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Dangerous Nation

by Robert Kagan

Knopf, 527 pages, $30

“These Yankees are most disagreeable Fellows to have to do with about any American question,” an exasperated Lord Palmerston complained in the middle of the nineteenth century. “They are on the Spot, strong, deeply interested in the matter, totally unscrupulous and dishonest and determined somehow to carry their Point.”

In Dangerous Nation , an interesting and objective history of American foreign relations from the colonial period to the Spanish-American War, Robert Kagan shows that many foreign observers have shared the British prime minister’s assessment. Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many outsiders viewed Americans as belligerent, greedy, and sanctimonious, eager to gain territory and spread a destabilizing ideology to people who didn’t want it. Europeans in particular watched America’s growing power with alarm, convinced, in John Quincy Adams’ words, that the United States would in time “become a very dangerous member of the society of nations.”

This hostility tended to surprise Americans. Then, as now, Americans saw themselves as peaceful, disinterested sorts who avoided foreign quarrels whenever possible. The United States “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy,” Adams remarked in 1821. Yet Kagan shows that the criticisms had some foundation. The United States in the nineteenth century was a relentlessly expansive power. It took advantage of any opportunity to displace other peoples and countries in North America, by cajolery when possible and by violence when necessary. Despite Adams’ protestations, the United States did indeed inject itself into overseas controversies, sometimes only rhetorically but, when circumstances allowed, with military force as well.

And yet, Kagan explains, American expansiveness was not simply a matter of realpolitik . Like other states throughout history, America sought wealth and dominion. But Americans also believed, genuinely, that they had a mission to spread their civilization around the globe. In encouraging liberal commercial republicanism, they thought they were promoting universal human values that would benefit everyone everywhere.

In Kagan’s telling, the pattern of American expansion formed early in the nation’s history, during the colonial period. The Puritans may have established their colony with an eye toward redeeming English Christians. But, Dangerous Nation notes, there were obvious fortunes to be made in America, and the Puritans quickly abandoned notions of a godly commonwealth in favor of materialism and individualism. (Kagan generally tends to minimize the role of religious motives.) Along with other colonists, they pushed the frontier farther and farther west in search of greater opportunity. Increased settlement caused friction with the colonists’ neighbors on the continent and led to the first major foreign-policy crisis in American history, the French and Indian War, a conflict that the colonists enthusiastically supported, even lobbied for. The Crown’s attempt to restrict American settlement after the war was one of the grievances that led the colonists to declare independence in 1776.

Americans did not think of expansion simply in mercenary terms, however. Particularly after the Revolution, they saw themselves as advance agents for a new, benevolent civilization that responded to universal human aspirations. “The United States was the world’s first modern, commercial liberal republic,” Kagan writes, and its foreign policy was naturally “shaped . . . by the wants and desires of several million free individuals in search of wealth and opportunity.” Americans “celebrated acquisitiveness,” as well as thrift and hard work, as virtues. They believed that individual freedom”economic, political, and religious”was the surest means of promoting social progress. Liberty for Americans was not simply a matter of “pepper and ginger,” as European critics sneered. It was the best hope of humanity, and Americans had a mission to help make it available for all peoples everywhere.

Well, almost. Kagan is candid about inconsistencies between American ideals and conduct in the nineteenth century. For example, he does not ignore the treatment of Indian tribes. Americans such as Thomas Jefferson talked a good game, telling Indians that they should adopt American laws and institutions and become “one people with us,” but even Indians who tried to assimilate did not receive protection from white settlers who wanted their land.

Slavery, too, made American assertions about universal rights ring hollow, a fact that many Americans recognized. Kagan interestingly explores the impact of slavery on American foreign policy. In the antebellum period, Southerners were the main champions of territorial expansion”in Texas, for example”which they saw as a means of preserving the slave economy. Northern politicians resisted expansion for the same reason. “The problem with manifest destiny,” one Northerner explained, “was that it ‘always traveled south.’” After the Civil War”Kagan has relatively little to say about foreign policy during the war itself”the dynamic was reversed: Northerners, who had used their influence to end a domestic evil, felt confident that they could do similarly good things abroad. Southerners, by contrast, took a more skeptical view of American crusades, having been, as Kagan points out, on the receiving end of American power during the war and Reconstruction.

America had a deeply religious culture in the nineteenth century, and Kagan addresses the impact of religion on foreign policy. Yet it is fair to say that he discounts religious motivations. For example, he treats the Second Great Awakening more or less as an epiphenomenon. Certainly the “missionary tradition” influenced foreign policy, he concedes, but the missionaries were themselves only part of a wider meliorist movement.

This seems a little strange. Evangelical Christianity was an extremely powerful force in nineteenth-century politics, particularly among Northern Whigs, and it played a more active role in foreign policy than Kagan suggests. One could make a good case that Protestant missionaries drove American policy in China and Korea during this period. Kagan mentions the missionaries’ influence”he notes that Grover Cleveland dispatched Navy gunboats to protect them in China”but their role deserves more emphasis. Similarly, missionaries helped shape America’s response to nationalist aspirations among Christians in the Ottoman Empire, though that is perhaps more a matter for Kagan’s projected second volume.

One religious impulse that does loom large in Kagan’s telling is the anti-Catholicism of the period. Many American politicians and intellectuals”what we would today call the leadership class”saw Catholicism as an obstacle to human progress. Early in the nineteenth century, for example, Jefferson derided Latin Americans as a “priest-ridden people” who could not possibly maintain free institutions. Adams felt the same way and dismissed the benefits of political or commercial relations with them. Future president William Henry Harrison, on a diplomatic mission, lectured Simón Bolívar on the “intolerant character” of the Colombians’ religion, which, Harrison argued, was preventing the development of American-style constitutional government. (Kagan notes that Harrison “soon got himself ordered out of the country.”) Decades later, Americans still were wary of their southern neighbors. “In a largely Protestant America,” Kagan writes, “it was widely assumed that Catholicism produced despotism and was incompatible with democracy.”
Kagan draws his themes together in the example with which he closes his book: America’s decision to declare war against Spain over Cuba in 1898. America had long cast a covetous eye on Cuba, both as a means of protecting the Gulf of Mexico and as a base for expanding American influence in the Caribbean. As secretary of state, Adams had refused to forswear designs on the island; the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, for which he was largely responsible, pointedly opposed only European efforts to seize Spanish territory in the Western Hemisphere. American commercial and political interests in Cuba were still strong at the end of the century, and America itself was stronger. Europeans of all political persuasions complained that, in declaring war, the United States was acting like a greedy bully.

Kagan maintains that American motives for going to war were not so simple. Indeed, he argues, they were primarily idealistic. In attempting to put down the Cuban rebellion, Spain ordered the internal deportation of large numbers of people to concentration camps; as a result of conditions, hundreds of thousands of Cubans died. American public opinion could not tolerate such suffering so close to American shores. When critics pointed out that the situation of Cubans in Cuba was really “none of our business,” Henry Cabot Lodge responded that the South had said precisely the same thing about slavery. Moreover, the rebels were resisting one of the most backward”and Catholic”powers of Europe. “If that for which the Spanish Empire has stood since the days of Charles V is right,” Lodge explained in 1895, “then everything for which the United States stands and has always stood is wrong.” In supporting Cuban independence, Americans were promoting the spread of liberal ideals that they themselves had espoused at the time of their own revolution.

Were Americans like Lodge lying about their motives? It’s possible, but, as Kagan points out, such arguments were widespread among both Republicans and Democrats in the run-up to the war. Teddy Roosevelt supported the war, but so did William Jennings Bryan. And, despite European criticisms about American greed, the United States never did annex Cuba. Like all such decisions, the American decision to go to war in 1898 was influenced by many factors, honorable and dishonorable, but Kagan makes a good case that, “measured against the real world of nations and human beings, the intervention in Cuba had an unusually high degree of selflessness.”

Kagan will discuss the aftermath of the war, and the course that American foreign policy took in the succeeding century, in his next book. Kagan is a neoconservative, and, more than other schools, neoconservatism has inherited the nineteenth-century sense of mission that Dangerous Nation describes. That sense of mission, among other things, led to the Bush administration’s current campaign to install liberal democracy in Iraq, the results of which remain to be seen. However he ultimately accounts for such new developments, Robert Kagan has here provided a fair and often persuasive account of much of what has gone before.

Mark L. Movsesian is the Frederick A. Whitney Professor at St. John’s University School of Law, where he teaches international law subjects.