In this new essay in Policy Review, Kagan comes to a realization about the nature of American power and world order that others have been arguing for years: the US, for all its power, has limited power to transform anything, and that calling the international system “unipolar” obscures more than it reveals. The only reason that this is worth calling attention to is that Kagan, of course, is a leading neo-conservative (as is this blog’s policy, I use this term descriptively, not pejoratively). He has been a prominent advocate of the use of American power to promote democratization, but in this essay it seems he recognizes that American power has limits after all — and so perhaps 9/11 did not change everything after all, revealing instead the limits on America’s ability to transform the world, which had been casually assumed during the 1990s.
To describe the world has he sees it, Kagan borrows a concept from the Chinese: one superpower, many great powers. The US remains, and will remain for decades to come, the single strongest power in the world on the basis of its economic dynamism and military strength (which is unlikely to change given US defense spending, and R & D as a portion of US defense spending). But the global system in which the US appears predominant is more a patchwork of regional systems and balances, with the US alone having a stake in all or most of them, often as an external balancer and maintainer of stability. The Bush administration’s policy in the Middle East explicitly departed from a balancing role in the region, disastrously, and seems determined to backtrack and restore some semblance of balance after deliberately overturning it. But the US role is broad but shallow: “Predominance is not the same thing as omnipotence. Just because the United States has more power than everyone else does not mean it can impose its will on everyone else.”
For all this, I find it odd that the Japanese government has ramped up its emphasis on the idealistic side of its alliance with the US, at the same time that Washington has been playing down its emphasis on values, democratization, human rights and the like. While the latter will always be a part of US foreign policy, they will clearly be stressed less in the coming years. Rather it should be the “public goods” aspect of the alliance that should be emphasized, because that is what the US brings to the Asia-Pacific; the value of the alliance is based on whether and how it contributes to providing a public goods, foremost among them stability, to the region.
UPDATE: Readers should be aware that I’m not recommending this essay because it’s particularly interesting or novel — far from it. In fact, if it had been written by anyone else I would not have bothered to look at it. But when a prominent proponent of the use of American power to promote American values reconsiders and suggests that there may, in fact, be limits to what the US can hope to achieve and that it will have the face the reality of a more competitive international system, I think it is worth noting. In fact, the questions that ought to be asked are why it took someone like Kagan so long to come around to this position, and whether any of his compatriots (and family members) share his epiphany.