Brave old world

Robert Kagan has come out with a new essay that is decidedly less revolutionary than his earlier “Of Power and Paradise,” which captured the mood of the 2003 transatlantic feud.

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.

2 thoughts on “Brave old world

  1. Anonymous

    Having just read the essay, I fear you\’ve attempted to erect a straw man. I\’m not entirely sure Kagan is really arguing that the US is that constrained by other powers. What he is actually doing is reconfiguring the neoconservative canon that he broadly identifies with. Indeed, his argument that America is not omnipotent is probably more a tactical than a theoretical realignment. The rest is still contained within: The need to promote democracy, the need to retain American primacy, and so on. Except he has perhaps broadened the existential threats facing America, away solely from Islamism now also to include a reawakened ideology of autocracy…


  2. I am not suggesting that he is abandoning the canon entirely, but acknowledging that the unipolar moment is over — and not because of Iraq, but because of structural changes in the balance of power at work since the end of the cold war.And I wouldn\’t go so far as to say that he calls autocracy an existential threat, at least not to the US.And while he still thinks democratization is important, there is a sense of prudence not found with other contributors to the neo-conservative canon.For example: \”The United States need not engage in a blind crusade on behalf of democracy everywhere at all times, nor need it seek a violent confrontation with the autocratic powers. For one thing, all the world \’s great powers share some important common interests, especially in the economic realm. Nor can an intelligent foreign policy ever be guided solely by one set of principles. Promoting democracy cannot and should not be the only goal of American foreign policy, any more than can producing wealth, fighting terrorism, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons, or any other national goal or ambition. There will be times when promoting democracy will have to take a back seat to other objectives. The job of statesmen is to determine when. But democracy should be as highly valued as the others, for it is, like them, of strategic importance. As the hard-headed Dean Acheson put it, Americans \’are children of freedom\’ and \”cannot be safe except in an environment of freedom.\”


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