History Repeating Itself: Liberalism and Foreign Policy

By Kagan, Robert | New Criterion, April 1999 | Go to article overview

History Repeating Itself: Liberalism and Foreign Policy


Kagan, Robert, New Criterion


Just as there has been no genuine alternative to the liberal political tradition in America, as Louis Hartz pointed many years ago, so in foreign policy both the higher principles and the baser urges shaping America's relations with the rest of the world have always been informed by a liberal worldview. Certainly no competing foreign policy tradition, whether one calls it conservative, "realist" or something else, has ever posed a serious challenge. No American statesman has ever conducted international relations without regard to liberal ideological considerations. Even Henry Kissinger, America's high priest of real-politik, did not in office attempt to fashion a foreign policy in which American liberal principles were somehow excised from a definition of American interests. Kissinger may have tried to make American foreign policy less ideological; he did not attempt the impossible task of making it non-ideological.

Much less did any of Kissinger's historical predecessors believe that such a separation could be made between American interests and American liberal ideals. The eighteenth-century Anglo-American settlers who spread out from the Atlantic littoral carried with them the Enlightenment liberal's convictions that nature was something to be conquered, that land was something to be cultivated and improved, that ownership of property was the cornerstone of human freedom, that progress was possible and desirable, that stubborn human nature could be channeled in beneficial directions, if not "perfected" by the proper political institutions, that civilization--by which they meant Anglo-Saxon civilization--could and should be advanced by the cumulative efforts of individuals seeking their own happiness. The Americans who celebrated the early stages of the French Revolution, which included everyone from Jeffersonian Republicans to such stalwart Federalists as Alexander Hamilton and John Marshall, believed that the well-being of liberalism at home was linked somehow to the fate of liberalism abroad, that the American revolution itself had been fought not only for Americans but also for all men everywhere, and that the day would come when liberalism would be spread around the globe.

These liberal convictions manifested themselves in the making of foreign policy. In the early republic, Washington, Jefferson, and Hamilton in their own ways attempted to implement liberal visions of American empire. The injunctions of the Farewell Address aimed above all at safeguarding the future of such an empire, and Jefferson's proclaimed vision of an "empire of liberty" spoke for itself. Even Hamilton's desire to emulate the greatness of Britain was stimulated to a large extent by his desire to emulate, if not surpass, that example of a great liberal nation wielding vast influence on the world stage. In the early nineteenth century, the Monroe Doctrine contained within it not merely the idea of separating the new world from the old--which itself had ideological as well as strategic implications--but also a vision of an American economic and political order in the hemisphere.

The settling of the continent from the eighteenth century onward was an exercise in liberal expansion, driven forward by the aspirations of individuals infused with a Lockean understanding of the world and with a consciousness of manifest destiny that aimed at the conquest of an untamed, barbaric world by liberal civilization. The opening of Far Eastern markets in the 1890s was driven both by liberal acquisitiveness and by faith in the uplifting and civilizing effects of commerce. In the Western Hemisphere, strategic and economic motives intermingled with liberal goals from the 1890s onward. And in the twentieth century, from Theodore Roosevelt, through Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and on into the Cold War and beyond, liberalism, in both its commercial aspects and its world-transforming ideological aspects, was the driving force of American foreign policy. …

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