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Inventing the ‘Liberal Republican’ Mind

In 2003, just as the United States embarked on the war in Iraq, Robert Kagan published a long essay that could be read as a preemptive response to the criticism the war would provoke. Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order1 was, of course, much more than that: it was primarily a perceptive analysis of the differing positions in which the collapse of Soviet power had left the United States on the one hand and Europe on the other. America had become the only superpower in the world, while the major countries of Europe had miraculously buried their ancient differences and their sadly dwindled powers in a single union. The United States was still capable of achieving its aims in the world by force and more ready to use force after September 11. Europe was committed—or reduced—to peace and international cooperation, partly from idealistic principles, partly from weakness, and partly as the beneficiary of the shelter that American power provided. America was Mars, Europe was Venus.

The tract was brilliantly written and disarmed criticism by admitting its portrayal to be a caricature. Of Paradise and Power offered no defense of current American policy but simply a description of the conditions in which foreign relations are now conducted. Kagan surely knew, however, that his words would be read as a defense of the Bush administration’s foreign policy. A year after the essay’s publication, a new edition carried a long afterword that applied his analysis more directly to the war that the United States had undertaken “without the broad benediction of Europe.”2 There Kagan admits the desirability of such a benediction from France and Germany (the only countries that would matter) and offers reasons why it should not be withheld when the United States engages in “defending its own citizens and soil against dictators with deadly arsenals.” He does not exactly say that this is what the Iraq war is about, perhaps because he wishes to stress its long-term roots.

Both in the original essay and in the afterword Kagan sees the militant policies of the United States today as the expression under new conditions of a “universalistic nationalism” that Americans have exhibited throughout their history. He has now written the first of a projected two-volume study of the way that unique form of nationalism has acted, the way Americans have seen their place in the world, and what they have done to create it. The volume under review takes the subject from the founding of the first British colonies to the end of the nineteenth century.

This book, like Paradise and Power, is not quite a defense of American views or policies. It is a narrative and analysis of what they have been. But given Kagan’s prominence as an exponent of current policies and his explanation of them in the essay and afterword, it is difficult not to read Dangerous Nation as historical justification for present positions. And he invites us to read it that way by continually drawing analogies between earlier events and those of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. His main contention is that Americans have never been isolationists, that they have always gone out into the world to remake it in their own image. They have relentlessly expanded their territory, driven not only by population growth but also by the sincere commitment to human rights that they carried wherever they went. The thesis is simple, not to say simplistic, and it fits familiar historical events into a persuasive linear pattern. Universalistic nationalism, expressed in a “liberal republican ideology,” is made to explain the entire course of domestic politics and foreign policy throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Kagan marshals hard facts to support his interpretation. But it is an interpretation and has to be weighed by what it leaves out as well as by what it includes. Although, like Paradise and Power, the book disarms criticism by conceding the existence of exceptions to its generalizations, we are entitled to ask whether the exceptions may sometimes swallow up the rule. The question presents itself at the outset. Kagan begins by denying the isolationism implied in the Puritans’ conception of New England as a “city on a hill,” unique in its attachment to its own righteousness. Drawing on Perry Miller’s seminal histories, Kagan seeks to portray the founders of Massachusetts not as refugees but as “global revolutionaries” who wanted to extend their way of life back to the Old World as well as advancing it in the New. Fair enough. What is left out is the fact that within a decade or two of the founding of Massachusetts, the New England Puritans, by almost any measure, became far more isolationist, far more preoccupied with sustaining their own purity, than with converting others or expanding the reach of their form of government.

No matter, for the Puritans, Kagan argues, have been assigned far too large an influence in later American history. The focus should rightly be on the role of all the colonists, whether in New England or elsewhere, as “The First Imperialists.” In support of this contention he cites their exponential population growth and the demand it produced for more room than the Atlantic coast afforded. To that end, he argues, the colonists pulled England into the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), sometimes called the French and Indian War, but also the Great War for the Empire, that ended with the expulsion of the French from Canada and the Mississippi Valley. Kagan gives Benjamin Franklin a large role in this enterprise because of the lengthy pamphlet he wrote when peace was approaching, urging England’s retention of Canada as an outlet for America’s exploding population. Kagan credits “Franklin and his compatriots” with winning the argument against those who favored returning Canada to France. He accordingly charges Franklin with hypocrisy in later maintaining that the British had instigated and fought the war to advance British imperial ambitions and not to satisfy American demands.

It needs saying that Franklin wrote in the persona of an Englishman arguing for English, not American, interests, and that his pamphlet almost certainly had zero influence on the British ministry’s decision. To prove that the war was the product of American expansionism rather than of British imperialism would require a great deal more evidence than Kagan advances. Neither the British ministry nor the British Parliament welcomed American voices in determining policy in 1763, or ever. The British government paid little heed to the public press on either side of the water.

The ministry’s deafness to the chorus of voices protesting its policies in the 1760s and 1770s resulted in American independence. Here Kagan’s interpretation raises fewer questions. Whatever the objectives of Americans before 1776, with independence they abandoned their contest for the rights of British subjects and entered a claim to nationhood based solely on “universal natural rights, granted by God and enjoyed by all men regardless of nationality, culture, and history.” The Declaration of Independence was not only “the founding document of American nationhood,” but also “America’s first foreign policy document.” By resting American nationhood on the universal rights of man rather than the rights of British colonists, the Declaration made a bid for foreign recognition and assistance, a bid made explicit in the mission to France in search of an alliance. European philosophers were quick to affirm that the American cause was the cause of all mankind. And they had reason to say so, for America was the first nation actually founded on the human rights that philosophers had been extolling as the basis of government. “No French philosophe,” Kagan wryly observes, “had yet proposed the overthrow of the French monarchy.”

Neither did the Americans, who were in no position to challenge the legitimacy of the monarchy whose gold, ships, and soldiers were crucial to waging the war for independence. But the Declaration’s affirmation of human rights did commit the nation to policies that favored those rights in any future contest. For the remainder of Dangerous Nation Kagan examines the ways in which the national government maintained this commitment against successive challenges to it and in various initiatives of its own. In every situation he describes, the Americans’ commitment to human rights obliged them to make the national interest coincide with the interests of all mankind.

It sometimes required Jesuitical reasoning, not to say humbug, for American statesmen to make a self-serving national position appear to be in the long-term best interests, as well as protective of the human rights, of those who might appear to suffer by it. And until 1863 there was the undeniable contradiction of slavery. But in the North, at least, and at first in the South too, the contradiction was recognized and deplored. In spite of that admitted contradiction, Kagan argues, and in spite of hypocrisy here and there, the moral imperative to abide by the “liberal republican ideology” of the Declaration shaped national policies from the beginning.

A sense of that obligation gave a special righteousness to American continental expansion. The leaders of the new republic, almost to a man, expected that the day would come “when the United States would stretch across the entire expanse of the continent, not only westward but also northward into Canada and southward into Mexico.” And they would bear with them the ideology and the form of government that would benefit the people already there and those to come. Americans had not succeeded in getting the British to give them Canada in the treaty that ended the war for independence. Nor did they form a concerted plan to acquire it thereafter. But they assiduously collected parts of the continent as parts became available, confident that the pressure of their population in combination with the rightness of their aims would give them the rest of it sooner or later, and perhaps Cuba as well. The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 was an early piece of luck, enabling them to bring to the French and Spanish inhabitants of that vast expanse an unexpected enjoyment of liberal republican government. The gift was not welcomed as enthusiastically as Americans may have wished, but they knew that more appreciative beneficiaries would be arriving in due time from the eastern states.

The Indian inhabitants of the land, whether east or west of the Mississippi, were even less appreciative than Louisiana’s creoles of the benefits that the United States was eager to confer on them. The American frontiersmen contesting their domain were not perhaps the best teachers of liberal republican principles. Because the Indians would not give up their roaming way of life for a more settled and productive existence, they had to be displaced rather than absorbed. Kagan does not justify the sophistry by which this “civilizationism” was made to seem right. It was inconceivable, liberal republican Americans told themselves, that God intended the boundless riches of his creation to be left in the hands of a people who could not make the best possible use of them. To achieve this end, however, the United States had to deal with the recalcitrant Indian tribes as foreign nations and conduct relations through treaties. Moreover, the treaties, like treaties with other nations, especially backward ones, had to be negotiated with an eye to the human rights of both parties. It was not the treaties as such but the subsequent violations of them that betrayed the established principles of American universalistic nationalism.

  1. 1

    Knopf. See the review in these pages by Tony Judt, April 10, 2003.

  2. 2

    Vintage, 2004, p. 121.

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