America is and always has been a highly expansionist entity. It has used diplomacy, commerce and outright military force to expand its influence over the globe and to promote its own interests. It has been markedly successful in this project and is now the most powerful nation the world has ever seen.
None of this seems remotely controversial and fits perfectly with just about any objective reading of the historical facts since the birth of the United States as a political entity in 1776. But the tone of this book from Robert Kagan strongly suggests that at least some Americans would not automatically accept this blindingly obvious statement of the facts.
But obvious as it is, lets have a quick look at the expansion of the United States. It started in 1803, just 27 years after the foundation of the state with the Louisiana Purchase. This was opportunistic – normally a war would have had to have been fought to acquire so much territory – nearly doubling the size of the US at a stroke. As it was, there was little Napoleon could have done to defend it. The low price probably reflected that. Less than ten years later the US provoked a war with Britain with the intention of getting control of Canada. As Jefferson put it in 1812 “The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching.”
In the event the British ate the president’s dinner and burned down the White House, but it was clear that the new republic was not in the least unwilling to take up arms to increase its power and influence, almost from day one. Expansion was soon back on the agenda. A war with Mexico to annex Texas was not particularly well justified on purely moral grounds. To go on and annex even bigger chunks of Mexican territory on top of Texas was a transparent grab for power.
The pattern was clear enough from the start and has continued to this day with American forces now regularly deployed on every continent on the planet. In this the United States has behaved much as all states have done throughout history. There is nothing much exceptional about this. That the Americans’ own interpretation of events tends to be favourable to their general world view is also not particularly exceptional. The only exceptional thing about America is that while most national stories take the form of ‘we are in charge because we are great’, the American one is much more ‘we are a bunch of peace loving guys who only get pulled into events when we have to’.
It is impossible to criticise the United States from the outside without acknowledging that they are no worse than anybody else. All states work ruthlessly to promote their own interests and to exert as much influence as they can get away with. America has simply been much more successful in the process than anyone else. Nobody really imagines that in private American politicians go around placing their palms on their foreheads and saying to their colleagues ‘Sheesh guys, we’ve somehow ended up running the world. Well, what do you know!’
The thought does sometimes cross your mind that the actions of the States might be in contradiction to its deep seated liberal and democratic traditions. But the thesis of this book is that far from being a contradiction, it is these liberal values themselves that have played a part in the way the US has projected power.
So the US has been able to hold itself up as a defender of a certain world view. This hasn’t been done cynically, the United States does hold certain democratic and liberal principles close to its heart. So when it opposes say Communism in Vietnam and Fascism in Europe it is working with the grain of its being and draws strength and inspiration from it. But this doesn’t stop it working with those that don’t share its values when it suits. In fact this policy predates the formation of the state since the colonists were willing to form an alliance with the France of the grand monarchy against the considerably more liberal British state.
America does stand for something, but not to the detriment of its own interests. The most liberal of Democratic presidents is not likely to give Texas back to Mexico.
This book is very well written and a gripping read, especially considering its subject matter. Ultimately it is stating the obvious, but sometimes the obvious is what needs to be stated. It is particularly worthwhile reading if you are the kind of European who watches US politics and hopes for the victory of one side or the other. You might as well find another interest. It might make a difference if you live there, but for the rest of us it doesn’t really matter who is in the White House. They all behave the same when it comes to foreign affairs.