There are few epithets more damning in American politics than “Wilsonian.” It carries connotations of purblind self-righteousness, of senseless moralizing, of good intentions gone awry. Granted, most of those pejoratives apply to Woodrow Wilson, whose failures in peacemaking after World War I are notorious and helped set the stage for World War II. The fiasco in Iraq will undoubtedly strengthen the demonization of the Wilsonian impulse that was said to have animated the invasion.
Yet the Wilsonian label has always rested on a dubious conceit—that the 28th president of the United States was the first to inject idealism and interventionism into our foreign policy. This notion cannot survive a serious examination of American history before the 20th century. That is just what the distinguished scholar Robert Kagan provides in his important new book, “Dangerous Nation,” the first of a projected two-volume history of U.S. foreign policy.
Kagan, also the author of “Of Paradise and Power,” a bestselling essay about transatlantic relations, sets out to explode the cherished myth that Americans are “by nature inward-looking and aloof, only sporadically and spasmodically venturing forth into the world, usually in response to external attack or perceived threats.” In fact, as he points out, Americans have been animated by an expansionist ethos since the days of the Puritans.
Wrongly interpreted as isolationists who wanted to escape the world by building a “city upon a hill,” the Puritans were actually, in Kagan’s telling, ”global revolutionaries“ who came to the New World to establish a base from which they could convert the Old World. Other early settlers were less religious and more animated by what Kagan calls “acquisitive materialism.” Neighbors who might block their acquisitions—whether Indians or Spaniards—were brushed aside or attacked.
The taking of others’ land was justified by an ideology that held that “English civilization...was leading humanity into the future.” Far from being anti-imperialists, the colonists, Kagan writes, were the “most enthusiastic of British imperialists.” Indeed, one of their main complaints against London was that faraway authorities tried to block their westward settlements.
The expansionist impulse behind American foreign policy was only enhanced by the American Revolution, with its call to vindicate the “unalienable rights” of “all men”—not only Americans. Just as European despots at the time thought that the safety of their regimes depended on preserving autocracy in neighboring states, so the American republic was convinced that its safety lay in championing liberty abroad. As Kagan notes, this was the view even of supposed “realists” such as Alexander Hamilton.
Admittedly, American attempts to safeguard liberty abroad were limited in the 19th century, when the U.S. was still a third-rate power. But Americans were excited by liberal revolutions, whether in Latin America, Greece or Hungary. Even John Quincy Adams—the secretary of State who said that the U.S. “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy”—horrified the monarchs of Europe by urging their subjects to rise up and seek their freedom. The Monroe Doctrine that he helped write was an attempt to keep Spain and other European autocracies from expanding their domains in the Americas.
The U.S. was not willing to fight for purely idealistic motives—something we’ve never done, not even in Kosovo or Iraq. But whatever other motives were present, there was a powerful idealistic impulse behind all of the nation’s 19th century wars, from the War of 1812 to the Mexican War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War and numerous smaller forays abroad to safeguard American traders and missionaries.
Contrary to the animadversions of Iraq war critics, there is nothing new about spreading democracy at gunpoint. The central philosophy behind Manifest Destiny was the belief that Americans, as the champions of liberty, had a right to annex not only all of North America but also territories from Hawaii to the Philippines. So successful were the Americans in establishing their “empire of liberty” (Jefferson’s phrase) that today almost no one realizes that the “winning of the West” was imperialism in another guise.
Properly understood, it is not the Wilsonians who are outside the mainstream of American foreign policy. It is their realpolitiker critics who seek to import an amoral approach to foreign policy that flourished in 19th century European chancelleries but has never found a home in the land of the free.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.