Robert Kagan appears to enjoy tweaking traditionalist Americans with his use of the word “imperial” in describing the United States.
Of course, the reason Americans hate the word is its association with royalty. Explaining that the word’s primary meaning has to do with empire isn’t too much help; we are still proud to have fought a revolution not to be part of an empire. Rubbing more salt in the wound is the fact that lefties regularly use the word as a pejorative for the United States, as though America were a typically tyrannical colonial power.
Kagan, however, aims to detoxify the word. He contends America has become a de facto empire — even if it is a new and better kind of empire that benefits humanity — so it has accumulated the problems of an empire. If this is true, we have much to learn from empires of the past.
In his latest book, Dangerous Nation, Kagan posits that America has moved toward becoming an empire from its very founding, and tyrants the world over foresaw that reality immediately. His thesis will be provocative to many. The paleoconservatives, for instance, are perfectly willing to pin the imperialist label on George W. Bush but will howl in protest to hear it applied to George Washington. It goes directly against their cherished notion that America was born as an isolationist nation that wanted nothing more than to be a “shining city on a hill."
Much of the misperception of the Founding Fathers' attitude toward foreign policy stems from Washington’s famous farewell address and its exhortation for the U.S. to avoid foreign entanglements. By showing all the ways Washington and the Founders expanded American territory and promoted American power, Kagan debunks the idea that they were isolationists.
Washington’s warning, he writes persuasively, specifically referred to France and the disaster he knew would result if Americans inflamed with revolutionary passions worked to get the militarily weak United States to join the French war against England. That’s been noted before, but one of Kagan’s contributions is his assertion that America was made up of pioneering, entrepreneurial people who were constitutionally (small “c” intended) incapable of huddling in Fortress America. As individuals, they were the most expansionist people on Earth.
His other important contribution in Dangerous Nation is his view that the main reason early Americans are not considered expansionist is that most of their projecting of power took place within what are now the domestic borders of the United States. He asserts that considering the United States’ expansion from the Atlantic to the Pacific as a domestic matter and not one of foreign affairs is wrong. First, even the pioneers who considered the frontier to be "wasted" land considered the Indian lands to be foreign nations of sorts. Second, the United States was asserting itself against England and Spain (and, until the Louisiana Purchase, France), the other great powers with key interests in North America.
Kagan points out that, besides the standard conservative explanation that the most efficient society eventually wins, several factors doomed the American Indian nations. The Americans were pioneers by nature, and the government was neither big nor strong enough to force them to respect Washington-ratified treaties. On the other hand, the government was responsive to democratic pressures, so raids and massacres of settlers (voters) would be answered in kind. These two conditions meant Indian territory would be whittled away no matter what grand intentions might exist in Washington.
The two events that solidified American power on the continent -- Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase and Polk’s war with Mexico — directly contradict the isolationist model. Kagan shows they were not exceptions, but more in keeping with the basic nature of the youthful U.S. He also points out that the Monroe Doctrine, though viewed today mainly as a defensive and anti-imperialist document, was an audacious and aggressive declaration for its time. Monroe initially planned for it to put the United States firmly on the side of republican movements sweeping Europe, thus involving America directly in a worldwide ideological struggle.
Kagan paints an early America burgeoning with energy, dynamism and idealism. Even when exercising power in rather ruthless ways, Kagan writes, Americans believed in an underlying justification to spread “the blessings of liberty.” Private citizens often were out ahead of the government in trying to change their surroundings for the better — not because of ideology but because that was their nature.
“For Americans,” he writes, “the unifying theme of the nation was that they were to be the vanguard of human progress. Their nationalism naturally led them to look beyond the natural boundary.”
This rhetoric began with Washington, Franklin and Jefferson and has been a reliable rallying cry with the American people ever since. Kagan calls it “liberal expansionism,” using the 18th century definition of the word. Those who reflect this attitude today are sneered at as “neocons” by the far right and the far left. Today's liberals mock George W. Bush for saying the terrorists hate us for who we are. But as Kagan points out, foreign monarchs and despots considered the United States a threat from its birth because they feared the example it would set for their subjects. That alone made the United States a “dangerous nation.”
One of the few periods in which American influence did not grow in the world — although Polk was still able to expand the nation from sea to shining sea -- was in the decades leading up to the Civil War. Northerners blocked expansion into territory where slavery might be established, while Southerners felt increasingly isolated and paranoid.
Even before secession, Kagan writes, there were two American foreign policies, North and South. The North’s policy was containment, much like U.S. policy during the Cold War. Kagan believes it might have worked, as the South needed expansion to keep the slave system from imploding. However, the Kansas-Nebraska Act not only increased tensions between slave and free states, but it also ended any chance of containment being a solution. Kagan also shines a foreign policy lens on Reconstruction, pointing out: “The Civil War was America’s first experiment in ideological conquest, therefore, and what followed was America’s first experiment in `nation building.’”
A central theme of Dangerous Nation is that domestic politics have always affected U.S. foreign policy and often has been a partisan tool. The notion that American politics “end at the water’s edge” has been about as true as the avoidance of foreign entanglements.
It did not take long for America to extend its reach in the world, making its presence felt in the Caribbean, Latin America, Alaska, Hawaii and the Philippines. While there were inconsistencies in American foreign policy in the last part of the 19th century, there was one constant: a naval buildup. This was not without its critics who were content with “continental dominance” and worried that giving America the ability to project its power abroad meant it would begin to tamper in the affairs of other countries.
The century culminated with the Spanish-American War, urged by cheerful imperialist and future President, Theodore Roosevelt. Interestingly, while most history texts refer to it as America's first imperial war, Kagan makes the case that it was the first war the U.S. fought primarily for humanitarian reasons, President McKinley having reluctantly gone to war in response to massive death tolls in Cuba.
While Dangerous Nation is relentlessly fascinating, it is slightly less accessible to general readers than his last book, Of Paradise and Power, which wittily explained the differences between Americans and Europeans. Still, like everything this creative and original thinker writes, Dangerous Nation will undoubtedly influence pubic debate and scholarship for years to come.
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