From the June 30, 2008 National Review
June 19, 2008
by John Fonte
The Return of History and the End of Dreams, by Robert Kagan (Knopf, 128 pp., $19.95)
Robert Kagan has produced a brief and lucid book on world politics in the 21st century, a well-written manifesto clearly aimed at influencing U.S. foreign policy. (It features blurbs from John McCain, Joseph Lieberman, and Richard Holbrooke.) Some conservatives will, no doubt, be attracted by Kagan's clarity; his robust distinctions between democrats and autocrats; and his realistic recognition of the limits of negotiations with bad guys--all presented in limpid prose, making it a delight to read. Nevertheless, as we shall see, conservatives should be wary of internalizing Kagan's core narrative as a blueprint for understanding America's role in the world, past, present, and future.
In general, Kagan posits three overlapping conflicts that will face world politics: first, a return of international competition ("for status and influence") among great powers "with Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India, Iran, the United States, and others vying for regional predominance"; second, the reemergence of the "old competition between liberalism and autocracy"; and third, the eruption once again of "an even older struggle" between the forces of radial Islam and modern secular regimes and cultures.
Kagan begins with the premise that Francis Fukuyama's original 1989 thesis of the "end of history"--that in the future there will be "no serious ideological competitors" to liberal democracy--is outdated. This is so, Kagan tells us, because "autocracy" in the form of China and Russia is "making a comeback" and is now challenging liberal democracy ideologically as well as materially. Moreover, the autocrats in Beijing and Moscow are not simply opportunists, but believe autocracy is good for their nations. Although, unlike the Communists of old, they are not seeking to export their ideology to the West, they could, Kagan insists, provide a model of successful autocratic rule that could be emulated by developing countries.
Kagan rightfully decries the smug "ideological and economic determinism" of the early post-Cold War years. Ideological determinism insisted that "history moves in only one direction," toward inevitable human progress. Economic determinism posited that economic growth and material wealth must lead to political freedom and peaceful intentions toward other states. Kagan notes that these deterministic predictions have not been borne out (at least so far) in the case of China and Russia. Nor, for that matter, were they borne out in the cases of the Kaiser's Germany, Hitler's Germany, or--as Hamilton explained in Federalist 6--various other economic powerhouses throughout human history.
Kagan declares that China and Russia have developed a new model. They have shown that it is possible to achieve economic progress, be involved in the global economy, and, at the same time, remain undemocratic and often uncooperative with the West. Moreover, Beijing and Moscow are enabling the radical Islamist regime in Tehran, the anti-democratic government in Damascus, the terrorists of Hezbollah, and anti-democrats elsewhere.
Radical Islamists, Kagan states, can create "horrendous damage," but they cannot achieve their goal of sweeping "infidel accretions" from the Islamic world--they "cannot win." Therefore, Kagan believes, radical Islam "may ultimately have less impact on international affairs than the struggle among great powers and between the forces of democracy and autocracy." Nonetheless, a concerted effort among the great powers to deal with radical Islam is unlikely to work because China and Russia will use the Iranian regime, Syria, and Hezbollah to gain geopolitical advantage against the United States.
Kagan's description of the three conflicts of world politics that will "combine and collide" in the 21stcentury—great-power rivalries, ideological tensions between autocracy and democracy; and the violent challenge of radical Islam--contains some important truths. A crucial fourth conflict, however, is missing. This conflict, which will likewise "combine and collide" with the other three, is the struggle between the forces of transnational global governance and the liberal-democratic nation-state.
Ideologically, Kagan envisions a contemporary bipolar world with Western democracy locked in conflict with "Eastern" autocracy. This struggle between liberalism and autocracy has continued steadily since the late-18th-century Enlightenment. It has resumed in recent years with the rise of autocratic China and Russia, and thus "history" or ideological conflict has returned. The Enlightenment project promoted modernity, secularism, liberalism, and democracy and was resisted by the autocratic, reactionary powers of Europe that sought (in Kagan's words) the "maintenance of a monarchical and aristocratic order against the liberal and radical challenges presented by the French and American revolutions." The United States, Kagan tells us, has been on the secular, liberal, Enlightenment side of this conflict since its beginnings.
But this portrayal of the ideological conflict is misleading in terms of both contemporary world politics and American history. In today's world, Western progressives (who are "transnational progressives") have launched--in the name of utopian schemes of "global governance"--a sustained attack on the ideas of national democratic sovereignty, constitutional supremacy, and democratic majoritarianism within the nation-state. So much should be clear from just skimming the Harvard Law Review or Foreign Affairs. Western transnational progressives advocate international law and supranational institutions (e.g., the International Criminal Court) that supersede the authority of liberal-democratic nation-states.
The elites of the European Union are at the center of the ideological campaign that denigrates the sovereign democratic nation-state and promotes transnational authority. Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton's memoir, Surrender Is Not an Option, nicely captures his battles with the "EU-crats" over both practical politics and democratic ideas. At the same time, American universities and law schools are, in the main, closer to the Euro-transnational view than to the pro-national-sovereignty stance of the American center-right. Kagan is intimately familiar with U.S.-European tensions—he wrote a book (Of Paradise and Power) on the subject--but he chooses in this new volume to ignore the conflict within America (and within Europe) between adherents of global governance and supporters of democratic national sovereignty.
Kagan could well be right that "global competition between democratic and autocratic governments will become a dominant feature of the 21st-century world." At the same time, however, the conflict between the forces of global governance and the nation-state will surely intensify. In American terms, this means a battle for supremacy between international law and the U.S. Constitution. Thus, we will witness not simply a conflict between a democratic West and an anti-democratic "East," but a conflict within the West as well, between a democratic and a post-democratic West. As Mark Plattner, vice president of the National Endowment for Democracy, wrote in his recent book, Democracy Without Borders?: "We cannot enjoy liberal democracy outside of the framework of the nation-state."
Kagan's view of the 21st century is incomplete because his view of the 18th century is oversimplified. He speaks of "the" Enlightenment, yet, as many conservative thinkers--including Gertrude Himmelfarb in The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments--have pointed out, there is more than one "Enlightenment." The moderate Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment differed considerably from the more radical, utopian, and anti-Christian French Enlightenment of the philosophes. If the French Revolution was the child of the French Enlightenment, the American Revolution was more the product of the Anglo-Scottish Enlightenment and of Continental moderates like Montesquieu.
By portraying the 18th century through a bi-polar framework (secular-liberal Enlightenment vs. autocracy), with America firmly on the liberal side, Kagan misinterprets the foreign policy and ideology of the early Republic. As heirs to the moderate Enlightenment, American leaders (including Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and Jay) opposed the radical-utopian Enlightenment (Adams debated Condorcet) and the French revolutionary government (we had a quasi naval war with France). The American Federalists were especially offended by the French radicals' hostility to Christianity.
In the 18th century, as in the future we face today, the ideological conflict was not bi-polar, but tri-polar. That is to say, it was not (and will not be) simply "democrats vs. autocrats" (as Kagan would have it), but American constitutional democrats battling both autocrats (Chinese authoritarians, radical Islamists) and radical utopians (whether supporters of the French Revolution in the past or of global governance in the future).
Kagan states that ideally "the present American-dominated order may be inferior" to "a more perfect international liberal order in which nations are more equal, more liberal, more democratic, more committed to peace, and more obedient to the dictates of international rules and norms." But, he notes, there is currently no realistic alternative to American leadership of the world system.
Kagan is a liberal hawk. Conservatives are not so much concerned with nations being "more obedient to the dictates of international rules and norms"; they are suspicious of the global elites who develop those "norms and rules" and who claim to speak for "world opinion." Clearly, Kagan has written a liberal-hawk manifesto in the hard Wilsonian tradition--"the Enlightenment in arms." This is a respectable pedigree that is often allied to conservatism, but it is not conservative. A conservative foreign-policy vision would (as Reagan did) temper Wilsonianism with a Jacksonian emphasis on American sovereignty, a Hamiltonian concern for our concrete national interests, and a moral stance more in keeping with America's unique religiosity, rather than accommodate the militant and utopian secularism of European and transnational progressive elites.
John Fonte is a Senior Fellow and Director of Hudson's Center for American Common Culture.
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