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America and the World

America’s foreign policy pundits are afflicted with a Kennan complex. Fifty-six years ago, in July 1947, the American journal Foreign Affairs published an essay entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” The anonymous author—“X”—was George Kennan, then on the policy planning staff at the State Department. Kennan’s essay developed the arguments adumbrated in his now-famous “long cable,” a confidential telegraphic message sent from the US embassy in Moscow on February 22, 1946, that laid out for Kennan’s bosses in Washington the background to Soviet foreign policy and recommended to Western leaders what became known as the strategy of containment. It is hard to exaggerate the influence of Kennan’s brief, elegant exposition of the international situation of 1947 and its lessons for US policy: notwithstanding his modest ambitions (and to his later regret) he had written the script for the coming cold war.

Ever since, Kennan’s successors in and out of the US foreign policy establishment have been struggling to match his achievement. When the cold war ended, specialists fell upon the occasion. A pattern emerged: first came an ambitious essay-length interpretation of the moment and its meaning; then, a year or two later, a much-hyped book-length extension of that essay; finally, if the author was lucky, a phrase or two that hung for a while in the ether of specialist exchanges—“the End of History,” “the Clash of Civilizations”—before evaporating under the pressure of its own pretensions. Unlike Kennan, however, his would-be heirs nurse metatheoretical aspirations, whereas Kennan was building policy recommendations out of close local observation.1 They don’t write as well as he did; and they have scant desire to hide their authorial light under the bushel of anonymity. Not surprisingly, the implicit comparison is consistently unflattering: kissed only by the shadow of Kennan’s achievement, his successors—like Portia’s suitors—“have but a shadow’s bliss.”2

The latest contender is Robert Kagan, director of the US Leadership Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His article “Power and Weakness” appeared in Policy Review in June 2002; his book (injudiciously overpraised by those who ought to know better) is now published just in time for the war its author has long advocated; and his catch phrase “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus” is doing business around the globe. Like many in contemporary Washington, he is interested not so much in strategy as in power: who has it, who doesn’t. In Kagan’s view, Europeans today live in a “Kantian” postmodern paradise; they are at peace with one another and have constructed for themselves a happy way of life, based on negotiation, cooperation, rules—and impotence. Americans, meanwhile, are mired in history, in a dangerous “Hobbesian” world of interests and conflicts, where the law of the jungle applies and survival rests on armed power.

This sharply drawn contrast accounts, in Kagan’s view, for the present chasm separating the two sides of the Atlantic. The Europeans have a mission (in his words) to universalize the pacific model of their European Union, through international treaties, courts, agencies, and other transnational regulatory bodies. This brings them into confrontation with Washington, since the United States, part of whose burden entails protecting Europe against the folly of its own military inadequacy, cannot be constrained by such bodies. The US is the only world power with global military reach; it is thus a ready target for the enemies of freedom; and it must therefore be ready to fight. There is no reason, Kagan concludes, why Europeans and Americans shouldn’t strive to understand one another better; but part of that understanding requires that they accept how very different they have become.

In broad-brush terms Kagan is correct, though hardly original. American leaders do think more readily of going to war, and they have the means to do so. Europeans are far more committed to multilateral institutions, of which they have considerable experience. But Kagan has magnified this staple truism of newspaper editorials into a geopolitical treatise, and that is where the trouble starts. Under closer scrutiny, its assumptions quickly dissolve. For example: Kagan repeatedly labels “Hobbesian” the international anarchy that he invokes to justify America’s muscular unilateralism. But this is a crass misreading of Hobbes’s position.

Drawing on his observations of seventeenth-century England in an age of civil war, Thomas Hobbes argued that the very laws of nature that threaten to make men’s lives “solitary, poor, nasty, brutal and short” require us to form a common authority for our separate and collective protection. Notice that “solitary,” though: in Hobbes’s account men are not so much in permanent conflict as unengaged one with another. In a “Hobbesian” international world, states—by analogy with individuals—would come together out of their shared interest in security, relinquishing some autonomy and freedom in return for the benefits of a secure environment in which to pursue their separate concerns. This was the genuinely “Hobbesian” solution devised by the American statesmen of an earlier generation, who built the international institutions that Kagan would now tear asunder.

As for the Kantian paradise of the Europeans (the allusion is to Kant’s 1795 essay “On Perpetual Peace”): Kagan has forgotten the very recent past, in which European infantrymen died on peacekeeping missions in Asia, Africa, and Europe while American generals foreswore foreign ground wars lest US soldiers get killed. If Americans are from Mars, they rediscovered the martial virtues rather recently. Kagan has also missed some interesting polls. When asked last year whether they approved of the use of military power to protect their interests, British, French, Italian, and Polish respondents all showed more support for military action than did American respondents. Only the Germans were less enthusiastic. Europeans may not like wars—in which respect they are indeed at odds with the current US administration, though in tune with many Americans—but they are not pacifists, either.3

Kagan’s claim that “weaker powers” (like Europe) historically seek to constrain stronger ones through international structures is likewise misleading. The international agencies we know today were the work of strong powers—notably the US. By universalizing and institutionalizing their own interests, great powers have a much better chance of convincing others to do their bidding, and can reduce the risk of provoking a “coalition of the unwilling” against them. If Kagan looks around him, he will see that this is what the US has recently been attempting in the United Nations—admittedly with limited success, thanks to international resentment at the “neo-Hobbesian” approach advocated by Kagan and his friends and practiced for the past two years.

Robert Kagan wants it both ways. At the end of his book he rather limply asks that Americans and Europeans show better mutual comprehension; but the foregoing 100 pages display not just ignorance of the recent European past and current European diversity, but an undertone of arrogant condescension, mixed with a certain amount of humbug: “The problem,” he writes, is that “the United States must sometimes play by the rules of a Hobbesian world, even though in doing so it violates Europe’s postmodern norms.” But the norms that Washington currently violates are its own—there is nothing uniquely European, much less postmodern, about the rule of law or the desirability of peace over war. And as Kagan’s whole book makes very clear, this doesn’t pose a problem to him. For Kagan, the Europeans, to adapt an earlier exercise in imperial hubris, are “weeny, weedy and weaky.” Violating their norms, for Robert Kagan and a new generation of policy specialists in Washington, is part of the fun.4

Like Kagan, Michael Mandelbaum believes that we live today in an American world and finds this a source of satisfaction. But otherwise the two could not be more different. There is a lot of history in The Ideas That Conquered the World, whose author teaches at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington and is an established scholar of US foreign policy. There is also a seductive thesis. Mandelbaum argues that the twenty-first century will see the final apotheosis of the “Wilsonian triad”: peace, markets, and democracy. After a century of conflict these three interrelated goals of liberal internationalism have triumphed over their historical foes, and the “plot” of post–cold war history will be their “defense, …maintenance,…and extension.”

Mandelbaum’s thesis connects two separate claims. The first is that democracy and free markets have become the condition of modern life in the sense that nations that do not subscribe to both are outside the international consensus. The second is that democracies conduct peaceful foreign policies and don’t make war on one another. There has been much recent scholarly discussion of the latter assertion,5 but the general thesis is actually quite venerable: its eighteenth-century version can be found in both Montesquieu and Adam Smith, who argued that just government and limited taxation were good in themselves and likely to favor friendly relations among states. The idea that flourishing commerce (i.e., free markets) inhibits armed conflict can also be found in John Stuart Mill and a number of other nineteenth- century political economists.

Mandelbaum’s distinctive contribution is to suggest that this process was heavily foreordained. His history of the ultimate vindication of Wilsonian principles is unashamedly “Whiggish.” It isn’t just good fortune that brought us to this happy pass, he suggests. Progress happens, and we are its beneficiaries. The ancien régime, agrarian societies, Leninism, fascism, and socialism all fell by the wayside because they were inefficient, or dysfunctional, or unpopular, or all three. Like Karl Marx, Michael Mandelbaum is attracted to the idea that capitalism wreaks creative destruction, bringing with it the ineluctable triumph of new economic and political forms—in this case, political democracy and the free market in goods and ideas. And these good things go together.6

This isn’t entirely convincing: I’m not sure we were ever “bound” to end up where we happen to be and, in part for that reason, I’m pessimistic about our chances of staying there. The twentieth century could easily have gone in another direction: the triumph of democracy in particular looked quite unlikely as recently as 1941. As for free markets: they are inherently capricious (which is why earlier theorists thought they required firm political oversight). From an egalitarian point of view, market economies consistently misallocate goods, both within countries and between them. There is therefore always the likelihood, especially in a democracy, that the redistributive appeal of economic controls will trump the wealth-generating case for unregulated exchange, as indeed it did for much of the past century—and not only in “socialist” Europe. Democracy and the free market have proven enduringly compatible only under historically unusual conditions of prosperity, or else in protected domestic settings and typically at the expense of third parties somewhere else.7

Professor Mandelbaum knows this, of course. As he concedes, the relations that he posits are “a predisposition, not an inevitable law of politics.” But he is an optimist. No one today, he writes, doubts that “peace, liberty, and prosperity” are the supreme ends of life. The twentieth century shows the price of thinking otherwise. Accordingly, the overriding question in international affairs is how to secure and preserve these hard-won lessons. It is one of the strengths of this book—in addition to the clarity of its prose—that the author’s particular brand of idealism leads him to emphasize the role of the modern state.

  1. 1

    Fluent in Russian and German, Kennan had by 1946 already served in Berlin, Riga, Prague, and Moscow.

  2. 2

    See e.g. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” The National Interest, No. 16 (Summer 1989); The End of History and the Last Man (Free Press, 1992). See also Samuel P. Huntington, “The Clash of Civilizations?” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 72, No. 3 (Summer 1993); The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (Simon and Schuster, 1996).

  3. 3

    See Craig Kennedy and Marshall M. Bouton, “The Real Transatlantic Gap,” Foreign Policy, November–December 2002, based on a recent survey by the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and the German Marshall Fund. For American views, see www.gallup.com/ poll/releases/pr030228.asp. In late February 2003, 59 percent of Americans opposed a war on Iraq without UN support.

  4. 4

    See W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman, 1066 and All That (London: Penguin, 1960), p. 10. “Caesar Invades Britain.” The original “Veni, vidi, vici” (“I came, I saw, I conquered”) was reportedly recorded by Julius Caesar following his successful Pontic campaign in 47 BC.

  5. 5

    See notably Michael W. Doyle, “Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 12, Nos. 3 and 4 (1983).

  6. 6

    The political and economic history of Western Europe after World War II was the most powerful evidence in favor of the liberal theory of history: There all good things—democracy, prosperity, and peace—did go together.”

  7. 7

    For a subtle discussion of this point and its implications, see John Dunn, The Cunning of Unreason: Making Sense of Politics (Basic Books, 2000), especially pp. 30–48, 218–235. This sophisticated, disabused treatise on the nature and limits of political understanding should be required reading for every student of modern politics.

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