'Dangerous Nation' Takes Hard Look at U.S. Foreign Policy Author Robert Kagan talks about his new book, Dangerous Nation, and what he calls "the myth of American innocence." The book looks at why many Americans believe the United States is an essentially isolationist nation, despite the view of much of the rest of the world. His latest is the first of a two-part history of U.S. foreign policy.
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'Dangerous Nation' Takes Hard Look at U.S. Foreign Policy

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'Dangerous Nation' Takes Hard Look at U.S. Foreign Policy

'Dangerous Nation' Takes Hard Look at U.S. Foreign Policy

'Dangerous Nation' Takes Hard Look at U.S. Foreign Policy

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Author Robert Kagan talks about his new book, Dangerous Nation, and what he calls "the myth of American innocence." The book looks at why many Americans believe the United States is an essentially isolationist nation, despite the view of much of the rest of the world. His latest is the first of a two-part history of U.S. foreign policy.


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In 2003, Robert Kagan's book, Of Paradise and Power, helped frame present thinking on American foreign policy. It became a seminal source to understand the growing differences between the United States and Europe and how different the world looks from Strasbourg or St. Louis.

Now in a new book he examines why so many Americans believe this country to be an essentially isolationist nation when the experience of America's Indians, America's neighbors and much of the rest of world paints a very different picture. Moreover, he traces America's interest in expansion, imperialism and hegemony as far back as Plymouth Rock.

Dangerous Nation: America's Place in the World From It's Earliest Days to the Dawn of the 20th Century is the first in a two-part history of U.S. foreign policy.

Later on in the program, The Monastery, a new television series that follows five men who live in a Benedictine monastery for 40 days and 40 nights. But first, America and foreign policy.

Does history show the United States is an essentially defensive, inward-looking nation, reluctantly drawn onto the world stage, or as an aggressive expansionist power driven by revolutionary ideology? Is America a dangerous nation? The number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

Robert Kagan is the senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a columnist for The Washington Post. And he joins us here today in Studio 3A. Nice to have you on the program.

Mr. ROBERT KAGAN (Author, Dangerous Nation; Senior Associate, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: And I wonder is this a book about Iraq?

Mr. KAGAN: No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KAGAN: In fact, I can be sure of that because I started writing this book in 1996, and Iraq was not - certainly an invasion of Iraq was not on the screen at that time. But I know a lot of people are going to wonder whether something about our history and our nature ultimately finds us in a place like Iraq.

CONAN: And, well, you wrote a piece that was published in The New Republic called Cowboy Nation and said these days we're having a national debate over the direction of foreign policy beyond the obvious difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, a broader sense that our nation has gone astray; that we should go back to the traditions of American foreign policy, and those traditions are what you examine in this book.

Mr. KAGAN: That's right. I wanted to try to understand what the essential character is of American foreign policy insofar as you can possibly do that. But the thing that is clearest to me is that while I think most Americans do like to have an image of ourselves as pretty much minding our own business until somebody does something which requires us to go out and act in the world, that that's really a myth. It's sort of almost a self-constructed myth. And that if you really look at American history from even before the time of the Revolution, it's really about 400 years of territorial and commercial expansion, and then the expansion of American diplomatic influence, political influence and ideological influence. And that is the most consistent factor in American history.

CONAN: Yet I'm sure the first thing that will pop into many listeners' minds is George Washington's oft-quoted advice to avoid foreign entanglements. This of course a nation that threw off the shackles of European colonialism and then retreated behind the two oceans.

Mr. KAGAN: Right, and that's - again, that's the classic American view. And, you know, if you look a little bit more closely at Washington's farewell address, it's clear that what he's really saying is we need to be careful while we are weak because the day will come, if we're smart, when we can - and this is a quote from his address - we can bid defiance to any power on earth.

And Washington's expectation, as he argued in other writings, was that within a couple of decades, the United States would become a very great and strong power and able to deal with other powers on an equal basis.

CONAN: Yet Washington's primary interest was looking West, was it not?

Mr. KAGAN: Well, that's right, and that's the other half of the myth. Which is that when you talk about putting up walls around ourselves, if you were a Native American, if you were a Spaniard on the North American continent or if you were French or Russian or British, you didn't see an America that was putting up walls. You saw an America that was relentlessly expanding across the West, sometimes by violent means, sometimes by merely the threat of violence, sometimes merely by commercial penetration. But it was a pretty dramatic scene to watch the young United States push off one empire after another from the North American continent.

CONAN: And indeed that's where you get the title of your book, Dangerous Nation.

Mr. KAGAN: That's exactly right. The title, which I understand is a provocative title, but I pulled it from a letter that John Quincy Adams wrote to his father. John Quincy Adams was serving as the ambassador to the United Kingdom in 1817. And he reported to his father, John Adams, that all the governments of Europe regarded the United States as likely to become a very dangerous member of the society of nations and that all of Europe was fervently hoping that the United States would break apart and not fulfill what they regarded as this very dangerous destiny.

And I think that it would come as such a surprise to most Americans that in 1817 that Europe should regard the United States as a dangerous nation. But it was based on a record of territorial expansion and in some cases territorial aggression, as well - and from Adams, this was even more important - as well as America's dangerous revolutionary ideology, which the monarchs of Europe - and Europe was all monarchies in those days - believed ultimately threatened their continued rule.

CONAN: The United States, though, didn't seem to be interested in spreading that revolutionary ideology, certainly not in the early years of the republic.

Mr. KAGAN: Well, I don't think that that's actually true. I think it is remarkable how much the United States did want to see those principles spread. For instance in Latin America, the United States was very supportive of the revolutions against the Spanish colonial empire. In Greece in the 1820s, the United States wanted to see the victory of the Greek revolution. Later in Poland in 1830s. Time and time again. And in the French Revolution itself, Americans were incredibly enthusiastic. They didn't have the power to send forces on behalf of these causes, but they fervently wished and tried to support them as best they could.

CONAN: And we think of most history books in this country teach the War of 1812 as, well, a response to British impressment, unfair impressment of American sailors; seen very differently in Canada.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KAGAN: Seen very differently in Canada, where the United States tried, and not for the first or last time, to seize Canada from Britain. And it was also not seen that way from the British point of view, who saw, again, a very - as they saw it - a very warlike people who resorted to force far too quickly.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in this conversation. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org. Our guest is Robert Kagan, and let's get Jack(ph) on the line. Jack's with us from Alameda in California.

JACK (Caller): Hi.

CONAN: Hi, Jack.

JACK: I'd like to share. I teach U.S. history currently, and I certainly agree with the presentation, the foreign policy Mr. Kagan is putting forth.

What I find interesting is that among all the history books that are sent to me, I rarely - I do not find a position that underscores what Mr. Kagan is emphasizing right now, nor chapters that attempt to present the foreign policy in a broad perspective as he is doing in his book apparently, which I've not yet seen. And I wonder if Mr. Kagan has - if that is his experience also.

Mr. KAGAN: Well, I - first of all, thank you very much, and that is certainly what I've tried to do. You know, the interesting thing is if you wanted to say what kind of history my book is closest to, and some people will think this is ironic, is it's really closest to some of what are called the left revisionists - Walter LeFeber or William Appleman Williams - who talked about this tendency in America.

The difference between my view and theirs is that they were very much - saw this as based on economic determinism, this was really the capitalist system. Whereas I focus much more on ideology, which includes capitalism but also goes beyond that. And what I particularly think is important, and I've tried to do in my book, is not only to see the United States from our own point of view, but to see the United States from the point of view of others who had to deal with us in that period. I think that's one thing that's often missing from histories.

CONAN: Jack, thanks very much for the call.

JACK: You're welcome, and I agree.

CONAN: Okay.

JACK: Bye.

CONAN: Let me ask you, though, this is certainly a tendency, but it's not the only tendency. I mean, again, a famous quote, which you certainly have in your book, John Quincy Adams in 1821: America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.

Mr. KAGAN: Yes. No, I know and I don't want to suggest - and I don't suggest in my book - that there hasn't been a constant argument throughout our history over what kind of country we should be both at home and in the world. That argument goes back to before the ratification of the Constitution. There's another famous quote by Patrick Henry, who was denouncing the authors of the Constitution - and now we're talking about James Madison and others - for trying to create an empire instead of worrying about liberty, which he says was the primary goal of the United States.

And so there's always been a tension and a concern that a big foreign policy would lead to a big federal government which would impinge on our rights at home, and there has been a long argument.

John Quincy Adams is a wonderful embodiment of both halves of that argument because he made that speech in 1821. In that same speech, he said he spoke directly to the peoples of Europe and he praised the American Revolution, and he said to the peoples of Europe, go thou and do likewise, which means overthrow your tyrannical leaders. And this sent - today we only talk about the monsters line, but in those days the Europeans were outraged that Adams would call for the overthrow of their governments.

CONAN: And equally outraged at the Monroe Doctrine.

Mr. KAGAN: Oh, absolutely. And, again, I think that we tend to - at least in the old days, the history textbooks said the Monroe Doctrine was about hands-off...

CONAN: America for the Americas.

Mr. KAGAN: ...America for the Americas. For the Europeans, and for the people in the Americas, by the way, this was a kind of breathtaking assertion of American prerogative. Where did the United States come off claiming the entire hemisphere was essentially its preserve? And the other thing that we forget about the Monroe Doctrine was how ideological it was.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KAGAN: It really was about the reason Europeans shouldn't be here is because they have evil governments, and that was really the key for Monroe himself, and he was very passionate on that subject.

CONAN: Interestingly, you write about this America idea of hegemony. First, in relation to the Indian nations that were around the United States, that the United States was not interested in being one of many. It was interested in being number one; and indeed number one in the hemisphere and indeed, if you extend it, number one in the world.

Mr. KAGAN: Well, it has been - I mean, again, if you - there's just an ongoing pattern of American behavior. The founders initially viewed the entire North American continent as - again, quoting John Quincy Adams - destined by the finger of God to be America's domain. Now this was at a time when they were occupying just a sliver of territory on the East Coast, and yet they already foresaw dominating this entire continent.

At the same time, they also foresaw the United States being the leading power in the Western Hemisphere. Alexander Hamilton said the United States had to become the arbiter of the New World in dealing with the Old, an incredible arrogation of power to ourselves before anybody was willing to concede that power. And the desire to influence and control the environment around us in ever-widening arcs has been a real constant in American history.

CONAN: We're speaking with Robert Kagan about his new book, Dangerous Nation. More of your calls after we come back from a break. If you'd like to join the conversation: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. You can also send e-mail: talk@npr.org.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NEAL CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

We're talking with Robert Kagan about his new book, Dangerous Nation: America's Place in the World From Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the 20th Century, and about his argument that America's historically isolationist ideology is just a myth.

We've posted an excerpt from the book at the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org. And Robert Kagan is still with us in Studio 3A. If you'd like to join us: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And let's get Roger on the line, Roger calling us from San Francisco.

ROGER (Caller): Yes, thank you very much. And I do agree with Mr. Kagan. You know, we've had since our very beginnings a belief in Manifest Destiny. First, we eliminated the Indians, and then we went after Mexico. We have been moving constantly not only with the land but ideology. We wanted to rid the world of communism, so we went after that. And now we're going after what we call terrorism, and we're trying to get oil. It's a constant moving forward, trying to acquire from others what we want.

It's a very dangerous ideology. Germany tried it with their (unintelligible) their land in the east. They tried to acquire land through war. It does not work. It won't work for this nation either. And it's really - the bedrock of this nation is good. We are a good people, a very compassionate people, but we're so easily led by wannabe dictators. And that is our real danger here, that we're just getting into a position we're being led again. If we would just be happy with what God has given us in this beautiful land of ours and stop this outward movement to other lands.

CONAN: Robert Kagan?

Mr. KAGAN: Well, this is the danger of calling your book Dangerous Nation. I can't quite go as far as the caller in that interpretation. And particularly I think it's part of the mythology to say, as is often said, that it's because certain leaders have taken us in a certain direction.

The caller rightly talks about the Indians. You know, the removal of the Indian population was very much the policy of Thomas Jefferson. Was Thomas Jefferson a would-be dictator? Did he mislead the American people? In most cases, these expansionist moves in territorial terms were the result of the pressure from the people.

For instance, the United States government would negotiate in very great earnestness treaties with the Indian tribes that they fully intended to keep, at least in many cases. And what would happen would be settlers on the frontier would move into Indian lands, but those settlers were voters. And so at the end of the day, the U.S. government would come in behind them and they'd have to revise the treaty and start all over again until the ultimate result was the removal of the Indians from practically everywhere. That was very much a product of individuals and people, not wicked American leaders.

And so I think to say that this is about wicked leaders - and by the way, I don't agree on that - I wouldn't compare the United States to Nazi Germany by any stretch of the imagination. A lot of what the United States wants to do is to bring what we regard as, you know, the blessings of liberty to other peoples. We don't always succeed. We're often hypocritical. We make lots of mistakes, but I think that's the ultimate goal. But in any case, to see this as the actions of particular leaders, as opposed to the American people as a whole, I think is a mistake.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

ROGER: What about taking the land from Mexico? What about moving into California, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and just pushing the Mexicans out? Now that was not a just action. We just simply took it.

Mr. KAGAN: Well, no, I agree that that was not a just action, although I don't hear a lot of clamor for giving any of that territory back these days. But - and by the way...

CONAN: Not on this side of the border.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROGER: Yeah.

Mr. KAGAN: But I do think that, you know - well, in that case, by the way, the movement behind that was mostly the slaveholder interest which wanted to expand slavery into a lot of these territories. But again, very democratically produced. There was no conspiracy here. It was a very strong desire on particularly the part of the South to gain these territories, but was it just? Of course it wasn't just.

CONAN: Well, Roger...

ROGER: What do you think of the possibility we might be going after oil now? Maybe not land, but oil.

Mr. KAGAN: Well, I often hear that that was the reason for the Iraq war. I've never - that never made much sense to me. Not that we don't want oil. We do want oil, but it was a lot easier to get oil just by normalizing relations with Saddam Hussein and buying the oil. Because goodness knows he wanted to sell the oil. I think invasion was the least cost effective means of getting oil. Oil is always an issue. Resources are always an issue. But it's not usually the primary reason for American action.

CONAN: One of the fascinating parts of your book is the moral imperative that you said was generated in American ideology by this definition of a national idea not as a place, not as people, but basically through the Constitution.

Mr. KAGAN: Right, and the Declaration of Independence. I mean I think that's extraordinarily important to remember that American nationalism is not a blood-and-soil nationalism. No one's an American just because they were born in America or had American parents. American nationalism is built around this idea - and it happened to be, certainly at the time, an extremely revolutionary idea that only Americans believed in, by the way, at the time. Which was the principle of universal rights and that that has (unintelligible)...

CONAN: The French philosophes liked it too.

Mr. KAGAN: Oh, that's true. That's true. But we were the only ones who - we enacted it first.

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. KAGAN: No one else thought it was possible. But in any case, that has been a very potent force in our actions in the world ever since.

CONAN: Let's talk to Juan(ph). Juan's with us on the line from Newark, New Jersey.

JUAN (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, you're on the air, Juan. Go ahead, please.

JUAN: Yes, I was just thinking. I'm a historian, and I see some parallels at the time of the Roman Empire, just that span between the Punic Wars and the actualization of the empire when the Romans tried to secure their wheat, you know, as natural resources - that was their oil - by reluctantly having to expand into the Mediterranean Basin, into Egypt and the Middle East and, you know, Palestine at the time. And I don't think that that original city-state in that republic set out to become a conquering empire but as far as I, you know, have studied. They just sort of by default ended up controlling the known world, you know, and they did become a citizenship-based army. But it's just one aspect that I think sort of deserves a look at.

Mr. KAGAN: Well, I think that's a very important comparison. And, you know, lots of people have toyed with trying to understand if America's an empire, what kind of empire is it? How does it compare with other empires in history? And there certainly are similarities. There's a famous quote attributed to Catherine the Great, that the only way I can defend my borders is to expand them. And the tendency of powerful nations to enlarge themselves, either territorially and through their influence, is a constant. It doesn't even - it doesn't matter who - which power we're talking about.

CONAN: You also draw a comparison to another democratic empire, the Athenian.

Mr. KAGAN: Right, and, you know, the Athenians had the experience of going - and people have made this point before - from a voluntary - leading a voluntary league, the so-called Delian League, which was sort of their NATO, but ultimately turning that into a kind of imperial control, which a lot of people see as a tragedy of Athens.

The thing about the United States that I think it's important to add to the mix is that unlike the Romans and unlike the British, and unlike the Athenians even, the United States has such a strong view about individual rights and self-determination that even when we act like an empire, we feel troubled by the idea of being an empire. Because we want to do what we want to do, we think we have good reasons for it, but when it entails denying other people their right to self-determination we're troubled by it.

Now sometimes we're troubled to the point that we don't do it. Sometimes we're troubled to the point that we don't do it effectively. And sometimes we ignore how troubled we are. But that is an issue for the American empire, which didn't exist I think for previous empires.

CONAN: Juan, thanks very much.

JUAN: Well, yes. Thank you kindly. And remember the whole idea of the citizenship.

Mr. KAGAN: Right. And, you know, the United States has not wanted to make the rest of the world its citizenship by conquering them. That is a big difference between the Roman Empire. We'd rather that the peoples whose land we're on that they would disappear. That was our basic view when we were expanding westward.

CONAN: There was - you trace sort of a pattern from Florida where - Texas, certainly the same kind of thing. Indeed in Hawaii as well.

Mr. KAGAN: Right. I mean what would happen would be that Americans would settle in a certain place and become influential in that place and then want to ally themselves and become part of the United States. And the American government would sort of - they didn't really have a plan to do this, but somehow or other it always happened in the same way, sometimes violently and sometimes not violently.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in. This is Alan(ph). Alan with us from Mount Calvary in Wisconsin.

ALAN (CALLER): Yes. I think the previous caller just kind of stole some of my thunder.

CONAN: I hate it when that happens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ALAN: Yes. But, in a way, I feel like the United States is being vilified, because as the previous caller discussed this has happened throughout history. Whether - it doesn't matter what continent it's on. But it's happened with the expansion of every nation. And, once again, the United States I feel is kind of like being vilified for what they've done.

Mr. KAGAN: Well, I think that's, you know, that's important - I mean I want to seize on that because that's a key point. You know, it makes no sense to compare American foreign policy with the foreign policy of heaven or to compare it against some kind of ideal that can't exist. Nations do all kinds of bad things. Nations seek power. They are selfish in many respects.

And to say that the United States is bad because it behaves like a group of humans behave I think is a mistake. And I think we have to have more realistic basis of comparison. And this is part of the problem with the myth that we create of ourselves. We create an idealized image of ourselves in the past that we are never living up to in the present, and I think that's an evasion really from facing reality.

ALAN: Ok. Well, I appreciate that.

CONAN: Thanks, Alan.

Mr. KAGAN: Thank you.

CONAN: One of the - again, I go back to another interesting part. There is in the late years after the end of the Civil War, while there's Reconstruction -which you describe is our first experience with nation building, an interesting comparison, but nevertheless - after that there is a period in which the United States Navy virtually disappears. There is then a period of enormous prosperity and peace. And yet in this time where virtually no threat exists to the United States, the United States builds up a navy in peacetime.

Mr. KAGAN: I think that's an incredibly instructive moment in American history, because it's often not portrayed this way. But if you go back and look at the history, it's exactly what you said. After the Civil War, the American Navy was essentially dismantled because it had gotten huge; the Northern navy we're really talking about to fight the South. Reconstruction was very expensive, people didn't want to spend that money and it was very divisive.

As soon as Reconstruction ends really - and now we're talking about the late 1870s - in a matter of a couple of years, the United States in a time of peace with no serious external threats, no need for more resources in particular, a huge territory to still settle, begins the building of a peacetime navy, which eventually grows strong enough that we feel confident that if we go to war with Spain in 1898, we'll win.

If we hadn't built that navy in the 1880's, I doubt very much that we would have gone to war with Spain in 1898. And why did we build that navy? You know, then we're really talking about not a navy built for defensive purposes but a navy built to pursue ambitions, to realize potential.

The United States wanted to have dominant influence in the Western hemisphere, but you couldn't have dominant influence in the Western hemisphere if the Chilean Navy is bigger than the American Navy, which it was in 1881. And so they felt they needed a bigger Navy than Chile's. We had interest in East Asia and aspirations in East Asia that we wanted to fulfill. So it was about ambition, idealistic ambition, materialistic ambition, but ambition.

CONAN: We're talking with Robert Kagan about his book Dangerous Nation. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Katherine(ph) on the line. Katherine's calling us from Moraga - is that right? - in California.

KATHERINE (CALLER): That's correct, near Walnut Creek.

CONAN: Go ahead.

KATHERINE: This is great. Prefect timing I think, politically. And the topic is a great topic. Without the benefit of having read your book, I was wondering if you could comment or you have any thoughts about the influence of the uniqueness of the middle class in the United States versus historically there never has really been a middle class, and even worldwide there's still kind of schism.

When you look at the breadth and the depth of the middle class in this country, what kind of influence do you think in the last 200 years that that's had on all of the sort of political and military and expansive - I mean I really do believe that all this stuff comes from the middle class angst needing more consuming - being their own little military, you know, little nation state within their home.

CONAN: Well, expansionists. I don't think they're actually going out and conquering the neighborhood. But, Robert Kagan?

Mr. KAGAN: You know, whether you call it the middle class or whether you call it the basic Lockean view, the view of John Locke that it is correct and virtuous to acquire property. It is right to become wealthy. This is also Adam Smith's teaching. Americans - one of the founders, Gouverneur Morris, described Americans as the first-born children of the commercial age. Because when American was founded, the ideas of Adam Smith, the ideas of John Locke were dominant.

And American was founded on the ethos that individuals should go out and prosper and acquire. And Americans have been trying to acquire ever since, and this does affect American foreign policy. I wouldn't focus particularly on the middle class because I think it's true of all Americans of all classes. And it has shaped American policy.

CONAN: Thanks, Katherine.

KATHERINE: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. I just wanted to wind up. In your introduction you suggest that America is always surprised. Surprised when it is vilified around the world, surprised when it is hated around the world, surprised when it's attacked. And that perhaps a more realistic view of American history would be instructive.

Mr. KAGAN: And also, may I add, surprised at its own response. The thing that I find striking, in addition to Americans not being aware always how they are bumping into others and intruding upon others, Americans also - because they have this view - because we have this view that we don't care, that we're really just about minding our own business, then events occur and we surprise ourselves and we do care. Think something happens in the Balkans, all of our foreign policy elite says we have no vital national security interest in what happens in the Balkans.

CONAN: Darfur.

Mr. KAGAN: Darfur. And yet we do wind up caring. And this is the story of our nation. Constant belief that we really won't care if Japan conquers Manchuria or we really won't care what happens in Europe, then only to discover when it does happen we do care. And often we're late to realize that we both care and need to do something about it.

CONAN: Robert Kagan, thanks very much for coming in today. We appreciate your time.

Mr. KAGAN: Well, thank you. I enjoyed it.

CONAN: Robert Kagan's new book is Dangerous Nation: America's Place in the World From Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the 20th Century. We're going to take a short break and when we come back, The Monastery, five men who spend 40 days and 40 nights living alongside a group of Benedictine monks and a crew of TV cameras.

I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Copyright © 2006 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

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Excerpt: Dangerous Nation

'Dangerous Nation' Book Cover
Gabriele Wilson/Knopf Books

Chapter 1

The First Imperialists

This is a commonwealth of the fabric that hath an open ear, and a public concernment. She is not made for herself only, but given as a magistrate of God unto mankind, for the vindication of common right and the law of nature. Wherefore saith Cicero of the . . . Romans, Nos magis patronatum orbis terrarrum suscepimus quam imperium, we have rather undertaken the patronage than the empire of the world. --James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana, 1656

The Myth of the "City upon a Hill": The Americanization of the Puritan Mission

Misperceptions about the history, traditions, and nature of American foreign policy begin with the popular image of the Puritans who settled in New England in the 1630s. John Winthrop's hopeful description of the Massachusetts Bay theocracy as a "city upon a hill" is emblazoned in the American self-image, a vivid symbol of what are widely seen as dominant isolationist and "exceptionalist" tendencies in American foreign policy. The Puritan "mission," as the historian Frederick Merk once put it, was "to redeem the Old World by high example," and generations of Americans have considered this "exemplarist" purpose the country's original mission in its pure, uncorrupted form: the desire to set an example to the world, but from a safe distance. Felix Gilbert argued that the unique combination of idealism and isolationism in American thought derived from the Puritans' "utopian" aspirations, which required "separation" from Europe and the severing of "ties which might spread the diseases of Europe to America." The true American "mission," therefore, was inherently isolationist, passive, and restrained; it was, as Merk put it, both "idealistic" and "self-denying . . . a force that fought to curb expansionism of the aggressive variety."

This picture of Puritan America as a pious Greta Garbo, wanting only to be left alone in her self-contained world, is misleading. For one thing, Winthrop's Puritans were not isolationists. They were global revolutionaries. They escaped persecution in the Old World to establish the ideal religious commonwealth in America, their "new Jerusalem." But unlike the biblical Jews, they looked forward to the day, they hoped not far off, when they might return to a reformed Egypt. Far from seeking permanent separation from the Old World, the Puritans' "errand into the wilderness" aimed to establish a base from which to launch a counteroffensive across the Atlantic. Their special covenant with God was not tied to the soil of the North American continent. America was not the Puritans' promised land but a temporary refuge.6 God had "peopled New England in order that the reformation of England and Scotland may be hastened." As the great scholar of Puritan thought Perry Miller explained many years ago, the Puritan migration "was no retreat from Europe: it was a flank attack." The "large unspoken assumption in the errand of 1630" was that success in New England would mean a return to old England.

The Massachusetts Bay colonists neither sought isolation from the Old World nor considered themselves isolated. The Puritan leaders did not even believe they were establishing a "new" world distinct from the old. In their minds New England and Old England were the same world, spiritually if not geographically. A hundred years after Winthrop's settlement, when the Puritan evangelist Jonathan Edwards spoke of "our nation," he meant both Britain and the British North American colonies. It was a measure of how little the New England Puritans sought isolation from the Old World that their greatest disappointment came when England's Puritan revolution in the mid-seventeenth century abandoned rigid Calvinism, the Puritans' model, thus leaving the Puritans theologically isolated in their American wilderness.

America, in turn, became not a promised land but a burial ground for the kind of Puritan theocracy Winthrop and his followers had hoped to establish. Puritanism died in part because the American wilderness, like the biblical Israel, was a land of milk and honey. The New World was too vast for the Puritans' worldly asceticism. Their rigid theocracy required control and obedience and self-restraint, but the expansive North American wilderness created freedom, dissent, independence, and the lust for land. The abundance of land and economic opportunities for men and women of all social stations diverted too many minds from godly to worldly pursuits. It undermined patriarchal hierarchy and shattered orthodoxy. Those who did not like the way the doctrines of Calvinism were construed and enforced in the Massachusetts Bay Colony had only to move up the Connecticut Valley. Within a dozen years after Winthrop's arrival, Puritan divines were decrying their parishioners' sinful desire for ever more "elbow-room" in their New World. "Land! Land! hath been the Idol of many in New-England," cried Increase Mather. "They that profess themselves Christians, have foresaken Churches, and Ordinances, and all for land and elbow-room enough in the World."

The rich lands of North America also helped unleash liberal, materialist forces within Protestantism that overwhelmed the Puritan fathers' original godly vision and brought New England onto the path on which the rest of British-American civilization was already traveling: toward individualism, progress, and modernity. With so many opportunities for personal enrichment available in the New World, the "Protestant ethic," as Max Weber called it, which countenanced the rewards of labor as a sign of God's favor and which demanded hard work in one's "calling" as a sign of election, became a powerful engine of material progress. In a short time, settlers, plantation owners, and the increasingly prosperous and powerful merchants of Boston--the so-called River Gods--came to worship at altars other than those of their Calvinist fathers and grandfathers. The liberal, commercial ethos of these new mercantile groups represented the spirit of a new age, whose "guiding principles were not social stability, order, and the discipline of the senses, but mobility, growth, and the enjoyment of life."

By the early eighteenth century Puritan New England had entered "the emerging secular and commercial culture" of Anglo-America. The New Englanders "relinquished their grand vision of building a city upon a hill," and Puritanism itself melted into the new, modernizing society. The burst of religious revivalism in the early to mid-eighteenth century, termed the Great Awakening, was a monument to Puritanism's failure, a worried response to the increasing secularization of American society and to the spread of Christian rationalism and Deism among colonial elites. From its original pious ambitions, Jonathan Edwards lamented, the Puritans' America had fallen into sin. History had never witnessed "such a casting off [of] the Christian religion," nor "so much scoffing at and ridiculing the gospel of Christ by those that have been brought up under gospel light." Even Edwards's own reactionary revivalism was shaped by the new realities of life in an expansive, modernizing, and free America, for his was a democratized, antihierarchical Puritanism that conformed to the increasingly fluid nature of colonial American society. His effort to stem the tide of liberalism and modernity was futile. As Edwards wrote his treatises on faith and salvation and obedience to God, his fellow British colonials were "beginning to think of themselves as having individual rights that were self-evidently endowments of nature." By the last quarter of the eighteenth century a foreign observer like the French immigrant Michel-Guillaume-Jean de Crèvecoeur could write of Americans that they "think more of the affairs of this world than of those of the next."

Not only has the original Puritan mission often been misunderstood, therefore, but the rapid absorption and dissipation of Puritanism within the mainstream of colonial American society meant that the Puritan influence in shaping the character of that society, and its foreign policies, was not as great as has sometimes been imagined. Most of America outside of New England had never been under Puritan influence, and by the early eighteenth century even New England was no Puritan commonwealth but a rising center of liberalism and commercialism. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries it was the southern and middle colonies, not New England, that "epitomized what was arguably the most important element in the emerging British-American culture: the conception of America as a place in which free people could pursue their own individual happiness in safety and with a fair prospect that they might be successful in their several quests."

The society and culture that took root in the Chesapeake Bay region had far greater influence on the evolution of American society, and therefore on American foreign policy, than did Puritanism. This colonial America was characterized not by isolationism and utopianism, not by cities upon hills and covenants with God, but by aggressive expansionism, acquisitive materialism, and an overarching ideology of civilization that encouraged and justified both. In Virginia and the other settlements along the Chesapeake Bay that predated the Puritans' arrival in New England, the dreams that drew Englishmen to a rough and untamed country were of wealth and opportunity, not the founding of a new Israel. The boom years that came to Virginia in the middle of the seventeenth century produced no utopia but, at first, an almost lawless capitalism run amok: the "fleeting ugliness of private enterprise operating temporarily without check," a "greed magnified by opportunity, producing fortunes for a few and misery for many," and, of course, the first steps "toward a system of labor that treated men as things." Although gradually this rampant capitalist beast was tamed by the establishment of laws and institutions modeled after England's, the acquisitive, individualistic, modern spirit of liberalism formed the bedrock of American society more than a century and a half before the American revolution proclaimed liberty and the pursuit of happiness to be the natural rights of all men.

This acquisitive individualism was the powerful engine of an Anglo-American territorial expansion that was neither particularly godly nor especially peaceful and certainly not "self-denying." In the Chesapeake Bay area settled by the Virginia Company and its "adventurers," expansion throughout the tidewater began immediately, stretching up the fertile and accessible valleys of the James, Rappahannock, and York rivers. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony, too, expansion from Boston into the Connecticut Valley and the New England interior began within a few years after the colony's founding. In both the northern and southern colonies expansion brought the settlers into bloody conflict with Indians--first the Pequot and later the Wampanoag, the Narragansett, and the Nipmuck in the North, and the Susquehanna in the South. In 1637 settlers from Boston and the Connecticut River Valley united in a two-pronged attack that ended in the massacre and virtual extermination of the Pequot. That victory opened up even more territory for expansion and settlement, which in turn led less than four decades later to another, albeit more costly triumph for the expansion-minded settlers against an alliance of Indian tribes loosely led by the Wampanoag chief whom the Anglo-Americans called King Philip. In Virginia that same year Governor William Berkeley's refusal to launch a war against the Susquehanna resulted in a frontier rebellion led by Nathaniel Bacon and the burning of the Virginia capital of Jamestown. Thereafter in Virginia, as in New England, expansion proceeded apace throughout the latter half of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth, out into the Virginia Piedmont and the Great Valley of the Appalachians and, in the north, up into Vermont and New Hampshire.

Like most expansive peoples--the Greeks and Romans, for instance--Anglo-Americans did not view themselves as aggressors.20 In part, they believed it only right and natural that they should seek independence and fortune for themselves and their families in the New World. Once having pursued this destiny and established a foothold in the untamed lands of North America, continued expansion seemed to many a matter of survival, a defensive reaction to threats that lay just beyond the ever-expanding perimeter of their English civilization. The French and Spanish empires were competing with the English for control of North America. And the Indian nations, defending their own shrinking territories and, indeed, their very existence against European aggression, were a constant threat to the settlers' security--at least from the settlers' perspective. Native Americans pushed off one stretch of land, and fearing they would soon be pushed off the next, frequently struck back, both out of vengeance and in the hopes of convincing the settlers to halt their advance and retreat. Settlers under siege, and the governments charged with protecting them, could easily view the Indians as the aggressors and their own actions as aimed at establish - ing nothing more than a minimal level of security. Attaining even minimal security, however, required an ever-enlarging sphere of control and dominance, for whenever one boundary of security was established, other threats always existed just beyond it. The "original sin" of displacing the first Indians from their lands began a cycle of advance and conquest. As Catherine the Great is supposed to have remarked, "I have no way to defend my borders but to extend them." And indeed, what has been said of Russia, that it found its security only in the insecurity of others, could be said of colonial Anglo-Americans, too. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, they purchased their security at the price of the insecurity, and often the ruin, of Pequot, Iroquois, and Narragansett, of French and Spaniards, and by the time of the Revolution, of the British, too.

The Expansionist "Mission"

The search for security, however, was not the sole motive for expansion. There were other powerful motives as well, and more exalted justifications. The Anglo-American settlers pressed into territories claimed by others in the conviction that they were serving a higher purpose, that their expansion was the unfolding of an Anglo-Saxon destiny. They saw themselves as the vanguard of an English civilization that was leading humanity into the future. The first American exceptionalism was really an English exceptionalism, the first American mission an Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, imperial mission. Even the Virginia Company portrayed itself as more than a purely commercial entity. The company's stockholders insisted theirs was a different kind of commercial enterprise, "the ends for which it is established beinge not simply matter of Trade, butt of a higher Nature." Clearing away the wilderness and implanting English civilization in its place was in their eyes an inherently noble task, as well as being lucrative. While making money for themselves and their London stockholders, the colonists would "bring the infidels and salvages lyving in those partes to humane civilitie and to a setled and quiet govermente." Not for the last time in American history, these early settlers made their way forward in the conviction that enterprise, trade, and the advance of civilization were interlinked. Their civilization, they believed, was beneficial both for those who advanced it and for those upon whom it was advanced. This Anglo-American mission was neither passive nor "exemplarist," however. The settlers moved ever forward; they did not stand still. And they did their converting with their hands, their tools, and their weapons, not by the force of their example.

Excerpted from Dangerous Nation by Robert Kagan Copyright © 2006 by Robert Kagan. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.