DANGEROUS NATION America's Place in the World from its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century Robert Kagan New York: Knopf, 2006.527 pp, US $30.00, CDN $40.00 cloth.
It's an old saw that any argument worth making is worth overstating. John Quincy Adams, America's most successful--and most cantankerous--secretary of state knew this. Attempting to persuade President Monroe of an iffy proposition, he reasoned, "if the question was dubious, it was better to err on the side of vigor than of weakness."
Robert Kagan, of Of Paradise and Power fame, makes a vigorous argument in his new survey of American foreign policy. This book, the first part of a projected two-volume history of the United States' place in the world, takes as its subject America's rise to world power. It begins with the imperial contests of the 17th century and concludes in 1898--though 2008 is never very far over the horizon. The sheer sweep and ambition of the book, combined with Kagan's extraordinary narrative skill, make it a pleasure to read. And for readers unfamiliar with America's early history, Kagan performs a real service by reminding us that America is not, and was never, isolationist. It was deeply embedded into the international system in terms of trade and, most especially, geopolitics--after all, America's founding document, the declaration of independence, was both a diplomatic project, meant to provide the legal basis for France to aid another sovereign state, as well as a universal declaration of human rights. But splendid isolation is just one of several American myths at which Kagan takes aim. Also in his crosshairs are Americans' belief in their own unique virtue and, equally one-dimensional, America's cynical critics' belief in its base materialism. In short, this book offers something for everyone--or, stated in another way, just enough to tick off everyone. It will anger the left because Kagan speaks unrepentantly as an advocate for...
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