Robert Kagan’s book, The World America Made, is refocusing the debate on whether the United States is declining as a global power—and speculation about whether other powers will step in to assume the responsibility for sustaining a liberal, rule-based international order. Kagan is known as a brilliant conservative observer, and even President Obama is reported to be reading this tour de force of U.S. foreign policy.
Most of the debate about the book is centered on the question of whether the United States is indeed declining and if China is ready to buy into the liberal order. But more attention should be dedicated to the question of whether there is such an order in the first place.
Much of the discussion simply assumes that there is a liberal order and that the United States formed it and is nurturing it. Actually, this view reflects a rather romantic, self-congratulatory perception of our foreign policy and global role. It is one more sign of what might be called a Multiple Realism Deficiency Disorder (MRDD), which reflects a mixture of idealism and hubris. The disorder makes us think that we know what is good for the world and can remake it in our image. But a simple reality check shows that we live in a much darker world—a world we have never been able to align with our designs.
One of the major elements of the liberal order is said to be the spread of democracy and human rights. Indeed, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it did seem—for a few years—as if all nations were rushing to embrace our kind of government. Recently, the Arab Spring seemed to provide new evidence that this was truly where the world is heading.
The reality is not as bright. China has become more authoritarian, when one compares the last five years to the previous five. Russia’s regime is definitely sliding back. The record in Latin America is rather mixed. Most Arab states remain authoritarian. And for every Burma, an authoritarian regime giving way to more open government, there is a Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea and Iran. Even the democratic ideal itself is tarnished; the governments of Europe and the United States are seen by many in the Third World as gridlocked while China is heralded as a new model for strong economic growth, effective political management and stability.
Free trade is another key element of the liberal order. I leave it for another day to ask whether less managed trade (nobody ever had or came close to having free trade) has all the virtues claimed for it by those who write economics textbooks. It suffices to note that in the world in which we live, China is manipulating its currency, is still allowing many violations of intellectual property and imposing numerous limits on those who seek to do business in China. The United States used public funds to bail out the car industry and banks, subsidizes the exporting farm sector and provides tax incentives to corporations that bring jobs home from overseas. All the other governments are engaged in one form or another (actually, in multiple forms) of trade management. A realistic narrative would ask under what conditions these trade limitations could be curtailed rather than pretending treaties such as those Washington just formed with South Korea, Colombia and Panama create “free-trade” zones.
Even such a simple matter as free passage on the high seas, which is a particular matter of pride to the United States, is not as simple as is often assumed. Most seas are wide open—because few nations see any benefit or reason to close their shipping lanes or confront other nations’ vessels. In March 2010, however, North Korea sank a South Korean ship, killing forty-six crew members. Later that same year, North Korea fired on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island. In the wake of this attack, which hit both military and civilian targets and killed four South Koreans, Admiral Michael Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, counseled moderation. This was wise counsel but one that hardly bespoke of a global power, let alone a hegemony of the seas. Indeed, when confronted with a bunch of barefooted youth—traveling in primitive skiffs and armed with a few guns and grenade launchers—who terrorize the ships of many nations, kidnap scores upon scores of travelers and hold them for ransom for years, our navy has been unable to stop the marauders. Our warships are said to be ready for attacks by swarms of speed boats belonging to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, as well as Iranian anti-ship missiles (which disabled a major Israeli ship during Israel’s last incursion into Lebanon), but this bravado remains to be tested.
Before thinkers like Kagan can ask who the custodian for the global liberal order is, who is challenging it and who may next be ready to shore it up, they must develop a much more realistic perception of what the world is really like—and accept our limited ability to order it. Without this realism, the United States will continue to squander the limited capital for change that it does command.
Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard, and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University.