Commentary Magazine

Dangerous Nation by Robert Kagan

Liberators & Occupiers
Dangerous Nation
by Robert Kagan
Knopf. 527 pp. $30.00

The history of America’s role in the world is usually told in two stages. In the first, lasting to the end of the 19th century, America is said to have been animated by the belief that it should preserve its exceptional character by avoiding (in George Washington’s famous phrase) “foreign entanglements.” In the second, starting with the Spanish-American war (1898), the U.S. is seen as fitfully shedding this stance of proud isolation and, for better or for worse, becoming increasingly involved overseas—until, in the aftermath of World War II, it emerges as a superpower and an arbiter of global affairs.

As Robert Kagan tells it, however, the true story is nearly seamless. In this daring new book by the author of Of Paradise and Power (2003), two conjoined themes dominate: at home, the ambition for territorial expansion across as much as possible of the new continent; abroad, an aboriginal sense that liberty for America is only the beginning of liberty for the world, with a consequent tendency toward foreign-policy activism. Moreover, these two themes, far from being at odds, have been mutually reinforcing.

The common denominator, Kagan holds, has been the age-old American willingness to upset the order of things, not only out of reasons of self-interest but also because of ideological convictions believed by Americans to possess general applicability. This unique combination of material ambition with equally strong moral beliefs is what, from the beginning, has made America a, or rather the, “dangerous nation”—with the qualifier that, for Kagan, the word “dangerous” is emphatically a term of praise, since much of what America has “endangered” has been in desperate need of its reforming hand.



This is the first of two projected volumes, and it stops with the Spanish-American war. Kagan lays out his essential case as early as the first chapter. There, citing John Winthrop’s celebrated evocation of America as a “city upon a hill,” he repudiates the conventional historiographic picture of Puritan America “as a pious Greta Garbo, wanting only to be left alone in her self-contained world.” The Puritans, according to Kagan, were not isolationists; from the start, they had a redemptive mission in mind. Originally that mission was focused on the hoped-for religious reformation of the lands they had left behind. But their arrival in America “helped unleash liberal, materialist forces within Protestantism that overwhelmed the Puritan fathers’ original godly vision and brought New England onto the path . . . toward individualism, progress, and modernity.”

For Kagan, the American Revolution was similarly a joint product of material interests and deep-seated idealism. The crisis came at a time when North American power, measured in wealth, population, and military means, was on the increase, a reality that Britain was showing itself unwilling to accommodate. But Americans also believed, writes Kagan, that “it was their unique liberties that had produced their successes” (emphasis added). This spirit could not be contained by the geographical limits of the thirteen colonies; nor would the colonists have wished to contain it. And so it was that, by 1776,

the ambitions driving Americans toward their future overwhelming global power were already in place. Aspirations to greatness, visions of empire, and a belief in the exceptional freedoms enjoyed in the colonies all played a part in fomenting the War of Independence with Great Britain.

Kagan says little about how the War of Independence actually began or how it was resolved. Washington’s farewell address, with its injunction to avoid foreign entanglements, he interprets not so much as a spelling-out of general principles as a shot in the battle between Federalists and Republicans—and specifically between Hamilton and Jefferson—about the future sympathies of the new country. For him, Washington’s point was not so much general as aimed against those, like Jefferson, who were inclined to favor the cause of France in its revolutionary wars.

As for Jefferson’s own conduct of foreign policy as President, it was a divided affair. Although unwilling, for example, to support building “the kind of navy that would have been required to challenge the British,” he nevertheless followed both Washington and his own immediate predecessor John Adams in

refus[ing] to accommodate British policies he considered humiliating and dangerous to the young American republic. The result was a policy, not uncommon in American history, in which hopes ran ahead of realities and in which means did not match ends.

It is against this mixed background that Kagan reads the War of 1812. By most measures an American defeat, the war nevertheless gave rise to a “nationalist enthusiasm” that “crossed sectional, class, and generational lines” and drew the country ever more onto the path that would lead to superpower status a century-and-a-half later.



Treating, next, the runup to the Civil War, Kagan points again to the mismatch between hopes and realities that would be resolved only by the exercise of a firm belief in the rightness of the country’s cause. Americans were unprepared for hostilities and reluctant to enter them. But, as President, Abraham Lincoln was ready to “risk secession and even war rather than countenance the transformation of the Union, Jefferson’s ‘empire for liberty,’ into an empire for slavery.” When, in the end, and despite nearly all expectations, the Union emerged victorious, a huge impetus was given to the idea of America as a morally driven power.

Finally, Kagan considers the period up through the Spanish-American war. Once again hostilities came only after a long crisis, this one exacerbated by the atrocities committed by Spain as the colonial power in Cuba. Even at the time, these were widely deplored, but not everyone was of the view that they provided a reason for military intervention. About the ensuing war, most later historians would agree with the novelist and editor William Dean Howells, who wrote to his sister: “I think we are wickedly wrong.” And most would take that war as a curtain-raiser to the “Age of American Imperialism”—i.e., the century about to dawn.

Kagan concedes the ambiguities but registers a strong demurral:

Too few, in my opinion, have seen or perhaps have wanted to see how the [Spanish-American] war was the product of . . . a universalist ideology as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. . . . It derived . . . especially from the experience of the Civil War, that great, bloody moral crusade that so many Americans of the late 19th century used as their model of a “selfless” war on behalf of “humanity” and “civilization.” It grew out of old and potent American ambitions.

The Spanish-American war, too, in his reading, was no departure from a long-set American pattern of isolationism, but rather another milestone on a humanitarian journey whose direction had long been clear.



As I have already indicated, most historians would part company with Robert Kagan on his fundamental thesis of continuity. For some, the real story is of a country that, tragically, would come to forgo its pristine and blessed isolation from the wretched squabbles of the world and the horrors of war; for others, by contrast, it is of a country that by World War I would somehow arrive at a more mature understanding of the links between its own freedoms and security and the peace of the world; for still others, it is of a country whose growing hubris and triumphalism would propel it into becoming the bully and terror of nations. Common to all is the conviction that something changed, radically, in the course run by America since the founding, and that the role played by the United States today would have been inconceivable and unwelcome before the 20th century.

Kagan’s is a counter-case. Although Dangerous Nation is a book of synthesis and interpretation rather than of primary scholarship, he advances that counter-case clearly and with a great deal of evidence. He also writes with real power and charm. But does he convince?

It is a shortcoming of Dangerous Nation that, in articulating his broad argument, Kagan spends little time refuting in detail the conventional view, particularly as voiced by those basing themselves on precise considerations of the circumstances leading to a particular policy or a particular war. On that basis, for instance, it is possible to understand American independence in 1776 as the product more of British incompetence than (as Kagan would have it) of colonial passion. Bear in mind that the first shots were fired at Concord and Lexington, that Washington assumed command of the Continental Army at Cambridge, and that the battle of New York took shape in the fifteen months before the Declaration was written. Kagan does not discuss this interim period, but it could be read as suggesting an American ambivalence toward independence that ran deeper than he admits, and thus as lending force to the argument (put forward by the historian John Pancake and others) that it was really George III’s rejection of compromise and his insistence that the colonists be brought to heel that eventually forced the hand of the Americans.

Radicalism there may have been in aspects of the war, and shining idealism in both the Declaration and the Constitution. Jefferson in particular was an eloquent advocate of freedom, at least for the white population. But, once in office, he too would prove indecisive and feckless in defending the vulnerable new country.

In fact, Jefferson had little concept of what hostilities might require and generally thought they could be avoided. Rather than taking up arms to maintain the American interests that were threatened by the Napoleonic wars, he attempted to bring both Britain and France to heel by stopping all American trade from 1807 to 1809. Needless to say, he overestimated the hurt this would inflict and underestimated the domestic reaction: unrest grew as the nation’s ports were closed and numerous mariners and merchants faced ruin, forcing eventual repeal of the measure.

His dramatic confrontation with the Barbary pirates aside, Jefferson’s mishandling of international relations provides little support for Kagan’s view of an America willing to stand up for itself, let alone for others. Nor does he even mention the Hartford Convention of 1814-1815, where dissatisfaction with the foreign policies of Jefferson (and Madison) led to talk of a New England secession.

Kagan is far better on the effects that the slavery debate had on foreign policy in the mid-19th century, although unfortunately he scants the complex impact of abolitionists and New England transcendentalists on later American attitudes toward war. Ralph Waldo Emerson appears only once in his text, and Henry David Thoreau not at all; but to read Emerson today, with his bold contention that human progress has rendered war obsolete and that understanding and good will among nations can defuse conflict, is to recognize a mindset that even then had come to define at least one strong element in America’s stance toward the world—at the time, almost as strong as the “imperialistic” impulses that led to President James Polk’s invasion of Mexico in 1846.

Nor is the Civil War itself an entirely satisfactory example of the prophetic nation armed, or of a “selfless” war on behalf of “humanity.” The first wave of Southern secession was accomplished with no bloodshed. With the sole exception of Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina (and Fort Pickens off Pensacola, Florida), every Southern federal installation was turned over to the Confederacy, gentleman to gentleman, without struggle. Even in the case of Fort Sumter, Lincoln sought to avoid armed conflict, assuring the Confederates that only food and necessities, not munitions, would be provided to the garrison by the ships he was sending there. It was not until the Confederates themselves opened fire that war began. Absent the misjudgment that led to that artillery barrage, the original Confederacy might have survived—and even, possibly, have been joined peacefully by states like Virginia.

As for the Spanish-American war over the Philippines and other Spanish possessions in the Caribbean and Pacific, Kagan is surely right that it did not announce the sudden arrival of a new “American imperialism.” But what, then, was it about? The Philippines are an example of just how peculiar the idea of American empire really is. Our fleet arrived in Manila Bay and supported the democratic revolution then taking place on the islands. Then we decided to conquer them, in a bloody war whose most vivid image is the photograph of a Marine standing atop a great heap of Filipino skulls and bones. But, having completed the conquest of the islands by the second decade of the new century, we then began trying to introduce democracy and to set a date for their independence.

This zigzag course is hardly an example of how a confident imperial power would have acted at the height of the age of global European imperialism. It was, however, typically American—albeit not in the sense intended by Kagan. For the United States was pretty much forced into the Philippine adventure by German pressure, as Berlin sought to build its own empire out of the ruins of the Spanish. Once again, it could be plausibly argued that American foreign policy was reactive far more than it was active.



In brief, Kagan passes too lightly over the enduring impulse of Americans to stay aloof from conflict—at least until it can no longer be avoided. To suggest that, from the start, a single-minded idealism and activism have propelled American actions both at home and abroad is to oversimplify. And yet, all this having been said, Dangerous Nation does nevertheless illuminate something very important about the unfolding history of American foreign policy and of the American character.

In my view, Kagan is entirely correct to stress the degree to which belief about what is right has regularly figured in the formation of American policy—if not as an engine, then at least as a brake. For the colonists, such positive belief certainly encouraged and nurtured the demand for independence—even as, in the end, a sense of what was intolerable drew a line upon which the colonists had no choice but to stand. Similarly, the belief in human freedom fueled the movement to abolish slavery, but it was not until the Confederate attempt to extend the system that a real casus belli was established. How else to explain Lincoln’s final decision to fight at Fort Sumter? Although flexible and compromising, he had a marker, informed by moral concepts, beyond which he would not move. Similarly, too, it was not opposition to colonialism, powerful though that was, but rather the menacing prospect of German conquest that led us to intervene in the Spanish islands and take up our characteristically baffling dual role as liberators and occupiers.

That high principle has always been fundamental to American policy, even at its most self-serving, and fundamental in a way that distinguishes us from other countries, is an important point to bear in mind today, in the midst of another war. Indeed, as our policy in the Middle East is being confidently pronounced an abject failure, and as we are being counseled on all sides to give up our quixotic mission, forget the cause of freedom, and concentrate on power and money like everyone else, the temptation to become a less “dangerous” nation may seem increasingly hard to resist.

But as Kagan makes clear—if at times clearer than the facts warrant—this has never been and can never be the American way. The theories put forward by political realists, for whom only material and military “interests” matter, simply do not explain us or our history. For his defense of this true insight we are in his debt, and can look forward with much anticipation to his second volume.


About the Author