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The following is an extract from “Dangerous Nation,” a history of American foreign policy by Robert Kagan
At America’s birth … foreign policy and national identity were intimately bound together, and they would remain so for the next two centuries. Every nation’s foreign policy reflects the national idea, however that idea may be defined and redefined over time. Most nationalisms are rooted in blood and soil, in the culture and history of a particular territory. But in the case of the United States, the Declaration of Independence and the Revolution produced a different kind of nationalism, different from that of other nations, and different, too, from the type of British imperial nationalism to which Americans had paid their allegiance before the Revolution. Americans were now tied together not by common ancestry, common history, and common land but by common allegiance to the liberal republican ideology. The principles of the Declaration transcended blood ties and national boundaries.…
This new universalistic nationalism inevitably shaped Americans’ attitudes toward the world, toward their own place and role in that world, and toward what twentieth-century thinkers would call their national interest. The classic definition of national interest-the defense of a specific territory and promotion of the well-being of the people who live on it-was not perfectly suited to a nationalism that rested on a universalist ideology. Americans from the beginning were interested not only in protecting and advancing their material well-being; they also believed their own fate was in some way tied to the cause of liberalism and republicanism both within and beyond their borders. William Appleman Williams once commented, with disapproval, that Americans believe their nation “has meaning ... only as it realizes natural right and reason throughout the universe”….
Most Americans did not set themselves on a mission to transform the world in their image. The idea of “mission” suggests a positive, deliberate. conscious effort to bring change. Americans’ behavior in support of their universal principles abroad was irregular and haphazard, with periods of action and ideological passion punctuating periods of apparent indifference. The vast majority of Americans devoted themselves not to global transformation but to the daily pursuit of their material and spiritual wellbeing. Most did not aim to change the world, either by example or by intervention. Few Americans then or later Consciously worked to ensure that the United States provided a compelling example of republican democracy in the hope that others would emulate it. It was for their own sake that Americans sought to perfect their government’s institutions, not for the sake of others. They cheered when other peoples did follow their example, partly because it was encouragement to their own efforts. But few counted the United States a failure on the many more occasions when its example was not followed in other lands. Nor did Americans pursue a consistent, positive mission to “vindicate” their principles abroad. In this sense John Quincy Adams was right when he proclaimed in a July Fourth oration in 1821 that “America goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”
Yet when the United States did go abroad for other reasons-as merchants, as diplomats, as religious missionaries, as tourists and adventurersor even when they learned about the world through newspapers and gossip, they did not find it easy to ignore the “monsters” they encountered. In their dealings with the world they were repeatedly confronted by the question of whether their practices conformed to their stated principles.
When Americans’ pursuit of material and spiritual happiness thrust them into involvement with other peoples, the principle of universal rights they proclaimed often became part of that interaction. The principle served as a kind of superego looming in judgment over Americans’ egoistic pursuits. It pricked their consciences. It called their motives into question, as well as their honor. It forced them to examine and reexamine themselves, much as the institution of slavery nagged at Americans until it was expunged by war. If rights were universal, then what about slaves’ rights and women’s rights? If rights were universal, then what about the rights of the French people in 1789’.’ What about Latin Americans and Spaniards? What about Greeks and Poles and Hungarians’? If the rights of others were being trampled, Americans were forced to confront the question of whether they had an obligation to do something about it. Their answer might frequently be no, just as for seventy years most northerners chose to do nothing to eradicate slavery in the South. But the question itself, like the question of slavery, was hard to avoid.
The true American “mission” was a ceaseless effort to reconcile universal principle and selfish interest. Often Americans insisted or wanted to believe that principle and interest were entirely compatible, as sometimes they could be. But whether they were or not, Americans’ principles were always there, to inspire them, to bedevil them, to strengthen them, and to confound them in their relations with the external world.
“Dangerous Nation,” a history of American foreign policy
By Robert Kagan