CAN AMERICA LEAD IN THE 21st CENTURY?
THE SPECTER OF AMERICAN DECLINE
, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, The Brookings Institution
Event Summary by Richard C. Longworth, Senior Fellow, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs
The United States has played a unique role since World War II in preventing wars between the great powers and in promoting both democracy and global prosperity, foreign policy scholar Robert Kagan told a Chicago Council audience Wednesday evening. The future of all three – peace, democracy, and an open economy – depends on the United States continuing this role, he said.
Kagan said that the prophets of decline and retrenchment, who argue that America’s economic problems require a pullback from global leadership, are flatly wrong.
“We’re situated to maintain this world order for many years to come,” he said. “Yes, America will decline someday, but not yet. We have to push back against this mood that it’s time to retrench. Let’s not forget how bad the world can get and the role that the US has played all these years. We can persist – if we have the will to do it.”
In an interview before his speech, Kagan criticized President Obama’s second inaugural address, which stressed domestic affairs at the expense of foreign policy.
“President Obama was reading a public mood instead of leading a public mood,” he said. “The president’s job is to push back against this mood.”
Kagan is a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a prolific commentator on history and foreign policy, and the author of a new book, The World America Made
. He made his name a decade ago with another book, Of Paradise and Power
, which also argued for the positive role of American military power in keeping global peace and enabling other nations – especially Western Europe – to develop peacefully behind the American shield. That book coined the phrase, “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.”
In his new book and in his speech before 450 people at the Council program, Kagan described what he called the “era of American order,” 65 years of American dominance of global affairs. Basically, he said, America’s military might has prevented any of the great-power conflicts that shattered the first half of the century: at the same time, it has used its overwhelming economic and political power, backed by the military, to spread both democracy and a liberal economic order.
Kagan didn’t ignore America’s abuse of this power – in its wars in Vietnam and Iraq, for instance, or in its support of dictators for strategic purposes. But he said this is more than balanced by the overall benign use of this power and its results.
“Americans are the least unvirtuous people,” he said. “Of course we trespass. But we do better than others. Yes, this is a low bar, but it’s a sufficiently high bar to enable us to do the good things we’ve accomplished.”
These goods things, he said, include an era in which the number of democracies has grown from a half-dozen to 115, or in which economic growth has pulled billions of people from poverty – after thousands of years of history in which the average human “lived in a world of war, poverty and tyranny.”
“These advances don’t just come from nowhere,” he said. It’s an interesting coincidence that it’s since 1945 that all this happened. This is the Era of American Order.
“History tells us that these orders aren’t self-sustaining, but have to be sustained by a leading power,” he said. “You dare not imagine that you can pull America out of the equation and everything remains the same.”
Kagan rejected the idea that international institutions such as the United Nations are ready to oversee this order, or that nondemocracies such as China could sustain it.
But he asked – can we do it? Or is America in decline? His answers were yes we can, and no we aren’t.
“Our empire is not that expensive,” he said. American military spending now, as a percentage of GDP, is only half that of the Reagan years. The present mood of decline and retrenchment, he added, is nothing new: “the notion of decline is as old as the republic itself” and comes in “sine waves.” He predicted that Americans, averse today to any new wars, will intervene again significantly somewhere – in Iran, say, or Syria – within two years.
Kagan granted that the United States can’t get its way in every dispute or order regions – the Mideast, for instance – to its liking. But then, it never could, he said.
“It’s always hard. You always lose more than you win. It’s always a challenge. We have to be able to rise to that challenge.”
China “will be a force, no question about it,” he said in the interview. But it faces too many challenges and rivals of its own to match American global power soon. “I anticipate that China is going to be more cautious.”
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy and global issues. Views expressed in event summaries are solely those of the author, not The Chicago Council, which takes no institutional positions.