The principal explanations Robert Kagan provides in Dangerous Nation for the growth of America’s expansionist “mission” are those of enlightenment ideology, security and civilizationism.
In Colonial America the Lockean ideal of land ownership was an incredibly powerful force. “Land ownership equaled liberty, both in Lockean theory and practice (p. 15).” Smith and Burke commented on colonials extensive freedoms (p. 16). However, according to Kagan, the freedom which early colonial people enjoyed “depended on an endless supply of land on which to settle and start a new life (p. 16),” But this land was not empty. Spanish, French and Native Americans all shared the continent (p. 11 – 16). Despite their ever-pressing territorial expansion, “Anglo-Americans did not view themselves as aggressors… they believed it only right and natural that they should seek independence and fortune themselves and their families in the New World (p. 11).” Colonial Americans used fetishist disavowal as a means of justifying their quest for liberty.
These justifications became essential elements of the American “mission” of territorial expansion. First, the drive for land, ironically, led to the securitization of expansionistic policies. Native Americans, perceiving their territory slowly being eroded by colonial settlers often “struck back, both out of vengeance and in the hopes of convincing the settlers to halt their advance and retreat (p. 12).” The settler’s – constantly engaged in a dream-act of forgetting their own aggressive expansion – viewed the American Indians as an unreasonable threat to their security “and their own actions as aimed at establishing nothing more than a minimal level of security (p. 12).” Kagan refers to Catherine the Great who said, “I have no way to defend my borders but to extend them (p. 12).” Thus, we have an early example of Americans engaging in aggressive preventative actions in order to produce “a level of security… that was, as Burke suggested, unheard of in Europe (p. 29).” The expansionistic war against England in 1812 for control of Canada offers one instance of such policy (p. 65).
The drive for territory at the expense of others, also contributed to American racism, or Kagan’s watered-down “civilizationism”: “Their civilization they believed was beneficial both for those who advanced it and for those upon whom it was advanced (p. 13).” This “civilizing” mission was used to justify the destruction of Native American culture, and the post-Spanish War annexation of Cuba (p. 413).
The Revolutionary War and the Declaration of Independence established a national identity based on the universal rights of man. Kagan agrees with William Appleman Williams that “Americans believe their nation ‘has meaning … only as it realizes natural right and reason troughout the universe’ (p. 42).” Thus, from the very point of conception, the US has felt a unique call to use its influence for the civilizing ends of republicanism and rights-based commercialism. The call to defend these ideals – or to defend the very essence of US identity would play heavily in US expansionism: during the North’s invasion of the South Lincoln invoked the spirit of the Declaration to remake the nation based on the ideals of the enlightenment (p. 265-271). Universal ideals also loomed large in William Mckinnley’s decision to go to war with Spain over Cuba’s Independence (p. 396 - 416). US civilizationism provides plenty of justifications for war.
In Kagan’s analysis even manifest destiny is subordinated to American civilizationism. Prior to the Civil war a great divide existed in the United States which precluded the existence of a single vision of manifest destiny. Instead there were to visions of American identity – two civilizations competing against each other for dominance. “Northerners embraced manifest destiny insofar as it meant the expansion of free territory. Southerners embraced it only when it meant the expansion of slave territory.” Only after the question of national identity had been settled by the Civil War – in favor of the commercialism of the North – would the US be able to again pursue its expansionist mission without anxiety over which version of civilization would be doing the advancing.
In Porter’s book “War and the American Government” he explains the rise of the American state as a by-product of nationalist wars. According to Porter the ethnic and cultural diversity of the several colonies was a weak base for state power (p. 246). Furthermore, to the extent that US Americans had any common sense of nationality it was their, inherently anti-statist and Revolutionary ideology (p. 247). The only thing uniting Americans have been their common enemies.
Americans first sense of national identity came as a result of war. Specifically the continental army marked the first instance of a large body of men from throughout the colonies uniting in a common cause: “Soldiers from different regions of the country viewed one another with suspicion or even animosity, but this changed as they camped, served and fought together. The war helped forge the first sense of a distinctive American nationality (p. 251).” The Revolution was not the last instance where war-time institutions created an increased sense of community. After witnessing first hand the devastating consequences of a disunited nation, US association with rebellion and anti-statism waned. Furthermore, according to Porter “By starkly demonstrating the power of government to bring about radical change, the war stimulated public awareness of the positive utility of American power (p. 265).” War thus did a great deal to change American identity, towards an identity of state-dependency and nationalism.
Furthermore the exigencies of war are directly linked to the expansion of state power. Wars are massive undertakings requiring lots of manpower equipment. Wars have provided the Federal government with “unprecedented authority to intervene in the national economy (p. 271).” Coercive agencies such as the IRS and the Federal Reserve (p. 270), and fiscal tools requisite to bureaucratic expansion such as the first federal income tax were instituted as means to effectively wage wars (p. 260) and have since become permanent appendages to the US state. Wars have a “ratcheting effect” (p. 295) where there is a large build up of Federal bureaucracy which never quite returns to pre-war levels. Once people (possibly in the shape of federal employees) become dependent upon the continued existence of a certain agency, it becomes intractable. Thus, not only was the political impetus for state expansion forged by wartime institutions, but the very institutional framework necessary for state expansion coalesced in response to national disaster.
Kagan’s emphasis on ideology as a driving force behind expansion obviously distinguishes him from the more institutionally minded Porter. Porter writes, “The tendency among historians in recent decades has been to view the American Revolution as primarily a process of intellectual and social change, and to minimize the importance of the War of Independence in the transformation that occurred (p. 248).” Porter would probably find Kagan somewhat guilty of overplaying the role of ideology on US institutions, while ignoring the other side of the coin – the effects of institutions change on ideology. Porters approach is preferable. “The war was not a mere epiphenomenon of the larger Revolution; it was its central event and a significant cause of its far-reaching social and political repercussions… War, not ideas alone, wrought the radical change in American opinion that Wood, Bailyn and [Kagan might be included in this list] have documented (p. 249).”
Kagan also differs from Porter in his rejection of US exceptionalism. He believes Americans have always been imperialists – lacking only the institutional strength to enforce their universal vision across the globe. Porter on the other hand accepts the idea of early US anti-statism and at least tacitly accepts early US anti-expansionism. The threat of outside forces was necessary to convince people to accept the institutions of state power necessary for territorial expansion. “In the six decades preceding the Civil War, the United States remained wedded to the Jeffersonian vision that at its core was both antimilitary and anti-state (p. 255).” The Civil War instigated the shift in dominant US ideology towards the state-based Hamiltonian vision of America.
Kagan and Porter continue to be in disagreement about the post-Civil War period. Porter opposes Kagan’s belief in the victory of rights-based commercial ideology after the Civil war. According to Porter communitarianism was actually coming quite into vogue: the first efforts at welfare programs such as the Freedman’s Bureau and the veteran’s assistance programs occurred during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period and these foreshadowed the socialist reforms of the New Deal (p. 265 - 266). War necessity and institutional self-interest explain the changes which occurred during this period – not a single (uncomplicated) ideology of commercialism and universal rights.
The cracks in Kagan’s thesis appear when, in his attempts to advocate a consistent ideological approach, Kagan is forced to paper over the differences in US ideology during the post-civil war period: mixing natural rights based philosophy with a historicist tradition which is quite at odds with enlightenment constitutionalism (p. 295). Ideology lacks force; instead, institutional changes are the key to understanding US Foreign Policy.