It is generally accepted today that George W. Bush’s foreign policy—especially his doctrine of preemptive war and his emphasis on the spread of democracy—represents a radical break with the American past. According to the conventional narrative, US foreign policy was originally based on the principle of non-intervention; the American Founders are often invoked in support of the claim that the default position of US foreign policy is isolationism. Who has not heard the argument that Washington’s Farewell Address counsels opposition to foreign attachments and that the Monroe Doctrine represents a ratification of this “isolationist” principle?
But, the narrative continues, while isolationism and non-intervention prevailed during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, circumstances required the United States to abandon this posture at the beginning of the twentieth century. But even then, America did so only reluctantly in response to threats to US national interests. Thus with the exception of the failed effort by Woodrow Wilson to base US foreign policy on idealistic principles and George W. Bush’s quixotic effort to impose democracy on the Middle East, the United States has normally adhered to the principles of foreign policy “realism,” a theory based on the idea that the driving force in international politics is national security, which can be ensured only by the possession of sufficient power relative to other states.
A number of authors have recently demonstrated the falsity of this conventional wisdom. In The Savage Wars of Peace, Max Boot has shown that Americans are hardly isolationist when it comes to the use of military power. In Surprise, Security and the American Experience, John Lewis Gaddis has shown that the statesmen of the Early Republic, usually portrayed as desirous of avoiding foreign entanglements, were more than willing to engage in preventive war to defeat a threat before it became imminent. And in his indispensable A Special Providence, Walter Russell Mead has identified four American “schools of foreign policy,” some more interventionist than others, that have vied for dominance as the United States confronted the challenges of the international political system.
And now in his remarkable new book, Dangerous Nation, Robert Kagan drives a stake through the heart of the “pervasive myth of America as isolationist and passive until provoked…” Kagan goes beyond Boot, Gaddis, and Mead by linking US foreign policy to American political culture and, perhaps more importantly, to the principles of the American founding. He demonstrates the degree to which American foreign policy has been driven not only by interests, in the narrow realist sense, but also by ideology. An implication of Kagan’s argument in Dangerous Nation is that there is lineal progression from the Declaration of Independence to President Bush’s attempt to mid-wife the creation of an Iraqi democracy.
Kagan validates Mead’s insight in A Special Providence that US foreign policy cannot be understood in terms of the two dominant schools of international relations theory, realism and liberalism. The former stresses the importance of power and military security in international affairs and are most concerned about maintaining stability and a peaceful balance of power. For the realist, the state’s most vital interest—and its only meaningful goal, no matter its form of government or what it says for public consumption—is to maintain enough power to ensure its security. The latter contend that the goals of actors within the international political system transcend power and security to include peace and prosperity.
Kagan shows that American principles have been at least as important in shaping US foreign policy as the raw pursuit of power beloved by realists. America’s westward expansion and rise to global power have been inextricably linked to the idea that liberal democracy is the best form of government, not only for the United States, but also for the world at large.
Dangerous Nation is the first of a projected two-volume history of American foreign policy. In it, Kagan, a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a columnist for the Washington Post, traces the development of this uniquely American form of foreign affairs from the pre-Revolutionary colonial period to the outbreak of the Spanish-American War.
Kagan rejects the conventional narrative that portrays the legacy of the American Revolution as anti-imperialist. Indeed, he shows that much of the problem between the colonists and Britain can be traced to the fact that the former had imperial designs of their own that the latter constantly thwarted, as for instance, in the case of the Proclamation of 1763 that attempted to curb trans-Appalachian settlement. Of course in the eyes of the Americans, the empire they envisioned was not to be based on conquest, as had empires of old, but would be instead, in the formulation of Thomas Jefferson, an “empire of liberty.”
Kagan argues that the grand strategy the United States pursued once liberated from Great Britain—and which it has followed ever since—was shaped by two imperatives. On the one hand, it was motivated by the “ravenous appetites of a generation of Americans whom Gouverneur Morris recognized as ’the first-born children of the commercial age.’” According to Kagan, Adam Smith’s 18th-century version of “liberalism,” 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,” contributed to America’s aggressive foreign policy. Marxist critics of the United States and their academic progeny have stressed this element of America’s approach to the world.
But this materialist imperative was wedded to a belief that the United States was the defender of the principles of universal natural rights. Kagan contends that the Americans’ belief in universal rights was no mere rationalization for an aggressive, predatory policy of territorial expansion. Indeed, it was the “the essence of their national identity and therefore had to be a defining characteristic of their participation on the world stage.” Of course, while Americans have traditionally perceived this as a form of moral high-mindedness, others, even in the nineteenth century, have seen it as moralistic and ultimately subversive of the international order.
Perhaps the most interesting part of Dangerous Nation is Kagan’s treatment of the ante-bellum period when the debate over slavery became the central issue of American politics. Kagan shows that this debate affected foreign policy as well. One the one hand, advocates of slavery favored expansion and the creation of a vast slave-holding empire into Mexico and the Caribbean. On the other, anti-slavery Americans were not opposed to expansion on principle, but their support for the growth of the United States was tempered by their fear that American expansion would mean the expansion of slavery. “Mexico will poison us,” lamented one anti-slavery opponent of the Mexican War.
During this period, it was difficult for the United States to portray itself as the defender of universal human rights. The reason was well articulated by Abraham Lincoln in his 1854 speech condemning the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which had effectively blocked the expansion of slavery into most of the territories carved out of the Louisiana Purchase.
I hate [slavery] because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest .
But with the triumph of the North in the War of the Rebellion, the logic of liberty that Lincoln discerned in the Declaration of Independence could be extended to foreign policy as well.
For instance, the stated desire of the United States to free Cuba from a despotic Spain, which helped to bring about the Spanish-American War, can be traced to another speech by Lincoln that illustrates the logic of liberty. In his speech on the Dred Scott Decision of 1857, he said “I think the authors of [the Declaration of Independence] intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say that all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal in ’certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’”
He also argued that the Founders
did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all men were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit. They meant to set up a standard maxim for a free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.
Cannot the logic of this argument be applied to the liberation of Iraq?
While he doesn’t discuss it directly, Kagan illustrated the critically important role of prudence in foreign affairs. According to Aristotle, prudence is the virtue most characteristic of the statesman and is concerned with deliberating well about those things that can be other than they are (means). In foreign affairs, prudence requires the statesman to adapt universal principles to particular circumstances in order to arrive at the means that are best given existing circumstances.
There is no clearer example of the role of prudence in American foreign policy than Washington’s Farewell Address. After the passage that everyone misuses to prove that the real policy of the United States should be isolationist—”…it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves…in the ordinary vicissitudes of [Europe’s] politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships and enmities,” Washington provides the prudential guidance that wise American policy makers have observed ever since (strangely, Kagan does not quote this essential passage in his excellent chapter on the Farewell Address). “If we remain one People, under an efficient government, the period is not far off, when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisition upon us, will not lightly hazard giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest guided by justice shall Counsel.”
Some have suggested that Kagan has set up a straw man, that he overstates the extent to which contemporary Americans imagine U.S. history to be thoroughly isolationist. But consider this statement from an organization created to oppose the alleged “imperial” foreign policy of the Bush administration, the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy. This organization, which included many respected experts in the fields of international relations and foreign/defense policy, contended that “the American people have not embraced the idea of an American empire, and they are unlikely to do so. Since rebelling against the British Empire, Americans have resisted the imperial impulse, guided by the Founders’ frequent warnings that republic and empire are incompatible.”
Reasonable people can disagree with the Bush Doctrine. It may be right or it may be wrong. But while all are entitled to their opinions, they are not entitled to make up their own facts. Kagan shows that the Founders and the statesmen of the Early Republic were not isolationist but prudent and that the US national interest has been concerned with more than simple security—it has always had both a commercial and an ideological component.
Kagan reminds us of the important point that before the American founding, all regimes were based on the principle of interest—the interest of the stronger. That principle was articulated by the Greek historian Thucydides: “Questions of justice arise only between equals. As for the rest, the strong do what they will. The weak suffer what they must.” Inequality, whether between master and slave or between aristocrat and commoner were simply part of the accepted order of things.
The United States was founded on different principles—justice and equality. No longer would it be the foundation of political government that some men were born “with saddles on their backs” to be ridden by others born “booted and spurred.” In other words, no one had the right to rule over another without the latter’s consent.
While the United States has not always lived up to its own principles, it has nonetheless created the standard of justice in both domestic and international affairs. We owe a debt of gratitude to Robert Kagan for making this point so clearly in Dangerous Nation.
This book review is an expanded version of a review that appears in the Spring 2007 edition of the Journal of International Security Affairs.
Mackubin T. Owens is an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center and an associate dean of academics and a professor of national-security affairs at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I. He is writing a history of U.S. civil-military relations.