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Dangerous Nation: A Review

This is a review of Dangerous Nation: America’s Foreign Policy from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century by Robert Kagan. Vintage Books, November 2007

When it comes to America’s foreign policy, conventional thought suggests that the Americans only started getting engaged in global affairs after the war against Spain for Cuba in 1899. Further involvement in global affairs only took root after the First World War in 1914. And the Second World War finally made America the most influential country in the world.

Robert Kagan desn’t think so. A senior associate of Carnegie Endowment and a well-known neo-conservative, Kagan argues that America has been consolidating its power from the day it was founded: “Americans have often not realized how their expansive tenancies- political, ideological, economics, strategic, and cultural, bump up against and intrude upon other people and cultures…They have not anticipated, therefore, the way their natural expansiveness could provoke reactions, and sometimes violent reactions, against them.” (P.5) – Kagan writes in the introduction.

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The Scarlet Claw download From the beginning, Kagan does a brilliant job of challenging readers. We are urged to change our perceptions and to re-examine our image of America as an isolationist country that remained isolationist until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Kagan suggests that the first American foreign policy, implemented by both the British and settlers in the colony, was the attempt to gain control of French Canada and Louisiana from 1750s till 1820: the Louisiana Purchase. Acquisition of land was the center of foreign policy of American settlers. However, Kagan claims that an official foreign policy document was only issued during the war of independence in 1776: “The Declaration of Independence was also America’s first foreign policy document. To win foreign support-and, above all, French support-in the war against Britain… In practical terms, the Declaration provided the international legal basis for France to lend support if it chose… It (The Declaration of Independence) was to create the legal basis necessary to from alliances with European powers. American independence, from the first, depended on successful diplomacy to secure foreign support.” (P.41-42)

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Valley of the Dolls Kagan challenges the conventional interpretation of the Declaration of Independence. Instead of upholding the declaration as a document including solely the grievances of American settlers against the British Empire, he further explores and discusses the message behind the document: which he believes to be the attempt to establish a diplomatic relationship with a foreign country. This country was France, whose revolution inspired the founding fathers of America; France became the staunchest friend of what later emerged as one of the strongest countries in the world.

Bend It Like Beckham Another event shaping America’s foreign policy, Kagan proposes, is the Civil War of 1861 – 1865. “Slavery shaped American foreign policy, above all, by producing an acute national vulnerability that was recognized in both the North and the South. “ (P.185). The victory of the North, while ending slavery in the South, also affected the foreign policy of Republicans. The civil war reinforced American belief that the United States carried a global mission to liberate people from bondage and dictatorships, Kagan believes. He refers to Lodge, Chairman of Senates Foreign Relations Committee, and Roosevelt to emphasize the impact of the civil war, “Decades after Lincoln defined American nationalism as inherently infused with international moral responsibility, Lodge would insist that for America to fulfill its destiny and become a great power, it would have to accept its global duties.” (P.283)

America’s global mission against bondage derives from the experience of the civil war, Kagan argues.

The final event that consolidated the American foreign policy before the First World War was the war against Spain for Cuba. The desire among American citizens to get involved gave the President, William McKinley, a justification to send troops to launch attacks against Spain. Kagan writes, “The war was so popular because it involved American ideals, American interests, American prejudices and American power. The horrors of the reconcentration policy and three hundred thousand Cuban deaths outraged Americans… That so much human suffering was being inflicted so close to U.S shores seemed intolerable, especially because Americans believed they had the power to do something about it…defending “humanity” and “civilization” was the honorable course and justified military intervention.” (P.407 and P.411).

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At the end of book, Kagan concludes that American foreign policy was “the product of a universialist ideology as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. It reflected Americans’ view themselves, stretching back to before the nation’s founding, as the advanced guard of civilization, leading the way against backward and barbaric nations and empires. It derived from the American experience of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and especially from the experience of the Civil War…The Spanish-American war, in short, an expression of who the American people were and what they had made of their nation.” (P.416)

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On the whole, Kagan, despite not discussing whether the North or the South extorted heavier influence on the foundation of America’s foreign policy, cleverly re-envisions the history of one of the most powerful nations in the world. If one went by this book, it would not be surprising that in the future, military intervention against Iran, Sudan, Burma and other countries will occur.

The book of Kagan is a must-read book for anyone trying to understand why America acts as the “Global Police” nowadays.


Jonathan Mok

Jonathan Mok lives in Hong Kong. He reviews music and literature. Some of his chief interests include American and Middle Eastern politics.