Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Robert Kagan vs. Thomas Freedman on the American Empire

A leading neoconservative Robert Kagan, Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has published a book on the history of American foreign policy this month. He came back to Washington DC from Brussels to attend a panel discussion moderated by Thomas Freedman, editor of the New York Times, on October 18th at the Carnegie Endowment.

In his latest book “Dangerous Nation: America's Place in the World from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the 20th Century”, Kagan refutes the myth of America's isolationist tradition and insists that American foreign policy has been expansionist since its earliest days of the history. Currently, he is on leave for Brussels under a project of the German Marshall Fund. He sees America from Europeans’ viewpoint, and explores perception gaps on American between the United States and the rest of the world. Let me review the discussion. (See the video on Windows Media and Real Player.)

At the beginning of the panel, Kagan said that the nature of the government and the society define foreign policy of a country even more than external factors. American foreign policy is based on the Declaration of Independence, which advocates universal rights of all mankind. The key point of this is promotion of humanitarian liberal ideals. From its earliest days, American leaders have been pursuing this objective, from John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, to Woodrow Wilson.

While American people regard their foreign policy altruistic, and driven by the noblest conceivable motives, the rest of the world sees it a dangerous, threatening, and destabilizing factor. Kagan mentions the US-Spanish Was in 1898 as a typical example. Though Europeans condemned American intervention to Cuba, Americans insisted this war a humanitarian and moralistic mission to liberate Cubans from Spanish colonial tyranny. The underlying nature of American foreign policy is expansionist and belligerent attitude, based on revolutionary character. However, Americans are not conscious of it, and they do not regard themselves as an empire. They do not admit their ambition and belligerence. This is a perception gap between America and the rest of the world.

Thomas Freedman asked whether there were other dangerous nations. Kagan said no nations were as revolutionary as the United States. China does not claim universal values. The British Empire was very close to the United States today, but it was based on ethnic nationalism. On the other hand, American nationalism is ideological one, which is based on the Declaration of Independence. Kagan argues that religion does not bind the United States, and it is utterly wrong to call it a Protestant nation or Christian nation.

An interesting example to illustrate the chasm between America and the rest of the world is the Monroe Doctrine. This is widely believed to be the symbol of isolationist foreign policy. In fact, the doctrine is an assertion of US foreign policy. It declares American dominance in the Western hemisphere and ideological superiority in the world.

In addition to ideological nationalism and altruistic expansionism, Kagan sheds light on the impact of the Civil War on US foreign policy. Before the Civil War, the United States made every effort to prevent slave uprising. The South feared another Haiti; a slave leader took place of white plantation owners. In terms of ideology, freedom and slavery are ambiguous. The result of the Civil War defines America’s ideological identity that liberal democracy prevails all over the world.

According to Robert Kagan, the Bush administration articulates basic values of US foreign policy that America is the special place in the world, and its power must be used for global progress. This trend has become more noticeable since 9/11. From normal America’s viewpoint, enemies like 9/11 terrorists, Japan, and the Soviet Union, attacked the United States because they were undemocratic. Therefore, American policymakers believe it necessary to change them, as they do not understand the ultimate truth that liberal democracy is universal.

The United States does not assume itself an empire, and US forces do not behave as occupiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unlike Lord Palmerstone in 19th century Britain, none of the American leaders admit their ambition for dominance. British historian Niall Ferguson, professor at Harvard University, criticize this attitude, and insists that the United States behave as the super power just as Britain did in the 19th century. However, Americans are unconscious of implicit meaning of their altruism: telling other nations to “become like us.” The rest of the world rejects such an idea.

Kagan points out vital aspects of American foreign policy. People in the rest of the world see America’s moralistic expansionism dangerous. This is important to understand anti-Americanism abroad as well. Both Britain and America prevail liberal ideals throughout the world. While Britain had no trouble in imposing their ways of thinking to its sphere of influence, the United States do not assume cultural superiority to others. Whether Republican or Democrat, we must always take it into account that fundamental chasm between America and the world will be inevitable. Can people of other civilizations live peacefully with the noblest mission based on the Declaration of Independence? This is one of the key issues in global security in this century.