The Critique of Pure Kagan
Robert Kagan, The World America Made  (New York: Knopf, 2012), 160 pp., $21.00.
FOR NEARLY two decades, Robert Kagan has opined about U.S. foreign policy. The author of five books and many articles, including a monthly column in the Washington Post, he is a fixture in the foreign-policy establishment with bipartisan influence in Washington. A foreign-policy adviser to Mitt Romney today, as he was to John McCain in 2008, he even has found favor in the Obama administration. He also can boast popular appeal: Of Paradise and Power  (2003) spent more than two months on the New York Times best-seller list. Active in small neoconservative organizations, he was one of only two people (the other was his frequent coauthor William Kristol) to have signed all thirteen letters and public statements issued by the Project for a New American Century, and he is on the board of directors of its successor organization, the Foreign Policy Initiative. But he also has managed to thrive within large, established think tanks such as the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Brookings Institution, where he is currently a senior fellow.
Kagan’s latest offering, The World America Made, is a cri de coeur directed at a foreign-policy establishment beset by doubts and a wider public harboring even deeper ones. In both tone and substance, the book is aimed at soothing American anxieties over the nation’s fiscal and geopolitical future. In some respects, his diagnosis is sound—the scope of American decline is often exaggerated and not to be celebrated. But in several critical respects, Kagan’s prescriptions for the present and future of U.S. foreign policy are shortsighted at best, harmful at worst.
The most important of these is his rejection of calls for the United States to reduce military spending, recalibrate its global commitments and restrain its interventionist impulses. Kagan scorns the suggestion that we are entering a post-American world with multiple power centers as opposed to the single U.S. hegemon. On one hand, dismissing claims that America is in decline, he points to past periods of soul-searching and self-doubt where public sentiment was far more pessimistic and from which America emerged stronger than ever. On the other hand, he challenges those who look upon American decline with equanimity and questions their “expectation, if not assumption, . . . that the good qualities of [the present world] order—the democracy, the prosperity, the peace among great powers—can transcend the decline of American power and influence.”
He advises the United States to continue on its present course, maintain its global posture, and retain or expand alliance relationships negotiated during the Cold War. But here is a key point: Kagan concedes that Americans could opt for a different course. We could shed our global burdens, focus on rebuilding the country’s strength at home and expect—or merely hope—that others will uphold the liberal order as American power retreats. That we are afforded such a choice today is itself a historical anomaly—and something of a luxury. “Someday,” Kagan suggests, “we may have no choice but to watch it drift away.” In the meantime, we don’t have to—and he hopes that we do not.
It is a familiar refrain. But, as with Kagan’s earlier works, The World America Made combines questionable international-relations theory, questionable economics and questionable politics. To the extent that Kagan has had a hand in building today’s world, he has constructed it around too much military capacity in the hands of a single power and too little capacity in the hands of nearly everyone else. The result is a wide and growing gap between the promises Washington has made to protect others from harm and America’s political will to honor those promises if they ever come due.
The world is both more complicated and more durable than Kagan imagines. The United States does not need to police the globe in order to maintain a level of security that prior generations would envy. Neither does the survival of liberal democracy, market capitalism and basic human rights hinge on U.S. power, contrary to Kagan’s assertions. Americans need not shelter wealthy, stable allies against threats they are capable of handling on their own. Americans should not fear power in the hands of others, particularly those countries and peoples that share common interests and values. Finally, precisely because the United States is so secure, it is difficult to sustain public support for global engagement without resorting to fearmongering and threat inflation. Indeed, when Americans are presented with an accurate assessment of the nation’s power relative to others and shown how U.S. foreign policy has contributed to a vast and growing disparity between what we spend and what others spend on national security—the very state of affairs that Kagan celebrates—they grow even less supportive.
KAGAN’S FLAWED analysis begins with a fundamental misconception about the international system and the relations of states within it. His worldview perceives two types of countries: those that are congenitally incapable of dealing with urgent security challenges on their borders or in their respective regions; and a crafty, rapacious few who are forever scheming to intimidate, disrupt or simply devour the hapless and the helpless. Within this dichotomy, however, is a third sort of country, the only one of its kind. The United States enjoys a privileged place in the world order, explains Kagan. Its power is unthreatening because it is relatively distant from others. And, according to Kagan, the costs of this power are easily borne by the wealthiest country in the world.
Kagan’s world order “is as fragile as it is unique,” and “preserving [it] requires constant American leadership and constant American commitment.” The message today is consistent with that from sixteen years ago when he and William Kristol first made the case for what they called “benevolent global hegemony.”
In other respects, however, the story that emerges from The World America Made is subtly different. Anticipating a rising tide of pessimism and gloominess within the American electorate, Kagan at times resorts to the tone of a pep talk. Whereas he once highlighted the “present dangers” confronting the United States (in a volume coedited with Kristol, published in 2000), he now says the world today isn’t as dangerous as it once was—during the Cold War, for example, or at other periods in American history. Looking ahead, he says, China has its own set of problems, is unlikely to make a bid for regional hegemony and is unlikely to succeed if it tries. Likewise, we shouldn’t be overly frightened by China’s growing economic power, Kagan explains, which will lag well behind that of the United States for years. Other global challenges are more modest still.
The object of these relatively optimistic assessments is to convince Americans that they can manage to hold on to their position of global dominance for many years without bankrupting themselves financially or exhausting themselves emotionally. This line of argument cuts against Kagan’s other claims, however, both in this volume and elsewhere, that the United States should spend even more on its military and that Washington should use this military more often, and in more places, than it has in the recent past.
In other critical ways, Kagan’s assessment of global politics has remained remarkably consistent, even if the tone of this current volume is slightly less alarmist. In the past, he has argued that the world would collapse into a brutal, Hobbesian hell if the U.S. military were smaller and fought in fewer wars or if the U.S. government were less inclined to extend security guarantees to other countries. Today, he merely suggests such a scenario is possible and warns it would be foolish to gamble on the outcome.
Kagan’s too-casual rejection of any reasonable alternative to American hegemony reveals the crucial flaw in his reasoning, however, given that he predicts we might not be afforded a choice in the future. If the United States can’t sustain its current posture indefinitely, a wiser long-term grand strategy would set about—preferably now—easing the difficult and sometimes dangerous transitions that often characterize major power shifts. Rather than continuing to discourage other countries from tending to their security affairs, the United States should welcome such behavior. Kagan’s reassuring tone—about China’s unique vulnerabilities, for example—actually buttresses that competing point of view. After all, if a distant, distracted hegemon like the United States can manage the challenge posed by China, and if it can do so while preventing wars and unrest in several other regions simultaneously, then Asian nations would be at least equally capable of accomplishing the same task given that they will be focused solely on their own security primarily in just that one region.
KAGAN REFUSES to consider this possibility. He writes that the “most important features of today’s world—the great spread of democracy, the prosperity, the prolonged great-power peace—have depended directly and indirectly on power and influence exercised by the United States.” It follows, therefore, that the world would become considerably less democratic, less prosperous and less peaceful if the United States were to withdraw militarily from Europe, Asia and the Middle East.
Of course, he can’t actually prove either claim to be true, and he concedes as much. Instead, he bases his case on a particular set of beliefs about how the world works and about the United States’ unique characteristics within that system. Kagan asserts that the world requires a single, order-inducing hegemon to enforce the rules of the game and that America must perform this role because its global economic interests demand it. He also believes that the United States has a special obligation, deriving from its heritage as a “dangerous nation,” to spread democracy and human rights. What’s more, America’s military might is the essential ingredient that leads to its international influence. The spread of democracy and market capitalism, Kagan claims, is made possible by U.S. power but would retreat before autocracy and mercantilism if that power were seen to be waning. The attractiveness of America’s culture, economics and political system—the vaunted “soft power” in Joseph Nye’s telling—is fleeting and would dissipate if Americans were to commit what Kagan calls “preemptive superpower suicide.”
How other nations respond to U.S. power also follows a familiar pattern. In Kagan’s telling, allies will bandwagon with us if we are committed to defending them but bolt like frightened racehorses at the first sign of trouble. Would-be challengers will back down in the face of U.S. power but rush to exploit opportunities for conquest if Uncle Sam exhibits any hesitation or self-doubt. And Kagan simply dismisses any suggestion that other countries might chafe at American dominance or fear American power.
His ideas represent something close to the reigning orthodoxy in Washington today and for the past two decades. Inside the Beltway, there is broad, bipartisan agreement on the basic parameters of U.S. foreign policy that Kagan spells out. This consensus contends that the burden of proof is on those who argue against the status quo. The United States and the world have enjoyed an unprecedented stretch of security and prosperity; it would be the height of folly, the foreign-policy establishment asserts, to upend the current structure on the assumption that an alternative approach would represent any improvement.
But such arguments combine the most elementary of post hoc fallacies with unwarranted assumptions and idle speculation. Correlation does not prove causation. There are many factors that could explain the relative peace of the past half century. Kagan surveys them all—including economic interdependence, evolving norms governing the use of force and the existence of nuclear weapons—and concludes that U.S. power is the only decisive one. But, once again, he concedes that he cannot prove it.
EVEN THOSE inclined to believe Kagan’s assessment of the international system and America’s role in it must contend with one central fact that Kagan elides: the costs of maintaining the status quo are substantial and likely to grow. That is because Washington’s possession of vast stores of power—and its willingness to use that power on behalf of others—has created an entire class of nations that are unwilling to defend themselves and their interests from threats. The data clearly show a vast and growing gap between what others pay for defense and what Americans pay to defend them.
The critical question, then, centers on differing perceptions of this capability imbalance. Because U.S. security guarantees to wealthy allies have caused them to underprovide for their own defense, they also have less capacity to help the United States in its time of need—either now in Afghanistan or in a theoretical future contest with China or a resurgent Russia.
Kagan contends other countries will choose not to defend themselves and their interests, but at other times he acknowledges it is precisely the presence of American power that has discouraged them from doing so. In the end, it is clear Kagan doesn’t want other countries to defend themselves because, he says, they just can’t be trusted to get the job done. Most will be content to let security challenges grow and fester on their borders, or within them, leaving the United States—and the United States alone—with the task of cleaning up the mess. As he sought to explain in 2003, Americans should “be more worried about a conflagration on the Asian subcontinent or in the Middle East or in Russia than the Europeans, who live so much closer,” because the harm from other countries’ failure to act will inevitably threaten U.S. security.
Kagan correctly argues that the United States could afford to shoulder the burdens of defending others. The costs of U.S. foreign policy are neither insurmountable nor unprecedented. But his case that we should do so is marred by games he plays with statistics in a transparent bid to strengthen his argument.
For example, citing figures compiled by the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, he argues that the U.S. share of global GDP “has held remarkably steady, not only over the past decade, but over the past four decades.” In fact, the U.S. share of global GDP is declining, though modestly. The USDA data set clearly shows that the U.S. share of global output peaked during the post–Cold War period at 28.38 percent in 1999 and has since fallen to 25.48 percent. During that same period, China’s share rose from 3.44 percent to just over 8 percent.
A different data set prepared by the International Monetary Fund paints a more vivid picture of America’s relative decline. From a post–Cold War era peak of 32.1 percent in 2001, the U.S. share of global GDP had fallen to 21.7 percent by 2011 and was projected to fall to 21 percent by 2017.
More telling still are the statistics showing how the U.S. share of global military spending has risen from less than 30 percent at the end of the Cold War to nearly 48 percent today. Per capita spending exhibits a similar trend. According to data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ annual reports, The Military Balance, in 2010 Americans spent 71 percent more (in inflation-adjusted terms) on national security than they did in 1998, whereas other countries have either increased spending only slightly or reduced their spending in real terms over that same period.
Taken together, these trends undermine Kagan’s contention that U.S. military spending has not grown more burdensome for American taxpayers. Still, as a purely economic matter, such spending isn’t unsustainable. The U.S. federal debt and deficit don’t require Americans to adopt a more restrained foreign policy. An age of austerity in Washington, should it ever come to pass, would not necessarily translate into a smaller military with fewer missions.
But such a shift would be wise on its merits. A world order that was less dependent on U.S. military power would likely result in a greater number of countries with more military capability and a greater willingness to use it. Most Americans, contrary to Kagan’s claims, would welcome this if it meant a more manageable burden for America.
Kagan asserts that despite “their misgivings, most Americans have also developed a degree of satisfaction in their special role.” Yet polling data show precisely the opposite: most Americans want desperately for others to shoulder the burdens of defending themselves and their interests. For example, 79 percent of voters told pollster Scott Rasmussen that we spend too much money defending others; a mere 4 percent think we don’t spend enough. A CNN survey last year found that just one in four Americans relished the United States’ being the world’s “policeman,” and a separate Rasmussen poll concluded that a mere 11 percent of likely voters support that mission.
But Kagan and other advocates of U.S. benevolent global hegemony contend Americans must play this role of global policeman. It would be irresponsible, they say, to stake the future of the present world order on the supposition that other countries would assume some of the burdens of global governance that Americans shed. Kagan assumes other countries would not because they have not done so since at least the end of the Cold War. But this ignores the extent to which U.S. foreign policy—Kagan’s foreign policy—has discouraged them from doing so, a point he regularly celebrates. He points especially to Germany and Japan, whose choices not to rearm after World War II were heavily influenced by Washington. “Had the American variable been absent,” he concludes, “the outcome would have been different.”
This expansive global role that Kagan champions may have made sense during the early days of the Cold War, when the countries of Western Europe and East Asia were shattered and we were confronting a common enemy. But the world has changed. The strategy Kagan advocates has needlessly and unfairly burdened Americans with the costs of maintaining global peace, and it could—and should—have been altered long ago. Yet if Robert Kagan has his way, it never will be.
AS NOTED above, Kagan is anxious to emphasize that our military power is not particularly costly. His preferred technique for demonstrating this fact is to refer to military spending as a share of GDP. And it is true that the United States has in the past sustained a higher level of military spending when measured against the nation’s total output; likewise, military spending as a share of the federal budget has traditionally been far higher than it is today.
But there are times when even he must admit that global hegemony isn’t cheap. For one thing, in inflation-adjusted dollars, the base military budget for 2012, $531 billion (excluding the cost of the wars), exceeds the average annual level of Pentagon spending during Ronald Reagan’s eight years in office, $524 billion, and is well above the post–Cold War average of $452 billion. When confronted with such facts, Kagan reverts to a different sort of argument; maintaining our current posture might be costly, he avers, but the likely alternative world that would emerge after U.S. retrenchment would be costlier still.
Indeed, if Kagan were to have his way, the United States likely would spend even more on its military than it has over the past two decades. How much more? We can’t know for certain, but he is advising Mitt Romney, who has pledged to spend at least 4 percent of GDP on the Pentagon’s base budget, plus whatever more is needed to fight the occasional wars. According to my calculations based on five-year defense plans and ten-year OMB projections, Romney’s budget would result in $2.5 trillion in additional spending over the next ten years. Military spending, pegged to 4 percent of GDP in 2022, would top $1 trillion, 60 percent higher than under President Obama’s latest budget projections.
Kagan is correct to point out that the defense budget didn’t cause the deficit and that cutting the defense budget wouldn’t cure it. But he goes too far when he argues that military spending is all but irrelevant to the nation’s fiscal crisis. U.S. military spending, including war costs, officially peaked in 2010 at $690.9 billion. A more complete accounting of all security-related spending in that same year, including the Departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs, totaled above $800 billion, or 23 percent of total federal spending—hardly an insignificant share.
But it is the vast disparity between what Americans spend and what others spend, and the clear trends showing a widening gap between the two, that poses the greatest challenge to Kagan’s world order. American hegemony isn’t economically unsustainable, but it might be politically unsustainable.
In Robert Kagan’s world, most of what Americans spend on the military isn’t intended for their defense but rather for the defense of others. It is no wonder, then, that most Americans are deeply dissatisfied with the present state of affairs. But the discontent goes deeper. Some Americans are fearful of global trade or suspicious of foreigners who would come to the United States to “steal” American jobs. Kagan, to his credit, is an advocate for global trade and is anxious to turn back the xenophobia and bigotry that drive some Americans to want to cut off all access to the outside world. Other aspects of this backlash against U.S. foreign policy are driven by a lack of understanding of the issues and confusion around some basic facts—for example, the widespread though mistaken belief that foreign aid constitutes a large share of the federal budget.
Correcting these misperceptions is, or at least should be, a central goal for a public intellectual. When presented with the facts, however, Americans grow less supportive of Kagan’s foreign policies. For example, while foreign aid in the form of direct payments to foreign governments or NGOs is often counterproductive, the sums are relatively small. Accordingly, people’s attention is now shifting to how our massive military budget acts as a different form of foreign aid: the security guarantees we dispense to wealthy, stable democracies have allowed them to avoid paying for their own security.
Meanwhile, the greatest threats to the nation’s long-term fiscal outlook are rising health-care costs, entitlements and other mandatory spending, but Kagan doesn’t spell out how to mobilize the political will to cut from these programs in order to cover the price of a larger and more costly military. When he argues that Americans could choose to forego the benefits that now three generations have come to expect as a birthright, he is looking past present-day political reality. And his contention that Americans should be willing to do so in order to ensure that people in other countries can continue to enjoy even more generous retirement benefits defies common sense.
IDEAS HAVE Consequences, declared the title of a 1948 book by the conservative writer Richard M. Weaver. Not so, says Robert Kagan in 2012: “The better idea doesn’t have to win just because it is a better idea. It requires great powers to champion it.” Likewise, the liberal order, he predicts, “will last only as long as those who imposed it retain the capacity to defend it.” Near the end of The World America Made, the man who is so quick to celebrate America’s many virtues reduces them down to just one that matters:
What has made the United States most attractive to much of the world has not been its culture, its wisdom, or even its ideals alone. At times these have played a part; at times they have been irrelevant. More consistent has been the attraction of America’s power, the manner in which it uses it, and the ends for which it has been used.
On the surface, this is a curious assertion for someone who seems to revel in ideology, particularly one who professes such faith in the transformative power of democracy. Kagan’s writings over the years, including The World America Made, amount to a full-throated endorsement of democratic-peace theory.
In other respects, however, Kagan’s dismissal of ideas and ideology is consistent with another recurring theme in his work: the utter disdain for an American foreign policy that leads by example. Ronald Reagan famously, and often, spoke of America as a shining city on a hill. The mere suggestion elicits scorn from Kagan.
In a telling passage from a 1996 article entitled, ironically enough, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy,” Kagan and William Kristol savaged John Quincy Adams’s suggestion that America ought not go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Kagan and Kristol declared:
Because America has the capacity to contain or destroy many of the world’s monsters, most of which can be found without much searching, and because the responsibility for the peace and security of the international order rests so heavily on America’s shoulders, a policy of sitting atop a hill and leading by example becomes in practice a policy of cowardice and dishonor.
Kagan returns to both this theme and Adams’s quote in The World America Made. America’s conception of itself as the reluctant sheriff, unwilling to go out in search of trouble but willing to defend the town only when called upon, “bears no relation to reality,” he explains. “Americans have used force dozens of times, and rarely because they had no choice.”
But the world is too complex to be policed by a single global sheriff, and it need not be. Instead, the many beneficiaries of the current order should contribute to the preservation of that order at a level, and in a manner, that is consistent with their interests. By that standard, the United States would retain military power that was at least three or four times greater than that of its closest rivals, but it would no longer presume to be responsible for countries that can take care of themselves.
Americans must learn to embrace their relative security and face down their lingering fears. Until they do so, the fear of the unknown works in Kagan’s favor. It is difficult to disentangle the many different factors that have contributed to relative peace and security over the past half century, and it is impossible to know what would have happened in a world without America. The future is even more inscrutable. In this latest book, Kagan surveys all the explanations for what may have contributed to global peace and prosperity—including the spread of democracy, liberal economics, nuclear weapons, and evolving global norms against violence and war—and returns to his refrain from sixteen years earlier. “American hegemony,” he and Kristol wrote in 1996, “is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order.” Fast-forward to 2012, and nothing, it seems, has changed:
There can be no world order without power to preserve it, to shape its norms, uphold its institutions, defend the sinews of its economic system, and keep the peace. . . . If the United States begins to look like a less reliable defender of the present order, that order will begin to unravel.
He didn’t prove that case before, and he doesn’t now.
Christopher Preble is the vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies at the Cato Institute.