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January 30, 2012

Special Supersized Post: A Response to Kagan

by Mike M

Robert Kagan is wrong.  This is the simplest way to put the matter.  He is a thoughtful public intellectual of the first order; and his latest argument—an essay in The New Republic summarizing the argument of his new book—would, if taken seriously, misdirect US foreign and defense policy at the worst possible time.

There are many reasons why his argument fails.  The essay, for one thing, launches its broadsides almost entirely against a fleet of straw men.  Kagan makes reference to “pre-emptive superpower suicide,” to a danger of a decline-empowered withdrawal from world order so severe that it would engender a “collapse” of world order.  Yet no one besides Ron Paul is sailing in any such analytical vessels.  The real questions deal not with abandoned responsibilities, but with constrained ones—can America play a meaningful, but lesser, role?  Would such a shift wreck global order?  Of course not; but Kagan deals in absolutes—a traditional neocon trick, in fact:  the world is always a leaky vessel rapidly taking on water, with a crowd of Evildoers lurking in a submarine, ready to deliver the coup de grace.

An alternative view of America’s role is hardly unknown in US geopolitical history.  In fact from the Founders on down, many Americans have been uncomfortable with terms like primacy or dominance to describe US global posture.  It may be high time to return to humbler habits than suggested in Kagan’s thought-provoking, eloquent, but ultimately unsatisfying argument.

AND YET WE MUST, TO BEGIN, RECOGNIZE THE ESSAY’S BRILLIANCE.  Kagan is a trenchant thinker and an elegant writer.  Anything he publishes will reward a close reading, whether or not one agrees with the overall thesis, and this piece is no exception.  It’s filled with perceptive nuggets:  His off-hand riff on how hard it is to affect world events (like baseball, “if you fail 70 percent of the time, you go to the Hall of Fame”); his awareness that US policy has been more successful of late than grumpy critics acknowledge; his extended and well-documented—indeed the best-evidenced section in the piece—contention that America’s global influence isn’t nose-diving because it was never too great to begin with.

ANALYTICALLY, THOUGH, THERE ARE PROBLEMS.  One is contradiction.  If, for example, geopolitics is a dense network of events that any country can on its best day barely dent, how can he claim that “the present world order … reflects American principles and preferences”?  In his argument that US power was never so absolute in the past, Kagan writes, “Nor were the great majority of nations around the world trying to emulate the American system.”  Except he told us they were, because the postwar system was an American creation, build on the stanchions of American power, aircraft carriers, and apple pie, without which the whole edifice will collapse.  A reasonable middle ground—that the US did have huge influence post-1945, but that much of the world remained unaffected by our alliance- and institution-making—dilutes the argument that “the world” is only as stable as America wills it to be.

Another tension has to do with Kagan’s view of the emerging global order.  He suggests that US power did decline relative to other states after World War II—but those states were Germany and Japan, who had a stake in a stable world order.  And today?  Rising powers such as Brazil and India “are friendly”—which is a rather vague term if we are engaging in rigorous geopolitical analysis; India’s view of the US, it must be said, is more complex than “friends.”  Though Kagan does not make the argument, he must also imply that they (like Germany and Japan before them) desire prosperity, growth, stability—a system-tending, benign role.  But if this is the case, then he is endorsing a version of precisely the liberal internationalist argument he disparages at the beginning of the piece.  And if the world is becoming pock-marked with these kinds of states (as both the 2002 and 2010 US National Security Strategies argue, BTW), then doesn’t it stand to reason that a 30 percent cutback in US “predominance” wouldn’t scuttle the whole lumbering battleship of global order?

Such issues lead us to another problem with the argument—the reliance on presumption and assertion.  What’s striking about this piece is that most of the heavy analytical work is going on off-stage, in some great Proof Factory to which the reader is denied access.  All we see are the claims that emanate from it, and sometimes they’re not even explicit.

The essay presumes, for example, a context it does not prove—a world of rising competition, rivalry, trouble; something that will make for chaos without US heavy lifting.  But this presumption is never explained, analyzed, or defended against the medium-sized library of contrary arguments that point to the potential for reasonable stability and some cooperation against common threats.  (Economic interdependence, like-minded democracies, prosperity-oriented elites, nuclear weapons, the vanishing instrumental value of conquest, the rise of a territorial integrity norm, and so forth all arguably over-determine deterrence of major war.)  At one point Kagan suggests, offhandedly:  “If America’s future competitor in the world is likely to be China …”  Uh … What?  Is it or isn’t it?  Why would it be—or not?  What criteria will determine that outcome?  And if China turns out to be a bug, cuddly version of Singapore, the whole idea of a “world in chaos absent American orchestration” sort of goes down the drain, and along with it his thesis, doesn’t it?  What does chaos mean?  Competition?

But dark suggestions of emerging threats are the stock in trade of the neocon worldview (with which Kagan is commonly associated), and have been since 1989.  A great example is that hortatory 2000 tome Present Dangers, a catalogue of chapters laying out all the reasons the world was going to hell.  It wasn’t true then, and it isn’t true now.  In terms of major aggressor states, we confront fewer malcontents than at any time in recent memory.  Powerful recent research finds that the incidence of major conflict continues to decline.

PERHAPS THE BIGGEST ASSUMPTION in Kagan’s argument is that American power can be thrown around the globe with as much wanton abandon as ever.  He argues that states and peoples rely on American guardianship, and worry as it slips away.  It is true that post-Bush, the concern about retrenchment may be matching the concern over cowboyism.  Having said this, a dominant American role around the world simply cannot be sustained in its present form, for a number of interlocking reasons that Kagan doesn’t come to grips with.

And this gets to perhaps the single critical analytical flaw in the piece:  Kagan conflates “decline” with “abandoning the world.”  But the rejoinder cannot be placed in bright enough neon lights:  American domestic “decline” and the requirement to modify its global role are two different things, only indirectly related to one another.  The fact that America is not “declining” does not absolve us of the need to adjust our global posture.  This gets at the essential linkage Kagan is shooting at—people falsely claim decline, therefore, we must and should continue with our present role.  But he can be right about the first and still wrong about the second (a point that has also been made by Stephen M. Walt), and so there’s no “therefore.”  The reasons are several.

  • The demand of rising powers for a say-so.  Kagan has misdirected the argument.  What’s changing is not that America can’t control the world; of course it never could.  What’s changing is the degree of demand on the part of rising, proud, nationalistic other states and non-state actors for a voice in how things are run.  Evidence for this trend is everywhere—Turkey’s role on Iran and Syria; Brazil’s effort to build a regional political-economic bloc; South Africa’s interest in regional influence; Russia’s renewed effort to climb out of the post-Communist hole with dominance over its Near Abroad; efforts by a hundred powerful non-state agents to influence key issues.  The issue isn’t that America can’t get what it wants; the issue is that others are determined to join the party.  (Is there a dilemma here–nations and peoples still value the US role but want, at the same time, to seize influence from Washington?  Absolutely; but managing this tricky dilemma–rather than ignoring half of it and proceeding as if the world were awash in nostalgia for American power–is the leading challenge for US foreign policy today, which is why paradox is among its primary themes.)
  • Domestic factors with deterministic effect.  As Kagan perceptively points out, a lot will change real fast if America’s political system can get its collective head out of its stagnation and take decisive action on some key challenges.  But several roadblocks are set to impose unalterable constraints on US power:  the zero-sum economics of a persistently lower-growth, debt-ridden economic era; the divisive domestic redistributive debates of an era of burgeoning inequality.  Kagan makes much of the “relatively” low cost of empire, but when a zero-sum situation demands direct tradeoffs, imagine what we could do with $50 billion in annual domestic investments in infrastructure, renewable energy, and education.
  • Intensifying constraints on the projectability of US military force.  Countries like Iran and China have been rushing to build up “area denial” and “anti-access” capabilities.  Lots of nations are assembling powerful cyber capabilities as a sort of asymmetric deterrent.  North Korea now has a nuclear trump.  And long-term deployments confront quagmires of insurgencies that we are no longer in the mood to fight, according to the latest Defense Guidance.  The more time passes, the less we’ll be able to shove our carrier battle groups down the throats of intended victims.  Kagan disagrees:  In military matters, he writes, “the United States remains unmatched.”  This remains true at some all-purpose geopolitical level, but when he goes on to say, “American land and sea forces. … would defeat any competitor in head-to-head battle,” he is engaging in the worst sort of simplistic assertion.  Clearly he hasn’t had recent conversations with naval analysts about the Taiwan Straits, among many other scenarios.  What contingencies does he have in mind?  What battles?
  • Changing attitudes among the American people.  Recent poll evidence is unambiguous:  Americans across the political spectrum, including Republicans, want a constrained role abroad.  Kagan and others will depict this as a temporary response to tough economic circumstances.  Maybe; or perhaps it reflects the sense that a world bereft of urgent, territory-threatening dangers doesn’t require a globe-spanning American response-on-call as it once did.

WHICH GETS, IN FACT, TO ANOTHER QUESTIONABLE JUDGMENT in the essay:  That the post-war world was America’s willful creation, and will collapse like a house of cards in a stiff eastern breeze without Washington’s protective shell.  There is no question that America led in the creation of a dizzying array of post-war institutions, and did so under the influence of internationalist visions that were not exclusively grounded in Cold War deterrence of Moscow.  But as Kagan himself ably documents in many examples of rejections of the US model, the Western vision hardly gained universal acceptance.  What seems a more important truth is that, over time, a world of gradually unifying habits, structures and norms has emerged for organic, self-organizing reasons.  Democracy beats autocracy on efficiency grounds.  Human beings want dignity (Fukuyama was basically right).  Some rough version of free markets delivers more growth, innovation, national power.

The norms and institutions broadly endorsed by the West in 1945 have proven durable—and the international system has somewhat outgrown the need for constant American guardianship.  Yes, that system needs tending; but it has its own natural momentum, because most of the newly empowered states and non-state actors are interested in stuff like well-being, rule of law, stability, getting re-elected, and that flashy new sports car they saw at the auto show.  To the extent that this is true, there is less risk that the system descends into anarchy absent American aircraft carriers patrolling its margins.

IN FACT, TODAY’S SECURITY RISKS DON’T EVEN CENTER ON STATES.  Kagan talks of balancing China, and his language leans toward classical realpolitik-style geopolitics.  The pages read as if written on parchment.  They speak to a passing era, not the rising one.

The bet here is that in fifty years a largely state-centric geopolitical obsession will sound pretty passé; hardly all at once, but surely over time, state-centric security planning is giving way to a much more complex pattern of interactions among states and a dozen other kinds of agents.  Look at our recent “security” obsessions:  terrorism; cyber attacks, from quasi-state groups or even individuals; criminal gangs; state fragility.  Yes, Iran makes the list, but the existence of a few global malcontent holdouts against whom the entire world community is ranged hardly proves that global politics is about to spin out of control.

Look, as well, at our leading vulnerabilities.  Even with two or three fewer carriers, what state would consider an attack against the US homeland?  Much more likely are asymmetric attacks, incremental and gradual, using boundary-busting non-kinetic tools like cyber, economic terrorism, social media campaigns, individual terror acts, and other devilish tricks that challenge the resiliency of our hyperconnected postmodern networks and call into question our social resiliency.  More attention to that—and less worry about whether we can still project five or six carriers into the Taiwan Strait—will increasingly define the “security” agendas of American presidents.  Such issues don’t counsel isolationism; but their multilateral and frequently anonymous character will make “American predominance” largely useless in dealing with them.

AS FOR PRESIDENT OBAMA broadcasting that he’s reading and enjoying Kagan’s book:  This is a lesson in signs and signifiers, political agitprop of the first order.  A clarion call for hard-line international engagement, written by your opponent’s advisor—and you get there first, quietly signaling a far better ability to comprehend its nuances?  Goddamn political genius.

But it is, at the end of the day, politics and not strategy; although in the Oval Office these things merge, invariably, to the occasional frustration of the Scholar of Advanced Strategic Logic.  Still, the Obama Vision, as launched against Bush, qualified as it was, had to do with dropping the habitual Hawk approach, viewing the emerging twenty-first century as a new sort of challenge, and trying to lead in fresh ways.  Yet here we are, carrying around copies of a neocon author of the Iraq War, talking of new military bases in the Philippines to contain a China we’re not even sure is a threat, bending the Constitution to the breaking point and claiming global warmaking powers to clamp down on a significant but hardly existential terrorist threat, and giving Nobel Peace speeches about the ethical value of war.

Any president ought to be attracted to the “America is Not in Decline” thesis.  (President Obama is no latecomer to the theme:  rejections of declinism have been part of his repertoire since his first major foreign policy speech in 2007—“The American moment has not passed.”)  And Kagan’s reminder that we’ve never excelled at bending the world to our will must be comforting in light, for example, of our recent inability to get Pakistan to do much of anything.  But don’t Kagan’s baseline assumptions—the incompatibility of great power interests; the near-inevitability of a clash with China; the naiveté of a liberal internationalist vision—take a pick axe to all the essential elements of the national security vision President Obama has laid out since he was a candidate?

Making such a claim is tricky, because it’s been hard to figure out just what that vision actually is.  But one common thread would have to be a rejection of a nineteenth-century definition of world politics, either its essential nature or our response to it.  Obama’s definition of security challenges has ranged far and wide, drawing in humanitarian crises, cyber attacks, even global warming.  In his proposed responses, he has spoken eloquently, in for example the 2010 national security strategy, about engaging the world’s countries on the basis of “mutual interests and mutual respect.”  Yet the vision of American predominance at the heart of the book he’s now flashing around would narrow our field of vision to state-centric threats, and make the practical achievement of a mutual, collaborative approach to global problem solving vastly more difficult.

Exactly what message is this Kagan book supposed to be sending, and to whom?

THEN AGAIN, PERHAPS ONE COULD ASK, what’s the big deal?  You have to allow neocons like Kagan the philanthropy of their goals:  They aspire to peace and democracy; they’re not interested in an American boot on everyone’s face.  (Just the occasional, deserving face, such as Saddam’s.)  Meantime the argument here is not for a precipitous withdrawal or ultimate isolation or some such extremism.  America still ought to play a coordinating role even at a more modest posture.  There is, in fact, a lot of common ground; everyone wants the same goals, and everyone thinks America should lend a helping hand.  What’s the beef?

The beef is that a very fundamental decision does remain to be made, one that will go a long way to shaping America’s course–and character.  Down one road lies a strategic posture that aims to uphold American predominance without apologizing for the tensions it produces.  Down the other is a vision that admits the growing constraints on American power and influence and tries to work within them; that imagines shared responsibilities among states and other actors, nearly all of whom have interests in stability and solidifying many norms; and that conceives of this as a process shepherded, assisted and, yes, led by the United States—but in a less dominant, forceful, and expensive way than has been the case since 1945.  Leadership, after all, comes in many shapes.  The best leaders find ways to motivate groups to work together to achieve goals.  The most inspirational and effective leaders are not, generally, described as “predominant.”

This short response hasn’t described what exactly a “constrained” US role would look like.  There are many potential ways to get there.  The critical thing is to have the debate, not to continue along in old habits merely because their language strikes a familiar chord or because their alternative seems too risky.  America’s global role is going to adjust, one way or another.  We can do it carefully, by choice, and arrange the smoothest landing available.  Or we can persist as we are, digging our fingernails furiously into our comfortable seats at the head of many tables, until one day we look up and the room has taken up rocks in rebellion—or has simply stopped listening, and left the room.

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