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Hopes for a new peaceful international order after the end of the Cold War have been dashed by sobering realities: Great powers are once again competing for honor and influence. The world remains “unipolar,” but international competition among the United States, Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India, and Iran raise new threats of regional conflict, and a new contest between western liberalism and the great eastern autocracies of Russia and China has reinjected ideology into ...
Hopes for a new peaceful international order after the end of the Cold War have been dashed by sobering realities: Great powers are once again competing for honor and influence. The world remains “unipolar,” but international competition among the United States, Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India, and Iran raise new threats of regional conflict, and a new contest between western liberalism and the great eastern autocracies of Russia and China has reinjected ideology into geopolitics.
For the past few years, the liberal world has been internally divided and distracted by issues both profound and petty. Now, in The Return of History and the End of Dreams, Robert Kagan masterfully poses the most important questions facing the liberal democratic countries, challenging them to choose whether they want to shape history or let others shape it for them.
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. --A. C. Grayling
A. C. Grayling is an author, playwright, reviewer, cultural journalist, and professor of philosophy at London University. The most recent of his many books are Towards the Light of Liberty and The Choice of Hercules. His play Grace was recently performed in New York City.
In the early 1990s, the optimism was understandable and almost universal. The collapse of the communist empire and the apparent embrace of democracy by Russia seemed to augur a new era of global convergence. The great adversaries of the Cold War suddenly shared many common goals, including a desire for economic and political integration. Even after the political crackdown that began in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and disturbing signs of instability in Russia after 1993, most Americans and Europeans believed China and Russia were on a path toward liberalism. Boris Yeltsin's Russia seemed committed to the liberal model of political economy and closer integration with the West. The Chinese government's commitment to economic opening, it was hoped, would inevitably produce a political opening, whether Chinese leaders wanted it or not.
Such determinism was characteristic of post—Cold War thinking. In a globalized economy, most believed, nations had no choice but to liberalize, first economically, then politically, if they wanted to compete and survive. As national economies approached a certain level of per capita income, growing middle classes would demand legal and political power, which rulers would have to grant if they wanted their nations to prosper. Since democratic capitalism was the most successful model for developing societies, all societies would eventually choose that path. In the battle of ideas, liberalism had triumphed. As Francis Fukuyama famously put it, "At the end of history, there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy."
The economic and ideological determinism of the early post—Cold War years produced two broad assumptions that shaped both policies and expectations. One was an abiding belief in the inevitability of human progress, the belief that history moves in only one direction— a faith born in the Enlightenment, dashed by the brutality of the twentieth century, but given new life fall of communism. The other was a prescription for patience and restraint. Rather than confront and challenge autocracies, it was better to enmesh them in the global economy, support the rule of law and the creation of stronger state institutions, and let the ineluctable forces of human progress work their magic.
With the world converging around the shared principles of Enlightenment liberalism, the great task of the post—Cold War era was to build a more perfect international system of laws and institutions, fulfilling the prophecies of Enlightenment thought stretching back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A world of liberal governments would be a world without war, just as Kant had imagined. The free flow of both goods and ideas in the new globalized era would be an antidote to human conflict. As Montesquieu had argued, "The natural effect of commerce is to lead toward peace." This old Enlightenment dream seemed suddenly possible because, along with the apparent triumph of international liberalism, the geopolitical and strategic interests of the world's great powers also seemed to converge. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush spoke of a "new world order" in which "the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony," where "the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle," where nations "recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice." It was "a world quite different from the one we've known."
The world looked different primarily because the Soviet Union was different. No one would have suggested that history had ended if the communist Soviet Union had not so suddenly and dramatically died and been transformed after 1989. The transformation of Soviet and then Russian foreign policy was remarkable. The "peaceful influence of liberal ideas" completely reoriented Russian perspectives on the world—or so it seemed. Even in the last years of the Cold War, advocates of "new thinking" in Moscow called for convergence and the breakdown of barriers between East and West, a common embrace, as
Mikhail Gorbachev put it, of "universal values." Then, in the early Yeltsin years, under foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev, Russia appeared committed to entering postmodern Europe. Moscow no longer defined its interests in terms of territory and traditional spheres of interest but rather in terms of economic integration and political development. It renounced regional hegemony, withdrew troops from neighboring states, slashed defense budgets, sought alliance with the European powers and the United States, and in general shaped its foreign policies on the premise that its interests were the same as those of the West. Russia's "wish was simply to belong."
The democratization of Russia, beginning even in the Gorbachev years, had led the country's leaders to redefine and recalculate Russia's national interests. Moscow could give up imperial control in Eastern Europe, could give up its role as a superpower, not because the strategic situation had changed—if anything, the United States was more menacing in 1985 than it had been in 1975—but because the regime in Moscow had changed. A democratizing Russia did not fear the United States or the enlargement of its alliance of democracies.
If Russia could abandon traditional great power politics, so could the rest of the world. "The age of geopolitics has given way to an age of what might be called geoeconomics," Martin Walker wrote in 1996. "The new virility symbols are exports and productivity and growth rates and the great international encounters are the trade pacts of the economic superpowers." Competition among nations might continue, but it would be peaceful commercial competition. Nations that traded with one another would be less likely to fight one another.
Increasingly commercial societies would be more liberal both at home and abroad. Their citizens would seek prosperity and comfort and abandon the atavistic passions, the struggles for honor and glory, and the tribal hatreds that had produced conflict throughout history.
The ancient Greeks believed that embedded in human nature was something called thumos, a spiritedness and ferocity in defense of clan, tribe, city, or state. In the Enlightenment view, however, commerce would tame and perhaps even eliminate thumos in people and in nations. "Where there is commerce," Montesquieu wrote, "there are soft manners and morals." Human nature could be improved, with the right international structures, the right politics, and the right economic systems. Liberal democracy did not merely constrain natural human instincts for aggression and violence; Fukuyama argued it "fundamentally transformed the instincts themselves."
The clash of traditional national interests was a thing of the past, therefore. The European Union, the political scientist Michael Mandelbaum speculated, was but "a foretaste of the way the world of the twenty-first century [would] be organized." The liberal internationalist scholar G. John Ikenberry described a post? Cold War world in which "democracy and markets flourished around the world, globalization was enshrined as a progressive historical force, and ideology, nationalism and war were at a low ebb." It was the triumph of "the liberal vision of international order."
For Americans, the fall of the Soviet Union seemed a heaven-sent chance to fulfill a long-held dream of global leadership—a leadership welcomed and even embraced by the world. Americans had always considered themselves the world's most important nation and its destined leader. "The cause of America is the cause of all mankind," Benjamin Franklin said at the time of the Revolution. The United States was the "locomotive at the head of mankind," Dean Acheson said at the dawn of the Cold War, with the rest of the world merely "the caboose." After the Cold War it was still "the indispensable nation," indispensable because it alone had the power and the understanding necessary to help bring the international community together in common cause. In the new world order, as Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott put it, the United States would define "its strength—indeed, its very greatness—not in terms of its ability to achieve or maintain dominance over others, but in terms of its ability to work with others in the interests of the international community as a whole."
While Americans saw their self-image reaffirmed by the new world order, Europeans believed that the new international order would be modeled after the European Union. As scholar-diplomat Robert Cooper put it, Europe was leading the world into a postmodern age, in which traditional national interests and power politics would give way to international law, supranational institutions, and pooled sovereignty. The cultural, ethnic, and nationalist divisions that had plagued mankind, and Europe, would be dissolved by shared values and shared economic interests. The EU, like the United States, was expansive, but in a postmodern way. Cooper envisioned the enlarging union as a kind of voluntary empire. Past empires had imposed their laws and systems of government. But in the post—Cold War era, "no one is imposing anything." Nations were eager to join the EU's "cooperative empire . . . dedicated to liberty and democracy." A "voluntary movement of self-imposition [was] taking place."
Even as these hopeful expectations arose, however, there were clouds on the horizon, signs of global divergence, stubborn traditions of culture, civilization, religion, and nationalism that resisted or cut against the common embrace of democratic liberalism and market capitalism. The core assumptions of the post—Cold War years collapsed almost as soon as they were formulated.
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