Robert Kagan
Robert Kagan; drawing by David Levine

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.

Indian policy was only one of the ways in which foreign and domestic matters were linked by adherence to the liberal republican principles of the founders. From this perspective Kagan is able to give fresh interpretations to familiar landmarks of American history. Thus the federal Constitution of 1787 was brought into existence not only to save the national government but also to give it a strength that would save the reputation of republican principles abroad. “Since for Americans,” he writes, “the national ideology had universal application, restoring or establishing the nation’s honor and reputation appeared to be an obligation not just to themselves but also to mankind.” And showing strength in dealing with foreign governments was equally an obligation. It “would be a guiding sentiment in American foreign policy for the next two centuries: a strong America was good for the world.”

While stressing the foreign policy element in the motives for the Constitution, Kagan emphasizes the domestic purposes of Washington’s Farewell Address, a document famous for its seemingly isolationist warning against permanent alliances. Kagan argues that its main purpose, as written by Alexander Hamilton, was to signal the domestic peril posed by the adherence of Thomas Jefferson’s followers to the French alliance and their infatuation with French political extremism. The address was meant to favor the British; and the choice between Britain and France “was a matter of ideology, not geopolitics. It was the difference between the essential liberalism of the British government and the essential illiberalism of the French revolutionary government.” Kagan does not hesitate to draw a modern parallel. George Kennan’s containment policy, he believes, was motivated by fear of Communist ideology at home and not by “simple balance-of-power calculations.” The Farewell Address was only the first instance of a tendency to mold foreign policy “around a genuine fear of domestic subversion by a foreign power preaching an antiliberal ideology.”

The same dread of subversion produced the infamous Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the outrageous suppression of political dissent that followed their passage. Again there is a modern parallel:

As would later be the case in the 1940s and ’50s, the threat posed by a powerful nation with a foreign ideology regarded as hostile to and subversive of American liberalism led to illiberal extremes in squelching its alleged supporters within the United States.

Twenty-five years after Washington’s ideological pronouncement the Monroe Doctrine made another one. The message, usually invoked for its warning to Europeans against interference in the Western Hemisphere, was actually “a statement of international republican solidarity.” Monroe’s “real purpose…was not to draw geographical distinctions. It was to draw ideological distinctions.”

The rest of the nineteenth century fits more conventionally into Kagan’s thesis of a foreign policy dictated more by ideology than by realpolitik. The problem of slavery made continued expansion into the trans-Mississippi West difficult to square with universalistic nationalism. To annex the lands that Mexico could not defend meant spreading slavery along with freedom. It therefore required a series of political compromises to hold the union together until the principles of the Declaration of Independence could be vindicated in the Civil War. The war itself was “America’s first experiment in ideological conquest…and what followed was America’s first experiment in ‘nation building,'” for “the defeated South was, in the argot of the twentieth century, an undeveloped nation.” Radical Republicans went on to develop it, not without many setbacks.

The war gave a new, positive commitment to the universalist principles of the Declaration. Where Jefferson had written the document in defense of rights violated, Lincoln turned the words “into a positive requirement that government must actively defend and promote those rights.” That requirement was honored in the abolition of slavery (although, in the end, betrayal of the freedmen was the price of national solidarity). After the war, as Americans grew to become a world power, they used their position to support liberal and republican principles as well as, or in conjunction with, the expansion of their trade. As in their continental expansion, they reacted to specific opportunities rather than mounting broad crusades for liberalism or republicanism. In Latin America they would intervene as the self-appointed arbiter of local disputes to promote and protect what they considered the more liberal or republican side. In Asia, as in their relations with American Indians, they could proffer what they considered civilization to overcome resistance to their trading interests by people whom they considered benighted (for example, the Chinese!). And anywhere they met with insults they could make a show of force in defense of a national honor that was also republican honor. It was in defense of that honor and in aid of oppressed Cubans that they went to war with Spain in 1898.

It is an engaging interpretation of American history, made the more so by the author’s skill in presenting it. My condensation cannot do justice to Kagan’s candid recognition of his theme’s ironies and perplexities. Universalistic nationalism is almost an oxymoron, and to follow its permutations in different historical settings requires a good deal of intellectual wrestling. The theme nevertheless retains in the author’s hands the seeming intellectual rigor of other explanations of human conduct that reduce an array of complex phenomena to a single set of postulates. Freudianism, Marxism, and dare we say Straussianism come to mind. But in this case the end result of reducing American policies to the workings of an ideology of obligation is feel-good history, not really at odds with the old-school patriotic interpretations that prevailed in much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and resounded through the eight volumes of George Bancroft’s monumental history of the United States, published between 1834 and 1874. In Kagan’s narrative Americans emerge from nearly every encounter with foreign nations as the good guys. How could they not? In defending their honor, they defended the honor of all republics. In serving their own interests they served the universal interests of mankind.

We have to ask how the “liberal republican ideology,” in which this universalism was expressed, could be made to fit so many disparate situations. With the frequent analogies to its role in later events we somehow suspect that it is ultimately going to dovetail with current policies all too well. What, then, were the liberal republican ideals and aspirations this ideology affirmed? At first glance it would seem surprisingly to enfold and redeem the views of present-day liberals, accustomed to the denunciations pronounced by the disciples of Leo Strauss, among other conservatives inside or outside the White House. Are liberals, after all, the true heirs of an ideology that has guided both foreign and domestic policy for two centuries?

Perhaps not. The word “liberalism” has undergone many changes of meaning and implication over the years. The political philosophers who invented the word identified it as a belief in the sanctity of individual human beings and the desirability of freeing them from needless governmental controls. In the course of the twentieth century liberalism has been associated less with limiting government than with directing it to the service of social justice and democracy.3 The liberalism that Kagan enshrines in his liberal republican ideology conforms at least superficially to the original. American liberalism was derived, he says, from John Locke and Adam Smith and embodied in the Declaration of Independence. But in Kagan’s interpretation it was not simply a political philosophy. Rather it was a live presence, exhorting, indeed commanding individuals and governments to abide by its precepts.

In America, as Louis Hartz emphasized in his classic study,4 liberalism did not have to contend with the stubborn remnants of a feudal past that occupied the whole attention of European liberals. Kagan reifies American liberalism as an “uncontrollable force,” already dictating both the behavior and the policies of Americans in the eighteenth century. What it dictated was not just the protection of private property, but the uninhibited acquisition of property without interference from the government. “The tenets of liberalism,” he explains, “exhorted individuals to seek their fortunes and exalted the acquisition of wealth and property not as selfish pursuits but as virtuous ones.” It was a short step from making the pursuit of wealth a virtue to requiring a national policy of expansion. By banishing “traditional justifications for hemming in individual aspirations, including the aspiration to move onto new lands beyond the national borders,” liberalism “in the eighteenth century, and for the next two hundred years, was the main engine of American expansion.”

“Liberal” by this definition translates pretty easily into little more than a sanction for popular impatience with governmental restraints on greed. It is less an ideology than the absence of one, less a principle than an attitude. Kagan’s liberalism would square comfortably with Daniel Boorstin’s argument that “the genius of American politics” consisted in the absence of ideology, freeing Americans to conduct their politics unconstrained by a priori theories or outworn philosophies of government and civic morality.5 Kagan’s liberalism was universalistic only in the recognition of a robust acquisitive instinct that ought not to be needlessly curbed. It was the liberalism that would later be called “free enterprise.” Free enterprise, as practiced in the nineteenth century, would fend off government interference while sanctioning forms of business (trusts, cartels) that undercut the individual freedom central to classic liberalism.

Republicanism in the eighteenth century burdened its adherents with an obligation to limit the self-interest set free by liberalism. But Kagan eases the burden. He explains in a footnote that by republicanism he means “simply a nonmonarchical form of government” and not the “broader, ideological meaning” given it by historians, which he says “may help explain certain attitudes among the revolutionary generation.” This is an extraordinary statement to make in a book that credits Americans with following a liberal republican ideology throughout their history as a nation. To Americans of the revolutionary generation republicanism meant much more than the absence of monarchy. The Declaration itself was not explicitly a republican manifesto. It was by no means antimonarchical and would not have been incompatible with the constitutional monarchy that Americans thought Britain had created in 1688 and lost in subsequent years. It was directed against “the present king of Great Britain” (emphasis added) and took pains not to mention any “abuses and usurpations” that may have occurred under his predecessors.

The American republic created in 1776 was the product of an ideology that made “public virtue” a prerequisite for republican government. And virtue, whether public or private, meant the opposite of the acquisitive zeal sanctioned as virtue by Kagan’s brand of liberalism. Public virtue consisted in a willingness to sacrifice private to public interests. Republican government, resting as it did on the will of the people, required a virtuous people, ready to embrace that sacrifice. Americans flattered themselves that they fitted the description. They demonstrated it to themselves in the respect they were already showing before 1776 for the orders and recommendations of the Continental Congress which they had assembled in 1774. In competition with the continuing authority of the British monarchy, the Congress had only public virtue to sustain its edicts or its armies until 1783. The Articles of Confederation of 1781 gave it no authority to make laws or enforce them. Even after the Constitution of 1787 created a national republican government, Americans cherished public virtue and worried about losing it, as the English had lost theirs along with the republic they supported during the 1650s.

Public virtue was a fragile thing, imperiled by the avarice and ambition intrinsic to human nature. In 1774, when a member of the Continental Congress proposed to offer an accommodation with Great Britain through the creation of an American parliament operating in tandem with the existing British one, the Congress rejected the proposal because of the danger to public virtue it would pose. As Patrick Henry warned, an American congress connected to the British Parliament would be exposed to corruption “by that Nation which avows in the face of the World, that Bribery is a Part of her System of Government.” Benjamin Franklin, in England at the time, praised the rejection when he heard of it because “the glorious publick Virtue so predominant in our rising Country” would be threatened by exposure to the “extream Corruption prevalent among all Orders of Men in this old rotten State.” Thirteen years later, after putting his name to the Constitution he had helped to draft, Franklin was a little less confident. Leaving the convention hall, he was asked by a bystander what the meeting had produced. “A republic,” he answered, “if you can keep it.”

As Americans entered the nineteenth century, they had kept their republic or believed they had. But they had learned to question their own virtue and to fear the powers that even a republican government might assume. They nevertheless continued to regard public virtue as the hallmark of a republic, and they retained a doubt that other peoples were as well endowed with it as themselves. They did hope that other countries could follow their example, and they rejoiced when France seemed to be doing so in 1789. But as Jefferson confessed to Lafayette in 1823, “whether the state of society in Europe can bear a republican government I doubted, you know, when with you [1785–1789], and I do now.” John Adams, too, musing in later life on his years in France, concluded that America alone was capable of republican government “because the morals of the People and Circumstances of the Country not only can bear it, but require it. But in several of the great nations of Europe, Kings appeared to me to be as necessary as any Government at all.” Isolationism has never been far below the surface in American life. Kagan is a little too eager to discount it.

It is fair to say that Kagan does not suggest that the overthrow of monarchical government was ever an objective of American universalistic nationalism. But the “liberal republican ideology” he invents as the source of both foreign and domestic policy was less than an ideology, less than republican as the word was understood by the republic’s founders, and liberal only in its celebration of free enterprise. Attaching these words to the attitudes he sees at work in the formation of policy throughout American history gives an unwarranted impression of consistent, principled national generosity or liberality. In combination with the repeated analogies to more recent events, the words give to his carefully crafted book an eerie character, as if it is prefatory to another project. It seems always to be squinting at current events, events in need of a justification that history can never confer.

This Issue

November 16, 2006