Summary and book reviews of Dangerous Nation by Robert Kagan

Dangerous Nation

America's Place in the World from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century

By Robert Kagan

Dangerous Nation
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  • Hardcover: Oct 2006,
    544 pages.
    Paperback: Nov 2007,
    544 pages.

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Book Summary

From the author of the immensely influential and best-selling Of Paradise and Power—a major reevaluation of America’s place in the world from the colonial era to the turn of the twentieth century.

Robert Kagan strips away the myth of America’s isolationist tradition and reveals a more complicated reality: that Americans have been increasing their global power and influence steadily for the past four centuries. Even from the time of the Puritans, he reveals, America was no shining “city up on a hill” but an engine of commercial and territorial expansion that drove Native Americans, as well as French, Spanish, Russian, and ultimately even British power, from the North American continent. Even before the birth of the nation, Americans believed they were destined for global leadership. Underlying their ambitions, Kagan argues, was a set of ideas and ideals about the world and human nature. He focuses on the Declaration of Independence as the document that firmly established the American conviction that the inalienable rights of all mankind transcended territorial borders and blood ties. American nationalism, he shows, was always internationalist at its core. He also makes a startling discovery: that the Civil War and the abolition of slavery—the fulfillment of the ideals of the Declaration—were the decisive turning point in the history of American foreign policy as well. Kagan's brilliant and comprehensive reexamination of early American foreign policy makes clear why America, from its very beginning, has been viewed worldwide not only as a wellspring of political, cultural, and social revolution, but as an ambitious and, at times, dangerous nation.

Chapter 1

The First Imperialists

This is a commonwealth of the fabric that hath an open ear, and a public concernment. She is not made for herself only, but given as a magistrate of God unto mankind, for the vindication of common right and the law of nature. Wherefore saith Cicero of the . . . Romans, Nos magis patronatum orbis terrarrum suscepimus quam imperium, we have rather undertaken the patronage than the empire of the world. —James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana, 1656


The Myth of the “City upon a Hill”: The Americanization of the Puritan Mission


Misperceptions about the history, traditions, and nature of American foreign policy begin with the popular image of the Puritans who settled in New England in the 1630s. John Winthrop’s hopeful description of the Massachusetts Bay theocracy as a “city upon a hill” is emblazoned in the American self-image, a vivid symbol of what are widely seen as dominant isolationist and &#...

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Reviews

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This is the first in a two-volume project by Kagan in which he lays out his argument that America is not, and never has been, isolationist. Taking us from the "Pilgrim Fathers" up to the dawn of the Twentieth Century, Kagan lays out his position clearly and eloquently. The question is, will his opinion be a surprise to you? The answer is probably yes, if you're American and your knowledge of American history is grounded in what you learned in school; but probably no if you're not American, have lived outside of America, or have read previous books that cover the same sort of ground, such as Niall Ferguson's Colossus or Cornel West's Democracy Matters (both published in 2004).   (Reviewed by BookBrowse Review Team).

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Media Reviews
The Economist

Dangerous Nation is a first-rate work of history, based on prodigious reading and enlivened by a powerful prose style. It also casts a bright light on America’s role in the world–and on its manifold tensions with other countries. . . Helps bring long-dead diplomatic history to life.

Booklist - Brendan Driscoll

Premised on a profound exuberance for America as a force of creative destruction--a geopolitical Shiva the Destroyer--and clearly intended to reinvigorate support for aggressive foreign policy in the twenty-first century, this book will surely prompt debate. Kagan's polished and assertive prose likewise resembles a force of nature, and will ensure broad readership.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Kagan may overstate the extent to which contemporary Americans imagine U.S. history to be thoroughly isolationist; it's a straw man that this powerfully persuasive, sophisticated book hardly needs.

Library Journal

Massively researched, well argued, thought-provoking, and constantly surprising.

The New York Review of Books - Edmund S. Morgan

[C]arefully crafted … an engaging interpretation of American history, made the more so by the author's skill in presenting it. . . Kagan is able to give fresh interpretations to familiar landmarks of American history.

Washington Post

Kagan again assumes the stance of enfant terrible, assailing the keepers of the conventional wisdom. The picture he paints is not always edifying.

The Wall Street Journal - Bendan Simms

Brilliant and absorbing . . . Many critics of U.S. foreign policy will not need persuading that America is a dangerous nation . . . Dangerous Nation is not aimed at them. It is meant for the general reader, of course, and for those in sympathy with the projection of American power in recent times . . . But the book is also intended for Democrats, who may at first hate it. . . They may want to think before they strike. As it happens, Democrats have special reason to look forward to the 20th-century sequel, for Mr. Kagan’s narrative of American power is, in many ways, the story of their own party. . . There should be something in this project for almost everyone.

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Beyond the Book

Robert Kagan is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, and a columnist for The Washington Post (he writes a monthly column on international affairs). He is also a contributing editor at the Weekly Standard and the New Republic. He served in the U.S. State Department from 1984 to 1988 as a member of the Policy Planning Staff, as a principal speechwriter for Secretary of State George P. Shultz, and as deputy for policy in the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs.

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