Posts Tagged ‘American histroy’
In Robert Kagan’s excellent piece of early American history, ‘Dangerous Nation‘, a complex picture is painted of an exceptional country, whose growth endangered societies both near and far. In ‘Nation’, Kagan in great depth profiles how the people who founded and grew the United States had to deal with an enormity of challenges of the physical (great power rivals of Europe, Native American tribes, untamed frontiers) and ideological (as a liberal republic in world of monarchies and despots) nature. The superpower we see before us today was not just born that way, it had to become one. And it was not easy!
Kagan tightly ties together the seemingly contradictory notion of a United States as both a practical realist nation and one born with a revolutionary ideology that continues to shape how it sees the world. In Kagan’s words: ‘Americans did not form a nation and then embark on a foreign policy to protect and further its interests. They began a foreign policy in order to establish themselves as a nation.’ The American liberal, democratic republic was a challenge to the monarchies of Europe and the native peoples of the American continent, but as Kagan accurately points out, back then, as well as today, the American people did not view themselves as challengers or ‘dangerous’. In fact, most Americans still believe their nation’s natural tendencies are toward ‘passivity, indifference, and insularity’. Though Kagan may be going a bit over the top here, he is basically correct in noting that Americans view themselves as much more passive than the peoples of the world perceive us. ‘Dangerous Nation’s main themes of early US foreign policy are well laid out in this paragraph:
The statesman of the founding era were not unfamiliar with the ways of power politics, however. They were idealists in the sense that they were committed to a set of universal principles, the defense and promotion of which they believed would improve the human condition as well as further American interests. But they were practical idealists. In their moment of weakness they employed the strategies of the weak. They viewed alliances as necessary but dangerous. They denigrated so called power politics and claimed an aversion to war and military power, all realms in which they were far inferior to the European great powers. They extolled the virtues of commerce, where Americans competed on a more equal plane. They appealed to international law as the best means of regulating the behavior of nations, knowing that they had not other means of constraining the great powers of Britain and France. They adjusted themselves to an unhappy reality that they knew to be very much at odds with their aspirations. They looked forward to the day when, as a more powerful nation, they might begin to shape the world to conform more closely to their ideals. Fortunately for the young United States, the world was configure in such a way as to make this possible.”
Robert Kagan’s ‘Dangerous Nation’, Page 57
Besides a general analysis of the broad themes of American foreign policy from its colonial beginnings til the Spanish-American war at the turn of the 20th century, ‘Nation’ offers in-depth coverage of several crucial inner conflicts in American history. The three most intriguing conflicts detailed were the battle between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson in guiding the nascent Republic, the foreign policy schizophrenia of slavery, and the still under emphasized great power coming out party of the Spanish-American war.
Kagan devotes three extensive chapters on how slavery affected American foreign policy and stances for most of the 19th century. This coverage showcases another one of Kagan’s main themes; the prominent influence of partisan politics affecting American foreign affairs. For example, in the section ‘Northern Containment, Southern Expansion’, Kagan describes how the interests of the southern states differed from the northern states in almost all cases of territorial expansion, including the Louisiana Purchase. This is an important lesson for those who believe that partisan politics ends at the ‘water’s edge’. This theme can be vividly seen in the domestic debates to decide if the US should go to war with Spain over Cuba, with many Republican operatives being against the war, before they were for it.
The study of the America’s early foreign policy is still lacking, but ‘Dangerous Nation’ joins WR Mead’s ‘Special Providence‘ and Merrill/Paterson’s ‘Major Problems in American Foreign Relations‘ series in bringing light to a fascinating topic.