Superpowers Don't Retire, but Robert Kagan Should

Debunking a set of tired ideas concerning America's foreign policy.

Robert Kagan’s foreign policy essay in The New Republic is attracting much attention for its critique of American drift. “There is no democratic superpower waiting in the wings,” he announces, “to save the world if this democratic superpower falters.” Strong words. But it is worth recalling that this is not a novel thesis. Rather, it is Kagan’s latest variation on a theme that he has consistently sounded on behalf of American global activism.

In numerous books and articles since the early 1990s, Kagan has enunciated the quintessential neoconservative doctrine--the United States, as the sole remaining superpower, should assume an ambitious, interventionist and moralistic leadership in world affairs. At the same time, he has deprecated the realist approach to foreign affairs, with its emphasis on limits, restraint and discrimination. For Kagan realism appears to be synonymous with defeatism: “Strangely enough,” he writes in his latest essay, “it [America’s retreat] is an intellectual problem, a question of identity and purpose.”

But how strange is it in the aftermath of Iraq and Afghanistan? Can America’s reorientation really be reduced to a matter of willpower and pusillanimous elites? Has Kagan’s credo, in fact, ever been persuasive?

Perhaps no one has analyzed that credo more acutely than Owen Harries. As editor of The National Interest from 1985-2001, the Welsh-born Australian conservative published Kagan. As a commentator he disagreed with him from the mid-1990s onwards with increasing vigor.

In 2004, on the eve of Kagan’s trip Down Under, Harries told The Australian newspaper: “For my money, Kagan is easily the best of the neoconservatives on foreign policy. His knowledge is deep, his thinking penetrating, his writing elegant, and he’s a brilliant polemicist.” But Harries added: “It’s such a pity that he has got things so wrong in his advice to the Bush administration.”

Harries was referring to the doctrine of preventive war, democracy promotion and aggressive unilateralism that culminated in the disastrous decision to invade Iraq in 2003, which Harries and most realists, including John Mearsheimer, Stephen Walt and Brent Scowcroft, opposed. But the divergence between realist and neoconservative views concerning the direction of post–Cold War foreign policy was evident well before September 11. And it was Harries, nearly thirty years Kagan’s senior, who became the chief antagonist of neoconservative foreign policy thought throughout the 1990s.

“A shrewd analyst of world politics and a graceful writer, Harries scored a number of telling points,” recalled current TNI editor Jacob Heilbrunn in They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons, and he “turned out to be one of the most impressive figures in the neoconservative movement because he illuminated its flaws.”

In the Fall 1995 issue of TNI, for example, Harries pointed to two serious flaws.

First, Harries highlighted Kagan’s failure to recognize the changed circumstances of the post–Cold War era. He was fond of quoting both John Maynard Keynes (“When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?”) and Edmund Burke (“The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.”) With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of Soviet Communism, the “facts” of the international scene had changed dramatically and the “circumstances” were conducive to a new way of looking at the world.

For Harries, an ardent Cold Warrior, the United States rightly adopted an activist, assertive, global policy in response to the geopolitical and ideological threat represented by the Soviet Union. When that superpower collapsed, and the threat disappeared, however, it was logical that such an enormous change in circumstances not only justified, but also demanded, a profound reassessment of foreign policy--a scaling down and a reordering of policies and priorities in Washington.

Harries was hardly alone in thinking that “if the Cold War was a happening of such monumental, compelling importance, one that profoundly shaped American policies and priorities, then surely the end of the Cold War was a happening of comparable importance, calling for an equally profound reassessment of American policies and priorities.” Many dedicated Cold Warriors and leading foreign affairs experts, Republican and Democrat alike, had been arguing that, having won a great victory, it was time for America to embrace a more restricted view of the nation’s interests and commitments.

In The National Interest in 1990 (which Kagan quotes in his recent essay), Jeane Kirkpatrick thus argued:

“With a return to ‘normal’ times, we can again become a normal nation – and take care of pressing problems of education, family, industry and technology... It is time to give up the dubious benefits of superpower status and become again an.... open American republic.”

William Hyland, editor of Foreign Affairs at the time, wrote: “What is definitely required is a psychological turn inwards.” Nathan Glazer proposed that it was “time to withdraw to something closer to the modest role that the Founding Fathers intended.” And according to Henry Kissinger, the definition of the U.S. national interest in the new era would be different from the Cold War: “more discriminating in its purposes, less cataclysmic in its strategy and above all, more regional in its design.”