League of Demagoguery

League of Demagoguery

Mini Teaser: We live in a world where the failures of a botched freedom agenda are everpresent. Yet no one in the foreign-policy establishment of either party seems to understand the changing realities of international affairs—or articulate coherent policy alt

by Author(s): Anatol Lieven


IT IS AN initial relief to turn to Robert Kagan's latest pamphlet, because it is mercifully short (around the world in 128 half-size pages) and because of its intermittent moments of astringent realism. In many ways, however, these facts only make it the more dangerous. Its brevity means that large numbers of people will actually read it, while its realist language masks what is mostly a profoundly unrealistic view of the world. This realism also masks an ideologically flavored nationalism which leads Kagan constantly to overestimate both U.S. prestige in the world and America's real strength. And while Bobbitt does try to prioritize, in the sense of trying to cram everything into the basket of the war on terror, Kagan largely ignores terrorism in order to focus on the goal of his version of the "alliance of democracies," which is to combat what he sees as an emerging alignment of dictatorships.

Kagan's introduction summarizes both the good and bad sides of his work. He accurately notes that the "new world order" of the 1990s has proved a mirage:

In most places, the nation-state remains as strong as ever, and so, too, the nationalist ambitions, the passions, and the competition among nations that have shaped history. The United States remains the sole superpower. But international competition among great powers has returned, with Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India, Iran, the United States, and others vying for regional predominance. Struggles for status and influence in the world have returned as central features of the international scene.

Fair enough as far as it goes-though many non-Americans might say that the "struggle for influence" has not "returned" because it never went away. It was just that in the 1990s the United States was able to expand its own influence without others being able to respond, even when their own vital interests were at stake.

Having made this realist statement, however, Kagan then promptly plunges into the swamp which has engulfed the analytical pretensions of Bobbitt and the Princeton Project. Thus "the old competition between liberalism and autocracy has also reemerged, with the world's great powers increasingly lining up according to the nature of their regimes. . . . History has returned, and the democracies must come together to shape it, or others will shape it for them."

Kagan however only manages to maintain this position by (unlike Bobbitt and the Princeton Project) essentially limiting his "democracies" to the United States, Europe and Japan, and by skipping very lightly indeed over most of the key issues facing mankind. Thus when it comes to managing the world economy, the key issue is not democracy but trade, and the key dividing line is not ideology but wealth, with poor democracies like India, Brazil and Indonesia lined up with China against the developed world. On climate change, the United States and European democracies are bitterly divided from each other and from India, which once again finds itself aligned with China. On Israel, the United States and other world democracies also differ very greatly. And on Russia, Germany and France at least strongly oppose U.S. plans for NATO expansion and tougher pressure. And incidentally, in Britain, America's closest major European ally, the alliance-of-democracies idea has been met with an overwhelmingly negative response, both from the commentariat and within the foreign-policy establishment.

As to terrorism, and Islamist insurgency, this is a threat to all the great powers except Brazil and does not discriminate in any way between democracies and authoritarian systems. Nor indeed does the United States when it comes to finding allies in the Muslim world for the struggle against extremism-nor should it by the way. Really bloodstained dictatorships like Uzbekistan may be more repulsive than what they are worth as allies; but many U.S. liberal pundits declared that Pakistani toleration of the Taliban was all due to its wicked military dictatorship, and it would change when "democracy" was restored. The pundits have gone remarkably quiet since the "democrats" have come back-and have continued exactly the same policies.

Kagan also makes the habitual liberal error of drawing a straight line between a country's domestic political system and its foreign policy. This has already been shown to be false in the case of India, as it has often been with regard to France. He only maintains this line when discussing Russia by drawing a completely wrong portrait of the Yeltsin administration as indifferent to NATO expansion and the growth of U.S. influence in the former Soviet Union because it was a "democracy." In fact, after a very brief superliberal period, the Yeltsin regime detested these moves and did all in its power to resist them. The difference with Putin is not ideology, but that the chaos and decline that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that Yeltsin's power was very much less. When during the cold war the United States sought to extend its influence in South Asia at India's expense, the response of democratic India was implacably hostile. The same would be true today if a U.S.-led coalition invaded Burma, for example.

Having set out his dubious premises, Kagan breaks off short, without a single concrete policy recommendation about what his own alliance of democracies should actually do. He also neglects to explain how the alliance should pay for whatever it does-whether it focuses on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, intervention elsewhere, dealing with Iran, NATO expansion, climate change or something else. How precisely then do Kagan and Bobbit propose that the differences among the democracies on key issues be resolved in order to make their proposed alliance of democracies a reality? By compromise? If so, on what terms? Is Europe to give way on every major point? If that's the case, the United States will receive sullen acquiescence and no willingness to give real help, which is pretty much the situation on several issues at present. Or should the United States compromise on key points? Kagan and Bobbit don't say, but, given their views, it is highly unlikely that they would agree to the United States making really important changes to its policy in any of the areas outlined above. So much for their "democratic alliance."

Thank heavens, there are leading commentators in the United States who know the world outside America's shores, have paid real attention to the threat from Islamist terrorism and have sought to come to terms with reduced levels of U.S. power. Fareed Zakaria, Andrew Bacevich, Nina Hachigian and Mona Sutphen have all written recent books reflecting these qualities. It seems likely, alas, that none will come close to matching the attention paid to Kagan and Bobbitt's books. This is alarming, because for all Kagan's intelligence and Bobbitt's ostentatious learning, these men are essentially strategic dilettantes with no personal experience either of war or of life in alien cultures. Great countries which rely on such people for advice have often been cruelly rebuked by history.


Anatol Lieven is a professor in the War Studies Department of King's College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington, DC. His latest book, coauthored with John Hulsman, is Ethical Realism: A Vision for America's Role in the World (Vintage, 2007). He is currently researching a book on Pakistan and is a senior editor at The National Interest.

Essay Types: Book Review