Monday, September 10, 2018

The End of the Liberal World Order

Like many serious thinkers, Robert Kagan dreads the collapse of the liberal world order. He, like many others, sees America as the last bastion of liberal democracy. And he sees it giving ground to authoritarian regimes around the world. The reason, he reasons, is that America has disengaged from world politics… thus leaving the field to authoritarian autocrats.

By America, he does not just mean President Trump. President Obama disengaged from the world and rejected all opportunities to provide American leadership. He left Russia and China to do their will. He walked out of Iraq and Syria. If anything Trump has tried to reengage.

Like many serious thinkers, Kagan believes that it’s all about exercising power. When America fails to exercise its power, things do not go well. Of course, when America does exercise its power, in Vietnam and in Afghanistan and in Iraq, things do not always go very well either. By Trump’s calculus, America places too many moral constraints on the exercise of power. Ergo, it does not try to win wars. It tries to avoid losing.

I would add, for my part, that America can only lead if it sets an example, as a nation that the world might want to emulate. In other words, America must show that liberal democracy and republican government can produce a prosperous and harmonious society. If it does not, other nations will not follow its example.

Kagan begins with a well-stated rebuke to the bright-eyed optimism of Steven Pinker:

The dramatic change of course after 1945 was not due to some sudden triumph of our better angels or embrace of Enlightenment principles that had been around for centuries, nor was it the natural unfolding of Universal History in the direction of liberalism. Liberal ideals triumphed because, for the first time, they had power behind them. A new player arose on the international scene: the United States. It possessed a unique and advantageous geography, a large, productive population, unprecedented economic and military power, a national ideology based on liberal principles, and a willingness, after the war, to use its power to establish and sustain a global order roughly consistent with those principles.

Kagan takes issue with Pinker’s Hegelianism… his notion that human life is getting better and better because we have all bought into Kantian Enlightenment ideals. And that it’s inevitable that this will happen… because the World Spirit is moving toward liberal democracy. Of course, this is nonsense. I have critiqued it extensively and will not return to it now.

I am less convinced than Kagan that America has a national ideology based on liberal principles. America rose to prominence after World War II because it won the war. It showed that it was more powerful for being united and for following codes of good behavior. And America produced great prosperity during the post-war period. It helped defeated nations rebuild because it was in America’s national interest to have trading partners. And it believed that nations that trade with each other,on a fair basis, were less likely to fight against each other. Attributing it to ideological purity feels wrong-headed to me.

I cannot speak for Kagan, but most liberal thinkers believe that America needs to win the Diversity Derby. They are less concerned with winning in competition and more concerned with embodying a gauzy set of ideals.

Americans like to present themselves as idealists. In 1950 Secretary of State Dean Acheson laid out his version of the policy:

Secretary of State Dean Acheson put it in 1950. Protecting what he called the “American experiment of life” required creating “an environment of freedom” in the world and deterring aggressors before they gained control of distant continents. The only guarantee of peace was “the continued moral, military and economic power of the United States.” America would have to be “the locomotive at the head of mankind.”

After having explained that America was founded on an ideology, Kagan suggests that we are not utopian idealists. The reason: we believed that human beings were sinful and that nations compete. It is curious to connect a theological belief with competitive striving. It might have been better to suggest that America had practiced balance of powers diplomacy:

The architects of the new order were not utopian idealists. They believed in the inherent sinfulness of humans, the competitiveness of nations and the tendency of all orders to collapse. They had stared into the abyss and seen the depths to which humankind could fall. They knew the world they created would be flawed and costly to defend, but they believed an imperfect liberal order was better than none at all.

Strangely, Kagan then suggests that the liberal order had overcome competition. Surely, economic competition existed, and still exists. Nations vie for superiority and for status. They do not compete over which is more diverse. These aspects of human nature have not been repealed:

Within the confines of that system, normal geopolitical competition all but ceased. Nations within the order, in Western Europe and East Asia, didn’t compete with each for military superiority, form strategic alliances against one another or claim spheres of influence. Since no balance of power was necessary to preserve the peace among them, as it always had been in the past, they could shift substantial resources and energy from military to economic and social purposes.

In a veiled shot at Donald Trump, Kagan suggests that prior presidents allowed other nations their economic growth and did not insist on winning. Of course, not insisting on winning is not the same as allowing oneself to be handicapped:

At the heart of the order was a grand bargain: The other liberal powers ceded strategic hegemony to the U.S., but in return the U.S. would not use that hegemony to constrain their economic growth. It could not insist on winning every transaction. There had to be a relatively level playing field—at times even one that favored the other liberal powers.

If America is losing status and prestige, perhaps the reason lies in repeated foreign policy failures… not to mention a shredded social fabric at home. Kagan sees the foreign policy failures clearly:

And across the political spectrum, there is broad agreement that American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has been a series of disasters. This is said to include not just the Iraq and Afghan wars but also a range of longstanding strategies and attitudes: supporting democracy overseas, expanding NATO and regarding the U.S., hubristically, as the world’s “indispensable nation.”

But, hasn’t Kagan been suggesting that America is indispensable? Hasn’t he been arguing that American disengagement will produce chaos and a return to the state of nature? That is, to totalitarian fascism and communism?

He concludes by saying that we are suffering a failure of imagination:

Perhaps our biggest failure is our unwillingness to imagine that things could look again as they did in the first half of the 20th century, with a few besieged democracies hanging on in a world dominated by dictatorships. Aggression was the norm then, not the exception, and every weapon invented by scientists was eventually put to use.

He adds:

Those who call themselves realists today suggest that we can do less in the world and get more out of it. It is a lovely fiction. Our real choice is between maintaining the liberal world order, with all its moral and material costs, or letting it collapse and preparing for the catastrophes that are likely to follow.

At a time when liberal democracies in Western Europe seem to be imploding and when America is tearing itself apart over thought crimes, it might be better not to indulge in catastrophic thinking. One course might be to make America work again.


trigger warning said...

I tend to agree with Deneen's well-reasoned argument in "Why Liberalism Failed". The classic liberal narrative contains a number of basic postulates that were never aligned with human nature. Our "better angels" were never going to emerge.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...


This whole diversity delusion is madness. I am enjoying Heather Mac Donald’s new book immensely. How much more emotive blackmail and feelings extortion will we have to endure?

Robert Kagan is married to Victoria Nuland from Obama’s State Department. I wonder if the two talk to each other?

I detect no American idealists in public life today, of the Acheson mold.

Mike Hunt said...

Overwrought prolixity chock full of dumbass ideas. "America must show that liberal democracy and republican government can produce a prosperous and harmonious society." Doesn't he realize most people don't give a shit about that? Doesn't he realize jillions of people believe in an afterlife of heaven or hell and want assurance of heaven? And many millions of those believe that the only surefire way to avoid hell is to kill an infidel? So, if I believe the only sure way to heaven is to kill people and induce others to do the same, I won't be contributing much to a "harmonious society."

Dan Patterson said...

Tinker Bell's pixie dust can make humans fly, if they think happy thoughts. Mister Ahmed thinks no happy thoughts, does not desire to fly, and detests wastrel Christians. Ahmed has a work ethic and a moral code with strict rules he follows without fail. Will Ahmed love his Christian neighbors because he now lives in an "environment of freedom" or will his disdain for infidels remain a beacon for his actions?
If America is working successfully, as Stuart rightly points out, and within it's secure borders repelling Ahmed and his corp of communists, dictators, and tyrants from interference then certainly America is indispensable to Americans; the influence of that freedom might, or might not, make a difference to Ahmed or others but should their plight our national focus?

Anonymous said...

I've read several of Kagan's books & essays. Admired, respected, learned from them.

But this isn't the 1950s. Here, or abroad.

We're still indispensable. Within limits. Much like The Truman Doctrine. Inspired by Kennan's "Long Telegram".

Brilliant writer & thinker. Execrable at everything else.

Isaiah Berlin's "The Crooked Timber of Humanity" negates comity convincingly. - Rich Lara