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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.