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The Longing for War, Forever

June 19, 2008

Tags War and Foreign PolicyOther Schools of Thought

[The Return of History and the End of Dreams. By Robert Kagan. Alfred A. Knopf, 2008. 116 pages.]


In this instance, you can judge a book by its cover. The back of the dust jacket displays endorsements by two of our foremost warmongers. Both John McCain and Joseph Lieberman praise Kagan as an insightful analyst of foreign policy.

They are not altogether wrong. Kagan begins with a plausible contention: the notion that, with the demise of the Cold War, we have reached the "end of history" is mistaken.

In this view, the collapse of communism signaled that capitalism was the only viable economic system and liberal democracy the only acceptable political regime. All nations would accordingly become liberal capitalist democracies; and, once they did, peaceful trade would replace the bellicose rivalries of the past.

As Francis Fukuyama famously put it, "At the end of history, there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy." (p. 5)

Kagan notes that this outcome has not come to pass and gives no sign of doing so. Quite the contrary, the traditional rivalries of European and Asian power politics show no signs of abating. Kagan ably passes in review the main foreign policy objectives of Russia, China, Japan, India, and Iran, among others.

I should like to consider Kagan's survey with a question in mind that, as a later part of the book reveals, differs altogether from his concerns. Suppose that the United States wishes to pursue a policy of nonintervention. Unless attacked, we will not resort to military measures; and, as Washington and Jefferson advised, we will avoid entanglements in foreign quarrels. Given the manifest tendency of the state to expand in time of war, and the immense spending on "defense" in preparation for war, a noninterventionist policy is a clear requirement for a free society. Can such a policy succeed? It can, granted the truth of one fundamental premise: a noninterventionist policy must be capable of defending the United States against attack. 1

Opponents of nonintervention claim that we have no choice but to involve ourselves in the politics of the world. Unless we do so, we may face a threat, difficult or impossible to meet, from a hostile nation. Kagan's survey, much against his intention, shows that we have little to fear on this score.

Russia was of course America's principal rival during the Cold War; and under Putin's rule, that country is far from reconciled to the lesser status to which the hegemonic American government wishes to consign it. Russia opposed the inclusion of Eastern European states within NATO and does not shrink from harassment of newly independent former Soviet Republics like Georgia, now allied with the United States. Would an isolationist policy then open the United States to danger once Russia achieved its foreign-policy goals? Must we act against Russia, risking military confrontation in doing so?

It is not apparent why we must. On Kagan's account, Russia's aims are confined to dominance in the areas near to her. In what way does achieving this goal put America in jeopardy? Further, so far as NATO is concerned, Russia's aims are limited: "Having lost its former Warsaw Pact allies to the American-led alliance, Russian leaders now want to carve out a special zone of security within NATO, with a lesser status for countries along its strategic flanks" (p. 19).

Russia's policy, as Kagan describes it, seems largely confined to defense against the hostile and aggressive superpower ensconced on its borders. Given this fact, does it not make sense to extricate ourselves from our massive commitments to this part of Europe? Supporters of the present policy would no doubt urge that an American withdrawal would be soon followed by a Russian expansion, but that is mere speculation. Russia is no longer in the grip of an ideology that aims at worldwide transformation, in the style of Soviet Communism. (We shall later examine Kagan's partial challenge to this contention.)

Perhaps, though, the main threat to us comes not from Russia, our great rival of the past, but from China, a nation whose economy has been growing at an unprecedented pace. Does China seek to displace both Europe and America and become the world's foremost power? Kagan's expert assessment does not suggest this. Kagan emphasizes that China wishes to build up both its army and economy, along the lines of Japan's military rise that began in the late nineteenth century. "The Chinese have their own phrase for this: prosperous country and a strong army'" (p. 25).

As with Russia, though, Kagan fails to show that China's goals pose any threat to the United States. China aims by its military power to prevent the Malacca Straits from being closed to them. "The U.S. Navy guards the Malacca Straits … China's lifeline to Middle East oil. But these days Premier Hu Jintao worries about a 'Malacca dilemma'" (p. 32). Unless America seeks to close the Straits, this goal is one we can readily accept.

Far and away the most serious danger of an American-Chinese imbroglio lies in the problem of Taiwan. China refuses to recognize Taiwan as an independent nation, instead viewing it as a Chinese province. (The Taiwanese government takes the same position, but it holds itself to be the legitimate government of all of China. Some Taiwanese regard themselves as a separate nation, but parties representing that view have never been able to gain control of the government.)

The United States has made clear to China that it will forcibly resist any military assault on Taiwan. If we have guaranteed Taiwanese independence, how can one maintain that we face no foreign threat? If China aims to compel Taiwan's subjection to the mainland regime, is there not a very real danger of war between China and America?

There is indeed, but this is hardly a telling argument against noninterventionism. Why should America guarantee the independence of Taiwan? If Taiwan became subject to Chinese sovereignty, how would this weaken us, any more than the transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese control has done? If a danger of war between China and America exists, it is one that isolation from foreign power politics can at once end.

Against abandoning our military commitment to Taiwan there is an obvious argument, but I do not think it can be sustained. If the United States renounces its military commitment, then we will lose credibility. Should we find it necessary to make such a commitment in the future, we will find it difficult or impossible to do so. Our guarantees will not be believed.

This argument assumes what is in question. In order for the argument to work, it must be the case that it is bad that the United States, having lost credibility, finds it difficult to commit itself to the military defense of foreign powers. But the noninterventionist alleges that we should not enter into such commitments. In arguing against noninterventionism, it is hardly acceptable to take for granted just what this position questions.

If it is now said that even a noninterventionist must acknowledge the propriety of military commitments in some instances, i.e., when these are needed to repel foreign attack, the answer is straightforward. If the United States acts only to defend itself, then commitments made subject to that strict limit would still be believed. Those who wish to challenge us would realize that we have good reason to fulfill our promises. The chimera of credibility for its own sake serves only to involve us in commitments as useless as they are dangerous.2

The Bush administration has made much of the danger of Iranian nuclear weapons, and talk — one hopes it is only that — of a preventive strike to interdict the production of these weapons frequently arouses concern. Kagan's remarks on Iran serve, unintentionally I am sure, to allay anxieties about Iranian policy. Iran, he makes clear, is enmeshed in rivalries with other countries of its region. It is a Persian power in the midst of Arab nations, a position hardly conducive to regional hegemony, much less a direct threat to America.

Iran, too, fits the old model of national ambition. A proud and ancient civilization, Persian Iran is famous in its region for its sense of superiority… As a Shi'a nation in a region dominated by Sunni Arab governments, it has also felt under siege theologically. It is hardly surprising that Iran should desire to break out and assert itself, both out of calculation of interest and out of a desire for honor and respect. (pp. 46–7)

This veteran neoconservative does not so much as mention the bogey of a suicidal Iranian nuclear assault on Israel. Iran, throughout its long history, has displayed no penchant for national self-destruction.

More generally, all the nations that Kagan discusses must struggle with rival powers. China and India are hardly friends; Russia versus China, the European Union versus Russia, and China versus Japan are other sources of conflict that Kagan discusses in brief but knowledgeable fashion. No country, faced with such conflicts, has the potential to challenge the United States. What would a noninterventionist America have to fear? We would pose no threat to other nations, and they would be too busy with their own struggles to threaten us.

Kagan, an inveterate defender of war, of course does not see matters in this way. He suggests that the United States must maintain its hegemonic position in order to ensure that the world's seas remain open to us. If a regional conflict closed essential bodies of water, would this not pose a severe threat to our economic well-being?

If allowed to do so, China and India would contest for control of the Indian Ocean, Japan and China might contest for control of the waters between them, and in the event of war the crucial trade routes would be closed not only to these nations but to the entire world… If this hasn't happened in recent decades, it is not because the nations of the world have learned, evolved, and adopted new norms of international behavior. It is because the American navy dominates the oceans. (p. 96)

We have here a typical example of neoconservative logic. Because of a remote possibility, one moreover that the United States could handle if it arose, we must now follow a costly and dangerous policy. We must control the world's sea-lanes, lest in some unspecified conflict, the parties might close one of these seas to us.

Kagan has another argument for an activist American foreign policy. Russia and China reject democracy: their leadership aims at economic development under autocratic guidance. Will it not be likely that these and other autocratic nations ally against nations that reject autocracy, i.e., the democracies? They think that autocracy is desirable, and like the nations linked in the nineteenth century by the Holy Alliance, wish to promote its growth. In like fashion, the democracies wish to promote their form of government. Kagan suggests that, cutting across the national rivalries he has described, a struggle between democracy and autocracy is likely.

His arguments for this struggle are unconvincing. If a nation thinks autocracy best for itself, it does not follow that it seeks to spread it elsewhere. Kagan acknowledges this but responds, weakly, that "China and Russia may no longer export an ideology but they can and do offer autocrats somewhere to run when the democracies turn hostile" (p. 69).

The autocratic nations, as Kagan is constrained to admit, are generally insistent that the Westphalian principle of national sovereignty be observed.

This has become one of the great schisms in the international system dividing the democratic world and the autocracies. For three centuries, international law, with its strictures against interference in the internal affairs of nations, has tended to protect autocracies. Now the democratic world is in the process of removing that protection, while the autocrats rush to defend the principle of sovereign inviolability. (p. 65) 3

The struggle between democracy and autocracy that Kagan has conjured up reflects only his warmed-over Wilsonianism, not some inevitable struggle between nations governed differently. What can the purpose be of the alliance of democracies that Kagan suggests, if not to spread democracy to the benighted autocracies?

At one point, urging that we promote democracy in the Middle East — the Iraq disaster is evidently not enough for him — he asks, essentially, what else are we to do?

Should the United States support autocracy in the Middle East? That is the only other choice, after all. There is no neutral stance on such matters. (p. 100)

He falsely says that we must choose one of these alternatives, ignoring the fact that we need not deem it our business to determine the political systems of that region at all. Kagan has put his considerable intelligence in the service of those who would busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels.

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