Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 544 pp., $30.00.
LEADING RUSSIAN political figures, including President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in recent years, have complained many times about the ideologization of U.S. foreign policy and "double standards", almost as if this were a new phenomenon. They are not alone, as authoritarian leaders like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and a host of others have railed against what they see as cynical self-interest rather than democratic ideals driving U.S. policy. But Robert Kagan argues in his book Dangerous Nation that a foreign policy promoting liberal democracy abroad was the founding ideology of revolutionary America going back to the Colonial era. He maintains it is part of the DNA of U.S. political culture, and it will not go away anytime soon despite the apparent quagmire of Iraq and other foibles. This American fixation with liberty and liberalism has survived far more grievous calamities, including the British invasion and subsequent sacking of Washington in 1812 and a devastating civil war.
Kagan points out that U.S. support for liberalizing change abroad did not begin with the recent "color revolutions", the Marshall Plan or even Woodrow Wilson's vision about the democratic peace. It already existed in 1821 when then-Secretary of State and future president John Quincy Adams, in a famous speech on the Fourth of July, extolled the virtues of the "claim of right" of the American Revolution and called for the peoples of Europe to make their own revolutions, crying: "Go thou and do likewise!" And non-American complaints about U.S. double standards were also nothing new; writing about Adams's speech to his government in St. Petersburg, the Russian ambassador fumed about the outrageous hypocrisy and double standards of U.S. claims of commitment to universal natural rights. "How about your two million black slaves. . . ? You forget the poor Indians whom you have not ceased to spoil. . . ."
Kagan argues that the Founding Fathers genuinely believed that democratic governance was the best guarantee of the people's prosperity as well as the nation's security. This does not mean that American foreign policy is always as virtuous as the ideals upon which it was founded. Yet according to Kagan, these revolutionary roots nourished a "new foreign policy founded upon universalist ideology"-the belief that the United States's fate was tied to the cause of liberalism and republicanism everywhere. Be it the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, Latin America's quest for independence from Spain or Greek desires to overthrow Turkey in the 1820s, U.S. foreign policy tends (not always!) to support national liberation and democracy, attributes that contemporary authoritarian states tend to view as dangerous, especially on their borders.
George W. Bush similarly described democracy promotion as essential for U.S. security, and in his second inaugural address in January 2005 he rhetorically put the "Freedom Agenda" at the top of U.S. foreign-policy priorities:
The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time.
And President Bush is hardly alone in that he represents views shared by the more ideological sides of both the Republican and the Democratic Parties, a virtual coalition that has modern roots in the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
But while promoting democracy and advancing human freedom around the world may be at the top of George W. Bush's agenda, there is hardly a global consensus on this point. The Freedom Agenda is encountering setbacks in Iraq and the Islamic world more broadly, but the most serious challenge is being mounted by China and Russia, who present different models of authoritarian capitalism. As the experience of the "Asian tigers" (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan) of the 1970s and 1980s, or Japan and Germany before World War II suggests, the authoritarian capitalist model is not new.
If the authoritarian capitalist system promotes economic growth and raises living standards for millions-or in the Chinese case, hundreds of millions-democracy promotion will be in trouble. It would appear that most people living in relative poverty will prioritize prosperity over political activism. Singapore's former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the role model for authoritarian capitalists as the leader who brought his country from Third World to First, commented on the Chinese system's durability in an interview in 2004:Essay Types: Book Review