The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest

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The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy: How America’s Civil Religion Betrayed the National Interest
By Walter A. McDougall
Yale University Press, 2016
424 pp.

McDougall advanced an important national conversation in 1997 with his book Promised Land, Crusader State, which illuminated the history of U.S. foreign policy by placing it in the context of the broader evolution of intellectual and political traditions. In 2006, the historian Robert Kagan followed McDougall’s lead with an influential book titled Dangerous Nation, which interpreted U.S. foreign policy as oscillating between two schools of thought: an “expansionist” school that included presidents such as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt and that had its roots in classic American thought and a “realist” school that sought to limit the United States’ role in the world and had its origins among southern slaveholders and segregationists. McDougall’s latest book, which deserves and rewards a careful reading, is partly a belated riposte to Kagan’s book. Kagan, McDougall maintains, missed both the expansionism of the slaveholders and the foreign policy restraint of their opponents. The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy argues that an American “civil religion,” an evolving set of ideas, began by conceiving of the U.S. role in the world as setting an example of democratic and Christian values. Over time, McDougall maintains, that civil religion has become more interventionist and progressive. As a result, U.S. foreign policy has become more ambitious and less realistic.

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