There is a great deal of ruin in a nation, and even more of it in the nation’s publishing catalogue. Robert Kagan has noticed the resurgence of declinism; he doesn’t care for it; and The World America Made is his response to it. For the record, I am not a declinist: I’m way beyond that, and am more of a collapsist, as may be adjudged from the title of my own contribution to the genre, After America, and even more from its subtitle, “Get Ready for Armageddon.” As I’m always at pains to point out, an author doesn’t get into the apocalyptic doom-mongering biz because he wants it to happen. As anyone who’s tried enforcing his copyright in China or the old Soviet Union or your average nickel-’n’-dime Third World basket case well knows, in a world without Western civilization the royalty checks are going to be a lot smaller. So you write the head-for-the-hills stuff in hopes of preventing the need to.
Similarly, Kagan’s entry into the field is designed to help ensure that it doesn’t happen. He is an eminent thinker, consulted by Romney, quoted favorably by Obama, but don’t hold either against him. I have a high regard for him, too. In the early years of the century, he came up with a line that, as geopolitical paradigmatic drollery goes, is better than Jon Stewart’s writing staff could muster: “Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus.” Granted, even at the time, one was aware that many Americans were trending very Venusian, but the gag was worth it just for the way it infuriated all the right Continentals. Nothing so deftly distilled emerges from The World America Made, an extended essay that paints with a very broad brush. This time around, Kagan hangs his thesis on the film It’s a Wonderful Life, although he’s not quite confident enough in the conceit to call the book It’s a Wonderful World. Instead, he offers section headings like “Meet George Bailey: What Is American about the American World Order?”
I’m not a big fan of the movie, but it would be the work of moments to riff off its metaphoric power. Like Jimmy Stewart, America is on the bridge about to jump, wondering what the point of it all was. And then kindly angelic Robert Kagan shows up to show us what the world would be like had Uncle Sam never lived: Why, there’s Europe (Gloria Grahame)! She never recovered from the Second World War, and then she turned to drink, and got run over by the Soviet Union (Lionel Barrymore). There’s Africa (H. B. Warner)! He poisoned all the children, because there was no Centers for Disease Control and no innovative American pharmaceutical industry. In the final heartwarming scene, Uncle Sam gets talked off the bridge, and goes home to face his creditors only to find that his salt-of-the-earth Bedford Falls neighbors (the Sultan of Brunei, Prince Alwaleed, Sinocom Savings & Loan, the Russian oligarch who owns the local vodka bar) have had a whip-around and his subprime-housing project can go ahead!
Instead, Kagan seems faintly embarrassed by his framing device and prefers to stick to big-picture generalizations, as if nervous his argument won’t withstand close contact with specifics. What few there are raise far more questions than Kagan assumes they answer. For example, on the very first page: “In 1941 there were only a dozen democracies in the world. Today there are over a hundred.” Back in 1941, you couldn’t have had a hundred democratic nations, because there weren’t a hundred nations. The European empires were still intact. One continent, from Marrakesh to Mbabane, was (excepting a pocket or two) entirely the sovereign property of another. And that latter continent, in 1941, was itself colonized, the German army’s sweep west having temporarily extinguished some of the smallest but oldest democracies, from Denmark to the Netherlands. All in all, it’s an odd starting date for the point Kagan is making — that the spread of democracy around the planet is “not simply because people yearn for democracy but because the most powerful nation in the world since 1950 has been a democracy.”
Put aside those small European nations that, post–Third Reich, recovered their liberty: Norway, Belgium. In 1941, half the democracies were His Britannic Majesty’s Dominions — Britain, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand. After the war, they were joined by what remains the world’s largest democracy, India, and then Jamaica, Mauritius, Papua New Guinea, Belize, etc. Democracies all, and all operating with a local variant of the throne speech, speaker, mace, Hansard, and all the other features of “the Westminster system.” During the deliberations on the post-Saddam Iraqi constitution, I received from a retired colonial civil servant in Wales an e-mail with the enviable opening line, “Having helped write seven constitutions . . .” Perhaps he was moved to do so “because the most powerful nation in the world since 1950 has been a democracy,” or perhaps he was just continuing an imperial evolutionary process begun in January 1848 in Nova Scotia. Likewise, the French decolonized (or attempted to) in their own image.
Which raises a more interesting question: Why hasn’t America tried to export its own distinctive constitutional ideas? If England is the mother of parliaments, America’s a wealthy spinster with no urge to start dating.
In all those new nations supposedly inspired by American democracy, you’ll search in vain for, say, a First Amendment, or a Second. Even when the U.S. has expended a decade’s worth of blood and treasure in “nation-building,” the nation it’s built is not in its own image but a sharia state complete with child marriage, legalized rape, and death for apostasy.
Which raises another question: What does Kagan mean by “democracy”? An election twice a decade good enough to pass muster with Jimmy Carter and the U.N. observers? Or genuine liberty? Kagan never defines terms, which is perhaps just as well. The Arab Spring may be the bleak dawn of the post-Western Middle East, and the Coptic Christians are fleeing in terror, and the al-Qaeda flag’s flying in Benghazi, and the new guys all seem to have Iran on speed dial, and the only viable alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood is the Even More Muslim Brotherhood, and they’re tossing the offspring of U.S. cabinet secretaries into holding cells, but for Kagan it’s all nevertheless “an essential attribute of the American world order,” and therefore even the booming burqa sales and state-of-the-art clitoridectomy clinic are in their fashion a tribute to American influence. If some mad scientist crossed Dr. Pangloss with George M. Cohan, he’d sound a lot like Robert Kagan: Once one accepts this is the most American of all possible American worlds, all is as American as it can possibly be.
At such moments, the author, the consummate American interventionist, sounds in need of an intervention himself. He is confident his compatriots retain “a degree of satisfaction in their special role” as global-order maker. Where’s the evidence? Well, “during the seventh-inning stretch in every game at Yankee Stadium, the fans rise and offer ‘a moment of silent prayer for the men and women who are stationed around the globe’ defending freedom and ‘our way of life.’ A tribute to those serving, yes, but with an unmistakable glint of pride in the nation’s role ‘around the globe.’”
Really? I’d say he’s mistaking that glint pretty comprehensively. Those moments of prayer, and the “We support our troops” yellow-ribbon stickers, and the priority boarding for military personnel on U.S. airlines, and the other genuflections are there to help a disillusioned citizenry distinguish between the valor of the soldiery and the thanklessness of their mission; it’s a way of salvaging something decent and honorable from the grim two-thirds-of-a-century roll call of America’s unwon wars.
Why can’t the United States win? The question never seems to occur to Kagan — to the point where, toward the end, he argues that, if America is set for British-style imperial sunset, it is today nevertheless “not remotely like” the old lion at the dawn of the 20th century but “more like Britain circa 1870, when the empire was at the height of its power.” I had a strong urge at this point to toss the book out of the window and back my truck over it. In 1870, Britain’s military victories were honored in the imperial metropolis by Trafalgar Square and Waterloo Station; there’s a suburb of Melbourne where everything’s named after Crimea — Crimea Street, Balaclava Road, Inkerman Road, Sebastopol Street — and you can even find a Kandahar, Saskatchewan, memorializing a long-forgotten Victorian victory on that thankless sod. Today, in an America “at the height of its power,” there is no Korea Square, Saigon Station, Jalalabad Road, or Fallujah, Idaho. Yankee fans “support our troops” because they no longer know what the mission is, or ever was.
Kagan would counter that America won what he calls “the war that never happened,” the one with the Soviet Union, but, given the way the others turned out, it is perhaps just as well it never happened. A great scholar of the American way of war, he’s fascinated with every aspect except victory. “The United States remains unmatched. It is far and away the most powerful nation the world has ever known. . . . The superior expenditures underestimate America’s actual superiority in military capability. American land and air forces are equipped with the most advanced weaponry, are the most experienced in actual combat, and would defeat any competitor in a head-to-head battle.”
But put ’em up against illiterate goatherds with string and fertilizer, and you’ll be tied down for a decade.
What’s wrong with this picture? And what’s wrong with this analyst that he can’t see anything wrong with it? Kagan is a serious historian, but, aside from pondering Europe’s revolutions of 1848 vis-à-vis the era of American democratization, a consideration of American versus British dominance is the only serious attempt at historical perspective. Yet, if you step back and take the long view, you wouldn’t bother weighing those differences at all. In the sweep of history, scholars will see (as the Chinese and French already do) the last two centuries as a period of continuous Anglophone military-economic-cultural dominance, first by the original English world power, and then by its greatest if prodigal son. The transition from the Royal Navy’s Pax Britannica to today’s Pax Americana was accomplished so smoothly it was barely noticed. The United States inherited the global networks of its predecessor: American sailors were stationed in Bermuda, and RCAF officers at NORAD in Cheyenne Mountain; Washington joined Australia and New Zealand in the ANZUS alliance, and built a new base on the British island of Diego Garcia. For Britannia’s lion cubs, from Ottawa to Canberra, getting a hearing in Washington became more important than getting one in London.
As for the mother country, Britain accepted its diminished status with as much grace as it could muster. As with an old, failing firm, its directors had identified the friendliest bidder and arranged, as best they could, for a succession in global leadership that was least disruptive to their interests and would ensure the continuity of their brand: the English language, English law, English trade, English liberties. It was such an artful transfer it’s barely noticed and little discussed. Indeed, even Kagan mentions it only en passant: “Just as the British could safely cede power to a rising United States,” he writes, “so Americans could have an easier time ceding some power and influence across the Pacific to a rising democratic China.” I marvel that anyone could type that sentence without realizing the absurdity of the comparison.
And, that aside, it’s not in the offing, is it? For 30 years, the foreign-policy “realists” have assured us that economic liberalization would force political liberalization. Instead, we’ve helped China come up with the only economically viable form of Communism. So, sometime this decade or next, the dominant economic power will be a totalitarian state with no genuine market, no property rights, no free speech, an abortion policy that’s left it with the most male-heavy population cohort in history, and, a little ways inland from the glittering coastal megalopolises, 40 million people who live in caves. This is not your father’s transfer of global dominance.
“Great powers rarely decline suddenly,” says Kagan. Well, it depends how you define “suddenly.” By the time Odoacer took Rome in 476, the city’s population had fallen by 75 percent in barely half a century — or the equivalent of the Beatles to now. As Paul McCartney might put it, yesterday came suddenly: Within a few years, a prototype “globalization” of European commerce had reverted to a subsistence economy of local agriculture. Likewise, by 1788, Louis XVI’s government in France was spending a mere 60 percent of revenues on debt service; by 1789, it wasn’t his problem anymore.
This is where Kagan’s complacency serves him ill. America currently spends around $600 billion a year on its military, more than every other major and medium power put together. In five years or so, we’ll be spending more than that just on debt service — that’s to say, our interest payments on the federal debt will be greater than the combined military spending of China, Britain, France, Russia, Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, India, Italy, South Korea, Brazil, Canada, Australia, Spain, Turkey, and Israel. The People’s Liberation Army of China will be entirely funded by our interest payments. Nevertheless, says Kagan, “the cost of remaining the world’s predominant power is not prohibitive.” He’s right in the narrow sense that it’s small potatoes next to Medicare. But he’s wrong in his understanding of the underlying political realities.
Kagan is a geopolitical guy. Economics seems to bore him: The T-word — “trillion” — makes just one perfunctory appearance before the end, although it’s profoundly relevant to America’s fate. As Paul Ryan put it at the House Budget Committee recently, the entire U.S. economy “shuts down” in 2027 on this path. Might that not have some impact on our “superior expenditures” on “advanced weaponry”? What about human capital? For Kagan, “America” and “Europe” are entities that seem to exist independent of any actual Americans and Europeans and their respective dispositions. Much of “the world America made” is in steep demographic decline — or transformation. For three of the five permanent members of the Security Council, an accommodation with Islam will be not just a prudent foreign policy but necessary for domestic tranquility, too; the fourth member — China — already has a very friendly working partnership with the Organization of Islamic Cooperation at the U.N. and elsewhere.
What of Americans? Any post-war British general can tell you that, when it comes to a choice between the nanny state and the military, it’s the latter that takes the hit, no matter how footling the savings. In an ever broker America, it will always be easier to cut defense — for the Left, as a matter of principle; and, for ever larger numbers of the Right, because, for whatever reason, a lavishly funded military’s “unmatched capability” seems utterly incapable up against those it actually gets matched with. Indeed, for Ron Paul Republicans, the more relevant thesis would be “The America the World Made”: A prosperous Europe (subsequently joined by China, Singapore, Korea, India, Brazil, you name it) suckered U.S. taxpayers into picking up the tab for global security and signing on to an economic order that turned America into a cheap service economy. I’m no Ronulan, but nor am I deluded enough to sit in the Yankees stands and think “Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack / I don’t care if I never get back” embodies the locals’ quiet “satisfaction” in an open-ended Afghan deployment.
America is an anomaly: the non-colonial superpower. So, having inherited Britain’s imperial networks, it had no interest in getting into the business of imperial administration. No American lawyer or police commissioner wants to be chief justice in Kabul or police chief in Tikrit. Instead, Washington opted for the role of global-order maker, setting up international institutions that downplayed its own status and artificially inflated everybody else’s. If you encourage the pretense that the Sudanese and Swiss ambassadors are no different, don’t be surprised if the former takes it to heart. Today, many of the U.S.-created global luncheon clubs are ever more institutionally at odds with American interests. This too is “the world America made,” a world where the wealthiest nations in history are defense-welfare queens, and many of the rest are affirmative-action grievance-mongers with nuclear ambitions.
We speak of “credit bubbles” and “housing bubbles,” but the real bubble is America’s 1950 moment: a very precise set of post-war conditions that put the U.S. in a different league from other nation-states. Europe rebuilt, Asia got the hang of capitalism, and still America thought 1950 was forever. It’s not. It’s already fading. The nearest thing to an insight in Kagan’s book comes toward the end when he states what ought to be obvious — that “a liberal world order will only be supported by liberal nations.”
America is ceding economic domnance to China; the transnational talking shops are hollowed out by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation; in Central and Eastern Europe, a resurgent Russia is selling itself as an effective bad cop to Washington’s ineffectual good cop. All these forces are highly illiberal — which suggests that Kagan knows the answer to how things are going to go for the “liberal world order.”
The Left doesn’t believe in American exceptionalism, but assumes that the highly exceptional prosperity of “the world America made” is as permanent a feature as the earth and sky. The Right certainly does believe in American exceptionalism, to the point that its own myth-making blinds it to the lessons of history. The cause of those of us who value American order in the world is done no favors by a book as complacent as this.
Yes, it was a wonderful life.
But what’s next?