Robert Kagan's history of 19th-century US foreign policy sees American action as motivated by morality rather than self-interest. As a work of history it is worthless, but it may be of interest to students of neoconservative propagandaby Michael Lind / November 25, 2007 / Leave a comment
Robert Kagan is one of a small group of neoconservative authors who are read because of their influence on the Bush administration. The son of Donald Kagan, a Yale classics scholar and prominent older neoconservative, Robert is the brother of Frederick Kagan, who is credited as one of the architects of Bush’s “surge” in Iraq. Robert has penned various manifestos in favour of unilateral US world domination with William Kristol, editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard and son of Irving Kristol, “godfather of neoconservatism.” Like George W Bush, the son of a president, neoconservatives preach democracy while practicing nepotism.
In his book Of Paradise and Power (2003), Kagan famously explained that Americans are from Mars while Europeans are from Venus. He argued that pusillanimous Europeans, freed from defending themselves by their reliance on US power, like to denounce as reckless militarism what is in fact a tough-minded American appreciation of the power realities of the world. (Kagan’s claims about American and European attitudes were demolished by Miroslav Nincic and Monti Narayan Datta in the summer 2007 issue of Political Science Quarterly. They point out that according to polling data, most liberal, blue-state Americans share “European” attitudes toward force. Kagan’s “American” worldview is no more than that of red-state Republicans.)
Of Paradise and Power was a neoconservative polemic disguised as comparative politics. Dangerous Nation, Kagan’s most recent book, is a neoconservative polemic disguised as a history of US foreign policy from the colonial period to the Spanish-American war of 1898 (a second volume, focusing on the 20th century, is promised). The implicit targets of Of Paradise and Power were Europeans and Americans who criticised the Iraq war and the neoconservative policy of unilateral US hegemony. The implicit targets of Dangerous Nation are those who argue that the Iraq war, and neoconservative strategy in general, represent a departure from US foreign policy traditions, rather than their inevitable and desirable fulfilment.
Consider this paean to the Iraq war, from the conclusion of Dangerous Nation: “Most American historians have been no less condemnatory [than Europeans] of the American decision for war. That the US should have gone to war for abstract reasons—for morality, for humanitarianism, for the liberation of others, and when ‘no vital American interests was involved’—has baffled and disturbed commentators, historians and political scientists. Yet by far the most persuasive interpretation of the war with Iraq is that it was indeed undertaken primarily, though not exclusively, for humanitarian purposes, just as Bush and everyone who supported the war claimed at the time… Measured against the real world of nations and human beings, the intervention in Iraq had an unusually high degree of selflessness.”
Well, in fact Kagan didn’t actually write that. I lied to you. In the paragraph above, I substituted “Iraq” for “Cuba” and “Bush” for “McKinley” in order to show what Kagan is up to. Critics of neoconservative grand strategy and the Iraq war often compare them to the Spanish-American war and the US naval imperialism of a century ago, denouncing both episodes as violations of US political traditions. Very well then, Kagan is saying, I’ll accept the comparison—but invert the evaluation. Thus the alleged precedent for Iraq, the Spanish-American war, becomes a “good war”—a democratic crusade.
Kagan concludes, in the final paragraph of the book: “Too few have seen or perhaps have wanted to see how the war was the product of deeply ingrained American attitudes toward the nation’s place in the world. It was the product of a universalist ideology as articulated in the declaration of independence.”
The declaration of independence made us do it! Fidelity to the principles of the founding fathers not only compelled the US to crush and reconstruct the slave south during and after the civil war, but also compelled it to spread the “universal ideology” of Jefferson and Lincoln by seeking coaling stations in the Pacific, seizing Guantánamo bay from Spain in 1898—and, presumably, by invading Iraq in 2003.
Kagan’s polemical history is aimed not only at anti-Iraq liberals, but also at America’s realists like Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jim Baker, Brent Scowcroft and the first President Bush. Here a little explanation is in order. The theory of Realpolitik was introduced to the US in the mid-20th century by European émigré intellectuals like Hans Morgenthau, Nicholas Spykman and Henry Kissinger; it found an eloquent American ally in George Kennan. Puzzled that American statesmen like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt did not behave as Bismarck and Metternich would have done, the mostly continental European realists argued that Americans were political innocents who failed to understand power politics and were deluded by notions of spreading democracy.
Enter the “first-wave” neoconservatives of the 1970s. These cold war liberals and anti-Soviet leftists criticised Nixon’s détente policies and Kissingerian Realpolitik, instead emphasising the moral and ideological dimension to the struggle. Following the cold war, the “second-wave” neoconservatives of the 1990s, who for the most part had jettisoned social and economic liberalism, took this reasonable reaction against Kissingerian realism to an extreme, promoting a vision of US foreign policy as altruistic Idealpolitik that was as unbalanced as Realpolitik.
Dangerous Nation is an anti-realist tract, the first sustained US diplomatic history written from a neoconservative Idealpolitik viewpoint. Ironically—or perhaps fittingly, given the origins of neoconservatism on the anti-Soviet left—Kagan owes a big intellectual debt to histories of US foreign policy written by progressives and radical leftists, who dominated the field for much of the 20th century. Here again, a word of explanation is in order. The progressive historians tended to blame American wars on particular special interests, holding slave-owners responsible for the Mexican-American war and blaming US entry into the first world war on munitions-makers and financiers. The radical historians, by contrast, have tended to view foreign policy in more systemic terms as the result of an inexorable drive toward capitalist expansion. Moralistic progressives and anti-capitalist radicals alike have tended to agree on one point: the US faced no genuine foreign threats after the end of the British-American war of 1812. Invocations of foreign threats by American policymakers have therefore been propaganda, disguising the genuine (usually economic) reasons behind America’s expansion.
A minority of historians, most of them military historians, take a different view. These historians take the belief of American statesmen and soldiers in foreign threats seriously. The threats posed at various times by France, Britain, Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union may have been exaggerated or unreal, but American policymakers believed them. Their beliefs are sufficient explanation for most US military policies, which, even if they incidentally benefited American businesses, were not carried out because of them.
Call the two schools of American foreign policy history the inner compulsion school and the threat-and-response school. The one sees US foreign policy as the manifestation of internal social dynamics; the other, as a response, not always a rational one, to perceived security threats. The realist critique of US foreign policy traditions is a variant of the inner compulsion school. The realists explain US foreign policy history in terms of naive, crusading idealism, instead of the machinations of special interests (the progressive historians) or the dynamics of imperialism (the radicals). But whatever their political differences, realists, progressives and radicals tend to agree that because the US has faced no serious great-power threats since its early days, the explanation of its foreign policy must be sought in some inner compulsion—be it ideological or economic.
But the fact is that little if any of what the US did in the late 19th and early 20th century can be understood except as a response—an exaggerated response, in some cases, but still a response—to great-power threats, in particular the threat of imperial Germany. Having rejected Bismarck’s moderate foreign policy in favour of an aggressive strategy of Weltpolitik, the Kaiser and his officers in the 1890s began seeking bases and allies in Mexico, the Caribbean and South America, as well as islands in the Pacific and protectorates in China. Germany’s rapid naval build-up inspired America’s. Germany and the US competed for Pacific island bases in Samoa and the Philippines, where, during the Spanish-American war, Germany’s fleet threatened the US fleet. In order to combine the Atlantic and Pacific fleets in the event of war with Germany or Japan, the US rigged Panama’s independence and hastily built the Panama canal. And it was to deny Germany any excuses for occupation of Caribbean or Central American countries that the US asserted the exclusive prerogative of its own military to enforce international law on behalf of foreign creditors in Latin America. As early as 1903, the navy drew up plans for pre-empting German landings in the western hemisphere by occupying key Caribbean islands, a plan carried out by the US in the early years of the first world war.
The late Eugene Rostow, one of the original generation of neoconservatives, got this right in his book Toward Managed Peace (1993), written in the threat-and-response tradition: “Thus on the surface of things, the US decision to declare war on Spain was a humanitarian intervention….Viewed in the context of world politics, however, the Spanish-American war was also something quite different, the first act of America’s visible adaptation to the emerging structure of world politics. The US had confronted German ambition directly in Samoa, Hawaii and the Caribbean. And the US and especially its navy were already sensitive to the military potential of Japan.”
By contrast, Kagan argues that America went to war with Spain not because the government sought naval bases like Guantánamo in an independent Cuba to strengthen it in its naval rivalry with Germany and others, but because America felt sorry for the Cubans and hated Spanish monarchism.
Following the same method, Kagan minimises the threats to US security posed by Britain and France in North America in the first half of the 19th century. Rostow, by contrast, puts US rivalry with these powers at the centre of his explanation of the annexation of Texas and the incorporation of California during the Mexican-American war. “Britain and France… began to take measures to stop US expansion to the south.” The British “opposed the annexation of Texas to the US, frowned on US aspirations toward Cuba and were engaged in a long and difficult negotiation with the US about how to partition Oregon between the US and Canada.” As for California, President James K Polk “had already taken naval and other precautions in California, because the British and French governments had been urged by their representatives both in Mexico and California to seize California before the US could.”
Of the British interest in California in the 1840s, Kagan does not say a word. He acknowledges that “The British… wanted to turn Texas into a buffer against further American southward expansion.” True to his theme, however, he interprets British actions, like American actions, in terms of ideology. Citing Britain’s offer to support Texas against Mexico if Texas abolished slavery, he argues that Britain was motivated by the desire to abolish slavery worldwide. According to Kagan, the unintended result of Britain’s altruistic intentions toward black Texans was the Mexican-American war, a bad war waged by a southern Democratic president, and brought about by a conspiracy of southern slave-owners to create a tropical empire in their own interest.
Kagan’s treatment of the Mexican-American war as an attempt by American slave-owners to stamp out British abolitionism is typical of his tendency to find ideology behind every tree. Kagan interprets British policy toward the US in the early 19th century on the basis of George Canning’s concern about “a division of the world into Europe and America, republic and monarchy.” Curiously, in the 1820s, Britain was a militant ideological power dedicated to promoting monarchy (albeit moderate) at the expense of American republicanism. Then, in the 1840s, Britain was a militant ideological power again, this time an admirable one, threatening southern slavery by promoting the abolition of slavery in Texas. For Kagan, it is not enough for Britain and France to have preferred a simple divide-and-rule strategy. The strategies of European powers, like those of the US, must be explained in terms of ideological polarities.
It is a fair guess that in his second volume, Kagan will claim that pure idealism and hatred for Prussian militarism, fascism and communism, rather than a mundane search to ensure US national security and prosperity in a peaceful global environment, explains the US interventions in the world wars and cold war, followed by the disinterested wars to replace dictatorship with democracy in Panama, Serbia and Iraq. With something of the spirit of Jacobin radicals and Soviet communists, neocons like Kagan view the US as the headquarters of a militant, universal ideology that must be spread by force of arms. Mainstream Americans, by contrast, have been reluctant warriors.
The owl of Minerva flies at dusk; Kagan’s ingenious but unconvincing attempt to rewrite American history to make Americans into neoconservatives and the Iraq war the logical consequence of the declaration of independence is doomed to fail, just as the policy for which he seeks to provide a usable past has already failed. Dangerous Nation is of no value to students of the history of US foreign policy. It will be of some interest, however, to students of the history of neoconservative propaganda.