Robert Kagan Diagnosed America’s Biggest Problem: Americans Who Don’t Want To Run the World

"All great powers" want to rule the world, declared Robert Kagan, propagandist for America as imperial power, democratic hegemon, aggressive unipower, and perpetual war machine. However, they typically fail. Wrote Kagan in a new Foreign Affairs article: "Much of the drama of the past century resulted from great powers whose aspirations exceeded their capacity."

The U.S. has a different problem, he contended. The American people. Rather than realize their unique calling to sacrifice themselves and obey their betters when instructed to patrol the globe, they continued to look inward.

They failed to realize that their destiny is to impose order upon independent and subservient, judge innocent and guilty, wage war upon great and small, and, yes, kill anyone who and destroy anything which gets in the way of fulfilling this sacred duty. Instead of focusing on the wishes of Washington, D.C., the world’s imperial city, and rising to the greatness expected of them by supporting the aggrandizements of a globally dominant America, they focused on the local and personal – their careers and educations, their communities and towns, their clubs and associations, and their families and friends.

Yes, he admitted, "they have met the challenges of Nazism and Japanese imperialism, Soviet communism, and radical Islamist terrorism." However, they saw these efforts as "exceptional responses to exceptional circumstances. They do not see themselves as the primary defender of a certain kind of world order; they have never embraced that ‘indispensable’ role."

Such a revelation could shock only a certified ivory tower warrior, who believes that his comparative advantage in life is coming up with wars for patriotic young men and women across the country to fight. Not to defend America. But to create and preserve "a liberal world order" designed by the foreign policy equivalent of a priestly class, of which Kagan must be at least an archbishop or cardinal. It would be tempting to dismiss such arguments as the ravings of an accomplished, even celebrated policy entrepreneur. However, top officials have picked up these arguments, making them central to dealing with the rest of the world.

Consider the egregious Madeleine Albright, former UN ambassador and secretary of state, author of multiple books and articles, member of endless commissions and panels, and all-around Washington paladin. She has become an apt if unusually celebrated representative of the foreign policy establishment. Preemptively channeling Robert Kagan more than two decades ago, she declared: "If we have to use force, it is because we are America: we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us."

Being all-knowing and all-seeing naturally gives the US the right to impose its will on the rest of the world irrespective of the cost to others. As Albright explained, when asked about the humanitarian toll from sanctions on Iraq: "I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it." It is only appropriate that those who peer through the glass darkly get to decide that the death of hundreds of thousands of other people is a necessary if unfortunate consequence of achieving the wonderful future planned by Washington. Indeed, those sacrificed should feel honored that America chose them to lead the way to Valhalla, or its modern equivalent.

Certainly, there should be no hesitation at enforcing America’s will as expressed by those looking ahead to chart America’s course. As Albright put it to Colin Powell, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "What’s the use of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?" There is a grand global chess game to play and someone must fulfill the role of gambit pawns. In this case members of the armed forces.

Of course, after two decades filled with Middle Eastern debacles, Albright’s claims of foresightedness and moral certitude look ever more ludicrous. And Kagan does not try to deny reality. Americans have not played their designated role particularly well: "Their continental view of the world has produced a century of wild oscillations – indifference followed by panic, mobilization and intervention followed by retreat and retrenchment."

In short, the nation’s international disasters are all the American people’s fault. Washington is filled with perceptive, sagacious, even visionary analysts like Kagan and courageous, outspoken, and determined public servants like Albright. They want to save the world – and perhaps the universe beyond. Unfortunately, Americans have failed them and the rest of the Blob.

Kagan criticized Americans’ "intolerance for the messy and unending business of preserving a general peace and acting to forestall threats. In both cases, Americans had one foot out the door the moment they entered, which hampered their ability to gain control of difficult situations. This on-again, off-again approach has confused and misled allies and adversaries, often to the point of spurring conflicts that could have been avoided by a clear and steady application of American power and influence."

Foolish people. They should be enthusiastically sacrificing their earnings and even lives to save the world at Kagan’s direction. Instead, they are acting like citizens in a republic and deciding on their own fate. Focused on themselves, those around them, their community, and their nation. How ludicrously myopic! How terribly selfish! Where is conscription when we need it?

However, Kagan, never one to abandon trying to get Americans to follow his Siren song of perpetual war, wrote hopefully: "If the twenty-first century is not to follow the same pattern – most dangerously, in the competition with China – then Americans will need to stop looking for the exits and accept the role that fate and their own power have thrust upon them. Perhaps after four years of President Donald Trump, Americans are ready for some straight talk."

Robert Kagan’s message to Americans: Prepare to die. It is your destiny. But don’t worry, be happy!

If he has his way, the 21st century won’t be pretty. For other people, anyway. No doubt he will write more books, pen more articles, appear at more conferences, and profitably ply the policy-making trade while his wife, Victoria Nuland, fills another position in another administration, busy implementing his vision and bringing the rest of the world to heel.

Like Albright, Kagan makes more than a few dubious assumptions:

  • Fate and America’s own power make the role he favors America’s destiny. This is unmitigated hogwash. Americans can choose their own future. They need not defend every rich industrialized country on the planet. They need not attempt to fix every Middle Eastern nation that collapses. They need not try to impose Washington’s every dictate on every other nation. And do all these forever. These are choices, made day after day and year after year. Americans can, and should, make different decisions from those advocated by Kagan.
  • Running the world is cheap. As long as other people are doing the paying, Kagan appears not to be concerned about the costs of intervention. An outsize military budget is the price of an activist foreign policy. Lengthy and interminable conflicts are a constant. The risk of big wars grows along with military guarantees and truculent conduct. Americans die and suffer grievous injuries. Foreign peoples also die, sometimes in prodigious numbers. Domestic liberty, prosperity, and stability suffer in the perpetual warfare state. Terrorism arises from US meddling abroad. The price of forcing recalcitrant foreign states to comply will only grow alongside the expansion of their economic and military power, perhaps buttressed by the spread of nuclear weapons.
  • Going to war is a small price for being global dictatress. In Kagan’s view, Americans are lazy, spending only a small fraction of their country’s GDP on the military and deploying only a small proportion of its population overseas. However, wrote Kagan: "Were Americans to shift to a war footing, or even a Cold War-type footing in response to some Chinese action – for instance, an attack on Taiwan – the United States would look like a very different animal." Yes, but what makes war with a nuclear armed power worthwhile? Would he do the same over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands? Scarborough Shoal? Hong Kong? Xinjiang? Glib talk about preserving a liberal international order tells us little about what Americans would be paying so much for.
  • Other countries will surrender fundamental interests whenever America demands that they do so. "Perhaps the Chinese, careful students of history that they are, will not make the mistake that others have made in misjudging the United States," Kagan writes. Or maybe not. Even many young Chinese are rabid nationalists who believe Taiwan is part of China and dislike criticism of their homeland. Threats against Beijing and other nations tend to enrage opposition rather than force capitulation. This is apparent elsewhere too. Brutal sanctions and threats of military invasion have not brought even the weak states of Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela to heel. Endlessly expanding sanctions on Moscow and increasingly lethal military aid to Ukraine have not caused Russian nationalists to genuflect toward Washington and disgorge Crimea. Rather, every US threat spurs other nations to develop new and/or enhance old deterrents.
  • International social engineers are the prescient policymakers celebrated by Albright. Actually, court intellectuals like Kagan, along with those they purport to advise, have gotten much of the last century wrong as Washington bungled its interventions. World War I was a great disaster, made worse by America’s involvement, which allowed a catastrophic result: imposition of one side’s "liberal" European order rather than a compromise considering the interests of all. US intervention in Asia spurred Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor which, but for Adolf Hitler’s foolish declaration of war on America, would have turned Washington’s attention away from the decisive global theater of Europe. The Vietnam War devastated that country and cost the US dearly; the aftermath suggested that Washington spent years fighting a chimera, a nonexistent threat that dissipated almost immediately after America’s withdrawal. Disastrous bungling in unimportant conflicts with limited impact on America and the West has only accelerated: Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen.
  • Future victory is certain if only the myopic public finally follows Kagan’s selfless direction. He declared that "the only hope for preserving liberalism at home and abroad is the maintenance of a world order conducive to liberalism, and the only power capable of upholding such an order is the United States." Kagan failed to explain why this is true. In young, weak America, liberalism survived and even thrived for decades despite the illiberal world beyond. If America’s dominant foreign role ever was necessary, it was in, say, 1950: much of Europe lay prostrate from World War II while a dangerous Soviet Union appeared to be on the march, seen by some as "the future that works." However, that world is gone. Nevertheless, reliance on America continued even as the West recovered and prospered because Washington insisted on primacy against all, including nominal friends. Certainly, wealthy allies are not inclined to challenge the US over responsibilities Americans insisted on carrying. Contra Kagan, that should change. The US would be more secure if American entanglement was less even if the world was messier. Indeed, on 9/11 terrorism came to the homeland because Washington had needlessly taken on so many foreign fights as its own.

No surprise, Kagan wants the Biden administration to tell the American people "that the task of maintaining a world order is unending and fraught with costs but preferable to the alternative." That once might have been true. But not today. There are other nations, both capable and dependent upon the same order. Moreover, the US – awash in endless debt, bedeviled by severe domestic problems, divided dramatically into warring political factions – no longer can afford to play global hegemon at such cost to its own population. Alas, outside the ivory towers hosting Kagan and other members of the Blob, Americans across the nation are looking more like Helots than Spartans. Kagan should remember his assessment of "great powers whose aspirations exceeded their capacity."

Americans should be involved in the world. But the finest form of internationalism is not endless war. Americans know that, which is why Donald Trump did not arise in a vacuum. Kagan’s demand that Americans overspread the earth imposing Washington’s rules is likely to continue driving them inward. President Joe Biden would better fulfill his responsibility to the American people by refashioning US foreign policy, restricting the use of American power to protect this nation instead of to reorder the world.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.