Commentary Magazine

The Good News Bears

The World America Made
By Robert Kagan
160 pages

“You’re not going to like what comes after America,” wrote Leonard Cohen, with the poet’s gift for extreme condensation. Robert Kagan expands this theme in the 149 pages of The World America Made, even as he attempts to mollify some of the people you might have expected he would blame for bringing America down. How else would a foreign-policy adviser to Mitt Romney come to be embraced by Barack Obama? The president was reportedly delighted by the excerpt from the book he’d read in the New Republic, which led him to speak these words in this year’s State of the Union: “America is back. Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”

Kagan has since been cautiously distancing himself from this presidential endorsement. He thinks well of Obama’s strategic efforts in the Pacific, poorly of those in the Middle East. But as George Kennan was the first to discover, people in power may make use of what you write in ways you did not expect and do not support. 

As a polite call to arms, the book develops what its author calls a “George Bailey” argument—an effort to show what the world would have been like if America had never been, just as the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life shows James Stewart’s character the depths to which his hometown would have descended if he had not been born. The United States has not always been quite as nice as Jimmy Stewart, but the impulse to take the side of the angels has often been there. Whether or not Americans liked it, their country’s growth made it a big player in the Great Game of the world and, after World War II, the greatest of the Great Powers. The 20th century might have been an even greater “American century” had the United States not taken something of an isolationist holiday between the wars. Nevertheless, after securing victory in Europe and Japan, America steeled itself to the tasks of nation-rebuilding abroad and creating various postwar institutions and assumed the dominant position in a new world order.

The United States has been a superpower or, latterly, a “hyperpower,” different not only in degree but also in kind from previous Great Powers. Democracy, free markets, and the liberal social order did not flourish around the world in the era of European imperial dominance because, Kagan suggests, the old Great Powers were, in the main, unfavorably disposed to their spread. This is not to say that they were consistently unfavorable or specifically organized to resist the phantom of liberty, but it makes a huge difference whether the powers of this world are well- or ill-disposed to something. (They were well-disposed toward the spread of Christianity, for example.) Nor does Kagan suggest that America itself was ever a consistent patron of democracy and the rest; U.S. power has sometimes been employed in disposing of inconvenient democracies. But overall, America’s elected governments have been well-disposed to “democratic vistas,” and this has made all the difference since World War II.

We have since experienced wave after wave of “democratization,” Kagan writes, with America on the bridge, disinclined to jump off. From Western Europe to East Asia, to Eastern Europe after the Soviet fall, and to the current Arab Spring, the exceptionalist superpower has presided over a planet where democracy has replaced autocracy as the legitimist position. There were 12 democracies in 1941, and now there are arguably more than a hundred, and with them an unprecedented continuum of economic growth. True, there is autocratic backsliding here and there, and worrying economic crises including the current one, but the trend is forward.

It was, Kagan claims, the existence of American power and prestige that tipped the balance against the forces of reaction. Without America, or, more precisely, without American wealth, arms, and willingness to engage, we would be looking at a much different world today. And if America should now decline and disengage, leaving autocratic powers to refill the vacuum, we will be looking at a much different world tomorrow.

Only at this point does Kagan announce the happy news that, despite the latest of many short-term reversals, America is not dead. “Decline” is thus a choice not yet made. Yet decline could become a self-fulfilling prophecy if America does not listen to her guardian angel warn, “Don’t jump off the bridge!”

I will not fuss much about the sort of skepticism that arises when Kagan persistently compares apples with oranges, kumquats, mangoes, durians, and loganberries. To keep his thesis short and simple, he does not waste space explaining exactly what he means by democracy or the other words. The reader is expected to know what he means, yet I was seized by “wait a minute” responses throughout, as glib lists of countries were arrayed in one vague group or another. His thesis at times relaxes into platitude or even evasion. Yet its strength is to be found in a consistent effort to see the world as it is, and it builds from positions already delineated in earlier books.

Of Paradise and Power (2003), Kagan’s wildly successful maiden essay in the world-historical genre, made one of several points on which he has been elaborating since. Europe, in aggregate, may have the larger economy, but America has the missiles. That alone explains much of their disparity in outlook. In Kagan’s analogy, a man with a knife and a man with a gun assess the risk of a bear differently. The “soft power” of which the Europeans have spoken in the generations since World War II is ineffectual compared with “hard power.” It consists inevitably of trying to avoid contests with hard power, and insofar as the Europeans have succeeded in doing this through diplomacy and suasion, they sneer at the great American ape. But in the age when their Great Powers had the guns, they looked at things much differently.

In his next book, Dangerous Nation (2006), Kagan did not retreat but instead contributed to exploding the myth that America was somehow different before it became a Great Power. He challenged the cliché that an idealistic, isolationist, innocent America “came of age” in 1898, when it conquered the Spanish Empire instead of waiting for the Germans to do so, and thereafter fitfully adapted to its new role on the world stage (while pining for a much simpler past). Kagan found the transition from smaller to larger power seamless. The American legacy of fighting without apology for its national interest was laid down from the beginning, in the consolidation of the American Revolution. It was apparent from the shores of Tripoli at the beginning of the 19th, to the policy of Manifest Destiny that led to the takeover of Texas and the displacement of Indian tribes. A utopian idealism was there from the beginning, too, but it never stood in the way of opportunity.

Writing as a sympathetic foreigner, I have often observed that America’s critics get more exercised over American claims to purity of intention than over any heavyweight swagger. And this is exactly the reason Kagan’s essays have done so well in Europe. He recognizes the streak of idealism in the American character but discounts it in favor of a classic argument that stresses America’s commonality with older self-confident nations that cast a long shadow over the known world because they could.

There is something new in The World America Made: a note of naiveté that may help explain why the book appeals across U.S. party lines. Kagan is proposing to buy back into an American optimism that has been overtaken by events. He argues, against the current host of doomsayers, that the United States is not really in decline—that, for instance, the U.S. share of world income today is “roughly a quarter,” the same as it was in 1969. But, as Edward Luce pointed out in the Financial Times, the claim is untrue. The U.S. share in the world economy, which was gently declining through the later 20th century, began plummeting around 2000; and that was before the Wall Street crisis. By the numbers, the Chinese economy has grown from one-eighth to more than three-eighths of America’s, in half a generation, and that is with the renminbi artificially undervalued. I do not trust such statistical indicators, which slur and hide more than they reveal, but Kagan himself does, just as he takes words like democracy at face value.

The implicit premise of the book—that America isn’t in decline but is in danger of thinking itself into decline, with untoward consequences around the planet—is more asserted than proved. True, the United States still has a military establishment that dwarfs its nearest rival, and a chain of international alliances based on raw common interest that cannot be replicated by either Russia or China. American power still enjoys the advantage of historical inertia, but note that Obama is downsizing the military and the Chinese are upsizing theirs fast. America is buying wantonly into a dirigiste economic order while riding recklessly toward fiscal default. I like to argue that “all trends are reversible,” but no amount of contrarian argument can supply something that instead demands a radical change of course.

Sure, the United States made the world safer for bourgeois democracy after World War II, but in the latest “democratic” developments, associated with the Arab Spring, we are not in Kansas anymore. We now look toward a vast Indian “democracy” that owes nothing to American antecedents and has national interests that may pit it against core interests of the West; toward a Chinese autocracy that has managed to make capitalism the foundation for state power; at a new Russian imperium founded, like the Arab, on natural resources. And then we look back upon America, Europe, and East Asia receding into social and fiscal decadence. 

To which Kagan says what? That Americans should be proud of much they have accomplished, should refuse to accept eclipse as inevitable, and should redouble their recovery efforts. This is all very good, but it is an insufficient diagnosis of the fiendishly difficult challenges facing America in the world it once made.

About the Author

David Warren is a columnist at the Ottawa Citizen.

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