This post originally appeared at Commonweal.
“Almost 70 years ago, a new world order was born from the rubble of World War II, built by and around the power of the United States.” Yet today, Robert Kagan laments, “that world order shows signs of cracking, and perhaps even collapsing.” Wherever he looks, Kagan sees evidence that “something is changing, and perhaps more quickly than we may imagine,” he writes in the New Republic (“Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire”). Indeed, “the signs of the global order breaking down are all around us.”
These changes “signal a transition into a different world order,” one bearing troubling similarities to the 1930s. The origins of this prospective calamity are plain to see. Don’t bother to look for material explanations. “If a breakdown in the world order that America made is occurring,” Kagan writes, “it is not because America’s power is declining.” The United States has power to spare, asserts the author of The World America Made. No, what we have here is “an intellectual problem, a question of identity and purpose.” Feckless, silly Americans, with weak-willed Barack Obama their enabler, are abdicating their obligation to lead the planet. The abyss beckons.
Writing in The New York Times, columnist David Brooks hails Kagan’s New Republic essay as “brilliant.” A more accurate appraisal would be slickly mendacious. Still, Kagan’s essay also qualifies as instructive: Here in some 12,700 carefully polished words the impoverished state of foreign-policy discourse is laid bare. If the problem hobbling US policy is an intellectual one, then Kagan himself, purveyor of a fictive past, exhibits that problem in spades.
That Robert Kagan, a bona fide Washington insider, currently housed at the Brookings Institution, possesses very considerable talents is doubtless the case. A well-regarded historian, he is also a skilled polemicist and an ideologue. Here he combines all three callings to fashion a historical narrative that advances two claims. The first enshrines the entire period since 1945 — until Obama sounded retreat anyway — as a kind of golden age when freedom, democracy and liberal values flourished as never before. The second attributes this golden age almost entirely to enlightened American leadership. Policymakers in Washington, he writes, manifested a “sense of global responsibility that equated American interests with the interests of many others around the world.”
Neither one of these claims stands up to even casual scrutiny. Rather than describing the prevailing realities of the post-1945 era, phrases like “world order” and “global responsibility” obfuscate. Purporting to clarify, they merely gloss over. Kagan employs these as devices to beguile, while constructing a version of “truth” that ignores inconvenient facts. There’s a name for this technique: It’s called propaganda.
The “world order” of the decades following World War II exists only in Kagan’s imagination. You’d hardly know it from reading his essay, but the postwar world was divided into three distinct camps: the American-led West, the Soviet-led Communist bloc and the so-called Third World, which had its own problems, unrelated to the East-West rivalry, to worry about.
Furthermore, even to refer to these as camps involves considerable oversimplification. Within each, sharp divisions existed. Nominally allies, France and the United States frequently found themselves at odds, for example. Although Communists ruled Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito refused to take orders from the Kremlin. Some countries — Yugoslavia offers one example, Castro’s Cuba another — consciously sought to keep a foot in more than a single camp. Then there was Israel, which occupied a camp all its own. After President Richard Nixon’s famous visit, so too did China, openly antagonistic toward the USSR, but by no means part of the West.
To the extent that we can credit this disorderly conglomeration with producing anything worthy of note, its chief accomplishment was to avoid a cataclysmic third world war. Here, the United States, sole practitioner of nuclear warfare and possessor of the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, did play a role. Yet apart from sheer dumb luck, what kept Armageddon at bay was not far-sighted global leadership on Washington’s part but prudent self-restraint.
In October 1962, when Nikita Khrushchev’s rashness handed John F. Kennedy the chance to liberate Cuba from communism, the president judged it the better part of valor to cut a deal instead. Rather than confrontation, he opted for negotiation, offering the Soviets an unearned concession — in exchange for their missiles out of Cuba, ours would come out of Turkey. Cubans remained unliberated.
Similarly, when brave Europeans under the boot of Soviet dominion periodically rose up— East Germans in 1953, Poles and Hungarians in 1956, Czechs in 1968 — Washington’s commitment to freedom and democracy took a backseat to its preference for avoiding a potentially climactic East-West showdown. In each case, the United States stood by as the Kremlin brutally restored discipline in its empire.
Of course, much like the Soviets in Eastern Europe, Washington asserted the prerogative of policing its own sphere of influence. When it did so — overthrowing regimes not to its liking in Guatemala, Iran and South Vietnam, for example — the “promotion of a liberal world order” did not rank high in the list of American motives. So too with the roster of despots, dictators and kleptocrats that the United States assiduously supported. From Batista and Somoza in the 1950s to Musharraf and Mubarak in the past decade, a regime’s adherence to liberal values seldom determined whether or not it was deemed a worthy American ally.
Such matters do not qualify for inclusion in Kagan’s celebration of American global leadership, however. Guatemala he simply ignores — not worth the bother. Iran gets mentioned only as a “rogue state” with an inexplicable hankering to acquire nuclear weapons. As for Vietnam, Kagan contents himself with an ambiguous reference to its “uncertain and unsatisfying” outcome, as if the war were a risky stock purchase that still might show a modest profit.
Other disruptions to a “world order” ostensibly founded on the principle of American “global responsibility” included the 1947 partition of India (estimated 500,000 to one million dead); the 1948 displacement of Palestinians (700,000 refugees); the exodus of Vietnamese from north to south in 1954 (between 600,000 and one million fled); the flight of the pied noir from Algeria (800,000 exiled); the deaths resulting directly from Mao Tse Tung’s quest for utopia (between 2 million and 5 million); the mass murder of Indonesians during the anti-Communist purges of the mid-1960s (500,000 slaughtered); the partition of Pakistan in 1971 (up to 3 million killed; millions more displaced); genocide in Cambodia (1.7 million dead); and war between Iran and Iraq (more than 400,00 killed). Did I mention civil wars in Nigeria, Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Sudan, Congo, Liberia and Sierra Leone that killed millions? The list goes on.
Kagan mentions none of those episodes. Yet all occurred during the Cold War, when the United States was, in his words, “vigilant and ready to act, with force, anywhere in the world.”
By what standard does a system in which such things occur qualify as a “world order”? With the United States reacting passively to human misery on an epic scale (where not actively abetting the perpetrators), what is the operative definition of “global responsibility” that squares with US behavior? If, as Kagan argues, “the American project has aimed at shaping a world different from what had always been, taking advantage of America’s unique situation to do what no nation had ever been able to do,” then how can it be that such awful events persist?
The answers to these questions are clear. First, to the extent that a postwar liberal order existed, it was fragile, tentative and incomplete. It was a club. Membership criteria were strictly enforced. Residents of the Anglosphere were in, of course. So too were certain favored Europeans. After a time, Japan and South Korea gained entry. As far as Washington was concerned, however, most others could fend for themselves.
Second, in defending this less-than-global order, American leaders by-and-large understood what Kagan refuses to acknowledge: The United States wielded limited power and influence. For the most part, these leaders sought to husband that power. Rather than “ready to act, with force, anywhere in the world,” they confined their actions to places and situations thought to matter.
At least they did most of the time, with Vietnam an especially telling exception. The Vietnam War was not uncertain and unsatisfying. It was stupid and catastrophic. An accounting of what the United States got wrong in Vietnam would require an essay longer than Kagan’s. The things that the United States got right in Vietnam can be reduced to a single sentence: Cynically proclaiming that “peace with honor” had been achieved, it left.
Now back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the intellectual forebears of Robert Kagan decried this decision to cut American losses. Leaving implied the acceptance of failure. Such a failure, they insisted, would hand the Communists a great victory. US credibility would suffer permanent damage. The Soviets would seize the initiative. Dominoes would topple. The United States would find itself isolated and alone.
None of those gloomy predictions — similar in tone to Kagan’s own forecast of “increasing conflict, increasing wars over territory, greater ethnic and sectarian violence, and a shrinking world of democracies” as the inevitable price for any lapse in American globalism — turned out to be accurate, of course.
Instead, the nation that Kagan describes as committed to doing “what no nation had ever been able to do” actually did what every great power does when it loses a war. It licked its wounds and left it to others to lick their own. That the United States made next to no effort to aid the Vietnamese and others adversely affected by the war speaks volumes about the definition of “global responsibility” that actually prevailed in Washington. But however cynical, leaving — more accurately abandoning — South Vietnam turned out to be a smart move. Doing so facilitated this nation’s military, economic and political recovery.
With the end of the Cold War, according to Kagan, Washington’s commitment to promoting a liberal world order reached new heights. The signature of US foreign policy during the 1990s was renewed activism. A series of armed interventions ensued. “All aimed at defending and extending the liberal world order,” Kagan writes, “by toppling dictators, reversing coups, and attempting to restore democracies.”
As Hemingway’s Jake Barnes might put it, “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” In fact, during the post-Cold War decade, with the Persian Gulf now the epicenter of US military activity, “extending the liberal world order” lagged well behind other, more pressing considerations. Priority number one was to ensure the safety and well-being of the distinctly illiberal Saudi monarchy. Priority number two was to contain Shiite-majority Iran. Fear of delivering Sunni-controlled Iraq into the hands of its own Shiite majority muted US enthusiasm for democratizing that country. If the choice was between stability and democracy, Washington preferred the former.
Still, if as Kagan regretfully notes (and recent polls affirm), Americans today show signs of being “world weary,” it’s not the events of the 1990s that have induced this weariness. No, if Americans appear disinclined to have a go at overthrowing Syria’s Assad or at restoring the Crimea to Ukrainian control, it’s due to their common-sense assessment of what US policy in very recent years has produced.
On this subject, astonishingly, Kagan has almost nothing to say. “A generation that does not remember the Cold War,” he observes, “but grew up knowing only Iraq and Afghanistan, is going to view America’s role in the world differently.” But what should this generation (not to mention generations that do remember the Cold War) make of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? What lessons does Kagan himself take from those wars? On this he is mute.
The reticence is uncharacteristic. Back in 1996, in a famous Foreign Affairs article co-authored with William Kristol, Kagan identified “benign global hegemony” as the proper basis for US policy. It was incumbent upon the United States to exploit its Cold War victory. Armed with a combination of “military supremacy and moral confidence,” Washington needed to put existing and potential adversaries in their place. The idea was “to make clear that it is futile to compete with American power.” Permanent dominion was the goal. To settle for anything less, Kagan and Kristol wrote, was to embrace “a policy of cowardice and dishonor.”
Even before September 11, 2001, Kagan was among those fixing their sights on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq as the place to validate this approach. The events of 9/11 reinforced his determination along with his sense of self-assurance. Writing with Kristol in April 2002, he declared flatly that “the road that leads to real security and peace” is “the road that runs through Baghdad.”
George W. Bush took that road. Yet much to his considerable chagrin, Bush discovered that it led to rather considerable unpleasantness. As it dragged on, the Iraq War exposed as hollow any American aspirations to global hegemony. Left behind when US troops finally withdrew was their reputation for military supremacy. Meanwhile as reports of prisoner abuse, torture and the killing of noncombatants mounted, American moral confidence lost its luster. As for the Iraqis themselves, although few Americans are inclined to take notice, today they enjoy neither security nor peace.
On all of these matters, Kagan chooses to stay mum. That is his privilege, of course. Yet in exercising that privilege he forfeits any claim to be taken seriously. As with members of the Catholic hierarchy who hoped that the clergy sex abuse scandal would just blow over or investment bankers who shrug off the economic collapse of 2008 as just one of those things, without accountability there can be no credibility.
William Buckley once remarked that the country would be better off governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University. Here’s a corollary: When it comes to foreign policy, the president of the United States would be better served to consult a few reasonably informed citizens from Muncie, Indiana, than to take seriously advice offered by seers such as Robert Kagan.
If experience has brought President Obama to share in this view — as his recent ruminations on foreign policy appear to suggest — then more power to him.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s alone, and presented here to offer a variety of perspectives to our readers.