical patterns.”

Dangerous Nation provides this missing knowledge. It is the first of a two volume history of American foreign policy and is essential reading. The book begins with the Puritans and ends with the outbreak of the Spanish-American war. It is a brilliantly written and carefully researched (a twenty five page bibliography with over 500 titles listed and 63 pages of detailed notes) history accessible to the general reader as well as useful for students and scholars. The book is most noteworthy for debunking a cherished myth about American history, a myth most of us were taught at a young age and have embraced ever since.

Ronald Reagan contributed to this myth by frequently quoting the famous words of Puritan father John Winthrop that early settlers sought to establish a “city upon a hill” to be emulated by others. In school we were taught that George Washington's farewell address restated an isolationist core of American foreign policy, while the Monroe Doctrine reconfirmed our tradition of isolationism, separation and passivity until provoked into action. According to this myth it was not until the Spanish-American war that this reluctant Hercules, spurred on by a yellow, Hearstian press, broke its shackles, lost its innocence and virtue and emerged with a new identity as an important player on the world stage. Clark Kent had suddenly become a dangerous Superman.

Some of Kagan's critics have charged that Dangerous Nation merely topples straw men, that the myth he debunks is no longer widely believed. These critics are mistaken. The belief that the American founding fathers were utopian children of the Enlightenment; that they much preferred their Eden-like playground to the game of international power politics; that they lived in a splendid isolation until the sinking of the Maine and then stepped onto the world stage in the early twentieth century as new world liberators of Old Europe is deeply held, and revered.

Kagan argues in his previous book, Of Paradise and Power, and here in Dangerous Nation that our founding fathers were not utopians; they were well versed in the realities of international power politics. They knew the young republic was weak and used the strategy of weakness to their advantage. For the young republic expansion was a matter of survival. Kagan quotes Catherine the Great's remark “I have no way to defend my borders, but to extend them.” And so we did, and the Pequot, Iroquois, and Narragansett tribes, and the French, Spaniards, and British paid the price. Though security was a principal reason for our territorial expansion, we also wished to enlighten the “savages” and bring to them the spiritual, economic and political blessings of a revolutionary ideology, of the natural workings of the market, of the meaning of prosperity and property. We imposed our values on a people with a very different conception of human nature and social order. Kagan also portrays the Declaration of Independence as America's first foreign policy document. Its purpose was to create the legal basis necessary to form alliances with European powers, the very opposite of isolationism. Thus, from our beginning “foreign policy and national identity were intimately bound together, and they would remain so for the next two centuries.”

Foreign statesmen recognized this trend in American policy, and feared its impact. In 1817 our Minister in London, John Quincy Adams, reported home “the universal feeling of Europe …that we shall, if united, become a very dangerous member of the society of nations.” To many European monarchs and to native Americans we were “A Dangerous Nation” and probably still are. But is that bad? Kagan would argue that being “dangerous” on the world stage can be beneficial by promoting political, cultural and social revolutions around the world. And he notes the continuity in American policy, comparing early efforts to achieve security through territorial expansion with contemporary “globalization” which he defines as a “process whereby American-style market economies engulfed nearly the entire world and engendered similar resistance from the non-Western cultures it swept across.”

A major and important part of the book focuses on the relationship between slavery and foreign policy. Kagan believes that a nation's foreign policy reflects the nature of its polity, and thus the struggle over American slavery had an important impact on American foreign policy from the 1820's until the Civil War. During this period the South, ever more fearful about the security of its slave society, pushed for territorial expansion, for the annexation of Texas, the cession of Mexican territory and a southern empire in the Caribbean centered on Cuba. By contrast the North's strategy for the gradual and peaceful defeat of southern slavery in Kagan's view resembled the strategy of containment set forth by George Kennan and other Americans a hundred years later at the beginning of the Cold War. Northern political leaders “believed the peaceful containment of slavery was the surest and safest route to its destruction” just as Kennan believed “the Soviet Union's totalitarian system bore within it the seeds of its own decay.”

There was a road not taken by the United States. If Lincoln had agreed to the "hereafter clause" of the Crittenden Compromise allowing for the annexation of Cuba and other tropical territories, the south might have remained in the Union pursuing its dream of a slave empire and this policy, according to Kagan, would have become national policy. He wonders what role the U.S. would have played in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries if we had become such a power. No less a figure than Adolf Hitler lamented this road not taken, stating that “the beginnings of a great new social order based on the principle of slavery and inequality were destroyed by [the Civil War] and with them the embryo of a future truly great civilization.”

By the late 1850's Lincoln was justifying a “second American revolution” not against an imperial master but against the domestic institution of slavery. Americans, he said, must fulfill the promise of the Declaration of Independence by defending and promoting the natural rights of its citizens, not only for America but for all men everywhere. Thus, according to Kagan, the Civil War and the abolition of slavery fulfilled the ideals of the Declaration and were, as well, decisive turning points in the history of American foreign policy.

America emerged from the Civil War more powerful and influential than before, almost invulnerable to a serious attack from outside. Kagan details the resulting growing American assertiveness in the Western Hemisphere as well as in Asia and the Pacific. But post Civil War, the U.S. Navy was small, smaller even than Chile's navy. Thus, asserting American power required a larger and more modern naval fleet, a task we took up in 1881. A stronger navy enabled us to play a credible role in such crises as “Samoa” in 1885 where we went to the brink of hostilities with Germany, and Venezuela in 1895 where we confronted the British.

Kagan concludes by recounting in vivid detail the run up to the Spanish-American war. By the time McKinley took office in 1897 the situation in Cuba had taken a dramatic turn for the worse. The full horrors of Spain's “reconcentration” policy were beginning to emerge. Contemporary estimates put the number of fatalities somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000. It was a humanitarian disaster that some today would call genocide. Although the so-called “yellow press” fabricated a few stories, in the main their reporting was accurate. Greater public awareness inflamed anti-Spanish currents in public opinion and both political parties favored war. Consequently, Kagan argues that the Spanish-American war “may well have been the most popular war in American history.” He believes it was fought for humanitarian purposes primarily and that our intervention in Cuba “had an unusually high degree of selflessness.” But Europeans viewed our intervention with some anxiety and considerable hostility—not greatly different from contemporary reactions to American military adventures. European commentators wrote about American “materialism, greed, vulgarity, selfishness, hypocrisy and barbarism.”

The Spanish-American war was thus both a culmination and a new departure. It was “the not-illogical result of all that had come before…the product of deeply ingrained American attitudes toward the nation's place in the world…the product of a universalist ideology as articulated in the Declaration of Independence …an expression of who the American people were and what they had made of their nation.” I look forward to the second volume to see what Kagan thinks of how the U.S. used its power in the 20th century. One thing seems clear; American assertiveness in the 20th century was not the sharp policy departure that our cherished myth believes it to be.


Michael Hornblow is an associate editor of American Diplomacy.

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