Kagan's Dreaming

Neoconservative pundits are skilled at producing impassioned pamphlets but not so good at devising policies that will enhance and revive American power. The Return of History is no different.

Neoconservative pundits have an unfortunate tendency to take a world characterized by shades of grey and reduce it to stark tones of black and white, with no room for nuance and complexity. This can produce impassioned pieces of rhetoric but is a poor way for a superpower to conduct strategy.

Robert Kagan's latest work, The Return of History and the End of Dreams, takes a series of problematic trends-among them the resurgence of Russia, the rise of China and the petering out of the third wave of democratization-and creates a Manichean narrative where the twenty-first century is to be defined by the titanic struggle between the children of democracy and the children of autocracy. It's a stirring, passionate call to arms. Unfortunately, it is a caricature of what's happening in the real world. And if a future John McCain administration were to use this slim volume as its guide to grand strategy, the damage to the global position of the United States could be catastrophic. Trying to shoehorn America's friends into an "axis of democracy" could very well wreck many of our country's vital relationships. And pushing countries like China and Russia to formalize their relationship and to actively develop a global anti-American bloc would be foolhardy. Thus far, their cooperation to put obstacles in the path of some U.S. objectives has been opportunistic and haphazard. Do we really want to facilitate the emergence of a Eurasian entente?

This is not to minimize or ignore the problems Kagan rightly calls attention to. Russia and China do not share a community of values with the United States nor do they share the American worldview, especially in how the international order should be constructed. In contrast to the world of 1994, other states now have considerably more wherewithal to put limits on our freedom of action. It is a world that has become much more frustrating for Americans who thought that the end of the cold war solved everything.

Indeed, one of the grave weaknesses of the book is the assumption that a country's "identity," as a "democracy" or as an "autocracy," is one of the most important factors-if not the paramount one-in determining its foreign policy-trumping even vital national interests.

Let's take the treatment of French President Nicolas Sarkozy. More pro-American than his predecessor, yes. But Sarkozy is committed to his vision of the trans-Atlantic relationship, and that does not include any sort of global association of democracies. He also has a different view of how France-and by extension Europe-should deal with Russia and some of the North African non-democracies. One year after his election, the Atlantic Community asked how "American" Sarkozy had turned out to be, and the record is decidedly mixed-and areas of disagreement with the United States have tended to be in areas where Sarkozy perceives there are critical French interests at stake.

A real test of the thesis that a country's commitment to a particular form of government drives its foreign policy is India. And yet, the discussion of India in this work is remarkably unnuanced. India is indeed a democracy-and it does seek a much closer relationship with the United States. But India also sees itself as a developing country, an Asian power, an emerging global power and as a leader of the non-aligned group. India shares with Russia and China a belief in the importance of a highly centralized form of government that makes the state the ultimate legitimizing authority (at its Constituent Assembly, it was proclaimed that India "is one integral whole, its people a single people living under a single imperium derived from a single source …")-even if it is willing to entrust this state to competitive elections. Along with much of the non-European world, India places a high premium on state sovereignty and territorial integrity.

So India's foreign policy is remarkably layered. Kagan cites approvingly India's joint naval exercises with the United States, Japan and Australia in 2007 as a sign of the growing alignment of democracies against the autocracies. That is only one facet, however. A good deal of India's military equipment used in those war games is produced jointly with Russia. India regularly sides with China against the West on a variety of issues relating to climate change and energy; it has, as of this writing, continued to oppose independence for Kosovo on the grounds of protecting state sovereignty and territorial integrity; India's foreign minister meets on a regular basis with his Russian and Chinese counterparts in the trilateral Russia-India-China (RIC) format and, for the first time, later this month, the four foreign ministers of the BRIC-Brazil-Russia-India-China-will meet in Yekaterinburg, Russia. And when it comes to acquiring the resources needed to fuel India's economic growth, New Delhi, no less than Beijing, is willing to deal with autocracies around the world. After Kagan's book went to press, India welcomed Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.