America’s imperial inheritance and unique national ideology are core themes of Robert Kagan’s massive scholarly project. He has worked for the past two decades on a revisionist history in the best sense of the term—an exploration of the paradoxical character of the American people and their approach to power. A historian at the Brookings Institution with a facility for clear and cogent prose, Kagan is determined to prove that, far from exemplifying an isolationist approach to world affairs long proclaimed by many scholars, Americans have gathered and deployed massive strength to shape the international system to their liking. And yet, in spite of this spirited pursuit of power, Americans have seldom been happy in its possession or comfortable in its use.

Kagan’s first volume, Dangerous Nation (2006), focused on the ruthless march of American power across the North American continent and the consolidation of the union. The second volume, The Ghost at the Feast, is just now being published. Kagan carries the narrative forward to the critical period bracketed by the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and his distant cousin Franklin Roosevelt. This era saw a surge of national altruism and purpose but also revealed a yawning gap between America’s assumptions about the efficacy of its spiritual force and the actual ways of the world. The U.S.’s reluctance to be a full participant in world affairs diminished its influence until dangerous changes in the global distribution of power summoned its urgent and unstinting involvement.

The book opens on the cusp of the Spanish–American War, a military clash often regarded—erroneously, in Kagan’s view—as a turning point in the history of U.S. foreign policy. The conflict had been preceded by an economic boom and an immense military buildup in a time of peace. America’s Army numbered only in the tens of thousands—a “corporal’s guard,” as Theodore Roosevelt lamented—but her naval might was burgeoning. The “New Navy” became one of the three largest on earth, with a battleship fleet capable of sailing the high seas. 

The country’s willingness to use its newfound muscle lagged, but the advent of a humanitarian catastrophe so close to American shores presented an unmistakable opportunity. For most Americans, the “splendid little war” (to use John Hay’s appraisal) didn’t bring the loss of national innocence that its detractors, then and since, have claimed. Rather, the intervention to liberate Cuba and annex the Philippines was the continuation of a national tradition that sought to leverage national strength to promote American interests and ideals. Residing firmly in this camp, Theodore Roosevelt would later aver that “our chief usefulness to humanity rests on our combining power with high purpose.”

Although putting the republic’s swelling power in the service of preserving peace and advancing civilization was hardly greeted with universal assent, it had deep roots in American thinking. A similar impulse had spawned the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, asserting American primacy in the Western hemisphere to keep European rivals at bay and to prevent divine-right absolutism from gaining a foothold in the new world. In the confrontation between Washington and Madrid, it wasn’t hard to see the culmination of this bellicose doctrine.

American internationalists of that era believed that their nation’s growing power brought with it growing responsibility. This spurred the decision to lay waste to the moribund Spanish Empire. But even this vision of world power was circumscribed. The United States remained suspicious of strategic commitments abroad and suffered its share of troubles at home, including social upheaval, political dysfunction, and financial instability. 

Although occasionally deploying the Marines to regional flashpoints, the United States relied heavily on soft power. As Woodrow Wilson put it with more than a touch of condescension, America’s duty was to teach “the South American republics to elect good men.” Nonetheless, the centrality of power to an effective foreign policy carried the country, belatedly but emphatically, into its first European war.

Kagan’s treatment of the various motives underpinning America’s entry in the First World War is exemplary. There were American strategic thinkers who believed that the United States had no vital interests beyond the Western hemisphere. But by the summer of 1914, they were on the defensive as others argued that American interests—and the American belief in justice—would be irreparably harmed if the United States kept to itself while paranoid autocratic powers pursued a course of aggrandizement.

In many ways, Woodrow Wilson personified that ideological divide. At first, the progressive president offered mediation and called for “peace without victory.” But in time he came to believe that the belligerents needed to be humbled. Wary of power politics but alarmed by the depredations of Wilhelmine Germany, the United States entered the Great War as an “associated power.” In Wilson’s mind, the strife erupted because “Britain has the earth, and Germany wants it.” The Western allies, whose hard-nosed realpolitik attributed the causes of war to Berlin’s bid for hegemony, pressed for the Kaiser’s Germany to be critically weakened. But Wilson also deemed the war a conflict of political systems instigated by Prussian autocracy, which demanded the reform of regimes to “make the world safe for democracy,” as he put it in April 1917.

Conventional wisdom holds that after November 11, 1918, peace was forced on Germany in the onerous terms described by British economist John Maynard Keynes in his famous jeremiad, The Economic Consequences of the Peace. But Kagan convinces the open-minded reader that the terms of surrender were nothing of the sort. For all the talk of the Versailles “diktat,” Germany faced neither territorial dismemberment nor financial ruin. The peace settlement was not inspired by Allied avarice, let alone by designs to smother the German economy. In reality, the debacle of the interwar years was a beggar-thy-neighbor policy of tariffs combined with military weakness that failed to secure an order of free trade and liberal progress.

Another piece of conventional wisdom fixes the source of European breakdown on the old continent, not in Washington. Making the case for a greater degree of American culpability, Kagan notes the “central role the United States played in all the actions and calculations of all the European powers.” Given the outsize effect of America’s enormous new power, its postwar passivity “made Europe’s difficulties coming out of the war insoluble.”

After deploying 2 million soldiers “over there,” it soon became obvious that the United States wouldn’t be there to stay. But since the peace settlement reflected the balance of power as it existed when the guns fell silent, it would hold only if there remained a favorable configuration of power on the continent. But having spent blood and treasure to forge peace in Europe, Americans were in no mood to make further sacrifices or run any risks to enforce it. In Kagan’s judgment, the U.S.’s recoiling from its new obligations fundamentally doomed the world: “While it is customary to focus on American failings in the 1930s, it was in the 1920s that the peace was truly lost.”

As Kagan elaborates, a lasting peace required much more than a risk-averse “offshore balancer” to contain Europe’s rivalries and furies; it needed an “onshore balancer” to suppress them. This is the role European powers had called for America to play in order to stabilize their war-ravaged economies and keep them from one another’s throats. Wilson welcomed such a grand vocation—though he conceived it in terms of moral suasion more than actual power—and dreaded what might result if the U.S. deferred. The world, he warned his countrymen, would be “absolutely in despair if America deserts it.” As Harold Nicolson, a British diplomat at the Paris conference recalled, it was fear of this impending American abdication that (in words that give Kagan his title) was “the ghost at all our feasts.”

Disillusioned by utopians’ extravagantly high expectations (“a war to end all wars”) and halted by the defects of the Versailles Treaty, Americans were keen to jettison their new responsibilities in the Old World. Spotting a chance to defeat Wilson, Republicans worked to turn public opinion against the League of Nations—Wilson’s ardent but hazy scheme of collective security to keep America in the European mix. Much to Wilson’s grief, the U.S. Senate refused to ratify the treaty.

Wilson’s dream of U.S. leadership remained just that. The golden opportunity to repair a fractured world was frittered away. Republicans settled for a foreign policy that expressed itself not in the muscular internationalism of Theodore Roosevelt but in the insular nationalism of Senator William Borah. President Warren Harding set the tone for this era of abstention when he insisted on a “return to normalcy.”

This interwar parochialism has been justly criticized, but Kagan abjures “isolationism” as a term to describe it. Though limiting its global commitments, Washington pursued foreign markets in which to trade and invest, its Navy remained a potent force in two oceans, and it tried (if half-heartedly) to control international armaments while “outlawing” war. This conception of national interests was already familiar to states in the international order: defending the homeland, avoiding foreign commitments, preserving the country’s freedom of action, and creating prosperity at home.

The Ghost at the Feast draws its force from the inadequacy of that vision for the world’s leading democracy. “Normalcy” set in motion the disastrous chain of events that plunged the world into deprivation, cruelty, waste, and conflagration. First came the Great Depression and the rise of fascism, and then a second and even more catastrophic world war.

The beginning of America’s strategic reassessment came before the outbreak of war but was too little and too late. Franklin Roosevelt intuited that the oceans were the country’s last line of defense, not its first, and that America was strategically dependent on the preservation of British sea power. He also believed that the Nazis’ illiberal ideology and formidable position at the heart of Europe fundamentally threatened the American way of life. But in public he pledged to keep America out of “foreign wars” at whatever cost, at least until those wars were no longer foreign.

But Roosevelt began to urge Americans, however haltingly, to look beyond their immediate physical security and defend a wider liberal order. He declared that if Hitler, Mussolini, and Imperial Japan were allowed to overturn regional stabilities, America would become a “lone island” in a world dominated by the “philosophy of force.” Such a world would be a “shabby and dangerous place to live in—yes, even for Americans to live in.” 

FDR’s foresight was vindicated by history. The wages of deserting the world had been a rapidly deteriorating global order and a collapsing civilization. In the end, America sent its armies and fleets to the Old World to defeat totalitarianism. In the course of that task, the imperative of denying any other power hegemonic control amounted to an affirmative strategy, maintained to the present day, of exerting American hegemony unto the ends of the earth.

The depiction of the flourishing of America’s global predominance will await the final volume of Dangerous Nation. But the latest installment is an occasion to contemplate the grim state of the world before the emergence of Pax Americana. It might also spur advocates of a “post-American” order to ponder the consequences of any American retreat from its erstwhile role. The Ghost at the Feast is thus essential for statesmen who acknowledge American ambition without hypocrisy, and for all who would like to think about power and responsibility in a statesmanlike manner.

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