The Long View 2008-05-26: The Return of History and the End of Dreams

Robert Kagan was a frequently reviewed author for John J. Reilly. The Return of History and the End of Dreams [Amazon link] was useful to John as he tried to generate a synthesis that would move us forward, instead of just arguing about which of our currently inadequate tribal positions must prevail.

This assessment of Palestine at the time of the Maccabean revolt is perfect:

In Second Maccabees, it is hard to escape the impression that we are seeing a battle of street gangs; or perhaps better, of rural militias in a civilized country that has become shabby and under-policed.

John also goes on to talk a bit about the inadequacy of traditional war in the last couple of decades. He alludes to the 2008 Russia-Georgia conflict, and the NATO intervention in Serbia, but he doesn’t mention Operation Storm, which really was one of the few examples of a decisive war in the last two or three decades.

Now we have the annexation of the Crimea by Russia and the chance of another shadow war between Russia and Ukraine, but even that is muted. John here explains why.


The Return of History
and the
End of Dreams
By Robert Kagan
Knopf, 2008
128 Pages, US$19.95
ISBN-10: 030726923X

“History has become normal again,” Robert Kagan misinforms his readers in the first sentence of this useful and provocative extended essay. The author is known from such earlier works as Of Paradise and Power as one of those hardheaded foreign-policy theorists whose practice of “realism” sometimes ascends to a hallucinogenic rapture. Frankly, this essay would not normally be considered extended enough to merit separate publication in hardcover, but it has appeared at just the right time in the election-year debate about foreign policy.

Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis is the author’s named whipping boy in this book. However, whether by accident or design, The Return of History also happens to be a perfect response to the book of the hour, Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, a work that no less a person than Senator Obama has taken care to brandish to press photographers. Fukuyama was concerned to depict a new world harmonized by an invincible liberal consensus, while Zakaria described a situation in which the universal adoption of American techniques and institutions had made America itself less distinctive. In either case, both authors agree that all global paths following the end of the Cold War were and would be “convergent.” Economic development, which must be market-driven, leads fairly mechanically to liberal institutions, and liberal institutions create a global transnational environment in which violence is not so much impossible as irrelevant.

The author of The Return of History says otherwise. Though market economic theory has indeed spread throughout the world, the author observes, the development it has brought has by no means led to a convergence of views among the world’s states about the requirements of their military security; neither have their political systems grown more similar. Rather, from an admittedly placid point after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the world’s greater powers (with the exception of the anomalous European Union, perhaps) have increasingly framed their foreign policies to promote their national self-interests. They have also augmented their military power as an instrument to support those interests. The world looks again like an arena of garden-variety balance-of-power politics.

We should note that The Return of History is not recapitulating the “clash of civilizations” thesis of Samuel Huntington, whose “culture first” approach to strategic analysis Robert Kagan appears to find uncongenial. In The Return of History, Kagan actually seems slightly surprised that the world has not separated into power blocks, like Carl Schmitt’s Grossräume, or that some great coalition is not forming that would end America’s “unipolar moment.” Indeed, Kagan’s assessment of America’s place in the new configuration of powers is very sanguine. The increasingly threatening posture of petrolist Russia towards its western Near Abroad has ended whatever thoughts the European powers may have had about striking out as a competitive great power in their own right. Ascendant China has had the same effect on Japan, and seems to be beginning to do so to a newly competent India.

As for the Middle East, even if we grant for the sake of argument that the American invasion of Iraq was absolutely the stupidest thing that the United States had ever done anywhere, we nonetheless cannot avoid noticing that the American position in that region has not collapsed, as it did from the 1950s to the 1970s. Quite the opposite: the end of Baathist Iraq may have simplified the problems of Iran, which has its own ambitions for regional hegemony, but those ambitions at the same time have wonderfully concentrated the minds of all the statesmen in the region. Even the terrorist organizations are losing faith in terror.

Are Fukuyama and Zakaria then right after all? Is the 21st century to see, after a little delay, the secular parousia? Not at all, says Kagan. Western and specifically American liberalism may not have caused the formation of a hostile military coalition, but they have generated a formidable countermovement, or perhaps a counter-model, which was precisely the sort of ideological innovation that Fukuyama said could not happen. The chief exponent of this model is China; its emulators include Russia and Iran, but the list could in the future include many states whose leaders find democratic liberalism unpersuasive or inconvenient:

“During the Cold War, it was easy to forget that the struggle between liberalism and autocracy has endured since the Enlightenment. It was the issue that divided the United States from much of Europe in the late eighteen and early nineteenth centuries. It divided Europe itself through much of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Now it is returning to dominate the geopolitics of the twenty-first century.”

At this point in The Return of History, when we at last perceive the flash of the decorations on the stony breast of Prince Metternich, we may begin to suspect that the author’s brand of realism needs to be classified as a controlled substance. Normal history, we finally understand, is nineteenth-century history; indeed, 19th-century history after 1815, but not including 1848. David Deudney’s Bounding Power critiqued this kind of realism persuasively. This realism is based on a model of state systems in which oddly fungible “powers” collide with each other like billiard balls. The model purports to be “immemorial,” but it is helpful for understanding European international history only after the Treaty of Westphalia. In the nineteenth century it does provide a really satisfactory account of the European state system; but in the 20th century, of course, that system blew up. One could argue that there have been state systems in other times and places that were “realist” in Kagan’s sense, but such situations are rare and, on the scale of centuries, ephemeral.

This is not to say that there are no parallels between the post-1989 world and the pre-1914 world. Let me suggest an analogy.

Students of the Bible will be familiar with the Book of Joshua, a historical account that treats mainly of the conquest of Palestine by the Hebrews after the exodus from Egypt. The historicity of the book is debated, but the story it describes is relentlessly realist. The whole world seems to consist of the tribes and little kingdoms who act in the book. They negotiate, betray, spy, and ethnically cleanse. Even the stream of imperfectly consistent orders from God fits into the realist model as the ideological factor that frame so many state interactions.

And then there is Second Maccabees, one of the intertestamental books. Protestants have, for the most part, decided that it is apocryphal, but it is part of the Catholic (and Orthodox) canon. It deals with the reassertion of Jewish political independence in the Hellenistic period, long after the return from the Babylonian Exile, against the post-Alexandrine Seleucid Empire of Syria. The story unfolds in much the same territory as the story in Joshua, and the issues are not completely different, but it happens in an immensely wider world. The intended readership for the book may not have been the participants, but the current-affairs-minded public in Alexandria. The book contains what purports to be diplomatic correspondence from Sparta and from Rome. The Book of Joshua is an epic, in which a conflict involving iron-age armies is of cosmic significance because the cosmos in which it occurs is so small. In Second Maccabees, it is hard to escape the impression that we are seeing a battle of street gangs; or perhaps better, of rural militias in a civilized country that has become shabby and under-policed.

In 1900, there were only a few dozen states in the European state system, and only half-a-dozen Great Powers. The diplomatic relations among these states were managed punctiliously, because these states were able and confessedly willing to do great damage to those of their peers whose behavior was deemed unsatisfactory. By 2000, there were almost 200 entities called “sovereign states,” many of them little more than a foreign ministry with a fax number. The Great Powers, other than the United States, were barely able to touch each other with conventional weaponry. Kagan waxes eloquent about the return of the Great Game to the Caucasus. The intersection of American, European, and Russian interests would be “familiar to any 19th-century statesman,” we are assured. Well, maybe, but the fact is that if the Russians tried an assault on Georgia, they would probably lose. In the 1990s, a newly confident European Union decided that Something Had To be Done about the Serbs and their wicked ways in the Balkans. After careful study, Europe determined that they would be able to deploy 20 gendarmes to the region six months after the completion of an environmental impact statement. Then the fearsome hyperpower brought its full might to bear by conducting several weeks of fireworks displays over Belgrade, whose chief tactical achievement was an accidental hit on the Chinese embassy.

It is possible to imagine a 19th-century-style conflict between the US and China in the Straits of Formosa. And that’s the only instance. If History is back, it ain’t what it used to be.

The author is closer to the truth when he suggests that what the 21st-century will really be about is the quest for legitimacy. In this connection, he notes that today’s autocrats are at a disadvantage compared to their 19th-century predecessors at the courts of Vienna and St. Petersburg. Early modern reactionaries had the forces of tradition and sentiment on their side; today’s autocrats have only good economic growth figures. Democracy, in contrast, though often presented in a threatening manner, really is very attractive. The author allows that its final universal victory may be possible; it just isn’t inevitable.

To that I would remark that transnational liberalism suffers from a legitimacy deficit quite as serious as that faced by the autocrats of the late People’s Republic of China. In the constitution of the European Union, and even more so in the UN Charter, it is anti-democratic. The EU is a self-consciously anti-populist enterprise. Kagan endorses the idea of a League of Democracies as a supplement to the international system, so that the spread of democratic liberalism can be shown to be something more than an aspect of the foreign policy of the United States. Such a measure would no doubt appeal to many of the world’s elites. However, if the ideology of the League were the same mix of secularism, the counterculture, and environmentalism that “liberalism” has come to mean in its transnational incarnation, then there is little reason to suppose that it would appeal to the world’s electorates. It also seems to be a Darwin Award winner in terms of its demographic impact, but that’s another story.

If we must have a short explanation of why globalization is likely to progress to global unity, then probably we cannot improve on Robert Wright’s ingenious “nonzero” mechanism: social networks get bigger because repeated interactions are favored when both parties benefit. For that to produce Kant’s perpetual and universal peace, however, there must be some idea to legitimize the system. Neither Fukuyama’s nor Zakaria’s model will do it. Neither will Deudney’s “violence interdependence” republicanism, or the dread of environmental catastrophe.

When we think of the formula, it will be obvious.

You may find it worth your while to buy this book when used copies are available for a dollar.

Copyright © 2008 by John J. Reilly

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