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.