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A Historical Warning


Diamond Member
Nov 22, 2003
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Outward Bound
The U.S. has always been a "dangerous nation" on the world stage.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006 12:01 a.m. EDT

As the second Bush presidency pushes forward amid recriminations over Iraq, many Americans turn to history for solace. Isolationists look to George Washington's famous Farewell Address of 1796 and invoke his injunction to avoid "entangling alliances" with European powers. Realists celebrate John Quincy Adams's ringing Independence Day oration of 1821. How often have we been reminded of his declaration that America "goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy"? They warn, as Adams did, that America "might become the dictatress of the world." Likewise, Pat Buchanan never tires of telling us that the U.S. is a "Republic, not an empire."

Yet as Robert Kagan shows in his brilliant and absorbing "Dangerous Nation," the U.S. has always been an empire and a "menace," not only to its ill-governed neighbors but also to tyrants and hegemons across the world.
Americans broke with Britain not because it was an empire but because it was not imperialist enough. As Mr. Kagan notes, London gave mortal offense to the colonists through the Proclamation Line of 1763, which banned any further expansion that might come at the expense of the Indian tribes. It imposed this restriction some time before it seriously attempted to put British hands in American pockets.

After independence, there was a fundamental divide between Thomas Jefferson's ambition for an expanding--but agrarian--territorial empire and Alexander Hamilton's vision of a commercial state with a European-style apparatus of government, including a standing army and a central bank. America compromised: It would be both. From then on, as Mr. Kagan shows, "big government" was to be as American as empire and apple pie.

In the early 19th century, Americans became enthusiastic supporters of national independence movements in Poland, Greece and especially Latin America. U.S. governments lagged somewhat behind, but presidents such as James Monroe in the 1820s saw the world very much in terms of international republican solidarity.

This penchant caused considerable unease among conservative powers such as Austria, Prussia and Russia, who did not welcome the emergence of an ideological and strategic competitor in the West. John Quincy Adams remarked approvingly that "the universal feeling of Europe in witnessing the gigantic growth of our population is that we shall, if united, become a very dangerous member of the society of nations." Hence Mr. Kagan's ironically approving title.

Mr. Kagan is much too subtle a writer to make direct comparisons with our own times, but they are ubiquitous in "Dangerous Nation"--hiding, as it were, in plain sight.
Thus he speaks of Benjamin Franklin's plans for a "pre-emptive strike" against the French in the 1750s, by expelling them from Quebec before they could overrun the 13 colonies. There are clear echoes of Mr. Bush's Second Inaugural when Mr. Kagan writes that the Founding Fathers "believed their own fate was in some way tied to the cause of liberalism and republicanism both within and beyond their borders."

The question of whether Latin America was "ready" for representative government, which so vexed 19th-century Americans, is surely intended to remind us of the debates today over whether the Middle East is suited to democracy. And Mr. Kagan's handling of the Spanish-American War of 1898 reads like an extended analogy to the NATO intervention in Kosovo a century later--great powers must sometimes intervene in nonvital zones, to lessen suffering and contain oppressive regimes.

The purpose of Mr. Kagan's project--this is the first volume of two on the history of American foreign policy--is never made explicit, but its outlines are clear: to craft an intellectual and historical lineage for what is today loosely described as neoconservatism. Without saying so, he demonstrates that the principles that led to the removal of Saddam Hussein, and that underlay the plan for a democratic transformation of the Middle East, were not just cooked up in some Washington coven but sprang from the mainstream of American history.

Interestingly, some of the most bitter opponents of this tradition have been Southerners. They had seen American moral crusading and "nation building" in action during the Civil War and Reconstruction, Mr. Kagan reminds us, and they did not like it one bit. It is no accident, surely, that Sen. William Fulbright, whose critique of the "arrogance" of American power in the 1960s was one of the shibboleths of the antiwar movement, should have come from Arkansas. No surprise either that Sen. Robert Byrd's fulminations against the Iraq war should come from a man who was once a proud citizen of the segregated South.

Many critics of U.S. foreign policy will not need persuading that America is a dangerous nation--or even a "rogue nation," as some recent critics have called it. Others will quip that the U.S. is indeed dangerous: It is its own worst enemy. But then "Dangerous Nation" is not aimed at them. It is meant for the general reader, of course, and for those in sympathy with the projection of American power in recent times--that is to say, those who support President Bush and the "neoconservative" outlook of his administration.

But the book is also intended for Democrats, who may at first hate it. They will bristle at the breezy triumphalism with which Mr. Kagan chronicles the annexations that completed the union. They will think it no coincidence that Mr. Kagan's 19th-century heroes are mostly Republicans, and they will sharpen their knives for the second volume.

But they may want to think before they strike. As it happens, Democrats have special reason to look forward to the 20th-century sequel, for Mr. Kagan's narrative of American power is, in many ways, the story of their own party. Soon enough, the torch will pass to Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Truman, Kennedy and, if we think of NATO's belated Balkan intervention, even Bill Clinton. There should be something in this project for almost everyone.

Mr. Simms teaches modern European history at the Centre of International Studies, Cambridge University. Purchase a copy of Mr. Kagan's book "Dangerous Nation" at the OpinionJournal bookstore here.

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