Dangerous Nation, by Robert Kagan


From the beginning, Americans liked to believe that they were free of Old-Worldly original sin, dwellers in a city on a hill who “cherished an image of themselves as by nature inward-looking and aloof.” And from the beginning, Kagan argues in “Dangerous Nation,” they were wrong. In this, the first of two volumes on the United States as an international power, he shows how America was always a player, and often a ruthless one, in the great game of nations.

Its foreign and domestic politics were continually intertwined, from the first conflict between Jeffersonian Republicans and Hamiltonian Federalists. The great overarching question of slavery also had large international implications. The British campaign against the slave trade enraged Southern slaveholders, while British sympathy for the South in turn enraged the North, as personified by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. But even his anger was far from disinterested, since he spent most of his career “eyeing Canada as a great prize to be annexed to the United States as soon as circumstances permitted.” The American self-image of immaculate conception was indeed absurd in the light of slavery, of expansion across Indian lands and of territorial ambitions.

And it was far from shared by Europeans, who viewed the infant republic as a threat from its earliest days. When John Quincy Adams was American minister in London in 1817 he reported home (in words that give Kagan his title) the universal European feeling that the United States would become “a very dangerous member of the society of nations.” As well as apprehension there was understandable disdain in Europe for American hypocrisy, and here Kagan seems a little perverse.

He plays a lengthy riff on the term “liberal,” as in the “liberal view,” or the liberalism that, for “200 years, was the main engine of American expansion.” This obviously isn’t using the word as Republicans do in denouncing “liberal Democrats” (or the way neoconservatives sometimes use it pejoratively), but in the way some historians would say “bourgeois.” “Liberal” here refers to the modern commercial society that emerged in England and then America in the 18th century, and whose theorists were John Locke and Adam Smith.

Although Kagan’s larger point is valid, it is incongruous to categorize as liberal the early American belief that one day “the United States would stretch across the entire expanse of the continent,” or to describe the brutal expropriation of the indigenous inhabitants as “liberal expansion.” When some piece of public skulduggery was once described as “a pious fraud,” that cynical 18th-century pol Lord Holland replied, “I can see the fraud, but where is the piety?” Contemplating the fate of the Cherokees, one can likewise see the expansion more clearly than the liberalism.