End of Dreams, Return of History

By Robert Kagan
Hoover Institution Policy Review, July 2007

Edited by Andy Ross

Since 1945 Americans have insisted on maintaining military supremacy rather than a balance of power with other nations. They have operated on the conviction that liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government and that other forms of government are not only illegitimate but transitory. They have seen America as a catalyst for change in human affairs.

Russia and China share a common and openly expressed goal of checking American hegemony. But China and Russia cannot balance the United States without at least some help from Europe, Japan, India, or other nations. But Europe has rejected the option of making itself a counterweight to American power.

The United States continues to expand its power and military reach and shows no sign of slowing this expansion. The American defense budget has surpassed $500 billion per year, not including supplemental spending totaling over $100 billion on Iraq and Afghanistan. This level of spending is sustainable both economically and politically.

American predominance does not stand in the way of progress toward a better world. It stands in the way of regression toward a more dangerous world. The choice is not between an American-dominated order and a world that looks like the European Union. The future international order will be shaped by those who have the power to shape it.

Several large powers are now competing for regional predominance, both with the United States and with each other.

China is powerfully motivated to return to its traditional position as the preeminent power in East Asia.

Japan now appears embarked on a traditional national course.

Russia, like China and Japan, is moved by traditional great-power considerations.

India is focused most intently on Pakistan, but sees itself as an emerging great power on the world scene.

The European Union expresses an ambition to play a significant role in the world. Europeans seek to occupy the moral high ground in the world.

Islam is not a nation, but many Muslims express a kind of religious nationalism, and the leaders of radical Islam seek to establish a theocratic nation or confederation of nations that would encompass a wide swath of the Middle East and beyond.

American predominance prevents these rivalries from intensifying.

Such order as exists in the world rests not merely on the goodwill of peoples but on a foundation provided by American power. Even the European Union owes its founding to American power.

International order is shaped by configurations of power. The international order we know today reflects the distribution of power in the world since World War II, and especially since the end of the Cold War.

The current order offers no guarantee against major conflict. Such conflicts are more likely to erupt if the United States weakens or withdraws from its positions of regional dominance. This is especially true in East Asia.

In Europe, too, the departure of the United States from the scene could tempt Russia to an even more overbearing and potentially forceful approach to unruly nations on its periphery.

The United States has a vital interest in access to oil. It is unlikely that American leaders could or would stand back and hope for the best while the powers in the region battle it out.

The rulers of China and Russia believe autocracy is better for their nations than democracy. They believe it offers order and stability and the possibility of prosperity. They believe that a strong government is essential to prevent chaos and collapse.

Ideas that are becoming common currency in Europe and the United States all aim to provide liberal nations the right to intervene in the affairs of nonliberal nations. Neither Russia nor China has any interest in assisting liberal nations in their crusade against autocracies around the world.

By the turn of the century it was clear that the international community lacked a foundation of common understanding.

The United States should pursue policies designed both to promote democracy and to strengthen cooperation among the democracies. It should join with other democracies to erect new international institutions that both reflect and enhance their shared principles and goals.

The emphasis on democracy, liberalism, and human rights has strategic relevance in part because it plays to American strengths and exposes the weaknesses of the autocratic powers. It is easy to look at China and Russia today and believe they are simply getting stronger and stronger. But one should not overlook their fragility. These autocratic regimes face a problem of legitimacy.

China’s leaders are not just pretending when they claim their deep internal problems make them hesitant to pursue a more adventurous foreign policy. Even promoting nationalism as a means of enhancing legitimacy is dangerous. The Russian regime is also vulnerable to pressures from within and without. It would not be easy for a Russian leader simply to abandon all pretense and assume the role of tsar.

In the Middle East, some observers believe the Arab people are simply not ready for democracy. The prospect of electoral victories by Islamist movements seems to some the worst possible outcome.

After 9/11, most observers agreed that American support for autocratic regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia was the principal source of resentment of the terrorists who launched the attack on the United States.

There will always be the risk that pressure of any kind will produce a victory for radical Islamists. It may be worth taking in the Middle East, not only as a strategy of democracy promotion but as part of a larger effort to address the issue of Islamic radicalism by accelerating and intensifying its confrontation with the modern world.

The struggle between modernization and traditionalism is largely a sideshow on the international stage. The future is more likely to be dominated by the struggle among the great powers and between the great ideologies of liberalism and autocracy than by the effort of some radical Islamists to restore an imagined past of piety.

Today radical Islamists are the last holdout against these powerful forces of globalization and modernization. They seek to carve out a part of the world where they can be left alone. The tragedy for them is that their goal is impossible to achieve. Neither the United States nor the other great powers will turn over control of the Middle East to these fundamentalist forces.

One need only contemplate the American popular response should a terrorist group explode a nuclear weapon on American soil. No president of any party or ideological coloration will be able to resist the demands of the American people for retaliation and revenge.

When the cold war ended, it was possible to imagine that the world had been utterly changed: the end of international competition, the end of geopolitics, the end of history.

AR  (2007) Seems a sound enough analysis to me. Nationalism and autocracy are still big forces. But I would bet on the power of onrushing progress in science and technology to accelerate global polarization and hence concentration of power in the hands of the rich in America, Europe and East Asia. I was right on Communism and I think I'm about right here too. We may see a growth toward a world where globalized nanotech infrastructure creates a Borg collective.

(2010) Globorg