Kagan, to be sure, wrote his book before the Egyptian government decided to prosecute 19 Americans for the crime of promoting democracy. One despairs that any outcome in the Arab world might change his mind, because Kagan — like many of his colleagues in the foreign policy establishment — is a victim of a fixed idea. One sees this fixed idea in many fields of inquiry. If you do not believe that the source of the Good is supernatural, then you must look for the Good in the natural: in the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace (libertarians) or the political arena (the “classical rationalists”) or changes in human genetic structure (Steven Pinker and the evolutionary biologists) or some other place I haven’t thought of. The classical rationalists spent their idle hours replaying the tapes of the Peloponnesian War, trying to work out how democratic Athens could have lost.
From my Tablet review, again:
Kagan simply venerates the form of democracy itself, with the passion of the true believer. “It is demonstrably true that democracies rarely go to war with other democracies,” Kagan claims. That is a strange argument for any American to make, given that one democracy—the Confederacy—fought the bloodiest war in our history against another democracy, namely the Union of northern states. The South went democratically to war for the evil goal, among others, of expanding slavery. Another democratically decided war—against Mexico in 1846—prepared the ground for the Civil War. Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his Memoirs, “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”
The South fought until nearly a third of its military-age men had fallen. Except for the Serbs in World War I, no people in modern times sacrificed more than the South, showing that democracy can unite a people behind an evil cause. In that respect the Confederacy emulated democratic Athens of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides explains why Athens voted for an attack upon the Sicilian city of Syracuse, also a democracy: “The general masses and the average soldier himself saw the prospect of getting pay for the time being and of adding to the empire so as to secure permanent paid employment in the future.”
Why the South would lose 300,000 men to defend slavery, or Athens 10,000 men to conquer Sicily, is easy to understand. Less obvious is why the North would sacrifice 500,000 to stop it. The Union marched to war singing of the grapes of wrath in paraphrase of Isaiah 63:3, where God declares, “I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments.”
American democracy brought forth good as well as evil, and the defining event in our history was the conflict between them. Surely there must be something greater than democratic procedure that informs the American character. But it removes the moral onus, not to mention the painful historical memory, to flatter ourselves with the notion that our democratic institutions as such are the solution to all problems and that the world would be a happy place if everyone did what we did.