Robert Kagan, a policy expert who is advising Sen. John McCain has written an essay on American military interventions and American expansionism throughout our republic's history. (The article is no longer available on the World Affairs website, unfortunately.) His prose is excellent and his examination very interesting. Yet, the essay somewhat oversimplifies American attitudes towards military intervention and expansion to extent American influence and power. Kagan identifies American movements for and against, and suggests that the pendulum of dominant policy and public opinion swings back and forth between them.
Kagan prefers the expansionism, which is often fueled by a spirit of American exceptionalism: that America is special among nations, with special rights and responsibilities, and perhaps a special destiny. Kagan notes that without such a exceptionalism-driven expansionist impulse America would not have become America as it is today. Kagan drives home the point that "in almost every generation the expansive, moralistic, hubristic American approach has rolled over its critics, sometimes into victory and success, sometimes into disappointment and calamity." He stresses that this impulse has been around since the founding of the nation.
[Alexander] Hamilton, even in the 1790s, looked forward to the day when America would be powerful enough to assist peoples in the "gloomy regions of despotism" to rise up against the "tyrants" that oppressed them. James Madison saw as the "great struggle of the Epoch" the battle between "Liberty and Despotism," and America’s role in that battle was inescapable.
The counter movement is a critique of interventionism as "expansive, ambitious, [and] idealistic American foreign policy," and the critique is "shaped by [a] concern about overweening ambition and the temptations of power." Kagan suggests that the source of anti-interventionism is
a deep and abiding suspicion of centralized power and its corrupting effects on the people who wield it. Such fears have been expressed by conservatives, liberals, socialists, realists, and idealists alike over the past two centuries.
But I think Kagan conflates non-interventionists with realists. He writes that "there was scarcely a moment in the Cold War when true realists were not appalled by the direction the United States was taking." Really? I suspect that plenty of realists--at least as I think of realists--even if they doubted idealistic notions of our ability to reshape the world in our image, where nonetheless in favor of everything from breaking the Berlin blockage to creating better US weapon systems, because they thought such moves were actually strategically smart.
I would have thought I was a realist in foreign policy, but not Kagan's kind, apparently. Not only do I not fit neatly into either of Kagan's two broad camps--interventionist and anti-interventionist--I don't completely fit into his sub-category of "realists" as non-interventionists.
So, I'll call myself a foreign policy pragmatist, and as such I am less uncomfortable among the anti-interventionists, I'll admit, because I think force should be used conditionally. Sometimes force of arms is needed, but almost certainly it's needed less often than it's called for by hawks. I think democracy can seldom be imposed by the barrel of the gun, and efforts to do so should be embarked upon with trepidation and consideration.
I think that using armed force to further the spread of democratic values and systems of governments is very risky. Our own transformation from a collection of royal colonies to a congress of states under one self-proclaimed government came about as an act of internal rebellion. The French helped vitally, but not based on grand ideologies about democracy. After all, France was then a monarchy. And certainly 1776 was not something the French put us up to! We seized our own destiny, as the peoples of the Ukraine did during the Orange Revolution of 2004-2005. I prefer a nation's or society's democracy to be brought about from within.
But that doesn't mean democracy can never be imposed by force on a people or should never be attempted. It's just that as a pragmatist when it comes to foreign policy, I respect rules as guidelines reflecting a perspective, and think ideology-based foreign policy should be tempered with contrary viewpoints. When it comes to foreign policy, terms like "any," "never," "always," "every," and "forever" tend to raise red flags for me.
I believe the invasion of Iraq was the wrong war at the wrong time, an unnecessary pre-emptive strike done without enough international support and without having first given the UN inspections team nearly long enough. I think that elective wars tend to be too expensive and tend to have unforeseen negative consequences. Tend to. Not always. Also, this does not change the fact that there are instances when a nation must defend itself, and there may be instances when our alliances of democracies, such as NATO, will find threats to modern liberal democracy that have to be thwarted militarily. In other words, yes, I tend to think of armed force as something to be used primarily defensively, but--strictly speaking--that doesn't mean it must never be used in any other way.
When the eager Bush Administration hawks began to recast the pro-invasion argument as one of missionary-like endeavor into Iraq for the sake of spreading democratic values (a pro-democracy domino effect, apparently, to be triggered by Iraq and to transform the whole reason), I thought of Athens' Sicilian expedition (415-413 BC) and its failure. It wasn't that objected to spreading democracy, but I thought trying to flip a nation and society located smack in the middle of the Muslim world--while we were needing to be thwarting al-Qaeda no less--was impractical, probably dangerously so.
Another problem I have with Kagan's essay is its failure to examine greatness. Kagan's assumption seems to be that only expansion can make a nation great, and that military power and global influence are the main integers in the equation of national greatness. The Constitution of the United States says nothing about ensuring greatness. It says much, however, about ensuring the promotion of the general welfare and securing the blessings of liberty. Is a nation great if it does have a global empire of military bases costing billions of dollars to maintain, but its people enjoy 6 weeks of vacation as standard, nationalized health care costing 180 Euros monthly, well-run mass transit, and lower crime, lower pollution, and less wealth disparity than the United States? Apparently not to Kagan. Yet, it's telling that Swedes, Germans, and Danes are not exactly flooding into the US. "Great" is relative, and can be defined in different ways.
The United States is truly, impressively, uniquely great by many definitions of the word as it is applied to nations, including the most common definitions: size of economy and ability to impose its will on other nations through means cultural, economic, and military. But exactly how or if this power benefits most Americans is not always clear in a era of economic turmoil, staggering debt both private and public, government-endorsed abuses of foreigners at home and abroad, unnecessary pre-emptive wars, curtailments of civil liberties, the disappearance of objective reportage and dissemination of information by a conglomerating and increasingly un-free press, the encroachment of religion into the work of the state and publicly-funded scientific endeavors, grotesque levels of energy inefficiency that are often subsidized by the state for both the individual and corporations, alarming parochialism and declining cultural literacy and aptitude in math and science among American students, decreases in the number of foreign skilled workers as they increasingly choose to benefit other nations with their presence, a profound health care crisis, increasing wealth disparity, and the continuing decline in real wages for the lower and middle classes. For the forseeable future, America's greatness rests primarily on how well it meets the above challenges.