Robert Kagan: Interviewed about his new book, which claims Americans were never isolationists

Historians in the News

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Robert Kagan, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, and a columnist for The Washington Post. He is also the author of A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977–1990, and editor, with William Kristol, of Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy. Kagan served in the U.S. State Department from 1984 to 1988. He is the author of the new book Dangerous Nation: America's Place in the World from its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the 20th Century.

FP: Robert Kagan, welcome to Frontpage Interview.

Kagan: Thanks. I appreciate your inviting me.

FP: I want to get your thought on the terror war and on the recent report made by the Iraq Study Group. But let's first talk about your new book. What motivated you to write it?

Kagan: I suppose my interest in the history of American foreign policy began when I worked as a speechwriter for George Shultz in the Reagan years. Although many, especially the so-called "realists", dismissed Reagan as some kind of aberration from American foreign policy -- just as they dismiss George W. Bush, my understanding of America's history led me to believe that Reagan was very much part of the true American tradition.

In the early 1990s, after the Cold War ended, an old debate over the proper course of American foreign policy re-emerged after being mostly dormant during the Cold War. Realists and many conservatives, as well as some liberals, claimed that the U.S. should return to its "traditional" approach, which was, if not isolationist, at least more passive, less inclined to "bear any burden," or as Jeane Kirkpatrick put it at the time -- a "normal" nation. I did not believe the United States ever had been, or ever could be, a "normal" nation, given the highly ideological nature of its nationhood. So, in the mid 1990s, I began a decade-long investigation into our early history to try and determine what were our real foreign policy traditions.

FP: Crystallize your main thesis for us as well as the orthodoxy you are revising.

Kagan: The common perception of 18th and 19th century American foreign policy, both for the public at large and also for the intellectual elite and foreign policy establishment, is that it was primarily isolationist. The early American settlers came to the New World to create a City Upon a Hill, separate and aloof from the rest of the world. Washington's Farewell Address, with its warning against "political connexions" with other nations, and the Monroe Doctrine, with its insistence that Europe plant no more colonies in the Western Hemisphere are both seen as reaffirmations of this isolationist "tradition." Most believe, therefore, that America's first and natural posture in the world is one of passivity and introspection. If Americans do venture out into the world, it is only because they have been attacked or faced an imminent threat.

My argument is that, on the contrary, Americans are and always have been an expansionist people. From the time of the Puritans through the end of the 19th century, Americans were aggressive territorial expansionists, willing to use force when necessary to achieve their expansionist goals. From the 18th century to the present day, Americans have been commercial expansionists, seeking markets and resources wherever in the world these could be found. From the early 19th century until the present, Americans have sought to expand their power and their influence, seeking to shape the behavior of other peoples and nations in ever widening arcs.

And from the Revolution until today, Americans have been ideological expansionists, driven by the universal principles of the Declaration of Independence. They have sought to transform the world, or at least as much of the world as they had the power to transform, to conform with American principles, ideals, as well as American interests. Their record is far from unmixed in this effort. But they have had a profound impact on the shape of the international system. And it may surprise many Americans to learn that even the founders, including George Washington, believed that in time the United States would become the most powerful nation in the world.

FP: As you say, Americans’ record is “far from unmixed” in their expansionism, but it is important to stress, is it not, that America, unlike many great powers, has brought freedom and liberty to the many lands that it touched (i.e. Germany, Japan etc.) rather than enslavement -- as in, for instance, the Soviet case. It is important to apply moral clarity to this subject, no? Otherwise a moral equivalency can develop that suggests America was and is expansionist as Saddam, Hitler and Stalin were – a notion which gravely distorts truth and history.

Kagan: It's a good question. Let me answer in two ways. First, my book Dangerous Nation, covers the 18th and 19th centuries in American foreign policy. The moral argument for American foreign policy is not so clear-cut in this period. For one thing, the United States in its first eight decades was both a liberal democracy and a slaveholding nation, which in the South required a quasi-totalitarian control not only of blacks but of whites. A good part of American expansion this period was partly, and sometimes largely, driven by a desire to spread slavery, not democracy. Then, of course, there was the matter of the Indians.

While I do not take a rosy-colored view of the Indians, who committed inhuman atrocities against one another as well as against white settlers, or a uniformly dark view of American policies toward the Indians, the fact remains that American desires for land -- justified by a Lockean liberal sense that land should be "improved" or it was wasted -- led to violent attacks on Indians, and of a ceaseless violations of treaties solemnly entered into by the U.S. government. This is what I mean by the record not being "unmixed."

This is a large part of our history as a nation.

Ironically, the intervention most often cited as a blatant act of "imperialism," the intervention in Cuba and war against Spain in 1898, was almost entirely fought for humanitarian and moral ends. And that began a fairly steady record, though again not an unmixed record, of American "expansion" for moral ends, which certainly included the two world wars and the Cold War. And here there needs to be a distinction made between the methods of expansion and the use of power and influence, on the one hand, and the goals of power and expansion. All great powers use roughly the same implements of power: they intervene and occupy foreign lands, they exert economic influence designed to shape the behavior of others to suit their own interests and principles. Aggressive dictatorships are usually more brutal in their actions than a democracy like the US, although it was the United States that dropped nuclear bombs on innocent Japanese civilians.

The distinction is not in means but in ends. I don't think it's defensible to assert that the US was not as expansionist as other powers in history. The question concerns the purposes of American expansion, which indeed, was not to enslave but to bring liberty and progress. I have always been amused by the endless debate over who started the Cold War, as if that could determine our innocence and guilt, or the justness of our policies. The truth is, both sides started the Cold War. What made our side right was not that the other guy struck first, but that the principles which we struggled for were right and theirs were wrong.

FP: So how do you fit your thesis into the terror war today? America is clearly confronting a totalitarian ideology, Islamism, which, like Nazism and communism, seeks to expand its doctrine of enslaving humans throughout the world. America is a defender of individual freedom and liberty in this case, as it was in the Cold War and Second World War. What is your angle here?

Kagan: Well, once again we have been surprised to find out that others hate us precisely because of the doctrines we aim to spread, and sometimes spread unconsciously.

Obviously, the Islamists have long felt that American power, as well as American culture, Americans' support of progress, liberalism, and modernity have undermined the conservative attempts to turn back the clock in the Islamic world. This was precisely how Metternich, Alexander, and the other conservative monarchies of Europe viewed the United States in the early 19th century. Their fear of America's revolutionary liberal doctrines made them consider the young US a "dangerous nation," hence the title of my book.

Now, when critics of American foreign policy point out that American actions in the Middle East helped spur Osama Bin Laden to action, they usually mean to suggest that the United States should stop acting in ways that offend Islamists. I would argue that:

[a] we should not stop attempting to spread our principles and our influence


[b] we could not stop it even if we wanted to, because ideological expansionism is embedded in the American DNA.

What I would suggest is that Americans stop letting themselves be surprised by the reactions they, often unconsciously, provoke in others. American actions with regard to Manchuria in the 1930s did help convince the Japanese to launch an attack of our Pacific Fleet. That does not mean we were wrong and they were justified. Nor, certainly, does it mean that Al Qaeda's actions are in any way justified. What it does mean is that, as we make our way through the world, shaping it both consciously and unconsciously to conform to our principles, we must be prepared for the reaction and prepared to act, preventively at times. We should not kid ourselves that if we only sit back passively, we will not become the target of others' anger and sometimes of their military aggression.

FP: What do you make of the Iraq Study Group’s report? What do you make of how Iraq was handled? What is the best thing, in your mind, for us to do now -- not only in Iraq in particular but in the terror war in general?

Kagan: I think the ISG report is something of a disaster. First, it does not even come close to offering a workable solution in Iraq. Their main recommendation is the rapid training of Iraqis so that they can stand on their own. Perhaps the commission has not noticed that this has been the administration's strategy from the beginning, and that it has failed.

The commission's recommendations that we seek Iran's aid in Iraq is laughable. Even Jim Baker has admitted since the report was issued that there was very little chance that Iran would be interested in a deal. But what's the harm in trying? he asks. The answer is there can be a great deal of harm when we go pandering to our adversaries from a position of weakness, begging for their help.

My fundamental belief remains, as it has for the past three years, that we need a great many more American troops in Iraq to provide the security and stability to permit Iraqis to begin the process of reconciliation. Our failure to provide security has accelerated the cycle of sectarian violence, as Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurds, unable to count on the United States for basic security, have naturally turned to their own sectarian militias for that protection.

I also believe that we need a much larger number of ground forces overall in the Army and the Marines. We have also been short-handed in Afghanistan, and who knows when we will be forced to intervene in some other region where Al Qaeda and like-minded groups set up a base for attack. It is a tragedy that this administration has failed to prepare our defenses adequately to pursue the war on terror. If this is a war, and I believe it will last a long time, then we should take the necessary steps and spend the necessary money to give us the best possible chance of succeeding.

FP: Robert Kagan, it was an honor to have you as a guest on Frontpage Interview.

Kagan: It has been a great pleasure for me. Thank you very much for inviting me.

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