Review: The World America Made, by Robert Kagan

Robert Kagan’s latest book, The World America Made, makes such a strong case against American decline that an excerpt published in The New Republic won rave reviews from Barack Obama and commandeered a pre-State of the Union meeting between the President and top US news anchors. (Kagan, incidentally, serves as an advisor to Mitt Romney.) TWAM is better than Kagan’s Of Paradise and Power, in which he takes on the trans-Atlantic divide, though the basic theses of the two books are pretty much the same: US hegemony in the West and later in the entire world is directly responsible for the approximately 70 years of relative global peace and the extant international order.  The waning of American power is not simply an overstated case (at the moment), but it also would portend dangerous instability in foreign affairs and a possible erosion of the liberal institutionalism that scholars like G. John Ikenberry have argued is under no real threat from the rise of the so-called authoritarian great powers. Kagan makes an altogether convincing case for the past and the future, but less so for the present—in other words, his argument that US power is not declining is less convincing than his historical analysis and his predictions of the effects of this seismic shift.  

Kagan is at his best when making the case for cyclical history, rejecting the so-called “end of history” thesis that maintains both liberal democracy and a neoliberal economic order represent the apotheosis of human civilization. Rather, the “liberal institutionalism” that has defined the global arena for the past 70 years may be credited, if not wholly than certainly in large part, to American dominance. It’s a compelling theory: Free trade, open markets and democratization abroad all served American strategic interests during and after the Cold War and, much like mercantilist Great Britain in its heyday, America relied on its amassed economic and military might to underwrite the freedom less-powerful countries took for granted. As Kagan puts it: “The United States went to war twice—in 1812 and in 1917—partly in response to efforts by other great powers to blockade American trade in wartime. Since World War II, the United States has used its dominance of the oceans to keep trade routes open for everyone, even during periods of conflict. But it is not enough to have an interest in free trade. Today, Portugal and Singapore have an interest in free trade and open oceans, but they lack the capacity to keep trade routes open. Only the United States has had both the will and the ability to preserve freedom of the seas. Indeed, it has done so largely by itself, policing the world’s oceans with its dominant navy with only minor assistance from other powers, while other trading nations, from Germany to Japan, from Brazil to India, from Russia to China, have been content to be ‘free riders.’ This has been one of America’s most important contributions to the present liberal world order.”

But Kagan argues that the real key to the success and longevity of American hegemony has been exactly the opposite what the nation’s critics currently deride—that is, a general reluctance to wield its considerable power abroad. Kagan underscores that famous Churchill quotation about how “you can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else” to point out that, contrary to the image of twenty-first-century America as a drunk-with-power global sheriff, the US’s historic fealty to isolationism has made the country appear less threatening or imposing than have other Great Powers. (Obviously, there are exceptions, but Vietnam and Iraq don’t invalidate the broader trend.) This may explain the effectiveness of American “soft power,” why one state’s preeminence has been countenanced for so long and, most importantly, why emerging powers—even benign ones—may not be able to maintain the world that the US so carefully built.

To introduce the book’s central It’s a Wonderful Life conceit, the US is George Bailey, prone to existential musings about the purpose of his existence, but unable to accept what the world would look like without him in it. (I would imagine that China has replaced the USSR in the Mr. Potter role, while EU nation states represent kind of a collective Uncle Billy.) Kagan paints a somber picture of a multipolar or “nonpolar” world that would invite more violence and more instability than the status quo, whatever the latter’s flaws may be, and I agree with his assessment, for the most part. To exploit Churchill once again: American hegemony is the worst form of global power structure except for all the others. But if we are to believe Kagan’s broad historical analysis, no Great Power can maintain its position indefinitely, and Kagan could and should have spent more time discussing long-term preparations for the inevitable erosion of American dominance, even if, as he argues, decline is not imminent.

Kagan is usually pretty neatly labeled a “neoconservative,” and so it seems a bit futile to criticize him for not ceding due deference to critics of his worldview, which in a book like this is beside the point. The World America Made is intended to be a statement, not a let’s-air-and-refute-all-possibilities political science dissertation. Regardless, my biggest problem with Kagan’s book is that it doesn’t fully address questions of the moral legitimacy of the US-led order. When Fukuyama predicted “the end of history” after the collapse of the Soviet Union—and, most saliently, Communism as a viable form of human political organization—he believed it wasn’t just representative democracy but neoliberalism that had triumphed over the moribund, state-run, planned economies of failing Eastern states. (Those who would point to China as the obvious rejoinder to Fukuyama’s thesis should of course consider Ikenberry’s point that China has risen not in spite of but because of its willingness to “play by the rules” of the existing international economic system.) But I’m not sure I believe that state-level democratic freedoms and neoliberal economic principles are morally equivalent, nor do they (or should they) go hand-in-hand. Free trade, free movement of capital, floating exchange rates, globalization spurred by technological innovation—isn’t it possible that all this supposedly beneficial “interdependence” in fact allows repressive states, like China, to do as they please, confident that other states’ material interests will prevent interference? This is exactly George Orwell’s point about the dangers of “perpetual peace,” that prolonged global stability actually just reinforces the ability of sovereigns to commit crimes within their own borders. Genocide is the most obvious example here: To mention only one case (and a central study of the book I’m currently reading), the US failed to implement economic sanctions against Iraq when Saddam Hussein displaced and gassed the rural Kurdish population in the late eighties because both US energy and agricultural (not to mention political) interests were dependent upon a friendly trade relationship with Iraq. And, of course, it goes without saying that Western leaders have largely kept quiet about China’s frankly abysmal human-rights record to avoid antagonizing the nation that holds their debts. Hillary Clinton can go to Hanoi and pay lip service to reform, but the elephant in the room is Vietnam’s much larger and more powerful Northern neighbor. I realize I’ve gotten a bit off-topic, but my points here are that the downsides to economic interdependence are rarely accorded their deserved platform and that economic liberalism should not be considered as part-and-parcel with democracy. It’s impossible to turn back the clock on globalization, clearly, but what I can’t stand is this visceral (and, as a result, perfunctory) lionization of capitalism that implicitly reaffirms the argument that Kagan ostensibly sets himself apart from: that there’s a moral arc to international politics and it bends toward the American way.

Also see: Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times review; Foreign Affairs‘s review; and the Washington Post‘s interview with Kagan.

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