01 April, 2008

Disappointing Kagan

I tried to go see arch neoconservative Robert Kagan speak today about his book, Dangerous Nation: America's Foreign Policy from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, which has been awarded some prize by Georgetown University. Given that Kagan's thinking has basically suffered no changes, or even reformulations, since the heady days of 2003, I was skeptical as to the value-added of going to see the tired imperial aphorisms of the Bush years straight from the source, in all their intellectual glory. But I went, and then he didn't even show -- he got the date wrong, leaving us and Georgetown's foreign policy bigwigs (I was sitting next to Doug Feith...fun) in the lurch.

But anyway, the book seemed pretty interesting for all that, and I was looking forward to hearing him present it. Its sort of a revisionist account of American diplomatic history, and its central thesis seems to be that America's aggressive imperialist stance on the world stage has always been inextricable from our foundational political ideology of liberal democracy. A sort of historical apologia for American interventionism and "ideological conquest" -- which is interesting, since I think most conventional narratives place our imperialist-conquest tendency and our liberal-democratic tendency in tension with one another, rather than in a feedback loop with one another. For instance, he points out that American expansionism and democratic politics fused early on in the demands of constituents -- largely farmers -- for more access to western land.

Well, ok, sure, but beyond the well-accepted notion that foreign policy is often dominated by powerful domestic constituencies, I don't really see how Kagan's attempt to weave our political philosophy, our economic motivations, and our security concerns into a seamless tapestry of benevolent foreign domination holds much water -- because, after all, those domestic constituencies are often diametrically opposed. I think it makes much more sense to see the course of our foreign policy as (roughly) following the outcome of the ideological and political struggles between domestic actors that are at the heart of democracy, rather than an expression of the abstract idea of democracy itself. Looking at the broad strokes of Kaganism (and Kristolism and Fukuyamaism) what continues to strike me is the simplistic and even moralistic roots of the neoconservative line of thought.


spencer said...

It seems as though he is confusing democracy with populism. Is it the typical conservative confusion that democracy is about the rule of the majority when it is in fact about the rights of the minority?

Elliot said...

After thinking about it a bit more, I can't really tell what he's trying to say. That our imperial ambitions are inextricable from our liberal ideology? Or perhaps that our civilizing mission has always been a justification for our materialistic gains (although that sounds a bit too pessimistic for Kagan).

From the blurb we received, the best I can tell is that he thinks our democratic system is such that the demand for expansion and empire, rather than originating in the interests of rapacious elites, came from below, in the form of electoral pressure from powerful constituencies. Sort of a mob-led imperialism. Without the book in front of me, though, I can't say for sure.

Elliot said...

Ok, after reading a couple reviews, it seems much of the argument turns on the claim that early America was aggressively expansionist, and what fueled our revolution was not anti-imperial ideology but rather chafing at the restrictions that London placed on our expansionist ambitions. Kagan's drive seems to be the desire to overturn the "conventional wisdom" that America was a weak, inward looking nation until provoked.

I mean, this just seems too basic for what is supposed to be a work of scholarship. Who still believes that CW? I think we've all heard of the Monroe Doctrine, and I think its pretty commonly accepted that our Founders were driven as much by economic and territorial concerns as idealistic ones - indeed, they recognized that America could not be a materially great nation while tethered to London.

And his post-Civil War chapters seem to reveal little more than (surprise!) that the US was an aggressive and belligerent power in Latin America. Ok. The extent to which that is commonly understood might be lacking, but it is obvious to most any historian or political science type. Is our domination of Latin America only significant once a conservative points it out - because, at least we know he doesn't hate America.

spencer said...

So he's pointing out that the U.S. has always meddled in the affairs of other countries and arguing that this is a good thing? Bizarre.

Elliot said...

Yeah, I think he's trying to justify Reagan/W's interventionist policy posthumously by saying that type of meddling is not an aberration but rather that it fits comfortably within the tradition of US foreign policy. And that its good or at least unavoidable, since its in "our national DNA" whatever that's supposed to mean.


Cassady said...

He actually used the term "national DNA?" Astounding.

Not once did I hear a reference to our Manifest Destiny. Come on, guys, this was *meant* to happen.

The original thinking behind manifest destiny is probably fueling his understanding of our national identity. Is it part of the neoconservative canon that all Americans share the same values, goals, and desires?

spencer said...

My understanding is that there are two kinds of neoconservatives. The realist branch (Cheney) thinks that we need to impose our will on the world because its the only way we can be safe and prosperous. An idealist branch (Bush) wants to spread democracy because, yes, it is our destiny or obligation.

Elliot said...

Well, he used the term national DNA in an interview I was reading, so maybe a bit more off the cuff than he would usually put it.

But I think it is very much a part of neoconservative thinking - the part that goes beyond theories of foreign policy - that the "real" US does share the same basic values, goals, and desires, or at least should. The intellectual founder of neoconservatism, Leo Strauss, was huge into the need for a national Mythos that would give the nation a direction and a sense of purpose. And apparently the mythos of the diverse melting pot was too weak and divisive, and thus the need for this narrative of national greatness cum democratic imperialism.