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May 27, 2008

Robert Kagan does that all too rare thing - offer a popular history which does not ignore the complexities, argues Jeremy Black: Dangerous Nation: America and the World, 1600-1898 - Robert Kagan

Posted by Jeremy Black

Dangerous Nation: America and the World, 1600-1898
by Robert Kagan
Pp. 527. London: Atlantic Books, 2006
Hardback, £25

Noted as the author of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, Robert Kagan is a former diplomat who is now Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In his important new book, Kagan provides an account of American foreign policy that is deliberately seen as pertinent today. The key theme is that America in its infancy was a very dangerous nation, with an emphasis on expansionism. Rejecting the idea that America was characterised by isolation and separation, Kagan sees an insatiable desire for territory and influence, and also emphasises the threat posed by American ideology.

Kagan perceptively notes a gap between Americans' self-perception and the perceptions of others throughout the nation's history. As he points out, Americans have cherished an image of themselves as by nature inward-looking and aloof, only sporadically and spasmodically venturing forth into the world, usually in response to external attack or perceived threats.

This lack of self-awareness is presented by Kagan as a problem in another way: not only have Americans frequently failed to see how their actions could provoke reactions from others, but they have not even accurately predicted their own responses. Thus, in the quintessential American way, there is an optimism here abut the value of self-understanding:

On balance, Americans would be better off if they understood themselves, their nation, and their nation's history better. This applies especially to the early history of American foreign policy.
This analysis is taken forward through a chronologically-organised account, culminating with the War of 1898 with Spain. Kagan presents this as consistent with his central themes:
the war was the product of deeply ingrained American attitudes toward the nation's place in the world… It reflected Americans' view of themselves, stretching back to before the nation's founding, as the advance guard of civilization, leading the way against backward and barbaric nations and empires.
There is much that is impressive about this book and I agree with the general theme, but two caveats can be offered.

First, there is a tendency to simplify American attitudes and politics in order to offer a misleading consistency. The reality, instead, was of very different views, as in the 1812 Seminole, Mexican and Spanish wars. Indeed, there was often opposition to expansion. Thus, Kagan's zeitschrift approach is questionable.

Secondly, there is need for extensive comparisons with other states, for example eighteenth-century China. Nevertheless, it would be inappropriate to end on a critical note. This is a clear and vigorous book and is valuable for its recognition of the need to consider historical perspectives.

Would that that had been true more widely is an obvious refrain, but, at the same time, it is necessary to understand the ambiguity of the past and the difficulty of drawing conclusions. All-too-often popular books lack the willingness to engage with complexity, which underrates the extent to which the likely audience is aware, from its consideration of modern politics, that simple accounts are mistaken.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Slave Trade, A Short History of Britain, The Holocaust, and The Curse of History.

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