“For all its flaws and its miseries, the world America made has been a remarkable anomaly in the history of humanity. Someday we may have no choice but to watch it drift away. Today we do have a choice.” These concluding lines of Robert Kagan’s latest book – The World America Made – sum up his arguments on American power over the past six decades and what the international order might look like if the United States allows its influence to wane. Remarkably enough, he makes some compelling arguments on the subject and concludes them, in all of 149 pages.
The book is Kagan’s way of asserting that much of the pessimism about today’s America is misplaced. He looks at the achievements of the US preeminence since World War II in terms of widespread freedom, global prosperity and absence of war among great powers. He uses empirical evidence to drive the point home. In 1941, there were only a dozen democracies in the world. Today there are over a hundred. He later concedes that the number of electoral democracies peaked in 2005 at 123 and has dropped since then slightly every year. As of 2011, the number was 115.
According to Kagan, democracy has spread rapidly not simply because people yearn for it but because the most powerful nations in the world since 1950 have been democracies. The global economic growth, which also reflects an economic order shaped by the world’s leading free market economy, is another case in point. For four centuries, prior to 1950, global GDP rose by less than 1 percent. Since 1950, it has risen by an average of 4 percent a year, and billions of people have been lifted out of poverty.
However, by Kagan’s own admission, history shows us that world orders are transient. They rise and fall and so do institutions they built, the beliefs that guided them and the norms that shaped relations among nations. There is one constant though; every international order in history has reflected the beliefs and interests of its strongest powers, and every international order has changed when powers shifted to others with different beliefs and interests.
The book has a very interesting passage on the average American’s perception on foreign policy and how they are torn to the point of schizophrenia in these matters. “They [the Americans] are reluctant, then aggressive; asleep at the switch, then quick at the trigger; indifferent, then obsessed, then indifferent again. They act out of a sense of responsibility and then resent and fear the burden of responsibility they have taken on themselves. As a result, their effect on the world, not surprisingly, is often the opposite of what they intend.”
There are more dichotomies to follow. Indeed, Americans say they want stability in the international systems, but they are often the greatest disruptors of stability. “They extol the virtues of international laws and institutions but they violate and ignore them with barely a second thought…They are a revolutionary power but they think they are a status quo power. They want to be left alone, but cant seem to leave anyone else alone,” Kagan writes in the book.
Interestingly it is also claimed that Americans were reluctant to become a global power after World War II and even the NATO alliance was really a European idea. It was the Europeans who wanted American troops standing between them and the ‘Red Army’ and to keep a revived Germany in check. Indeed George Kennan – American adviser, diplomat, political scientist, and historian – opposed the idea of NATO or any extended American presence in Europe.
“He feared Americans were not fitted, either institutionally or temperamentally, to be an imperial power in the grand manner, and he much preferred to gradually divest of the basic responsibility for the security of Western Europe.” For Europeans on the other hand, the US was geographically far enough away to be a less threatening hegemon, and with no enemies at its own borders, could keep large troops away on permanent stations.
Kagan outlines various reasons why American power has been tolerated and even welcomed around the world. To him it is self-interest more than anything else. He also maintains that the general acceptance of American power over several decades has been critical to the maintenance of peace among great powers.
But is America really in decline? Are Americans in danger of committing ‘preemptive superpower suicide’ out of a misplaced fear of declining power? Those are some of the most critical issues addressed in the book. According to Kagan, the answer depends on what configuration of power is likely to follow American decline, emphasizing the greater probability of a return to bipolar world, even though it is unlikely in the near term.
The author concedes that the leading candidate to catch up with the US, and become a second superpower, is China but adds that, despite its rising economic might, it will be more problematic for China to become a superpower in a geostrategic sense. That would need a collapse of all the powers in Asia and their subservience to Beijing.
However, Kagan desists from painting a doomsday scenario, even if all the worst fears about America come true. The world would remain largely democratic. Free-trade and free-market economic order would survive, and great-power peace would persist. Kagan hints at other possibilities too. “The United States would have to get used to a more equal partnership with other great powers, but there is no reason why the world could not move to a new arrangement – a new “Concert of Powers”, much like the Concert of Europe that kept peace in the decades following Napoleonic Wars,” he says. In such a scenario, autocracies and democracies would yield roughly equal power.
Kagan is of the view that even though we can dimly see the outlines of what the next world order might look like it is still from the safe vantage point of a world order that remains shaped by the United States. As The World America Made nears its conclusion, there appear to be more questions than answers. The tone is reminiscent of Mathew Arnold’s famous lines: “Wandering between two worlds, one dead, The other powerless to be born.”
The author maintains that all is not lost and points to the US share of world GDP, which has remained remarkably steady over several decades. He also argues that the rise of China and India has come at the expense of Europe and Japan. Moreover, even if China reaches the pinnacle – like it did in the early 18th century – it will still remain far behind both the US and Europe in terms of per capita GDP. There will also remain a gap in military superiority.
The bigger danger though lies in Americans convincing themselves that a decline is indeed inevitable and that the United States can take time out from its global responsibilities while it gets its own house in order. Whether America has reached that stage or not is anybody’s guess. Besides triggering a brainstorm, this diminutive yet racy book reinforces Kagan’s credentials as a New York Times best-selling author and an influential strategic thinker.