U.S. Grand Strategy

Robert Kagan urges the U.S. not to unburden itself of its global role:

“Almost 70 years ago, a new world order was born from the rubble of World War II, built by and around the power of the United States. Today that world order shows signs of cracking, and perhaps even collapsing. The Russia-Ukraine and Syria crises, and the world’s tepid response, the general upheaval in the greater Middle East and North Africa, the growing nationalist and great-power tensions in East Asia, the worldwide advance of autocracy and retreat of democracy—taken individually, these problems are neither unprecedented nor unmanageable. But collectively they are a sign that something is changing, and perhaps more quickly than we may imagine.”

Okay, hold on a second. We need some kind of definition of this new world order. You can’t just say the world came to have some sort of order, and then go on with your essay. Otherwise, how can we know if it’s collapsing and cracking? I would say that after WWII, the U.S. had some ideas about a new world order that didn’t work out at all and were replaced by the Cold War, during which we preserved order through containment and mutually assured destruction. Then the USSR collapsed, and the U.S. became a global hegemon. Kagan’s essay glosses over this distinction, treating the post-WWII era as one ong U.S.-dominated order.

In this way, he makes it seem like FDR’s Wilsonian vision for the post-War world was basically realized, with the Cold War as just a minor nuisance. The era of complete U.S. hegemony following the Cold War comes to seem like the normal state of affairs in his narrative, rather than an aberration. It thus comes to seem like something that we can sustain, without much danger of excessive burdens or overstretch, and one that we have a responsibility to sustain, because the last time we did not do so, we had World War II on our hands.


After WWI, Kagan says, Americans rejected the League of Nations and Wilson’s call for a permanent involvement in supporting a world order in favor of a “return to normalcy,” which “meant defining America’s national interests the way most other nations defined theirs. It meant defending the homeland, avoiding overseas commitments, preserving the country’s independence and freedom of action…This applied to global economic issues as well.” Americans committed to normalcy “even as the world order—no longer upheld by the old combination of British naval might and a relatively stable balance of power in Europe and Asia—began to fray and then collapse.” FDR tried to prepare the American public rhetorically to join WWII, Kagan notes, he had a hard time justifying intervention in terms of concrete national interests or threats to American security.

Even if the United States faced no immediate danger of military attack, Roosevelt argued, if Hitler, Mussolini, and Imperial Japan were allowed to have their way, the world would be a ‘shabby and dangerous place to live in—yes, even for Americans to live in.’ America would become a ‘lone island’ in a world dominated by the ‘philosophy of force.’…America would have to become an armed camp to defend itself. Roosevelt urged Americans to look beyond their immediate physical security. ‘There comes a time in the affairs of men…when they must prepare to defend, not their homes alone, but the tenets of faith and humanity on which their churches, their governments, and their very civilization are founded.”

Pearl Harbor, Kagan writes forced a reassessment of American conception of its interests, the lessons being thatoceans and naval strength could no longer offer complete protection; the rise of a hostile Eurasian hegemon was a threat to American security; and, the “lesson of Munich,” Eurasian aggressors had to be deterred before they became too strong.

“[C]onvinced that World War II had been the result not of any single incident but rather of the overall breakdown of world order….American leaders set out to erect and sustain a new world order.”

Okay, lessons one and two are one thing. Contrary to Kagan, this is what any normal realist country does- prevent others in its region from becoming too powerful. The only thing new was now our region was the whole world. The lesson of Munich is dicier: stop any invader, anywhere in the world. NATO, the Marshall Plan, and the Berlin airlift and the alliance with Japan were about protecting strategically important regions from the Communist bloc. The Korean War was about protecting anyone, anywhere against invasion by anyone. It wasn’t really about containing Communism, but about the lessons of Munich and upholding the United Nations- almost a reversion to FDR’s pre-Cold War vision of world order, defending other countries not based alliances or interests but based a commitment to uphold a global norm against aggression anywhere, regardless of whether the means expended were greater than the ends achieved. It was an unlimited commitment.

But it didn’t last. Eisenhower let the USSR invade Hungary; the world order was now firmly based on spheres of influence and balances of power and MAD, not on a norm against invasion. Kennedy said we had unlimited commitments (“pay any price, bear any burden”) and Kennedy-Johnson committed us to defend South Vietnam against invasion from the north, but that war exhausted our unlimited commitment, and our belief in unlimited commitment. Cambodia committed genocide and we did nothing, China invaded Vietnam and we did nothing, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan and we didn’t freak out and cry “Munich”; rather, like a sensible, realist power, we turned Afghanistan into the Soviets’ problem, expending little cost ourselves to impose great costs on the Soviets. (As Kagan alludes to, Carter did boost the defense budget from post-Vietnam lows in response to the realization, in light of Afghanistan, that the USSR was still an aggressive power.)

Despite these facts, Kagan treats the Cold War years as if they were based on U.S. unipolarity rather than a balance of power, thus taking them as a repudiation of realism: “The United States thus violated some of the cardinal rules of international relations. For decades, realists had believed that the only peaceful and stable world order was one based on a multipolar balance of power, a ‘concert’ of nations poised in rough equilibrium in a system that all the players regarded as necessary and legitimate—like Europe in the years following the Congress of Vienna. This was the world with which Henry Kissinger felt comfortable and which he constantly predicted, even in the 1960s, was just right around the corner….But the United States was already disproving this thesis.”He treats the struggle against Communism as little more than an excuse by internationalists to get the American public to accept its rightful world role.

He does argue that the U.S. was a historically uniquely power in that it could permanently station troops in Europe and Asia. Other countries have to focus too much on their neighbors, while Britain in its hegemon days was too focused on its empire to station troops in Europe; it relied on “off-shore balancing” of Europe and ultimately was not able to contain Prussia. But that just means the U.S. was a more powerful and effective power-balancer than Britain. And it was the far-flung nature of British commitments that created a problem, whereas American focus stayed more centered on core objectives of containing Russia in Europe and China in the Pacific. (Here the Korean War got us something after all, a permanent Asian land base.)


So we’re sort of committed to stopping invasions, and we’re very much committed to stopping a Eurasian power bloc that surrounds and isolates the U.S., and to be on the safe side we’d prefer to stop any potential regional hegemon. Got it. So where’s the threat? The devious thing about Kagan’s argument is there doesn’t have to be a tangible threat. That’s where his equivocation between Cold War and American unipolar hegemony is so key. The period of U.S. planning for a post-WWII world, in late WWII and the immediate aftermath, did not envision a Cold War, but did envision a generalized U.S. role in upholding order. By emphasizing that the U.S. did not initially have in mind a specific threat, he creates the idea that there doesn’t have to be a potential hegemon to justify U.S. intervention; anything that threatens some vague concept of “liberal world order” is enough. Because our strategy, at its supposedly deepest level, is not about confronting tangible threats, we can never really be “doing enough;” we can never know we are secure, we have to act constantly.

So through a kind of sleight-of-hand, we go from “stop the next Hitler” to “stop anyone who threatens a liberal world order.” We go from “stop hostile alliances from taking over the rest of the world and isolating you” to “reshape the world according to a vision.” Not the extraordinary threat of the Axis or the Communist bloc, but ordinary global politics, are something the U.S. must put an end to: “the American presence in Europe and East Asia put an end to the cycles of war that had torn both regions since the late nineteenth century. The number of democracies in the world grew dramatically. The international trading system expanded and deepened. Most of the world enjoyed an unprecedented prosperity…none of it would have been possible without a United States willing and able to play the abnormal and unusual role of preserver and defender of a liberal world order.” There’s not much wrong with this observation by itself, provided that we remember that the positive trends post-WWII are a happy added benefit of the U.S. efforts to achieve security, not things that are themselves necessary for said security.


Now we come to the deep philosophical stuff in Kagan’s piece. He argues that people who call themselves realists because they want to accept the world as it is, rather than imposing a liberal world order, are not really realists at all. They don’t recognize how bad the “world as it is” really is, and they are actually wild-eyed optimists because they assume progress is automatic rather than something imposed through power. They say “liberal democracy cannot be imposed by force,” they implicitly believe it can come about of its own accord. What is truly realistic is to recognize that 1) the “world as it is” is a nasty, Hobbesian place and 2) liberal world order exists because people with enough power decided to impose it, not because of its inherent moral worth. Liberal order will always cut against the grain of human nature, so it can only ever be imposed through power, however difficult this task may be.

Thus, the improvements in the number of democracies and the decline in genocides and armed conflicts since WWII is attributable to the exercise of U.S. power, and when the U.S. ceases exercising that power, these trends will cease. Human nature, the “world as it is,” hasn’t changed; the only thing that’s changed is U.S. power application.

But there’s a false dichotomy here: changes in human nature and application of U.S. power aren’t the only available explanations for the improvements since roughly the 1970s. Survival of the fittest institutions is another possibility. The state proved to be an institution that crushed every competitor in its path from the time it was invented, and the republican or democratic form of government within a state, along with some form of nationalist backing (hence nation-state) proved to be more durable than Hobbesian despotism. These trends were well underway in Europe from the French Revolution onward. Then, unfortunately, Communism and fascism emerged as serious ideological competitors with liberalism. U.S. efforts were crucial to countering these threats. But as for your run-of-the mill Hobbesian states (Franco’s Spain, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines under Marcos, Pinochet’s Chile, Argentina and most of the rest of Latin America), they were bound to eventually become democratic, provided the U.S. could hold the fort against Communism. The U.S. supported such Hobbesian countries and was often anti-democratic during the Cold War, certainly not very pro-democratic. They would give Hobbesian dictators a nudge out the door once it became clear that democratic governments would offer more stability as anti-communist bulwarks. Democratization of Africa in the 1990s came about partly because the U.S. no longer had anything to lose by pressuring authoritarian governments, and these governments had nowhere else to turn for support, but partly because, again, subjecting itself to a vote is just the best way for a government to legitimize itself, so Africa was participating in a world-wide trend.

Just as the U.S. has devoted little effort to democracy promotion, it has devoted little effort to the other positive trends (less territorial aggression, less war), outside the realm of its security commitments, which are substantial but not quite enough to explain the world-wide trend. Sure, the U.S. took action to counter invaders in Korea and the Persian Gulf, but do those two data points, forty years apart, explain a decades-long trend? As for other types of wars, such as civil wars, U.S. has often brokered conflict resolutions, but only after the parties have duked it out all the really want to. Wars have to end some time; when new ones don’t start, eventually you’re going to have a decline in the number of wars going. It’s hard to say exactly why new wars don’t start much anymore- why did Czechoslovakia split so peacefully? Why did Estonia not persecute its Russian population after the breakup of the USSR? Why is China one of the most peaceful rising powers in history? Why aren’t England and Scotland threatening war? Any one of these things may have individual explanations, but together they really do look like a trend toward customs and institutions evolving toward less violence, rather than some international law being imposed on everybody. And if there is a world-wide breakdown in trust, the U.S. will have to respond accordingly, but I don’t think it’s possible to change that reality.


Kagan bemoans the sense of futility about American power that he detects in the current generation of policy-makers in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan, and their belief in declining American power. He tries to rally them; this futility is a form of escapism, he says; foreign policy wasn’t ever any easier than it is today, the Cold War was full of disasters and look at all it achieved. Moreover, “[t]o insist on outcomes that always achieve maximum ends at minimal cost is yet another form of escapism.”

Well, if the Cold War was full of disasters, and Iraq and Afghanistan have been disasters, and Libya has been a disaster, should we try to learn from these disasters, and figure out what worked and what didn’t? Maybe some disasters were inevitable (Afghanistan), but that doesn’t mean we have to go around courting them, by going into Syria and Ukraine (simultaneously?)

The things that actually won us the Cold War were mostly pretty straightforwardMarshall Plan, Berlin Airlift, NATO, Nixon to China, arm the Afghan mujahedin*, spend lots of money on defense, watch the Soviet bloc economies disintegrate. The things that didn’t work (Vietnam, the Bay of Pigs, a lot of our foreign aid projects) didn’t help win us the Cold War, because they didn’t work. The things we didn’t attempt to do (stop the Soviets from invading Hungary and Czechoslovakia, seriously trying to help the Chinese Nationalists win their civil war) didn’t help us win, because we didn’t do them. Korea is certainly an ambiguous case- we accomplished our objective, but was it worth it?

So where does all this leave us? The things that helped us win the Cold War were cases where we successfully matched means to ends- where we managed to achieve maximum ends at minimal cost. Where we achieved minimum ends at maximal cost, it didn’t help us! Kagan’s reasoning on the point is really rather warped- the more he can say every exercise of power is near-futile, the more he can call for maximum expenditure of power; there is no need to pick and choose futile from non-futile, and ultimately it all must do some good since we won the Cold War.

If the world is really so chaotic that we can’t intelligently estimate the outcome of our actions, or calculate our interests, then neither Kagan nor anybody else can provide any guidance. If not, then foreign policy isn’t that inherently difficult. You start up NATO because you want an alliance to counter the Soviets, and prevent their further expansion. You refrain from intervening in Hungary, because you don’t want nuclear war (the decision not to use force is as much a decision about the exercise of power as any other). The U.S. and Soviets each have their sphere of influence, they each have some educated guess of how far they can push the other short of nuclear war. Similarly, today, you don’t go into Syria because you can’t see what earthly good it will do; you may not be able to defeat the regime and, if you can, you may not be able to prevent Al Qaeda from taking over. Pointing to Cold War foreign policy failures should not cause us to decrease our estimate of the likelihood of failure in Syria.

* Yes, something called the Taliban came along and filled the power vacuum after the Soviets left. We couldn’t have foreseen that, let alone that Al Qaeda would come into existence and train there, much less that AQ would launch a terrorist attack that killed 3000 people. This could fit into the larger point that all actions have unforeseeable consequences, but I don’t know why that’s an argument for more involvement.


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