Robert Kagan’s Mythology of U.S. Exceptionalism

By Jim Miles

Robert Kagan is a difficult subject to analyze. At times his writing seems to be very honest and directly critical of U.S. intentions as well as being clearly honest about the sometimes “dangerous nation” aspect of its history and foreign policy. Underlying it all however is his own patriotic blindness that ends up always supporting U.S. exceptionalism and uniqueness, always expressing the egocentric viewpoint that the U.S. is the indispensable nation. The U.S. is not indispensable.

Nor is it a bastion of “democratic capitalism” that is the only way forward from here, here being a point in renewed history – according to Kagan – in which there are either “democrats” or “autocrats.” Kagan does not see in shades of gray, countries and politicians are either one or the other. His arguments, while seemingly coherent at certain points tend to dissolve into self-contradiction, the main contradiction being the solid criticism that “what you do speaks so loud I can’t hear what you say.” For all that Kagan tries to present as the positives of the U.S., of the underlying good intentions of the U.S. – at the same time recognizing its sometimes hard handed methods of interfering in other countries – he really does not understand that perceptions built on those hard handed actions over-ride all the rhetoric and jingoism about the greatness and indispensability of the U.S. as the world’s guide to a better world.

The huge contradictions between rhetoric and action should in the critical analyst’s mind lead to the summation that it is what is done that truly represents the ideals of the country.  And what is done by the U.S. has precious little to do with democracy and a whole lot to do with capitalism, precious little to do with true democracy – from ‘demos’ – the people, and ‘-cracy’, power – and much more to do with the power of the elites that control the people whether they live in a relative free society or in a more authoritarian one. 

My summary notes at the end of “The Return of History” indicate that Kagan’s arguments are beguiling but essentially bi-polar and simplistic, providing a continuing rationale for an ongoing U.S. hegemonic role. [1]

Initial reactions include critiques of the two main ideas of this elongated essay. The first obvious one being that capitalism is neither the main route to democracy nor the main route to freedom, and as has been currently witnessed by the global billions, is simply a set of opaque non-democratic structures that are used to garner wealth from the masses of workers and employees – and worse, the peasants and landless and labourers – and raise it to the upper echelons of the elite. In association with that, democracy remains undefined, as if it is a universal obvious. While it would be nice if it were universally obvious, the manner in which the word is used by most U.S. administrations makes the word more of warning of U.S. negative intentions rather than their true interest in the majority populace having an actual say in governance. 

Democracy and Capitalism within a Superpower

Kagan starts his arguments with a recognition that the world is “normal again”, that history did not end as postulated by Fukuyama – an idea that fully supported the jargon and rhetoric of U.S. exceptionalism, the “perfection of its institutions” and its indispensability. He is quite confident, and expresses it frequently through the work, that the U.S. remains the sole superpower, an argument based on….well, it’s not defined, again it is presumed to be understood. 

Does it matter that U.S. military technology is the most sophisticated (arguably – what do we really know about Chinese advances in technology?) when rag tag bands of militias can pin down the majority of active fighting forces in two desolate regions of the world (made desolate by ongoing imperial ambitions and occupation)? Does it matter that regardless of U.S. dominance in military and nuclear technology that other nations can just as readily inflict massive and catastrophic damage to the U.S. with their military and nuclear power (there will be no winners in another world war that is without limits)?  Does it matter that the U.S. economy is built on a debt structure that is at the moment imploding on itself, while those of the elite who brought us to this position are the ones trying futilely to get us out of the mess? Does it matter that demographically the U.S. has one of the worst records of the developed nations in what are normally considered indicators of national well-being such as infant mortality rate, life span, poverty rates, income gaps….? Does it matter that the rest of the world has to continue to live with an arrogant egocentric nation whose rhetoric is far outweighed by its brutal tactics to remain in control? If that defines a superpower, then yes, the U.S. is the sole superpower.

The underlying theme is stated quite clearly near the beginning: “Since democratic capitalism was the most successful model for developing societies, all societies would eventually choose that path.”

Problems immediately arise, as noted above, with “democratic capitalism”, with its assumption as being a “successful model”, and eventually for it being a “chosen” path.  How much choice is there when democratic governments around the world have been overthrown with great regularity: the Cuban freedom fighters and the Philippino freedom fighters were sidelined by the U.S. military after the Spanish-American war [2];  the democratic government of Mossadegh was overthrown by joint manipulations of the CIA and British intelligence; the Italian and Greek popular movements towards social democracy were subverted; the Vietnam war would never have happened if the U.S. had allowed for a democratic vote sponsored by the UN on  the joining of North and South Vietnam; most of the democratic governments of Central America faced subversion and interference from CIA and other U.S. sponsored operatives, from Nicaragua and Guatemala through to Allende’s overthrow and Pinochet’s reign of disappearances in Chile. While democracy withers on the vine in most areas of U.S. intervention (or survives in spite of it after millions of people in opposition to the elites are murdered by death squads, government operatives, or direct U.S. military action), the U.S. pours massive amounts of manure into areas that it sees as “strategic interests”.

The U.S. has supported some notable “autocrats” in its own endeavours to secure resources and markets for its corporate partners. Currently in the Middle East alone, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are bought off with massive aid programs and petrodollar purchases of military goods that are essentially useless. U.S. military forces remain in Iraq regardless of the democratic wishes of the majority of the people who never wanted them there in the first place, who never hosted terrorists and only had the misfortune of living on huge pools of oil. Autocrats under the U.S. influence are frequent, ranging from Syngman Rhee (Korea), Suharto (Indonesia), Pinochet (Chile), Reza Pahlevi (Iran), to the current crop in Afghanistan, Iraq and the other Middle East countries listed above.

At the centre of Middle East non-democracies is the state of Israel – while self-proclaiming its democratic nature it holds millions of Palestinians subject to harsh and internationally illegal treatment in various bantustan style regions. Several other factors play an important role here. The first is the unequivocal support of the U.S. for Israeli policy, a U.S. foreign policy destined to continue under Barak Obama. Secondly, the U.S. supports Israel with more than $3 billion in aid money per annum, allowing it to succeed financially while maintaining an ever tightening noose around the collective Palestinian neck.  Finally, after the fully democratic elections in which Hamas won a majority in the Palestinian government, the election was denied by the U.S., Canada, and most European countries as invalid because Hamas was described as a terrorist organization.  Government terror does not really bother the U.S. as they use it frequently themselves (think of carpet bombing, torture, extradition, cluster bombs, chemical weapons), while tending to ignore it when it occurs in countries where they either have no interest, or countries where a subservient government follows the accepted line. 

So far, not much “choice”, not much democracy. As for capitalism, it does not require democracy to flourish, rather it tends to limit democracy to the elites capable of hanging onto power by using their wealth and power to pervert or subjugate a real democratic process. ‘Finance capitalism’ has a requirement for cheap politically ineffectual labour, has a requirement that many people are poor to produce wealth that others gather to themselves, and most obviously currently, has a requirement that the masses indebt themselves to the corporate wealthy who in turn seek succour from their buddies in government when times get rough.  If the people truly had power, their would be a much more equitable distribution of wealth, much more in the way of services provided for the people, and more than likely, much more in the way of peaceful fair trade globalization initiatives that accounted for the environment, workers conditions, and care of the citizens of the producing countries.

These arguments critique the basic underlying thesis of Kagan’s writing. If correct they essentially nullify all of Kagan’s supporting arguments but within his writings there are other perceptions and statements that are interesting to look at. 


In his arguments on autocracy Kagan discusses the resurgence of “nationalism”, an idea that never disappeared in the first place and was only wishfully denied existence within the false concept of the end of history that Kagan bought into.  

Kagan as with many other writers of the political right uses information out of context.  His first example is the military spending of Russian said to be larger than any other country except China and the U.S. A bit disingenuous, as the U.S. budget at $711 billion (not including the money budgeted for Iraq and Afghanistan) dwarfs the Russian budget of $70 billion and China’s at $122 billion. The U.S. budget is larger than all the military budgets combined in the world, a claim that Russia is probably quite proud not to make. 

Shortly after that argument Kagan writes of the “billions of dollars in foreign assistance the West provided to Russian in the 1990s were a far cry from the huge sums the victorious powers tried to extract from Germany after 1918.” I do not see the connection of how that supports his argument of supposed western generosity towards Russia – rather it hides the idea that most of those funds were used to bail out an economy that threatened to collapse and endanger U.S. interests – the people of Russia never saw the money, the corporate elites of both Russia and the incoming western corporations felt that relief. 

Many of his observations of Russia are accurate – and very understandable from a Russian perspective, something U.S. theorists and politicians are incapable of doing, lost in their own exceptionalism and uniqueness. While castigating Putin throughout the work as an “autocrat”, he does not mention his popularity in Russia that arises from his strong position vis a vis the U.S., the latter seemingly determined to undermine Russia on every front militarily, economically, and politically regardless of their encouraging words about non-interference in Russian affairs and not having NATO move east to the Russian border. He did make an accurate prediction about Russia’s interactions with Tbilisi wondering what Europe and the U.S. would do if “Russia played hardball in either Ukraine or Georgia? They might well do nothing.” All proven true, except that it was Tbilisi that instigated the mini-war that only brought on more U.S. rhetoric about freedom and democracy while they continued to occupy two countries they invaded five years earlier. 

For all that Kagan presents about Putin, if one considers Kagan’s obvious predisposition and bias, the actual information really provides a positive view of all that Putin has accomplished for Russia. It is a stronger healthier country now that is was at the end of the 1990s and it has avoided most of the economic depredations of western corporations and of the IMF, World Bank, and WTO. Certainly Russia is manipulating for its own national benefit, but with its wealth of natural resources and its own tired history of invasions and interventions from outside, it would seem a rationale approach for its own people’s security. It could be otherwise, but the apparent and real threats from the west and in particular the U.S. almost require this kind of reaction.  


Kagan moves on to China, observing interestingly enough that “as with all great powers, there is also a military aspect to greatness…While becoming a great commercial power, China is also becoming a military power.  After all, commercial nations are not pacific nations.” 

In my mind, this only adds support to my arguments above about capitalism and democracy and only provides contradiction to Kagan’s initial idea. The “hidden fist” of “democratic capitalism” heavily denies the democracy function, and perhaps unwittingly supports the idea that capitalism is based on a warrior economy (as if there should be any doubt of that in any serious person’s consideration of events versus rhetoric). 

There is also a strange twist to the globalization argument, more than likely unintended by Kagan, when he says, “Never before has China been so closely bound up with the rest of the world…And therefore China needs a modern capable military.” Again, does that mean that globalization necessitates militarization (the U.S. example would indicate yes, it does)? Does then capitalism rely on military capabilities and require militarization for ‘success’ however it is measured? Kagan’s rationale seems to indicate that – in contradiction again to his main idea of freedom and democracy via capitalism – yes, it does. The argument underscores the belief that international relations involve military interactions, and while Kagan superficially seems to be against the militancy of nationalism, his own arguments tend to indicate that underneath it all – if globalization is a sign of capitalism writ large – then military power is a component of capitalism making it not even remotely democratic – it is not the ‘demos’ the people, that call for war, unless manipulated by the elites who tend not being the ones that do the fighting and killing (and dying).  

The arguments Kagan makes concerning China reflect powerfully on the U.S. as well.  He acknowledges that the Chinese “don’t believe any of this, and with reason.” What they don’t believe is the rhetoric thrown out by the U.S. about peaceful globalization and therefore China does not need military programs. While throwing out the jargonistic term “postmodern”, itself undefined but substantively meaning we need to give in to the U.S. view, Kagan does admit the reality of “whether the United States itself would ever follow its own advice and abjure power politics.” 

"Errors of Commission and Omission"

The latter statement leads into some accurate perspectives that Kagan provides in observing the U.S.’ own actions around the world. When he asks “did the United States pull back from its extended global involvements [military] and become a more passive, restrained presence in the world?” he knows and acknowledges that “The answer to this question is no.” Rather, “Unchecked by Soviet power” the U.S. “attempted to establish, where possible, the kind of democratic and free-market capitalistic order that Americans [3] preferred.” As argued above, democracy and free markets are nothing but rhetoric useful to U.S. interpretations of there own economic, financial, and military depredations in other countries. Anyone who has followed current events should know that the U.S. took full advantage of their power, did not reduce yet rather increased their militancy and global domination economically (now viewed rather dimly through the awareness of global economic meltdown) for their own power and wealth. Quite simply, they blew the chance for a true global peace if they had actually listened to the rest of the world and had not gone off on their own unilateral supreme dominance quest. 

Other comments from Kagan concerning U.S. foreign policy hold true:

"This expansive, even aggressive global policy was consistent with American foreign policy traditions."

"Americans want what they want, and not just economic opportunity and security but also a world that roughly suits their political and moral preferences."

"The United States, though traditionally jealous of its own sovereignty, has always been ready to interfere in the internal affairs of other nations."

"The United States, of course, paid this [national sovereignty] little heed – it had intervened and overthrown sovereign governments dozens of times throughout its history."

Unfortunately, these honest expressions of what the U.S. is really about are accompanied by the ongoing rhetoric of U.S. exceptionalism and good intentions:

"A nation that cherishes self-determination is uncomfortable depriving others of that right.”

"…the noble generosity of spirit and perception of enlightened self-interest that lead the United States out into the world to assist others….”

The latter statement is preceded by the predominant excuse for U.S. global bullying, that any “mistakes” made by the U.S., anything that goes wrong, all the “misperceptions” held by foreigners, is “…an American problem, due to errors of commission and omission, not only in recent years, but throughout history.” 

So all those wars and fights and battles from the first genocide of native Americans through to Iraq and Afghanistan (have I been here before?) are not because we are evil minded imperialists searching for power, wealth, control without concern for any other, but because we have made some mistakes along the way. Everyone is entitled to mistakes, but to make the same ones over and over – and over again – indicates the lack of ability to learn, a collective will to not care, and an underlying motive against the very motives constantly reiterated yet ignored by U.S. politicians, military, economic, and media personnel. 

It returns to the statement, “What you do speaks so loud I can’t hear what you are saying.” Well, I can hear it, and balancing actions against words, the actions carry infinitely more weight than the jingoism and rhetoric of exceptionalism. And again, democracy and freedom are great ideals, but without a clear definition, one that is garbled by military occupation, economic dominance and subjugation, the ideals are somewhat irrelevant to what you do. 

The greatest criminal excuse of all time is that while my intentions have always been noble and honourable, I simply can’t seem to do things correctly (criminally insane?) – but that’s okay ‘cause we’re doing our best.  The underlying motive for all this fine sounding self-promoting rhetoric – and the U.S. is most “exceptional” at that – is greed for the accumulation of power and wealth regardless of the human pain and suffering imposed on others. Dangerous nation indeed.

Some Odds and an End

Kagan dips into other topics, other countries along the way. He discusses Japan and India in particular as rising powers. He uses the terms “postmodern” and “liberal” quite frequently, both terms with assumed meanings but without true definition. Postmodern is one of those undefined terms that really means nothing, more jargon added to the political scientists lexicon to make it more rarefied and obtuse and supposedly of a higher order of learning that the masses cannot access. 

Liberal carries several meanings: a general broadening of the mind; generous; and favourable to democratic reform. The mind of the U.S. politician has hardly broadened since its inception, demonstrated by those constantly revisited “errors and commissions” over its history. The only thing generous about it is the amount of money it provides to its supporters in various forms and in the amount of military hardware and ordinance it spreads around the globe. As for being favourable to democratic reform, I think that has already been put into serious doubt. Any true democratic reform that goes against the interest of U.S. politicians/economists/corporate leaders is quickly upset by U.S. intervention.

Kagan arrives at a conclusion that is suspect, mainly because his whole thesis is suspect, but given that, his proposal is not very well thought out. He offers the world a “concert of democracies” citing problems with the United Nations without recognizing that two of the biggest problems concern the United States: first, the U.S. has consistently gone against many UN security Council resolutions that deal with one of the main sparks of Middle trouble, the Israel/Palestine question; beyond that the U.S. typically flaunts its unilateral position using the UN only as convenient and only if it works in its favour while abrogating many international treaties. If the UN were truly democratic, there would be no security council and no veto power, but instead some form of UN cabinet selected from a variety of countries representative of global populations. The big if is if the superpower would ever allow itself to abide by international regulations voted on and determined by the majority of the world’s population. The arrogance and ignorance prevalent in most aspects of U.S. life would make that seem impossible.

Kagan’s conclusion does not deserve much space. When the initial thesis is so badly flawed, with a simplistic dichotomy between “democracies” and “autocracies” followed by arguments that are circular, repetitive and self-contradictory (“what you do…”) his solution can have no validity either. His final statement is a reminder of Pax Americana that “the future international order will be shaped by those who have the power and collective will to shape it.” Straight out of the pages of the neocon playbook.  We have lived through that over the past half century, somehow it did not quite work out the way it was supposed to. Dangerous? Yes. Indispensable? Only in the legend in its own mind.  

– Jim Miles is a Canadian educator and a regular contributor/columnist of opinion pieces and book reviews for Miles’ work is also presented globally through other alternative websites and news publications.


[1] The Return of History and the End of Dreams.  Robert Kagan.  Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2008.

[2] in support of these references are many texts and articles that are reviewed critically and can be found at or at

[3] as noted by a critical and correct editor “Americans” refers to everyone in the Western Hemisphere, which tends to be an insult to many true Americans that do not live in the United States. However, in a quote, the word can stand as reminder of U.S. political presumption.

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