Robert Kagan: Writing about today in his history of American expansionism

Historians in the News

In his celebrated book “Of Paradise and Power,” Robert Kagan took issue with “the mistaken idea that the American founding generation was utopian, that it genuinely considered power politics ‘alien and repulsive’ and was simply unable to comprehend the importance of the power factor in foreign relations.” Those words might stand as one epigraph for his provocative and deeply absorbing new book. Another could be what a South African historian once said about a book of his own: although its pages told of another time, “they are also about today.”

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....

It’s bad form to attribute motive or to read between the lines, but there is a long tradition of works of real scholarship that nevertheless have an ulterior purpose. Kagan has been closely associated with the neoconservative project. Right now that project isn’t looking any too rosy, and so it may be understandable if he wants to take time out and look back. He deconstructs the early texts of the Republic, suggesting that Washington’s Farewell Address was not as isolationist as its warnings about entangling “our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor or caprice” might sound. He also points out that John Quincy Adams’s 1821 Independence Day speech was a virulent republican assault on monarchical absolutism and not merely an assertion that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.”

Maybe so, but we have all been reminded by recent events of where the search for monsters can lead. Will it be surprising if America soon, and at least for a time, turns inward and aloof once more?

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