On July 4, 1821, John Quincy Adams declared that the United States “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” Wishing freedom for all, America knew that by intervening to support independence for other nations “she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication” in wars of interest and intrigue. “She might become the dictatress of the world,” Adams concluded, but “she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”
Along with Washington’s Farewell Address, Adams’ Independence Day oration is often cited as evidence of an American tradition of non-entanglement with a corrupt and corrupting world. But according to Robert Kagan, a former State Department official and influential neoconservative, Americans’ image of themselves as inward-looking and restrained—except in response to attacks—isn’t necessarily shared by others, who see the United States as an ambitious, violent nation, always ready to encroach upon its neighbors. The less flattering version was, in a sense, true, Mr. Kagan asserts in Dangerous Nation, a sweeping, essentially superficial reinterpretation of American foreign policy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Americans did exhibit an appetite for territory as they raced across the continent, trampling on Indians and Mexicans, the Spanish in Florida and the French in Louisiana. But Mr. Kagan claims that the nation’s expansionist behavior was motivated less by acquisitiveness or a lust for power than by a commitment to spread democracy, freedom and prosperity throughout its hemisphere and around the world.
From the outset, Mr. Kagan emphasizes, neither a “restive and energetic American people” nor the politicians who represented them sought isolation. Washington’s Farewell Address was a temporary expedient for a fledgling nation, a pose struck to prevent an alliance with France. Andrew Jackson had routed the Seminoles in 1818 in an attempt to wrest control of Florida. And Americans supported independence movements in Latin America and Greece in the 1820’s. Convinced that a liberal ideology gave American nationalism an international component, Mr. Kagan declares that John Quincy Adams’ audience “barely noticed” his “comparatively brief appeal for American restraint.”
Mr. Kagan contends that slavery had a profound impact on American foreign policy. Convinced that slavery must spread to survive, Southerners pushed for the annexation of Texas, Cuba and Mexico. In response, anti-slavery politicians in the North, including Adams and Daniel Webster, who had been expansionists early in their careers, opposed empire-building. After the Civil War, Southerners, scarred by memories of military occupation and the forced enfranchisement of blacks, made sure that the Democratic Party renounced territorial ambitions. Republicans, however, were even more determined to apply the Civil War model of a “‘selfless’ war on behalf of ‘humanity’ and ‘civilization’” to would-be or could-be “sister republics.” At the end of the century, Mr. Kagan concludes, two earthquakes—economic depression and populism— broke the political logjam and brought these Republicans to power. The “new departure” in foreign policy that ensued was actually a continuation and culmination of historical forces “reaching back to before the founding of the nation.”
Dangerous Nation is provocative; it is not persuasive. Relying on the work of other scholars rather than immersion in original sources, Mr. Kagan seems to cherry-pick the intelligence, omitting information that’s not congenial to his thesis. Although politicians often have two reasons for their actions—a good reason and the real reason—he takes at face value the pronouncements that moral and humanitarian concerns shaped American foreign policy in the late 19th century. And he issues a summary judgment against economic interpretations without giving them a hearing, let alone a trial.
Many of the myths he shreds are made of straw. Serious students of American foreign policy do not hold that the United States was an isolationist nation. They do not deny that the U.S. used force to satisfy its ambitions for territory in North America and to extend its power in Central America, the Caribbean and South America. And they readily agree that Americans desired to spread their political, economic and cultural values.
Americans may have been in accord about some ends, but they had serious and substantive differences about the means. Some of them thought it un-American to acquire colonies or fight wars of occupation. Mr. Kagan acknowledges that Senator John Sherman of Ohio “spoke for many” when he asked, “What becomes of the republican doctrine that all governments must be founded on the consent of the governed?” Over the next half-century, Mr. Kagan adds, Americans would continue to ask whether in the name of democracy, people could be denied the right of self-determination. But these dissenters do not get their innings in Dangerous Nation, which dwells almost exclusively on the expansionist tendencies in America’s founding principles and gives a misleading impression that there was a consensus about how to establish the nation’s place in the world.
The dissenting tradition in American foreign policy—not the Southern center of gravity in the Democratic Party—was responsible for a foreign policy that “proceeded by fits and starts” until the 1890’s, with treaties signed and then abandoned, the annexation of Hawaii sought and then dropped, a war to liberate Cuba threatened in 1873 and not declared until 1898. And it accounts for the anti-colonialist movement that coalesced during the occupation of the Philippines—and reappeared throughout the 20th century.
Dangerous Nation ends with the Spanish-American War. It makes no mention of our current President’s war in Iraq—but a defense of that war seems to be Mr. Kagan’s subtext. (His book is strewn with the terminology of 21st-century foreign policy: Benjamin Franklin lobbied for a “preemptive strike” against the French and Indians; Reconstruction was America’s “first experiment in ‘nation-building.’”) Mr. Kagan apparently believes that George W. Bush is building on rather than breaking with American foreign-policy traditions. And because those policies are driven predominantly by a freedom-loving morality and humanitarianism, Americans can—and should—wear as a badge of honor the appellation “dangerous nation.” Welcome to Fantasy Island.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.