Book World Live
Tuesday, October 31, 2006; 3:00 PM
'Dangerous Nation' deals largely in ideas, especially the distinctive assumptions, beliefs and values that have shaped America's singular role in the world. Yet this, too, is in the end a book about power. And it is aptly titled. Americans, he argues, have long worshipped at the altar of Mars, the god of war. (
Robert Kagan , author of "Dangerous Nation, " will be online to field questions and comments about his latest work, a history of American foreign policy.
The author of several other titles on world affairs, Robert Kagan is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a monthly columnist for The Washington Post.
Join Book World Live each Tuesday at 3 p.m. ET for a discussion based on a story or review in each Sunday's Book World section.
Robert Kagan: Thank you everyone for joining me in this discussion. I look forward to your questions.
Alexandria, Va.: How does your book add to the material already covered by Walter McDougall's "Promised Land, Crusader State" and Walter Russell Mead's "Special Providence"?
Robert Kagan: A very good question. Those are both fine books on the history of American foreign policy. My interpretation is quite different from both of theirs. For instance, I challenge the idea that the U.S. had a fundamnetally different, primarily isolationist policy at its founding, and only later headed out into global involvement. That is the principal thesis of Prof. McDougall's book. He speaks of an "Old Testament" set of principles for American foreign policy, and a "New Testament." I see much greater continuity in American foreign policy than he does. Walter Mead's work is excellent, and he has been kind enough to write a very flattering review of my book in the current issue of Foreign Affairs. I think he would agree that we have some substantially different perspectives on the history of American foreign policy. Although he and I both agree that the common division of American foreign policy thinking into "realist" and "idealist" schools is simplistic and misleading. All I can suggest is that you take a look at all our books and judge for yourself.
Lyme, Conn.: Do you see a guiding philosophy behind our nation's foreign policy? Do our foreign policy implements tend to see us as the police of the world and we expect the rest of the world to act according to our expectations? Has there been any shift in that the current administration seems to believe we do not need to answer to the international community? Finally, especially since we seem to claim how we are acting in a Judeo-Christian manner which represents the majority (but definitely not all) our nation, shouldn't we follow our beliefs and statements with actual actions by providing greater humanitarian aid around the world? Indeed, if we acted more to help people, regardless of their politics and religion, wouldn't we actually set an example and create greater respect and cooperation throughout the international community?
Robert Kagan: A very thoughtful comment and set of questions. I do see a guiding philosophy behind our foreign policy, rooted more in the principles of the Declaration of Independence, however, than in any religion. (Although one could argue that the principles of universal rights may have a religious underpinning.) We are not always true to this philosophy. Americans are capable of hypocrisy and selfishness, as are all other peoples. Nor has the world always welcomed our efforts to "help" them. Yes, people would like aid. But they often bridle at what they regard as an imposition of American, or Western, economic and political ideas -- the strings that come attached to the aid. Ever since the nation was young, Americans have offered what they reagrded as the "blessings of civilization" to other peoples. This offer has been coupled, often, with certain demands and efforts to enrich Americans, as well. Others, whether the native Americans of the 17th and 18th centuries, or the conservative Islamists today, have seen this offer of assistance as a ruse, an effort at "peaceful conquest." So it hasn't always made Americans beloved -- even when Americans have acted from their own point of view with the best intentions.
Reston, Va.: Would a neutral observer view the United States as a positive or negative force in the World? Has this changed over time?
Robert Kagan: What is a "neutral observer"? All peoples bring to such questions their beliefs and prejudices. If one is a modern, enlightenment liberal, I believe one would regard the United States as a deeply flawed but ultimately beneficial force. But other cultures and people with other ideologies would take a different view -- and always have.
Chengdu, People's Republic of China: Many academics subscribe to the theory that there are two distinct periods in the history of American foreign policy; the period prior to United States involvement in the Cuban-Spanish conflict and the period after 1898. I am interested to hear your views on the topic. Do you feel that this argument is representative of what actually occurred or do you have other, perhaps additional, insights into the matter? Thank you.
Robert Kagan: Another excellent question, and I am delighted to see a question from China, where I visited recently. I do challenge the idea that there are two entirely distinct periods in American foreign policy history, with different styles and approaches, before and after 1989. Again, I see significant continuity. The main difference is power. The accumulation of power by the United States expanded both its ambitions and its sense of interests. I believe the same thing has happened, and will continue to happen, with China. Expanding power produces expanding ambition, an expanding sense of interests, and an expanding sense of entitlement. In this respect, most countries are similar. The key differences between countries have to do with ideology.
Mokena, Ill.: What would Democrat majorities do regarding Iran and North Korea?
Robert Kagan: I doubt they would make much of a difference. The Bush administration has already engaged in intensive multilateral dialogue and, in the case of Iran, has expressed a willingness to engage in direct talks if Iran agreed to suspend uranium enrichment. I don't see what a Democratic Senate would have to add to that policy. There may be pressures for direct talks with North Korea, as well, but given today's announcement from China that North Korea has agreed to return to the six-party talks (why this is a big gain eludes me), I don't think Democrats in the Senate will press the issue very hard, at least for a while. My view, for what it's worth, is that Democratic victories this year won't affect Bush's policies very much. He is not running for anything anymore, and neither is his vice president. I think Bush is thinking about his place in history, so it doesn't matter much who controls Congress, at least on foreign policy questions.
Washington, D.C.: How do you think Iraq fits into the "post-modern paradise" you discuss?
Robert Kagan: The "post-modern paradise" I discussed in my previous book, Of Paradise and Power, is Europe. My argument is that even in the United States does not live in that post-modern world, and is not a post-modern country. It is much more like a traditional great power in its behavior. As for Iraq, there is nothing post-modern about it, and I'm afraid it is, at present, no paradise.
Lagos, Nigeria.: Was America not safer during the Cold War than during this current War on Terror?
Author of the "Scarlet Tears of London".
Robert Kagan: That's an interesting question, and not so easy to answer. Obviously, we did not suffer the kind of attack that we suffered on 9/11. And we certainly seem to be vulnerable to other such attacks in the future, and perhaps on an even more horrific scale. When we look back on the Cold War, it seems to have been safer, but that's partly because we now know that nothing horrendous happened. At the time, however, there were often significant fears of nuclear war. Needless to say, the damage that would have come had there been a nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviet Union would have dwarfed what we have experienced in the 21st century. In the early 1960s, I recall, people were building fall-out shelters in their backyards. It now appears as if, precisely because of the possibility of planet-wide destruction, both sides were deterred from conflict. What is so frightening about our present situation is that those who wish us harm seem to be undeterrable.
New York, N.Y.: Would you discuss how the attitudes of the people and the government changes in regard to civil liberties for our own citizens when we feel threatened? I'm referring to the excesses of the Red Scares, the McCarthy period and some would argue today's climate. How does it fit in with the themes of A Dangerous Nation? Thanks so much for the chat.
Robert Kagan: That's an excellent question, and it is one I attempt to address in "Dangerous Nation," even though the book only covers American history up through the end of the 19th century. If you go back even to the first decade of the nation, you discover that even in the time of Hamilton, Jefferson, and Washington, there were great fears on all sides of attempted domestic sibversion supported by overseas powers. Hamilton and Washington believed the French were supporting some pro-French Americans against Washington's adminsitration. Jefferson and Madison, at the same time, believed Britain was supporting the Washington administration in attempt to install monarchy in the U.S. Both sides were fairly paranoid. One of the consequences of these fears, in the late 1790s, were the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were aimed even at newspapers deemed subversive. So, unfortunately, there is a history of such panics in time of conflict. By and large, however, these impingements on American civil liberties are usually relaxed after the initial panic fades. Our nation does have a remarkable ability to return to the principles we uphold, even after compromising them.
Tysons Corner, Va.: Love your work, but the "Book World" review of your work confused me.
Are you advocating an expansionist American foreign policy, or merely stating that we've always had the same? There's a difference. In other words, are you reporting history, or offering opinion?
washingtonpost.com: Rogue State ( Post Book World, Oct. 29 )
Robert Kagan: Thank you for your question. I don't blame you for wondering, given the nature of that review. The reviewer seems to imply that I advocate what I am in fact only attempting to describe. What I have written in "Dangerous Nation" is history. People may question my interpretation, but my only interest is in trying understand and explain the way Americans behaved in their past. I do think there are continuities between past and present. But I do not have any desire to use history to advocate present policies or strategies. If you get a chance to read the book, I think you will see that the aim is analysis, not prescription.
Bethesda, Md.: Haven't Americans always been reluctant to fund a large peacetime army? During the 19th Century, we relied almost exclusively on state militias. The draft was wildly unpopular during the Civil War.
We didn't have a substantial peacetime military establishment until after WWII, when we finally adopted peacetime conscription (a policy most other industrialized nations accepted decades before). Ending the draft helped defuse the movement against the Vietnam War. Now we have a capital-intensive military performing labor-intensive work in Iraq and Afghanistan. The only way we could get enough troops to perform this operations would be to bring back the draft. That's not going to happen.
Robert Kagan: A large peace-time army, yes. However, the United States has engaged in significant naval buildups, and sometimes during peace time. For instance, in the 1880s the US began to build a new navy, despite not facing any significant threat from abroad. The ultimate reason for that build-up was ambition. Many Americans wanted to be more powerful, especially in the Western Hemisphere. The other major build-up came after the war of 1812.
Finally, I don't believe we need a draft to field the larger force we now need.
Arlington, Va.: Didn't most of our growth during the 19th Century come from beating up on weaker powers (Mexico, the declining Spanish Empire) or from negotiating with more powerful nations (U.K., France, Russia). Certainly after the near-disaster of the War of 1812, we never went to war against the U.K. again. We talked big. We openly coveted Canada. But we were never willing to fight the Brits for it again. Of course, they didn't want war either.
Robert Kagan: You are largely right, except that there was a danger of war with Great Britain as late as 1895-96. President Grover Cleveland all but threatened to go to war over a relatively obscure, but to Americans symbolically important, boundary dispute between the British and Venezuela. Many Americans, like Theodore Roosevelt, were rarin' to go. British war planning did not rule out war with the United States until the early 20th century.
We did pick on some major powers to get territory early in our history, moreover. The US pushed France off the continent in the late 18th and early 19th century, and made it clear that Russia had to give up its holdings, as well. And then there was Spain, a major if declining European empire, which the US bullied into submission.
Buenos Aires, Argentina: Why in your opinion did America go to war in Iraq? Was it national security, democracy promotion, or oil -- or all three? And in what order?
Robert Kagan: I believe the United States went to war primarily for national security reasons, not to promote democracy. Everyone believed Saddam was more advanced in his production of weapons of mass destruction than turned out to be the case. His record as an aggressor in the region -- two wars against neighbors, Iran and Kuwait-- made his possession of such weapons all the more troubling. It was not that he necessarily posed a direct threat to the United States, although he may have. It was that the United States has had, and still has, the principal responsibility for preserving security in that region, hence our first war against Saddam in 1991.
The idea of promoting democracy was more ex post facto, in the sense that once having toppled Saddam, the United States would have to support some kind of government in Iraq. Should it have established a dictatorship? Would that even have been possible given the nature of Iraqi society?
Finally, the United States did not go to war for oil. There is oil in Iraq. But if the United States wanted the oil, all it had to do was buy it. Saddam would have been delighted to sell it.
Concord, Maine: It is a commonly held belief that the United States is the world's sole superpower today. How would you define the nature of "superpower" as it pertains to the U.S., and to what extent do you think the U.S. is imperialistic while cloaking its actions in the rhetoric of spreading democracy?
Robert Kagan: It's hard to define "superpower." Perhaps it means a nation able to wield military, economic, and political power across the globe. Even during the Cold War, the United States was really the only "superpower" in that sense, because the Soviet Union's reach was not nearly as great. Perhaps there were two "superpowers" because of the size of their respective nuclear arsenals.
I don't think the United States "cloaks" its imperial power in any guise. Any great power wields influence over others. The greatest powers wield the greatest influence. Whether this qualifies as imperialism is less clear to me. I tend to take a narrow view of what "imperial" means, and for the most part I don't think the US qualifies.
New York, N.Y.: In your opinion, why do we still have hundreds of thousands of troops in Europe? Is it our commitment to NATO? Or is it an implicit bargain with the E.U. that we will be there to defend them if needed? Thanks for the chat.
Robert Kagan: Thank you, as well. First, I think over time our military presence in Europe will decline somewhat. The presence we currently have serves two purposes primarily: First, yes to provide reassurance in Europe against any return to past conflicts, although I consider that prospect fairly remote at the moment. Remember that the main reason for our presence initially was not just to protect against the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, but also to ensure the safe reintegration of Germany into Europe after World War II.
The second reason has more to do with current circumstance. Most of our troops in Europe these days are deployed there because it is closer to current and likely scenes of battle, i.e., the Middle East, Persian Gulf, and Central Asia. American forces there are "forward deployed," so to speak.
Warrenton, Va.: The Americans drove the French off the continent? General James Wolfe did that during the French and Indian Wars. And Napoleon sold Louisiana -- and only because his effort to retake Haiti turned into a disaster.
Robert Kagan: I actually take a different view in my book. One of the main reasons Napoleon gave up on his imperial dreams in North America was that he considered the Americans aggressive potential opponents. His advisers warned him against engaging in conflict with what they called this "numerous", "warlike" people.
As for the Seven Years' War, when I write of "Americans" in the book, as well as here, I don't just mean post-Revolution. The Anglo-Americans who sparked the war with France over the Ohio Valley were the future leaders of the nation, Washington, Franklin and others. Were these not Americans?
Beltsville, Md.: Americans sometimes like to beat the heck out of our enemies. But we don't like many of the byproducts of war:
Prolonged engagement with foreign cultures:
-- Philippines (both the insurrection and the subsequent colonial period)
-- Iraq and Afghanistan
-- you could even include the Reconstruction era
-- a major objection to Reconstruction
-- there was an immediate demand for a tax cut after WWII
-- Bush cuts taxes even as we fight two wars
The draft: Vietnam, Civil War. Nobody dares talk about a draft today.
Long conflicts without hope of a clear victory: Iraq, Vietnam, Korea.
And as Niall Ferguson points out, we never have generated a colonial service like the U.K. did, in part because Americans don't like leaving home, especially for unpleasant places.
Robert Kagan: All quite true. One of the great recurring problems in American foreign policy is the gap between ends and means, between what Americans want and what they are willing to pay to get it. Naturally, they want to pay as little as possible.
But it would be a mistake not to understand that the Americans are, relatively speaking, a martial people. They have not been all that reluctant to go to war, as the past two decades have demonstrated.
New York, N.Y.: I hadn't thought of deployed forward. Now it makes much more sense. Thanks. I look foward to reading your book.
Robert Kagan: Thanks very much.
Memphis, Tenn.: The Russian presence on the Pacific Coast never mattered much -- much too long a line of supply. And they lacked either a sufficient navy or a commercial class worthy of the name. Not hard for the Americans and British to push them out of the way.
Later, the Russians were more than happy to sell Alaska. It was all trapped out, and they needed the money for railroads. Of course, Seward was widely mocked for buying it. Few Americans cared one bit about Alaska until the Klondike gold rush.
Robert Kagan: Quite right. I'm not arguing that the Americans always had to fight World War III to get what they want. I'm just arguing in the book that they certainly were willing to expand and push both native peoples and other empires off land they coveted. Wouldn't you agree?
Re: Army vs. Navy: Navies require money, which the prosperous American economy has usually generated in great quantities. Plus they provide great contracts for shipbuilders, et al. Armies, especially infantries, require soldiers. And young Americans have rarely seen the military as their best option. Except during war (and the atypical period of the Cold War), we rarely have been willing to draft them.
Robert Kagan: All true, but as I suggested in an earlier answer, we shouldn't underestimate the warlike tendencies in the American character. Today we are the only democratic country in the world that routinely considers electing generals to the presidency, whether Eisenhower, Colin Powell, or Wes Clark. Americans generally revere their military tradition more than other democratic nations do. And Americans have gone to war, both large and small, relatively frequently in their history. Land wars, too.
McLean, Va.: Did the United States have a huge advantage in being the only significant power in North America? The great powers of Europe were usually distracted by more pressing matters. The Spanish were already in terminal decline by the time of the Revolution. The British were usually more interested in India. The heartland of Russia was 10,000 miles away. The French cared more about continental Europe or sometimes about Africa. Mexico spent its early years in turmoil. We grabbed a continent on the cheap -- we didn't even have to build a real professional army.
Robert Kagan: Yes. We might ask the question, though, how did the United States get to be the strongest power on the continent? It wasn't fore-ordained (although the Americans at the time believed it was!) Americans populated, prospered, bullied, and in some cases fought their way into prominence. Even the War of 1812, which was no military victory by any measure, did have the effect of soldifying the American position on the continent against both the British and the Spanish. Other powers in the hemisphere were once thought to have promising future, and great ambitions for hemispheric power: Chile, for instance. Nor were the European imperial powers destined necessarily to quit the continent. I argue in the book that the US was not just lucky. Through aggressive expansion, and through a successful economic and political model, it created the circumstances which gave it dominance.
Generals: Ummm ... the French elected De Gaulle. They followed Napoleon for almost two decades.(During WWII, they worshipped Petain, too). The Germans elected Hindenburg. The British had the Duke of Wellington as P.M. Churchill was educated at Sandhurst.
If you want to argue that Americans are more militaristic today -- no argument here. Historically -- no we weren't, we lacked a professional military. Most of our generals-in-politics were amateur soldiers: Jackson, W.H. Harrison, even Washington.
Robert Kagan: I take your point. But I don't see why the fact that they were amateur soldiers makes a difference in assessing the martial tendencies of the nation. After the Civil War, it was almost impossible to run for the presidency unless you had a military background in the Civil War. You have mentioned Jackson and Harrison, two men elected almost entirely because of their war records. The ancient Athenians were amateur generals, as well, but no one would accuse Athens of lacking martial qualities. That is the way in democracies, but it doesn't make democracies less warlike.
Revere military tradition: I would say that other contries -- such as my native Britain -- revere military tradtion, but they see a place for it, and that place does not equate with political leadership. In the end, the U.S. thinks that the political should control the military -- but it's not always obvious, as was the case with MacArthur. I see it more as yearning to be lead by a hero.
Robert Kagan: Coould be. And I don't want to suggest that other countries, especially Britain, don't have a strong martial tradition. But, as you note, when was the last time a British general ran for Prime Minister? Yes, Americans yearn for heroes, but it is interesting how often they are military heroes.
Arlington, Va.: Since our nation was founded, we've been involved in a military conflict an average of once every five years. Are there any other countries in the world that can match our record during the same time? It's not hard to see why the rest of the world thinks of us as warmongers.
Robert Kagan: What is most striking is the frequency with which the United States has gone to war in recent decades. I count nine major dispatches of US force between 1989 and 2003, beginning with George H. W. Bush's invasion of Panama at the end of 1989. Does anyone remember that?
More on generals: Post-Civil War: that's because most American men of that generation had served in the war. And while we elected Grant, all the other presidents of that period were 'not' major military figures. And Cleveland won the popular vote 'three' times without having ever served.
Robert Kagan: Even as late as the 1896, a man like McKinley could display his military credentials to great use. It was harder to run for the Democratic party as a military man, since the Democrats were tarred as the party of the South, drew much of their support from the South, and could hardly promote southern military leaders for the presidency.
Moreover, Jackson was, of course, pre-Civil War. I don't know exactly why we shy away from this heritage and insist on seeing ourselves as simply a people abhor war. Our history simply doesn't support that image.
Robert Kagan: Many thanks for a very interesting and stimulating discussion. An excellent group of questions!
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