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
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.
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
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.
predominance prevents these rivalries from intensifying.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.