“The World America Made” by Robert Kagan
Knopf, 2012, 160 pp.
Robert Kagan is an American historian, essayist, former advisor to both Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Hillary Clinton, but first and foremost he is a foreign-policy commentator. Although it is tempting to classify him as a neoconservative, he himself would most likely use the words “liberal interventionist. These views become quite evident in his short book on America’s role in shaping the world which we inhabit.
In brief, Kagan posits that the liberal world order, free trade, human rights, economic development, and global security, all of which we enjoy on an unprecedented level, are a result of America’s dominance over the entire globe. Were America to lose this primacy, we would most likely see some or all of those fruits of her labor slowly recede and give way to a much different reality, one shaped by a multipolar struggle for regional dominance.
The world is Americanized
The author argues that we live in a world which is in essence Western, or at least looks a way which the Western nations find the most natural. Our pop culture is based on that of the USA, our business practices follow a distinctly Western cue, and our current world order is shaped after the Westphalian sovereignty principle. America’s global dominance in all matters, which emerged after World War II, encourages respect for human rights and international law and grants boons to democracies and capitalist economies, both implicitly – for example in the form of systemic benefits accruing from participating in free trade – and explicitly – for instance by granting diplomatic connections and support. On top of that, institutions such as the International Court of Justice, European Union, UN, and even NATO are powerful forces attracting nations to participate in the order America created.
Good times come to those who impose them
Kagan argues that the broad public sees the liberal world order to be the natural state of affairs which was bound to come about sooner or later on account of its obvious superiority; the world might stumble and even take steps backwards now and then, but on a grand scale the human yearning for freedom, borne of elevated consciousness which inevitably follows greater affluence, would prevail and give rise to some version of what we see today. Contrary to such historical determinism, Kagan makes the case that the world sees cycles of political and economic systems brought about by the dominant powers of the day. It is these powers which shape the reality for everyone else by making the world supportive to the systems of their choice and hostile to others.
Although the entire globe never in history has been following a single system at the same time, the current liberal world order has come the closest to that ideal, and it has done so because of a hegemony so outsized in proportions, it has not been seen since the fall of Rome: the hegemony of the United States of America. Perhaps the world would still see its fair share of liberalism right now without the United States, but it is doubtful that it would reach the scale it has today.
The reluctant superpower
America’s heft is further increased even beyond what its conventional strength would suggest by the unprecedented support it enjoys for its actions. Kagan argues that no superpower in history has enjoyed such a wide and long-lasting approval of other agents to wield and use its military and political might. This is not easy to explain, but it appears to stem from a combination of factors. America is an unwitting power; it is also a benign one – it dislikes being a superpower, Kagan insists.
The USA rejected its geopolitical primacy after World War 1 and wanted to do so again after World War 2; it only grudgingly accepted the invitation to become an empire which was extended to it again in the 1940s and 1950s. It also does not behave in the same imposing way previous hegemons did; it does not have a grand scheme and its policy is not consistent: “Americans would be scarier if they actually had a plan” (pp. 16). Moreover, its style of working with allies is democratic, it looks for succor and approval for its actions and receives it, because others trust America to act, not from selfish impulses, but deeper humanitarian and altruistic considerations. The US does not act frantically or threatened, precisely because it cannot be threatened; and wherever it goes, it is always both mentally and geographically distanced, thus making it a less intimidating and more acceptable power to most.
But what if it could disappear?
Kagan postulates that despite the prophecies of anti-American doomsayers, the USA is not going anywhere for the foreseeable future. Its share of the world’s GDP has remained stable at 25% since the 1970s, and its military strength, political power, and economic growth have not diminished either. True, one potentially powerful economic contender – China – is rising, but it has a long way to go to match America’s hard and soft power.
Hypothetically, though, what if it were to lose its primacy or simply retreat into self-imposed isolationism?
Without the American power to uphold it, the author suggests, the current liberal world order would not survive or at least drastically diminish in scope and scale. Many a democratic revolution would not survive without explicit or implicit American backing, and Saudi Arabia would completely drop the façade of sheepishness in the face of human rights reports. Autocratic mid-level powers are prevented from extending their influence, not by a purported positive change in the nature of mankind, but by the sway of American diplomats and the strength of American guns. The current support for liberalism would give way to indifference or even hostility. China and Russia would lead the way in asserting their positions in this new world, and many mid-tier powers like Brazil, Iran, and India would follow in order to safeguard themselves in the face of this newly created uncertainty.
International waterways would likely be the first casualty, and with them free trade would go, not because China or Russia have no stake in keeping them open, but because countries have more than just economic concerns, and the nature of autocratic regimes is to ensure their own survival above all else. For now, the interests of the Communist Party of China roughly overlap with liberal world economics, but the moment they diverge, it will attempt to change the world rather than itself. And because peace among the powers of today is preserved, not by mutual agreements or a tight balance, but by undisputed American dominance, nothing would stand in the way of another conflict caused by their mutually exclusive claims and assertions.
A concise but superficial book
Because we live in the greatest, most prolonged and best distributed era of peace and prosperity this world has ever seen, major conflict in the civilized world has been banished from thought; such wars seem not only unlikely, but indeed impossible. Yet, previous experience does not support this belief, and history marks the present state of the world as an exceptional case for which America is the only reason.
The one way the USA could lose its primacy in the short term, the author argues, is if the Americans choose to do so by committing a preemptive superpower suicide through doubt, fear, and retreat. This self-fulfilling prophesy of decline into which the public has talked itself, is a real threat to the survival of the country.
Throughout the book, Kagan tries to instill some optimism in the minds of his readers. However, he engages in wishful thinking a little too often by simplistically rationalizing current problems facing the USA. The financial crisis is discounted as a simple inconvenience suffered often in the past, and the rise of China disregarded as similar to the petered-out case of Japan, which was supposed to threaten America’s position in the last century, but stopped well short of that. If taken too literally, his ideas could have a harmful effect on American foreign policy in the long term, though perhaps his goal was to embolden the public, not convince the elites. The book has limited practical use beyond that and lacks any theoretical insight or academic contributions. Another major drawback is the book’s generality – the arguments appear superficial and incomplete at times. Whether a deeper exploration of these subjects would belie the central thesis of Kagan’s book, reinforce it, or both, remains to be seen.
Nonetheless, Kagan’s work astounds with its ability to convey a lot of meaning in just over 100 pages. It neatly explains the peculiarities of the USA as a superpower and its apparent indispensability to the world. The publication is not as much a defense of its foreign policy as its explanation, and frankly speaking, it does a splendid job at that.
Reviewed by Konrad Duda