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February 14, 2012

Kagan and the Character of Rising Powers

by Mike M

So Robert Kagan was on Diane Rehm today, talking up his new book.  It was a sober, mature conversation about world affairs and America’s role in them.  No histrionics, no name calling, a balanced view of the current administration, a nuanced appreciation for a bunch of questions.  Just the sort of public debate we need—admittedly of a particular view—on many issues of the day.  So two-and-a-half-cheers for Kagan.

Which still doesn’t mean a guy’s gotta agree with him.

A fascinating issue cropped up during his talk.  At one point he told Diane—and I’m paraphrasing here—I wouldn’t mind a multipolar world of democratic powers like India and Brazil and Japan and South Korea; it’s the role of China and Russia in this system that bothers me.  Which gets to a major theme in his earlier book, this bifurcated world he sets up between a democratic coalition of states (an “Axis of Democracies”) and the nasty autocracies.

But here’s where we need to do some thinking.  So OK, world politics is going to become 19th-century geopolitics reborn (so he says, as do some others).  Great powers vying for power.  In this model, the rising and established powers have certain objectives, which according to Recurring Great Power Realpolitik Theory are pretty much timeless.  At one point in the book he mentions “influence, wealth, security, status, and honor.”  States always want these things; the more power they have, Timeless Realpolitik tells us, the more they seek them.

Except democracies … or so Kagan believes.  Democracies are exempt from the overweening power temptations of Timeless Great Power stuff.  Which of course is more or less the democratic peace theory, which Kagan more or less endorses.  Which makes Kagan something other than a classic “ralist,” which we know.

But this seemingly simple little leap seems to open his broader theory to all sorts of uncomfortable questions–questions that get to the heart of how difficult it is to be a quasi-idealistic neocon and still hold fast to many of the underlying verities of realism (“the world is full of threats that require a great and good power to deter”).  An obvious one:  Suppose within five years trends in Russia shove Putinism aside and create a far more accountable system; would that cross a threshold in which US global influence is no longer the linchpin holding things together?

But some of these problems can work themselves out in less obvious ways.  For example:  Democratic norms, values and institutions get to the telling junction between objectives (or preferences) and behavior.  They shape how states will interpret their objectives.  But they are not the only factors that can have this effect.  Nuclear weapons do so; changing perceptions of how to achieve “influence, status, honor” in a globalizing market age can do it; and so forth.

So you can have one of two approaches.  Either you say, Once you reawaken global competition for influence, wealth, honor etc., it’s a free-for-all; or you say, no, in fact, states want those things, but in between the wanting and the acting there is a filter, and a dozen interpretive factors will determine how a state views a given objective and what it actions it takes to achieve it.

The only way you can forcefully distinguish democracies from autocracies is with the second approach.  But once you’re in that world, then you are, at least in theory, well out of the 19th century, because you can begin laundry-listing the factors that temper rivalry.  And even a non-democracy such as China can be affected, drawn into, entangled by those factors.  You need a very complex analysis, at that point, to survey that landscape between objectives and behavior; to assess, specifically and rigorously, the basis on which a power is interpreting its goals/preferences, and how those interpretations might evolve.

And this points to a different conclusion from the one Kagan offers.  Instead of persisting indefinitely in a political-military deterrence of emerging 19th-century rivals, we spend much more time tending to the global systems whose membership the rising powers so badly crave.  That, more than anything else, is the filter affecting behavior today, not US military deterrence, and it’s a hallmark of precisely the sort of interpretive perceptions Kagan’s own theory makes clear.

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