One of the most endearing and best-known scenes in early American literature occurs in Washington Irving’s short story “Rip Van Winkle” (1819), where the slothful protagonist emerges from a twenty-year slumber to find himself transformed from a British subject into a citizen of an independent America. While most discussions of American foreign policy are far less entertaining, theylike Irvingtake as their starting point the American Revolution. As Robert Kagan makes clear in his wonderful book Dangerous Nation: America’s Place in the World from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, America’s relationships with other countries had their roots in the period long before independence.
Beginning far back in the colonial past, Kagan carefully builds his argument by demonstrating the enormous gap between how Americans regarded themselves and the way they were perceived by the rest of the world. This was evident even as early as the 1630’s. Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop desired only that he and his followers be allowed to build a “city upon a hill,” thus inaugurating a centuries>long tradition of Americans professing their desire for complete isolation. Kagan’s response both here and elsewhere is to question such orthodox beliefs. While it is true that Winthrop and his followers proclaimed their need for isolation in order to practice their religion, the truth is that the whole colonial period is marked by what other nations saw as an aggressive expansionism. Puritans undoubtedly felt that their tiny initial settlement in the woods was indeed just as their leader described it; however, the historical record clearly indicates that the budding colony continually encroached upon and eventually displaced the Native American population.
Kagan’s revision of this record may at first seem out of place in a discussion of foreign policy, but the author persuasively argues that this territorial expansion had a powerful effect upon British foreign policy. The Native Americans encountered by the colonists did in fact constitute a foreign nation. British authorities took great pains to negotiate treaties with the native tribes in the hope of fostering a peaceful coexistence between two radically different civilizations. The problem was that, while the British government negotiated the agreements with the best of intentions, it was nearly impossible to set any meaningful territorial limits in a seemingly boundless land.
One of Kagan’s crucial insights into American history is that it was not New England that proved to be the driving force in the British colonies but rather the Chesapeake Bay area, which was founded earlier and dedicated almost exclusively to commercial ventures. The financial backers of the Chesapeake Bay settlements were far less interested in saving souls than in reaping a windfall from their investment. Kagan is quite right in identifying this aggressive commercialism with its emphasis upon individual gain as the dominant spirit in the British colonies. The desire for greater wealth created the need for ever greater amounts of land, which in turn resulted in encroachment upon Native American territory. Whenever boundaries with Native Americans were fixed by agreement, inevitably some colonists would transgress the barriers, incur tribal wrath, and thus instigate a war that would displace or exterminate the native population. To modern ears, this has the ring of ethnic cleansing, but it was in fact largely motivated by the commercial zeal of the Chesapeake Bay culture.
Kagan identifies a repeated theme in these early years, one seldom noted by other historians. Americans continually abjure imperial aims while engaging in the process of empire building. In the past, territorial expansion for financial reasons led to conflict, and the resulting security issues justified more expansion. This was compounded by the fact that this resulted in a cultural as well as a physical displacement: those natives who chose to live among the colonists were forced to adopt their ways. On the surface, this would seem to be unalloyed hypocrisy, seizing territory from those less powerful while professing the contrary. However, Americans demonstrate a repeated pattern of expansionist behavior while being blind to its consequences.
Kagan traces this territorial rapaciousness to the beginnings of the British Empire. He maintains that the English regarded themselves as a superior people and that they rationalized the subjugation of Ireland and Scotland...
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