The More Things Change...

Robert Kagan's A Return to History and the End of Dreams is a short and well written treatise on the present state of global power politics. It follows Of Paradise and Power, a book that I read with great interest.

Of Paradise and Power discussed the US and Europe as actors on the global stage during and after the run up to the Iraq War. In that essay, Kagan described why each acted rationally and in their own interests, and how they came to such starkly different conclusions on how to deal with the post-9/11 environment. It was a very balanced view of the different attitudes in the United States and Europe. I gave the book to several of my European friends so that they might see beyond some of the more infantile descriptions of American foreign policy so commonly found in the European press.

In this latest essay (barely more than one hundred pages), Kagan broadens the discussion of global power politics to include all of today's major players. The book's title is an obvious reference to Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History and the Last Man", an influential book written in the 1990's that declared the global power game had been fundamentally altered by the demise of the Soviet Union. Fukuyama argued that with the fall of Communism, ideological battles had ended and the world would inevitably become more democratic, market driven and, perhaps, more stable.

Kagan disputes Fukuyama's view in A Return to History. Rather than finding ourselves in a new world order, Kagan argues that the global power game continues much as it has existed for centuries. He believes that during the 20th century we tended to see global power politics and international relations too much from an ideological perspective (Democracy vs. Communism/Fascism). In so doing, it drew our attention away from the fundamental structure of global politics - ie, the power struggle between nation states.

But now with one of the main competing ideologies gone, Kagan believes that we can now more easily focus on the competitive environment as it is, and has always been. He describes the interests of the main players - the US, Europe, China, Russia, Japan and India. He shows their strengths and weaknesses in the ongoing struggle, and helps the reader understand why and how they aggressively pursue their global interests.

This is not to say that there are not disparate political systems involved. Clearly the Democracies consider their political system important to their actions, just as when they where battling Fascism and Communism. But the difference is that they (we) are engaged with countries who do not.

Autocratic governments, Kagan posits, have emerged in China and Russia in order to consolidate and maximize state power. In contrast to the former Communist regimes, they don't inspire their populations or aspire to transnational ideological movements. They merely offer their people a simple deal: "stay out of politics and we will make you rich". Neither Russia nor China attempts to justify their international policy actions by invoking political ideology or high moral values.

As such, Kagan believes that it is the actions of the nation states that are important to observe, not the ideologies that they may, or may not proclaim.

To that point, Kagan mentions instances where the US and Europe's actions directly conflict with their apparent ideological positions. Americans, for instance, often explain their international policies around a set of universal values that include liberty, justice, and the freedoms inherent in market economics. But it is not uncommon for perceived security risks, or even simple national pride to be at the core of American international policy initiatives.

Kagan doesn't let Europe off the hook either. He notes, for example, that the European Union's "post-modernist" worldview decries genocide in Darfur, while allowing various European state oil companies to cut deals with the Sudanese government.

In the main, The Return to History is a practical primer on the actions and interests of today's leading global powers. It is not an overly optimistic book, nor is it particularly pessimistic. It certainly doesn't assume that Democracy is on an unstoppable worldwide expansion, as many in America somehow do. But it also shows how little the Chinese or Russians are interested in taking on the US in a major war.

Kagan mostly sees the world as a very consistent place... one where nation states compete for power and there is always the real possibility that bad actors or inept leaders will lead us down the wrong path. (Who would have predicted one hundred years ago how tragic the mid-20th century would be?) But he is also arming us with information about the motives of today's largest and most powerful nations so that we just might avoid another Sarajevo (or two).

Kagan encourages us to look practically at the interests of the world's major powers, and develop successful international relations based on an informed understanding of their worldviews and aspirations.