According to Robert Kagan’s new book Dangerous Nation, American isolationist and aloof in foreign affairs is a myth, a seductive component of America’s self-image that creates a potentially dangerous “gap between Americans’ self-perception and the perceptions of others.” Dangerous Nation was 10 years in the writing, but its subject couldn’t be more timely.
Mr. Kagan argues that in fact American is the opposite of isolationist: it has been restlessly engaged beyond its borders since before 1776.
To support his thesis, Mr. Kagan has assembled a history of American foreign policy from the mid-eighteenth century to the Spanish-American War. He includes a variety of matters that historians may not always have considered “foreign policy,” such as American demands for British intervention against the French in the Ohio Valley, policy of the new United States toward Indian nations and the colonies of Spain, and the decades of North-South maneuvering on slavery. Familiar episodes like Washington’s Farewell Address are subjected to new, persuasive analysis.
A few themes emerge: American foreign policy is informed by its nature as a liberal republic and its philosophical roots in the Enlightenment – “a universalist ideology… articulated in the Declaration of Independence.” In addition to powerful commercial and territorial interests, American foreign policy, including war-making, is therefore driven by moral and humanitarian concerns. America reacts sharply to incompatible “systems” such as French revolutionary tyranny and Southern slavery (and communism), in each case adopting a strategy of containment.
The reader will recognize the America of the 1930s oil and iron embargo on Japan, Lend-Lease, the West Berlin airlift, Vietnam, Grenada, and NAFTA – not to mention Desert Storm, September 11, Afghanistan, and Iraq. Dangerous Nation is essential and fascinating reading.
MORE: An NPR interview with Mr. Kagan.