European Affairs


It is in this tradition that Robert Kagan, one of our premier contemporary political theorists, has turned his eye to a re-examination of the history of American foreign policy. In the first of a promised two volume study, Kagan sets out both to explore the roots of contemporary American foreign policy and to challenge some of the prevailing assumptions about the nature of America’s past international conduct. The result is a rich, well researched and masterfully written book which, not surprisingly, reflects the concerns and perspectives that will be familiar to readers of Kagan’s other works – both scholarly (Of Paradise and Power) and polemical (in the pages of the Weekly Standard).


Kagan’s avowed purpose is to challenge the supposed conventional wisdom that America’s founders set the United States on a course of isolation and disengagement in foreign affairs, a tradition which (so the mythology goes) was maintained with consistency until the end of the 19th century, and formed the backdrop of the contentious debates over U.S. entry into the First and Second World Wars. This caricature of the conventional wisdom is a bit overdone – many commentators have previously demonstrated convincingly that Washington’s creed of “no entangling alliances” was a far more sophisticated strategy for the infant nation than simple disengagement. But the power and uniqueness of Kagan’s historical research is the deep connection he explores between the domestic political debate about the nature of the American Republic and the liberal values that it embodies, and the foreign policy implications that partisans of competing views drew from those conceptions.

Kagan’s purpose is not primarily an academic effort to correct the historical record. Rather, he seeks to mine history for insights into contemporary problems. He calls the period of Reconstruction an exercise in “nation-building” and cites the experience both as an example of the challenges facing an occupation and the costs of failing to address the gap between ends and means – lessons which of course are poignant in light of the experience in Iraq today. He identifies the effect of modern communications on shaping U.S. public opinion on foreign affairs in the 19th Century as a precursor of the “CNN factor.” He sees in the U.S. intervention in Tunisia in 1803 an early example of a strategy of regime change. He likens the early 19th century arguments in favor of usurping Indian lands in the name of economic progress to what today is called – in his words – “‘globalization’, a process whereby American-style market economics engulfed nearly the entire world and engendered similar resistance from the non-Western cultures it swept across.” He sees in the Pan American conference of 1889 a forerunner of the 20th century American strategy of building international institutions to further national goals, writing: “Not for the last time in its history, the United States proposed to erect an international institution that would help keep the peace and thereby serve American interests in stability, but without requiring constant American exertions.”

But the most important part of Kagan’s argument concerns the relationship between values and power in American foreign policy. For most historians, the debate over American policy has been seen as one between those who cherished American values of liberty and democracy, but shied from imposing them on others, and those who believed that the U.S. had both a responsibility and interest in actively promoting them abroad. The first view is usually associated with John Quincy Adams (“America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy”), the second with Woodrow Wilson.

Kagan argues that this is a false dichotomy – that most U.S. leaders have firmly embraced the “Wilsonian” view growing inevitably out of the liberal values of American society, and that the rise of a more activist U.S. foreign policy is not a function of changing ideology, but rather of growing capability. Kagan offers his own version of the Thucydidean adage about power: “It is a truism in human affairs that the weak tolerate many things out of necessity that the powerful will not tolerate because they don’t have to.” For Kagan, America’s intervention in Cuba in 1898 was not the hidden hand of American capitalism or evidence of neo-imperialism, but rather an act of humanitarian intervention, made possible for the first time by the dramatic rise of U.S. economic and military power. “That so much human suffering was being inflicted so close to U.S. shores seemed intolerable, especially because Americans believed they had the power to do something about it. That was the difference from the past.”

This argument will be familiar to European readers of Paradise and Power, where Kagan asserts that America’s more activist foreign policy (“Mars”) is a product of America’s greater capability to shape the world in it own image, while Europe’s more restrained approach (“Venus”) is as much about capabilities as about values or interests. In Dangerous Nation, Kagan observes:

“The desire to constrain the great powers of Europe shaped American attitudes toward international law…Their constant appeal to international law owed more to their weakness than any conviction that international behavior could be regulated by legal mechanisms. Later generations of Americans, less vulnerable to European depredations and possessing more power and influence on the world stage, would not always be so enamored of the constraints of international law.”

The factual bases for Kagan’s claims concerning the roots of the Spanish American War will stir a lively debate among historians, but that is largely beside the point. For Kagan, it’s a means to argue that global activism – whether to address genocide in Darfur or despotism in the Middle East – is part of America’s heritage. His argument therefore will have an appeal both to the left and to the right in the United States. After all, the same argument Kagan makes about Cuba in 1898 was made by the Clinton administration to justify intervention in Haiti in 1994.

To his credit, he recognizes that the relationship between power and policy is a two-way street – power enables ambition, but ambition is enlarged by power. Writing about the rise of U.S. power in the 1880’s and ‘90s he notes: “Growing power produced an expending sense of interest and entitlement. But as perceived interests expanded, so did perceived threats and the need for even more power to address them.” Kagan’s title conveys these multiple meanings – the U.S. is a dangerous nation because it rejects the status quo of power politics, but is also dangerous because of its own lack of “self-awareness” about its revolutionary activism. In his introduction, Kagan thoughtfully observes: “Americans have not realized how their expansive tendencies – political, ideological, economic, strategic and cultural – bump up against and intrude on other peoples and cultures. They are surprised to learn that others hate them, are jealous of them, and even fear for their power and influence.”

This is an important work. From this volume, it is not clear whether Kagan views his historical interpretation as a reason for caution that should make Americans more restrained and mindful in going forward or simply as a call for more candor about the nation’s history and enduring intentions. Volume Two will hopefully deliver further insight into what Kagan thinks are the right answers.

James B. Steinberg is the dean of the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. He previously served as Deputy National Security Advisor in the Clinton administration.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 2-3 in the Summer/Fall of 2007.