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The Ghost at the Feast

The Ghost at the Feast

Marc Plattner reviews the second installment in Robert Kagan's projected trilogy on the history of American foreign policy, including its moral and ideological dimensions.

Marc F. Plattner
The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941
by Robert Kagan (Knopf, 688 pp., $28.49)

Robert Kagan is one of America’s most prominent writers on international affairs, widely known for his columns in the Washington Post and a growing number of provocative short books. These volumes include Of Paradise and Power (famous for its proclamation that “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus”), The Return of History and the End of Dreams, and The Jungle Grows Back. But Kagan is also a scholarly historian who has long been at work on a three-volume history of U.S. foreign policy. The first volume of this projected trilogy, Dangerous Nation, which covers the period prior to the 20th century, was published in 2006. Now, seventeen years later, the second volume, The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941, has made its appearance.

Commentators on contemporary events frequently lavish a great deal of attention on the origins of the Second World War—the downfall of the Weimar Republic, the rise of Hitler and the Nazis, the Munich agreement, and the failure of democracies to respond decisively to the challenge of fascism. Kagan addresses all these developments in this volume, in some cases diverging from conventional interpretations; for example, he contends that it was in the 1920s (rather than the 1930s) that “the peace was truly lost.” But the book’s most revelatory sections deal with the opening two decades of the 20th century—especially with the politics, both international and domestic, that led to eventual U.S. engagement in the First World War.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

With 468 pages of narrative and 124 pages of footnotes, this new volume may look forbidding to non-specialists at first, but it turns out to be clearly and gracefully written, and to tell a gripping story. After completing each chapter, I found myself not wanting to put the book aside for a while, as I do with most scholarly writings, but instead eager to move on to the next chapter: The book has something of the appeal and readability of a good novel.

I suspect that nearly all readers of Kagan’s historical account will find that it contains surprising parallels to the issues and tendencies that confront us today. But Kagan avoids “presentist” history. He largely lets the events of the past tell their own story, leaving it to his readers to draw contemporary lessons from them. Despite this authorial restraint, the relevance of his account to problems we face today—especially regarding the war in Ukraine—has quickly become apparent to serious readers, as is reflected in the widespread media attention that this scholarly tome already has generated.

The United States entered World War I only in 1917, when the conflict had already been underway for almost three years. This may partly explain why it has had a less deep and enduring influence on American historical memory and culture than did World War II, and why its lessons regarding foreign policy and domestic politics tend to be discussed rarely, or even neglected.

Kagan notes that a common assessment of World War I today regards it as a folly in which “all the powers stand equally condemned for ‘sleepwalking’ into conflict.” Kagan takes a different view, arguing that “for the participants at the time, on both sides, and including the Americans, the war was very much a battle over morality and ideology, a struggle between right and wrong, between good and evil.” This certainly had not been the prevailing American view at the outset, when almost everyone, including President Woodrow Wilson, favored a U.S. policy of strict neutrality and opposed entanglement in what was seen as a European-only quarrel.

Initial American responses to the outbreak of the war largely reflected domestic concerns, including the potential impact on the economy. Another key factor was the ethnic diversity that characterized the United States. While sympathy for Britain and the Allies predominated in many quarters, this was not the case among Irish-Americans, who were hostile to Britain because of its continuing domination of Ireland, or to German-Americans (who at that time constituted around 20 percent of the American people). The German and Irish communities, both active in U.S. politics, quickly gave voice to their support for their ancestral homelands. In September 1914, Wilson declared: “We have to be neutral, since otherwise our mixed populations would wage war on each other.”

Yet American public opinion underwent a massive shift over the next two-and-a-half years, and on April 6, 1917, the Senate approved by an eighty-two to six vote a resolution declaring war on Germany. The proximate causes of U.S. entry into the war on the side of the Allies were, first, Germany’s decision at the end of January 1917 to resume unrestricted submarine attacks on Allied and neutral shipping; second, the leak of the “Zimmerman telegram” revealing Germany’s intention to recruit Mexico as a wartime ally, in exchange for help in recovering the territories Mexico had lost to the United States in the 1846-48 Mexican-American War. But earlier incidents—most notably the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in May 1915—had already begun to turn the tide of American opinion against Germany.

The Lusitania, a British cruise liner sailing from New York to Liverpool, was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine, resulting in the deaths of almost 1,200 men, women, and children, including over 120 Americans. This incident provoked public outrage, but the outrage was not sufficient to overcome American resistance to being drawn into war. It would take almost two full years before Wilson (a careful monitor of popular sentiment) and the American people overcame their reluctance to become engaged in the conflict.

Kagan argues, however, that the sinking of the Lusitania, even if it did not precipitate U.S. entry into the war, had a lasting effect in reshaping American popular opinion about the Kaiser’s Germany. It was not just the deed itself, but the fact that the slaughter of innocent civilians, including women and children, was so openly celebrated by Germans. In addition, reports of German wartime atrocities, especially in the invasion and occupation of Belgium, helped foster the view among Americans that the Germans were ruthless and untrustworthy. (Though some of these reports were exaggerated, historians today have confirmed that the Germans did commit large-scale atrocities.) This view of the Germans fueled perceptions of the conflict as a struggle between a highly militarized and brutal dictatorship and the freedom-loving and more humane Allies (excepting Czarist Russia, of course). While some would regard this picture as cartoonish, Kagan persuasively contends that there was a solid core of truth in Wilson’s declaration that America was embarking upon war in order to make the world safe for democracy and political liberty.

The portrayal of the war as a battle between democracy and autocracy was not just Wilson’s notion. It was echoed by other leading American figures, including his Republican opponent in the 1916 presidential election, Charles Evans Hughes, who denounced Germany’s “onslaught on liberty and on civilization itself.” At least in Kagan’s telling, this framing relied less on a defense of abstract liberal democratic principles and more on an abhorrence of the ruthless and uncivilized behavior of the autocratic regime. So whatever advantage Germany may have received from the terror it inspired in its enemies, it paid the price of incurring the powerful antagonism of the American people.

It is hard to read about this aspect of World War I without thinking of the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. The United States and its European allies, to be sure, have not sent their own troops to the battlefield, but their supply of weapons and other assistance to the Ukrainians has been critical to the latter’s success. And while President Biden and other Western leaders have indeed presented the conflict as a struggle between democracy and autocracy, what seems most to have moved public opinion in the democracies was the exposure of Russian war crimes and atrocities in Bucha and other cities. Vladimir Putin’s goal of terrorizing Ukrainians seems to have led him to discount the damage that this policy has inflicted on his own country’s global standing, and to neglect its impact in stiffening the spine of Western publics.

In his concluding chapter, Kagan contends that Americans eventually decided to intervene in the two global conflagrations of the twentieth century not to protect their homeland but “to defend and restore the kind of liberal order in which Americans preferred to live and which provided the greatest degree of protections against possible future threats.” This may at first sound like an “idealistic” or naïve view, but Kagan quickly injects a large dose of “realism”: Although Americans then saw their role on the world stage in “purely defensive terms, … it was also an exercise in global political, ideological, and military hegemony.” Americans believed they were in the right in defending democracy. But “viewed from a more objective, neutral perspective,” Kagan asserts, they “were only in the right if one believed liberalism itself was right and the opponents of liberalism were wrong.”  If that were not the case, the world order that America sought to uphold “was no more just than any other world order established and upheld by force.”

What is one to make of this apparent retreat into relativism by an author who often stresses the importance of morality and ideas in international politics? Kagan is on record both as a staunch proponent of supporting democracy (even in Sisi’s Egypt, for example) and as an advocate of the kind of tough-minded, hard-power politics often associated with the “realist” school of international relations. Now, there is no necessary contradiction in being in favor both of democracy promotion and of a strong defense. But there inevitably arise situations in which urgent security imperatives are at odds with the longer-term goal of advancing democracy. I assume Kagan would not dispute this, but in The Ghost at the Feast he does not explicitly address the question of how to approach situations in which these two imperatives point in different directions.

Kagan’s essay in the January 2023 issue of Foreign Affairs concludes with these words: “Great-power conflict and dictatorship have been the norm throughout human history, the liberal peace a brief aberration. Only American power can keep the natural forces of history at bay.” While I certainly agree that today the judicious use of American power is indispensable for the preservation of the liberal world order, Kagan’s formulation overstates the rarity and fragility of liberalism. The past two decades surely have seen some setbacks for liberal democracy, but the past several centuries have also witnessed the increasing strength of liberal nations. Well before the founding of the United States, liberal England became the world’s leading power. As Bacon, Locke, and Montesquieu all foresaw, the combination of individual freedom, rule of law, commerce, modern science, and mastery of the seas enabled the island nation to outstrip its Continental foes.

Liberal democracy’s continuing predominance is far from assured. It faces challenges from powerful autocratic rivals. But I think it is a mistake to conclude that history is inevitably on the side of despotism rather than of freedom. It has long been apparent that liberal democracy has some serious weaknesses, but it also has great underlying strengths. Yes, for the foreseeable future the fortunes of liberal democracy will depend on American power, but that power itself derives from America’s liberal foundations.

Marc F. Plattner is a contributing editor of American Purpose, the founding co-editor emeritus of the Journal of Democracy and a distinguished nonresident fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy’s (NED) International Forum for Democratic Studies.

Image: The front page of the New York Tribune on May 8, 1915, following the attack on the Lusitania. (U.S. Library of Congress)

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