April 28, 2008 | Commentary on Democracy and Human Rights

Face the Nations: Handicapping the Players in a Multi-Power World


Voters interested in keeping America safe, free and prosperous have a choice. Option No. 1: They can follow the presidential race, which may provide some moments of entertainment, but will offer few insights into how the next president will deal with the world in 2009. The candidates, after all, are more interested in getting votes than explaining how they'll govern.

Option No. 2: Reading Robert Kagan's "The Return of History." In it Kagan, who sits on the Council of Foreign Relations and whose wife is the US ambassador to NATO, offers a clear-eyed, plain-spoken, straight-forward assessment of the mess the world is in and how America can best cope.

The book is the better choice.

"The Return of History" refers to Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History" (1992), in which Fukuyama famously argued that with the Cold War won, the evolution of civil society had come to an end. The liberal nation-state had triumphed. But Fukuyama was wrong. Although the nation-state is certainly alive and well, the post-Cold War world has proved as unpredictable, uncertain and ambiguous as the past.

Kagan puts it simply: "The world has not been transformed. In most places, the nation-state remains as strong as ever, and so, too, the nationalist ambitions, the passions and the competition among nations that have shaped history." Kagan points out that instead of a blossoming Utopia after the Cold War, the world became "normal again." States did not melt together into a global community love-fest. Instead, they compete and scrap with each other just like they always have.

His tough-love message is: Get used to it. State-on-state competition is going to continue - dominating the global debate on how the world will be won and run.

Kagan analyzes other states, their capabilities and intentions toward the United States. He primarily focuses on rising powers like China, Iran, India and Russia, countries flush with petro-dollars or sales orders from Wal-Mart. His analysis of each country is concise and insightful. He takes complicated issues, like US-China relations, and gets to the core of the matter. "Every day the Chinese military prepares for a possible war with the United States over Taiwan," he writes, "It is a war the Chinese government would like very much to avoid but believes someday may be unavoidable."

The great danger is "autocratic" states whose ideology is to enhance the power of the state's apparatus as opposed to "democracies" that seek to enhance the power of individuals to run their own lives.

Peace and prosperity will not come from getting the great powers to cooperate as they did during the 18th century "Concert of Europe." In that age powerful nations shared a common ideology - now they don't. "Today," Kagan says, "there is little sense of shared morality or common values among great powers."

Instead, Kagan argues the United States can best safeguard itself by running with a pack of like-minded nations. "The world's democracies need to begin thinking about how they can protect their interests and defend their principles in a world in which these are once again powerfully challenged." Kagan calls it a "Concert of Democracies."

Current international institutions cannot achieve this goal, because their membership is also open to states that trample civil liberties, property-rights, and free-markets. The United Nations consistently fails on the "big issues," Kagan concludes because autocracies and democracies routinely checkmate one another.

Interestingly, groups like al Qaeda rank low on Kagan's list of worries. Osama bin Laden does not make an appearance until the last quarter of the book and then only to be dismissed as part of the "hopeless dream of radical Islam." Kagan concedes the struggle with disparate bands of transnational terrorist groups will be a long war. Still it's a conflict they can't win. "The Islamists could not take their societies back 1,400 years even if the rest of the world would let them . . ." and it won't. Winning requires taking over the Middle East and modern powers simply have too much power to let that happen.

Kagan concludes its time to build new partnerships. The United States after World War II helped craft the great international institutions that served fairly well through the 20th century. If those institutions have been infiltrated and corrupted by the likes of a resurgent Russia, then America and its friends and allies should just go out build new partnerships and leave the old ones to whither away. "In a world increasingly divided along democratic and autocratic lines," he writes, "the world's democrats will have to stick together."

History has returned. The fight for the future is on again - and democracies will have to take up the challenge or perish.

James Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security issues at The Heritage Foundation.


Robert Kagan's take on the Post-Cold War powers.

Russia Redux

"If Russia was where history most dramatically ended two decades ago, today it is where history has most dramatically returned," Kagan writes. It may never be a superpower again, but he argues it is a great power with a combination of economic, military and diplomatic strengths. Russia has almost paid off its debts and has an estimated $400 billion in currency reserves. The Kremlin has been pouring some of those petro-dollars into rebuilding the Russian military.

Dragon Country

In absolute terms, China is now the world's second largest economy - and it is acting like it. They show up every party - the UN, G8, and ASEAN. They are buying their way into markets and gobbling up natural resources from Latin America to Africa. They are building a conventional military that could go toe-to-toe with the US in Northeast Asia and win. They believe the US is an obstacle to their ambitions to return to their historical place as a great power and friction between the two will only increase as the dragon rises.

Anime World

Japan's power is all about the all-might yen, still boasting one of the most productive economies. While the Chinese economy, according to the Heritage/Wall Street Journal Index of Economic Freedom, is only about 52 percent free, Japan is 72.5 percent free, higher than the regional average. Although "Japan spends barely more than 1 percent of its national wealth on defense, that amounts to $40 billion a year, among the three or four highest defense budgets in the world." As China rises, Japan is drawing even closer to the United States.

Ayatollah Land

Iran is another state that, flush with oil-cash, is on the march. Make no mistake that getting nuclear weapons is part their ambition to return to great power status. Kagan does not see easy answers. "The notion that the present Iranian regime would trade away its honor and self-respect, indeed the very sense of itself, in return for material goods ... seems fanciful."

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

Related Issues: Democracy and Human Rights

First appeared in the National Review Online