The Return of History and the End of Dreams

Robert Kagan?s title says it all: history did not come to an end with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The idea — the dream — that liberal democratic ideals and market economics had triumphed over all competitors has proved illusory. This fact has been obvious enough for some time now, but it has taken time for the true lineaments of the picture to come into focus, because it has taken time for the new arrangements to shake down into a discernable pattern.

In this intensely interesting and lucid tour d?horizon Kagan draws us that picture — and a disturbing one it is. For the liberal democracies? victories over fascism and communism in the 20th century, says Kagan, “were not inevitable, and need not be lasting. Today the re-emergence of the great autocratic powers, along with the reactionary forces of Islamic radicalism, has weakened that order and threatens to weaken it further.”

As this remark shows, Kagan?s view is that what has replaced the binary Cold War world is a looser and in some ways more unstable triune arrangement in which democracies, autocracies, and non-state Islamists are the nodes. The democracies include the United States, the EU countries, Japan, India, Brazil, and others; most of them accept the leadership of the United States. The principal autocracies are Russia and China, both of which support various lesser autocracies around the globe. Radical Islam is nowhere near as powerful as the other two groupings, but it is dangerous and destabilizing and doomed to failure, but not before it has done considerable damage.

There are, of course, asymmetries: the U.S. supports some autocracies in the Middle East, and economic ties between major democracies and autocracies are very close, as shown by the interpenetration of the Chinese and U.S. economies, and the European Union dependence on Russian energy supplies. But in the diplomatic game the shared interests and anxieties of the emerging blocs exerts a centripetal force, pulling them together in defense of mutual interests. “In fact,” Kagan writes, “there is a global competition under way,” a competition of ideas — about “different value systems and development models,” as Kagan quotes Russia?s Sergei Lavrov as saying, but also a less peaceful more menacing competition: for power, influence, and, in the end, hegemony.

Kagan offers penetrating sketches of the nature and aspirations of each of the major players. He shows that the “end of history” dream was premised on the mistaken belief that states and nations were moving into a postmodern world in which soft power — as he puts it, “the power of argument rather than the argument of power” — would direct the unfolding of events. The model for this dream was the European Union, in which countries were pooling sovereignty, reducing defense budgets, and operating on the basis of consensus. But, Kagan shows, the rest of the world (most notably China and Russia) are operating on a 19th-century model of nationalism and the belief that strength — military as well as economic, and military strength in particular — is the determiner of status and the best protector of interests. “The Chinese and the Europeans,” Kagan writes, “are living in different centuries.”

Psychology plays its part in this: national pride, “face,” honor, the desire to redress past grievances arising from weakness, colonial exploitation, and defeat, together with a sense of lost past glories, are all motivations for China, Russia, India, Iran, and other lesser players. Kagan is right to remind us that ideas of honor, status, and pride are as much factors in international politics as graver economic and security concerns.

Where the “end of history” dream most got it wrong was in thinking that economic liberalization and growth must necessarily be followed by political liberalization. China and Russia emphatically prove this belief false. Both countries have shown that rapid increase in both wealth and power can consolidate rather than undermine autocratic government, because in both cases the general population is happy to enjoy its advance in prosperity without any desire to engage in political activity, still less struggle. This sets an example other countries might be tempted to follow.

Kagan astutely observes that China taught Russia this unpalatable truth. After the Tiananmen Square events China sat tight, having repressed dissent and battened down the hatches, waiting for international condemnation to fade and normal relations to resume. They soon did, and two decades later China is a regional superpower with a mighty economy. Russia under Gorbachev and Yeltsin made overtures to the West and experimented with democracy; the result was weakness and economic failure. Putin set about rectifying that mistake, and the results have been startlingly quick. Today Europe is uncomfortably dependent on Russia?s huge oil and gas resources.

Putin — whatever the official designation of the office he holds in the Kremlin — has made it clear that he disapproves of the encroachment of NATO and the EU on Russia?s borders. He complains about the breakdown in international law as exemplified by NATO action in Kosovo and the Coalition war in Iraq, neither of them approved by the UN. The reason is simple: he can use the Russian veto in the UN Security Council to stymie the Western democracies? activities, but he cannot control NATO and the EU.

Arguably, China is the more serious problem. “Every day,” says Kagan, “the Chinese military prepares for war with the United States over Taiwan.” China is set upon becoming the Asia-Pacific regional hegemon, which means conflict of some kind and at some point with Japan and the United States. Taiwan is not the only flash point; so is the energy question. China is energy ravenous, a point Kagan makes but could have expanded, because energy hunger is potentially one of the most destabilizing factors on the international scene. China is building deep-water harbors in Pakistan and Burma (just two of a number stretching from its own shores to Africa) in order to protect its oil supplies form the Middle East; but its irredentist claims over the Spratley Islands in the South China Sea, and its dispute with Japan over the continental shelf under the East China Sea, are also energy supply motivated, for gas reserves are involved in both.

International complaints about China?s polluting emissions is another sore point. China has a massive environmental problem caused by unregulated industrial expansion — every ten days a new coal-fired power station begins production there — but China sees the complaints as an attempt to restrict its growth.

The democracies are at a disadvantage relative to the autocracies in at least one respect, which is that they undergo changes of government every few years, and foreign policy can change or be adjusted as a result. An autocracy only has to sit still and wait for the short-term democratic cycle to do its work, short-termism being a besetting weakness of democracy. The tendency is for the democracies to be too forgiving too quickly; Russia has paid little in foreign policy terms for Chechnya, or China for Tiananmen and its persistently bad human rights record. In this way the democracies repeatedly play into the autocracies? hands. And they do it because they have become so reliant on what the autocracies provide: cheap goods from China, energy from Russia.

If there is one thing the democracies could do — apart from forming a “concert of democracies,” as Kagan urges, to promote solidarity and mutual interests — it is to find genuinely viable home-produced alternatives to oil and gas, and to do it quickly and comprehensively. It is the dependence on energy from unstable or unpalatable parts of the world that is dragging the democracies into potential dangers and actual conflicts. Kagan does not mention this, but in the hunt for solutions to the tensions that exist or impend in the world order, this has to be of the main ones.

Kagan ends by arguing that the “great fallacy” of our age is the belief — which he acknowledges as “immensely attractive” — that the liberal order depends upon the triumph of its ideas about human progress. But he then paradoxically claims, “Of course there is strength in the liberal democratic idea and the free market. In the long run, and all things being equal, they should prevail over alternative world-views.” If this is right, how can it also be a fallacy? Kagan says that liberal ideas will prevail because they deliver the material goods and, more importantly, appeal to “a most powerful aspect of human nature, the desire for personal autonomy, recognition, and freedom of thought and conscience.” This indeed is what intellectuals find appealing, but alas — as Kagan?s own analysis shows — too many in the world find religious certainties or a sheep-like desire for a “strong leader” or mere laziness (and usually all three) even more appealing. In many ways Kagan?s analysis is realistic to the point of pessimism; these thoughts deepen the pessimism, even though the author wished to end on something of an upstroke.

There is much more in this short but richly interesting and informative book — on the vulnerable states of eastern Europe, Iran, Islamism, the view from Japan and India, and much besides. Written with exemplary clarity and profound good sense, it reads like a briefing paper for the next president of the United States, and as such it is indispensable reading — not just for McCain or Obama but for everyone interested in the uncertain and fragile near future of the world.