Wilsonian, That's Us

By Boot, Max | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, October 17, 2006 | Go to article overview

Wilsonian, That's Us


Boot, Max, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


There are few epithets more damning in American politics than "Wilsonian." It carries connotations of purblind self- righteousness, of senseless moralizing, of good intentions gone awry.

Granted, most of those pejoratives apply to Woodrow Wilson, whose failures in peacemaking after World War I are notorious and helped set the stage for World War II. The fiasco in Iraq will undoubtedly strengthen the demonization of the Wilsonian impulse that was said to have animated the invasion.

Yet the Wilsonian label has always rested on a dubious conceit -- that the 28th president of the United States was the first to inject idealism and interventionism into our foreign policy. This notion cannot survive a serious examination of U.S. history before the 20th century.

That is just what the distinguished scholar Robert Kagan provides in his important new book, "Dangerous Nation," the first of a projected two-volume history of U.S. foreign policy.

Kagan, also the author of "Of Paradise and Power," a best- selling essay about trans-Atlantic relations, sets out to explode the cherished myth that Americans are "by nature inward-looking and aloof, only sporadically and spasmodically venturing forth into the world, usually in response to external attack or perceived threats."

In fact, as he points out, Americans have been animated by an expansionist ethos since the days of the Puritans.

Wrongly interpreted as isolationists who wanted to escape the world by building a "city upon a hill," the Puritans were actually, in Kagan's telling, "global revolutionaries" who came to the New World to establish a base from which they could convert the Old World. Other early settlers were less religious and more animated by what Kagan calls "acquisitive materialism." Neighbors who might block their acquisitions -- whether Indians or Spaniards -- were brushed aside or attacked.

The taking of others' land was justified by an ideology that held that "English civilization ... was leading humanity into the future." Far from being anti-imperialists, the colonists, Kagan writes, were the "most enthusiastic of British imperialists."

Indeed, one of their main complaints against London was that faraway authorities tried to block their westward settlements.

The expansionist impulse behind U.S. foreign policy was only enhanced by the American Revolution, with its call to vindicate the "unalienable rights" of "all men" -- not only Americans. …

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