Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy

Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy

by Robert Kagan

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This original collection of essays offers hope to those who believe that the cause of world peace requires a new American foreign policy and repairing our depleted military. The twelve contributors to this book show why America must take another look at our possible adversaries and real strategic partners. Present Dangers offers practical strategies for


This original collection of essays offers hope to those who believe that the cause of world peace requires a new American foreign policy and repairing our depleted military. The twelve contributors to this book show why America must take another look at our possible adversaries and real strategic partners. Present Dangers offers practical strategies for policymakers eager to disarm adversaries like North Korea and Iraq and head off the terrorist threat. Intellectuals, historians and policy-makers such as James Ceasar, Ross Munro, Peter Rodman, Richard Perle, Reuel Marc Gerecht, Nicholas Eberstadt, Jeffrey Gedmin, Aaron Friedberg, Elliott Abrams, Frederick Kagan, Willliam Schneider, William Bennett, Paul Wolfowitz, and Donald Kagan all challenge America to make sure that foreign affairs, a sleeping issue for the last eight years, gets a wake-up call in election year 2000. Table of contents, notes, bibliographic essay.

Editorial Reviews

Contributors argue that the time has come for America to rearm morally, intellectually, and literally. They survey a decade marked by drift, evasion, and a short attention span in foreign affairs, and call for readers to rethink who our possible adversaries and real strategic partners are. Kagan is affiliated with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Kristol is editor and publisher of magazine. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

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Present Dangers

Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy

Encounter Books

Copyright © 2000 Robert Kagan and William Kristol.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1-893554-13-9


Introduction: National Interest and Global Responsibility

A little over twenty years ago, a group of concerned Americans formed the Committee on the Present Danger. The danger they feared, and sought to rally Americans to confront, was the Soviet Union.

It is easy to forget these days how controversial was the suggestion in the mid- to late 1970s that the Soviet Union was really a danger, much less one that should be challenged by the United States. This was hardly the dominant view of the American foreign policy establishment. Quite the contrary: prevailing wisdom from the Nixon through the Carter administrations held that the United States should do its utmost to coexist peaceably with the USSR, and that the American people in any case were not capable of sustaining a serious challenge to the Soviet system. To engage in an arms race would either bankrupt the United States or lead to Armageddon. To challenge communist ideology at its core, to declare it evil and illegitimate, would be at best quixotic and at worst perilous. When the members of the Committee on the Present Danger challenged this comfortable consensus, when they criticized détente and armscontrol and called for a military buildup and a broad ideological and strategic assault on Soviet communism, their recommendations were generally dismissed as either naive or reckless. It would take a revolution in American foreign policy, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the disintegration of the Soviet empire to prove just how right they were.

Does this Cold War tale have any relevance today as Americans grapple with the uncertainties of the post-Cold War era? The Soviet Union has long since crumbled. No global strategic challenger has emerged to take its place; none appears visible on the horizon; and the international scene at present seems fairly benign to most observers. Many of our strategists tell us that we will not face another major threat for twenty years or more, and that we may as a consequence enjoy a "strategic pause." According to opinion polls, the American public is less interested in foreign policy than at any time since before World War II. Intermittent fears of terrorist attack, worries about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, distant concerns about the possible outbreak of war in the Taiwan Strait or in the Balkans—all attract attention, but only fleetingly. The United States, both at the level of elite opinion and popular sentiment, appears to have become the Alfred E. Newman of superpowers, with its national motto being, "What, me worry?"

But there is today a "present danger." It has no name. It is not to be found in any single strategic adversary. It does not fit neatly under the heading of "international terrorism" or "rogue states" or "ethnic hatred." In fact, the ubiquitous post-Cold War question—where is the threat?—is misconceived. Rather, the present danger is that the United States, the world's dominant power on whom the maintenance of international peace and the support of liberal democratic principles depends, will shrink its responsibilities and—in a fit of absentmindedness, or parsimony, or indifference—allow the international order that it created and sustains to collapse. Our present danger is one of declining military strength, flagging will and confusion about our role in the world. It is a danger, to be sure, of our own devising. Yet, if neglected, it is likely to yield very real external dangers, as threatening in their way as the Soviet Union was a quarter century ago.

* * *

In fact, beneath the surface calm of world affairs today, there has already been an erosion of the mostly stable, peaceful and democratic international order that emerged briefly at the end of the Cold War. Americans and their political leaders have spent the years since 1991 lavishing the gifts of an illusory "peace dividend" upon themselves, and frittering away the opportunity to strengthen and extend an international order uniquely favorable to the United States.

It is worth reviewing the record of the past ten years, if only to show how great is the opportunity we have wasted and the dangers that may await us in the future as a result.

The 1990s, for all their peace and prosperity, were a squandered decade. The decade began with America's triumph in the Cold War and its smashing victory over Iraq in Desert Storm. In the wake of those twin triumphs, the United States had assumed an unprecedented position of power and influence in the world. By the traditional measures of national power, the United States held a position unmatched since Rome dominated the Mediterranean world. American military power dwarfed that of any other nation, both in its war-fighting capabilities and in its ability to intervene in conflicts anywhere in the world on short notice. There was a common acceptance, even by potential adversaries, that America's position as the sole global superpower might not be challenged for decades to come. Meanwhile, the American economic precepts of liberal capitalism and free trade had become almost universally accepted as the best model for creating wealth, and the United States itself stood at the center of that international economic order. The American political precepts of liberal democracy had spread across continents and cultures as other peoples cast off or modified autocratic methods of governance and adopted, or at least paid lip-service to, the American credo of individual rights and freedoms. American culture, for better or for worse, had become the dominant global culture. To a degree scarcely imaginable at mid-century, or even as late as the 1970s, the world had indeed been transformed in America's image.

Our country, in other words, was—or could have been—present at another creation similar to the one Dean Acheson saw emerge after World War II. For the first time in its history, the United States had the chance to shape the international system in ways that would enhance its security and advance its principles without opposition from a powerful, determined adversary. A prostrate and democratizing Russia had neither the ability nor the inclination to challenge the American-led international democratic order. Though it turned toward harsh repression at home in 1989, China had barely begun to increase its military capabilities, and rather than thinking about launching a challenge to American dominance in East Asia, China's military leaders stood in awe of the military prowess and technological superiority America had exhibited in the Gulf War. The world's strongest economies in Europe and Japan, meanwhile, were American allies and participants in the international economic and political system, with the United States at its center. The newly liberated nations of Eastern and Central Europe yearned for membership in the American-led North Atlantic alliance. In the Middle East, the defeat of Saddam's armies, the liberation of Kuwait, and the waning of Soviet and then Russian influence seemed to open a new era of American influence.

* * *

The task for America at the start of the 1990s ought to have been obvious. It was to prolong this extraordinary moment and to guard the international system from any threats that might challenge it. This meant, above all, preserving and reinforcing America's benevolent global hegemony, which undergirded what President George Bush rightly called a "new world order." The goal of American foreign policy should have been to turn what Charles Krauthammer called a "unipolar moment" into a unipolar era.

The great promise of the post-Cold War era, however, began to dim almost immediately—and even before Bill Clinton was elected. The United States, which had mustered the world's most awesome military force to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, failed to see that mission through to its proper conclusion: the removal of Saddam from power in Baghdad. Instead, vastly superior U.S. forces stood by in March 1991 as Shi'ite and Kurdish uprisings against Saddam were brutally crushed and the Iraqi tyrant, so recently in fear of his life, began to re-establish his control over the country. Three months later, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic launched an offensive against the breakaway province of Slovenia, following up with a much larger attack on Croatia. In the spring of 1992, Serb forces began their bloody siege of Sarajevo and a war of ethnic cleansing that would cost the lives of 200,000 Bosnian Muslims over the next three years. In the second half of 1992, meanwhile, American intelligence learned that North Korea had begun surreptitiously producing materials for nuclear weapons.

Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, and the totalitarian regime of North Korea, each in their own way, would be the source of one crisis after another throughout the remainder of the decade. Each of these dangerous dictatorships appears certain to survive the end of the twentieth century and go on to present continuing risks to the United States and its allies in the new millennium. And their very survival throughout the 1990s has established a disturbing principle in the post-Cold War world: that dictators can challenge the peace, slaughter innocents in their own or in neighboring states, threaten their neighbors with missile attacks—and still hang on to power. This constitutes a great failure in American foreign policy, one that will surely come back to haunt us.

But these were not the only failures that made the 1990s a decade of squandered opportunity for American foreign policy. The past decade also saw the rise of an increasingly hostile and belligerent China, which had drawn its own conclusions about U.S. behavior after the Gulf War. While every other great power in the world cut its defense budget throughout the 1990s, China alone embarked on a huge military buildup, augmenting both its conventional and its nuclear arsenal in an effort to project power beyond its shores and deter the United States from defending its friends and allies. China used this power to seize contested islands in the South China Sea, to intimidate its neighbors in East Asia, and, in the most alarming display of military might, to frighten the people of Taiwan by launching ballistic missiles off their shores. Throughout the 1990s, moreover, the Chinese government continued and intensified the repression of domestic dissent, both political and religious, that began with the massacre in Tiananmen Square. The American response to China's aggressive behavior at home and abroad has, with but a few exceptions, been one of appeasement.

In the face of the moral and strategic challenges confronting it, the United States engaged in a gradual but steady moral and strategic disarmament. Rather than seeking to unseat the dangerous dictatorships in Baghdad and Belgrade, the Clinton administration combined empty threats and ineffectual military operations with diplomatic accommodation. Rather than press hard for changes of regime in Pyongyang and Beijing, the Clinton administration—and in the case of China, the Bush administration before it—tried to purchase better behavior through "engagement." Rather than confronting the moral and strategic challenge presented by these evil regimes, the United States tried to do business with them in pursuit of the illusion of "stability." Rather than squarely facing our world responsibilities, American political leaders chose drift and evasion.

In the meantime, the United States allowed its military strength to deteriorate to the point where its ability to defend its interests and deter future challenges is now in doubt. From 1989 to 1999, the defense budget and the size of the armed forces were cut by a third; the share of America's GNP devoted to defense spending was halved, from nearly 6 to around 3 percent; and the amount of money spent on weapons procurement and research and development declined about 50 percent. There was indeed a "peace dividend," and as a result, by the end of the decade the U.S. military was inadequately equipped and stretched to the point of exhaustion. And while defense experts spent the 1990s debating whether it was more important to maintain current readiness or to sacrifice present capabilities in order to prepare for future challenges, the United States, under the strain of excessive budget cuts, did neither.

Yet ten years from now, and perhaps a good deal sooner, we likely will be living in a world in which Iraq, Iran, North Korea and China all possess the ability to strike the continental United States with nuclear weapons. Within the next decade we may have to decide whether to defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack. We could face another attempt by a rearmed Saddam Hussein to seize Kuwait's oil fields. An authoritarian regime in Russia could move to reclaim some of what it lost in 1991.

Other, still greater challenges can be glimpsed on the horizon, involving a host of unanswerable questions. What will China be in ten years: a modernizing economy peacefully integrating itself into the international system, an economic basket case ruled by a desperate dictatorship and a hypernationalistic military, or something in between? What will Russia be: a struggling democracy shedding its old imperial skin, or a corrupt autocracy striving to take back some of what it lost in 1989 and 1991? And there are other imponderables that derive from these. If Japan feels increasingly threatened by North Korean missiles and growing Chinese power, will it decide to rearm and perhaps build its own nuclear arsenal? What would Germany do if faced by an increasingly disaffected, revanchist, and bellicose Russia?

These threats and challenges do not exhaust the possibilities, for if history is any guide we are likely to face dangers, even within the next decade, that we cannot even imagine today. Much can happen in ten years. In 1788 for instance, while Louis XVI sat comfortably on his French throne, French philosophers preached the dawning of a new age of peace based on commerce, and no one had ever heard of Napoleon Bonaparte. Ten years later, a French king had lost his head and Napoleon was rampaging across Europe. In 1910, Norman Angell won international acclaim for a book, The Great Illusion, in which he declared that the growth of trade between capitalist countries had made war between the great powers obsolete. By 1920, the world had suffered through the costliest war in human history, fought among the world's great capitalist trading powers, and had seen a communist takeover in Russia, a development that was literally unimaginable a decade earlier. In 1928, the American economy was soaring, Weimar Germany was ruled by a moderate democrat, and Europe was at peace. Ten years later, the United States was struggling to emerge from the Great Depression, and Neville Chamberlain was handing Czechoslovakia over to Adolf Hitler.

While none of this argues that the world must become a vastly more dangerous place, the point is that the world can grow perilous with astonishing speed. Should this happen once more, it would be terrible to have to look back on the current era as a great though fleeting opportunity that was recklessly wasted. Everything depends on what we do now.

No "Return to Normalcy"

Contrary to prevailing wisdom, the missed opportunities of the 1990s cannot be made up for merely by tinkering around the edges of America's current foreign and defense policies. The middle path many of our political leaders would prefer, with token increases in the defense budget and a more "humble" view of America's role in the world, will not suffice. What is needed today is not better management of the status quo, but a fundamental change in the way our leaders and the public think about America's role in the world.


Excerpted from Present Dangers. Copyright © 2000 by Robert Kagan and William Kristol. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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