On the eve of the President’s last State of the Union speech the White House let it be known that a recent essay by Robert Kagan in The New Republic, which excerpted his book, The World America Made, had been sent to his national security staff for their perusal. As the President told reporters beforehand, Kagan’s thesis – that America is not in decline and must maintain its hegemonic stature in the world, or all is lost – was a major theme of his peroration:
“The renewal of American leadership can be felt across the globe. From the coalitions we’ve built to secure nuclear materials, to the missions we’ve led against hunger and disease; from the blows we’ve dealt to our enemies, to the enduring power of our moral example, America is back. Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
Have no fear – the empire endures!
That President Barack Obama, ostensibly a Democrat of the liberal variety, was touting the views of a neoconservative foreign policy maven whose work has been published in The Weekly Standard, should come as a surprise to exactly no one. The overarching bipartisan consensus in Washington in favor of global intervention ensures that foreign policy disputes are limited to “debates” over means rather than ends. In short, it isn’t a question of whether we ought to have an empire, but of how to best to maintain and expand it.
Partisan differences over these matters are mainly stylistic and rhetorical, such as the phony division over “unilateralism” versus “multi-lateralism.” Not that these divisions aren’t real: they are. It’s just that, in the end, they don’t much matter, because whether there’s a liberal Democrat in the White House, or a neocon-manipulated Dauphin, the goal remains the same. That goal is global hegemony, energized by a vision of the US as the defender and best builder of an imaginary “world order.”
In his essay, and subsequently published book, Kagan makes the case that, contrary to various prophets of doom, the US is not in decline relative to other nations, and that, in any case, the end of American hegemony will signal the demise of the “liberal international order.” In short, everything depends on us – on our ability to project military power and keep “order” overseas. Without Uncle Sam standing guard at the gates of civilization, the global order will decay and chaos will follow – a condition which will pose new and heretofore unimagined dangers not only to us but to the world.
Kagan avers that the declinists are guilty of basing their case “on rather loose analysis,” on vague “impressions” of lost virtue and dissipated will. This is odd coming from an author whose own analysis contains nowhere within it even a single mention of the word “debt.”
No wonder Obama liked it!
While the “dismal” economy is noted, it is only in passing. Economics, it seems, is not Kagan’s strong suit. He bypasses the dismal science to emphasize other factors that, in his view, constitute the building blocks of a hegemonic power.“Measuring changes in a nation’s relative power is a tricky business,” he writes, “but there are some basic indicators”:
“The size and the influence of its economy relative to that of other powers; the magnitude of military power compared with that of potential adversaries; the degree of political influence it wields in the international system – all of which make up what the Chinese call ‘comprehensive national power.’ And there is the matter of time. Judgments based on only a few years’ evidence are problematic. A great power’s decline is the product of fundamental changes in the international distribution of various forms of power that usually occur over longer stretches of time. Great powers rarely decline suddenly. A war may bring them down, but even that is usually a symptom, and a culmination, of a longer process.”
The relative “size” of the economy, if such a concept has any real meaning, has nothing to do with the level of wealth and degree of productivity: for example, the African economy is huge, while Africans are relatively impoverished. Compare Singapore’s standard of living with Uzbekistan’s – or even the entire former Soviet Union. Again, economics is apparently not Kagan’s strong point – and neither is history. Because if the history of the last years of the twentieth century teaches us anything, it is that great empires – or, at least, empires thought to be “great” and nearly invulnerable – do fall suddenly, as the example of the Soviet Union demonstrates. The fall of some major financial empires in the crash of ’08 brings this lesson home, but then again Kagan, who minimizes economic power and upholds the primacy of the political, is blind (or indifferent) to such disasters.
Then there is the question of military power, which Kagan defines as a matter of “magnitude.” However, in our shadow “war on terrorism” we have found our magnitude is as much of a burden as it is a plus. Nor has this vaunted magnitude stopped the enemy from penetrating our defenses and landing a major blow in our homeland, at the very epicenter of the imperial metropolis, on September 11, 2001. Oddly, mention of this signal event is also missing from the book excerpt Obama found so impressive.
No debt, no 9/11 – no problem! Kagan’s screed was destined for the Oval Office bestseller list.
Kagan’s conception of “power” is hostile to economics: that is, to the very idea that markets, rather than states, constitute the “liberal world order” he is so worried about maintaining. Yet he is compelled to confront it, if only to dismiss it:
“Some of the arguments for America’s relative decline these days would be more potent if they had not appeared only in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. Just as one swallow does not make a spring, one recession, or even a severe economic crisis, need not mean the beginning of the end of a great power. The United States suffered deep and prolonged economic crises in the 1890s, the 1930s, and the 1970s. In each case, it rebounded in the following decade and actually ended up in a stronger position relative to other powers than before the crisis. The 1910s, the 1940s, and the 1980s were all high points of American global power and influence.”
Why does invoking the specter of imminent bankruptcy make an argument for retrenchment less potent? This seems weirdly counterintuitive, but makes sense if you’ve read your Ayn Rand: her description of the intellectual “witch doctor” who valorizes physical power – that is, the power to inflict death and destruction – over the power of the mind, fits Kagan to a tee.
Aside from this, however, Kagan fails to see the fatal pattern laid out so clearly in his own analysis. If an individual had suffered a number of prolonged crises – say, a series of strokes or heart attacks – over a relatively short period of time, one would say he or she has to either address the underlying causes, or else risk a rather sudden death. Now apply this analysis to our collective condition: the period from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st is but the blink of a historical eye, and yet in that time we have experienced not three (as Kagan would have it) but four major economic upheavals – surely a sign of some inner ailment, and a major one to boot.
In Kagan’s world, however, none of this matters: only military and political power matters. And what of our vaunted power in this realm – is it really so overwhelming? True, we spend more than practically all the rest of the world combined on “defense,” and our network of military bases and client states rings the world several times over. Yet how many wars have we won lately? Iraq was a defeat no matter how you slice it: the country we “liberated” is today little more than an Iranian outpost, and very far from being the democratic republic envisioned by the neocons (and some “libertarians”). Afghanistan is an even clearer case of mission failure: our efforts to set up an American client state in that ungovernable corner of the world limn the Soviets’ futile crusade – and presage the kind of sudden collapse they suffered as a result.
Of course it is not quite accurate to say the Afghan campaign brought down the Soviet empire, all by itself: other factors, such as the complete inability of the Soviet economic model to produce anything but junk and rampant social disintegration, defeated Lenin’s heirs. Yet the Afghan war was the precipitating political factor, an event that dealt a mortal blow to the Kremlin’s authority at home as well as its international reputation as a potent military power.
Kagan and his fellow neocons are like those old Soviet hardliners who insisted, right up until the last minute, that the Red Army must not retreat from its “internationalist” duty in Afghanistan. They are like those “coup plotters” who tried – and failed – to rescue the old Soviet model even as it sunk beneath waves of its own making.
America’s empire of debt is tottering and creaking and threatening to crash down on our heads even as I write. That Kagan is deaf to these ominous signs is neither surprising nor particularly relevant: it’s going to come crashing down anyway, while he and his deaf-and-dumb cohorts in the Beltway bubble continue to go about their business of building castles in the air as if nothing is happening.
As Ron Paul continually points out, we’re broke, and the political class shows no signs of putting us on the road to solvency. Far from it: they seem determined to drive us over a cliff, spending and piling up debt to the point where the American dollar is losing value faster even than we are losing the war in Afghanistan.
That this course is unsustainable is a fact of reality conveniently evaded by both Kagan and his admirer in the Oval Office. We are being defeated in world markets and in the wilds of Afghanistan: dragged down by the burden of empire, we have no chance to get back up off our knees.
Of course, a militarist regime, one that cares only about its own power and the wealth and well-being of its sycophants, wants us on our knees, quaking in fear lest the “terrorists” get us – while the banksters, the crony-capitalists, the war profiteers, and the foreign lobbyists have their snouts firmly buried in the public trough. If economics doesn’t matter, and the elites can always grab their outsized share of the loot through political connections, then who cares about the increasing immiseration of the masses?
Remember, it’s all about “national greatness,” beside which the fate of the ordinary individual pales. As far as our President is concerned, it’s all about his own greatness. After he beats the pants off of Romney, it will be all about his Legacy – and you can bet, given his enthusiasm for Kaganism, it will be a legacy well-lubricated with blood.
Once Obama is unleashed, in his second term, we will see the true face of this President, whose tyrant’s temperament and imperious sense of mission will come to the fore, unabashed and militant. In which case, the rest of the world had better hope the economic collapse will come sooner rather than later – because the US army will be too busy keeping order on the home front to launch any new wars abroad.
America’s 1989 – it can’t come soon enough. Out of the ruins of empire perhaps we can excavate some relics of our old republic. Out of the existential crisis of the nation, perhaps, the memory of the Founders’ dream will be recalled and reestablished. In any case, it is too late to avoid the crisis: the question now is how do we preserve the remnants of the old constitutional order and prevent the country from falling into Caesarism?