Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 544 pp., $30.00.
LEADING RUSSIAN political figures, including President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in recent years, have complained many times about the ideologization of U.S. foreign policy and "double standards", almost as if this were a new phenomenon. They are not alone, as authoritarian leaders like Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and a host of others have railed against what they see as cynical self-interest rather than democratic ideals driving U.S. policy. But Robert Kagan argues in his book Dangerous Nation that a foreign policy promoting liberal democracy abroad was the founding ideology of revolutionary America going back to the Colonial era. He maintains it is part of the DNA of U.S. political culture, and it will not go away anytime soon despite the apparent quagmire of Iraq and other foibles. This American fixation with liberty and liberalism has survived far more grievous calamities, including the British invasion and subsequent sacking of Washington in 1812 and a devastating civil war.
Kagan points out that U.S. support for liberalizing change abroad did not begin with the recent "color revolutions", the Marshall Plan or even Woodrow Wilson's vision about the democratic peace. It already existed in 1821 when then-Secretary of State and future president John Quincy Adams, in a famous speech on the Fourth of July, extolled the virtues of the "claim of right" of the American Revolution and called for the peoples of Europe to make their own revolutions, crying: "Go thou and do likewise!" And non-American complaints about U.S. double standards were also nothing new; writing about Adams's speech to his government in St. Petersburg, the Russian ambassador fumed about the outrageous hypocrisy and double standards of U.S. claims of commitment to universal natural rights. "How about your two million black slaves. . . ? You forget the poor Indians whom you have not ceased to spoil. . . ."
Kagan argues that the Founding Fathers genuinely believed that democratic governance was the best guarantee of the people's prosperity as well as the nation's security. This does not mean that American foreign policy is always as virtuous as the ideals upon which it was founded. Yet according to Kagan, these revolutionary roots nourished a "new foreign policy founded upon universalist ideology"-the belief that the United States's fate was tied to the cause of liberalism and republicanism everywhere. Be it the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004, Latin America's quest for independence from Spain or Greek desires to overthrow Turkey in the 1820s, U.S. foreign policy tends (not always!) to support national liberation and democracy, attributes that contemporary authoritarian states tend to view as dangerous, especially on their borders.
George W. Bush similarly described democracy promotion as essential for U.S. security, and in his second inaugural address in January 2005 he rhetorically put the "Freedom Agenda" at the top of U.S. foreign-policy priorities:
The survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands. The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.
America's vital interests and our deepest beliefs are now one. From the day of our Founding, we have proclaimed that every man and woman on this earth has rights and dignity, and matchless value, because they bear the image of the Maker of Heaven and earth. Across the generations we have proclaimed the imperative of self-government, because no one is fit to be a master, and no one deserves to be a slave. Advancing these ideals is the mission that created our Nation. It is the honorable achievement of our fathers. Now it is the urgent requirement of our nation's security, and the calling of our time.
And President Bush is hardly alone in that he represents views shared by the more ideological sides of both the Republican and the Democratic Parties, a virtual coalition that has modern roots in the presidencies of Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.
But while promoting democracy and advancing human freedom around the world may be at the top of George W. Bush's agenda, there is hardly a global consensus on this point. The Freedom Agenda is encountering setbacks in Iraq and the Islamic world more broadly, but the most serious challenge is being mounted by China and Russia, who present different models of authoritarian capitalism. As the experience of the "Asian tigers" (Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan) of the 1970s and 1980s, or Japan and Germany before World War II suggests, the authoritarian capitalist model is not new.
If the authoritarian capitalist system promotes economic growth and raises living standards for millions-or in the Chinese case, hundreds of millions-democracy promotion will be in trouble. It would appear that most people living in relative poverty will prioritize prosperity over political activism. Singapore's former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the role model for authoritarian capitalists as the leader who brought his country from Third World to First, commented on the Chinese system's durability in an interview in 2004:
If in 20 years they bring China's progress, not just in the coastal areas, but also the interior, to conditions like those of Korea of the 1980s, the Chinese people will buy that. The people's ambition at present is not to achieve political rights or representative government. They just want to arrive as a developed nation.
Putin has capitalized similarly on the Russian peoples' desire for prosperity and international respect to bolster his authoritarian-capitalist regime. Putin's Russia is on an extraordinary historical roll fueled by remarkable economic-growth levels that have increased Russia's nominal dollar GDP from less than $200 billion in 1999 to more than $1 trillion in 2007. Incomes have grown by a factor of four times over this period. While modernization theories have argued that growing prosperity will be accompanied by a more plural, even democratic, political system, Putin has defied this by systematically weakening the fragile democratic institutions he inherited. Even without controlling national TV, with economic numbers like these Mr. Putin would probably still be wildly popular among his citizens. With his convincing performance before the International Olympic Committee that won the 2014 Winter Olympics for the Russian city of Sochi, Putin has probably transcended rock-star status in Russia. Russians would likely be perfectly happy if he decided to stay on beyond his constitutionally mandated second term in 2008 and preside as Russian president when those Olympic Games take place in seven years.
Russia and China have been united in their efforts to break the momentum of democratic color revolutions that appeared to be sweeping Eurasia when President Bush spoke so eloquently about democracy and peace in his second inaugural in 2005. As Thomas Carothers argued in 2006, "The growing backlash has yet to coalesce into a formal or organized movement. But its proponents are clearly learning from and feeding off of one another."1 From Eurasia to Africa to the Middle East, the promising wave of democratization of only a few years ago appears to have lost momentum while the authoritarian capitalists have mobilized.
There are striking similarities in the maturing ideological foundations of contemporary Russian and Chinese outlooks on the world and views of their respective roles. The emerging ideology promoted by the Putin Administration is often described by the Russians as "sovereign democracy." The starting point in understanding the Kremlin's idea of sovereign democracy is the perception of the decade of the 1990s as a modern-day Russian "Time of Troubles." Domestically, Russia was in chaos and very weak internationally, and foreign powers and organizations exerted too much autonomy over Russian domestic and foreign policies. In this narrative, the leadership of Putin has restored stability to Russia and set it on the road to recovery, not abandoning market democratic values and institutions, but adapting them to Russian values and traditions (which appear to have little in common with Western notions of democracy).
Russian concepts resonate with Chinese ideological formulations. It is telling that one of the most popular descriptions of the rhetorical and operational foundation for Chinese foreign policy has been described as the "Beijing Consensus." As engagingly described by Joshua Cooper Ramo, the Beijing Consensus is principally a socioeconomic development model that the Chinese have successfully implemented-one that differs considerably from the Washington Consensus promoted by the U.S. government and multilateral organizations like the imf and the World Bank.
The alignment between the Beijing Consensus and the Kremlin's sovereign democracy produces several significant implications for foreign policy and international relations. First, there is not just one correct path to development. A country must innovate and experiment to find the path best suited to its cultures and traditions, and no country or organization should seek to impose external models. The majority of Russians today view the advice of Western advisors and multilateral organizations as a failure that exacerbated Russia's socioeconomic problems. The typical Chinese interpretation of Russian development over the past 15 years suggests that Moscow took the wrong path in the 1990s, but that the Putin Administration has learned many things from the Chinese reform experience and has begun to correct those past mistakes that devolved too much power from the state.Essay Types: Book Review