Put bluntly, it’s doubtful that America has been more powerful at any time in its history. Yet there is a profoundly grim, remorseless and Spenglerian cast to Kagan’s essay. Its dolorous quality stems from his apparent lack of confidence in an America that isn’t fighting everywhere and anywhere, no matter how dubious the prospects of victory.
Peter Beinart has identified some other problems in Kagan’s essay, but his focus is entirely on how interventionist and meddlesome Democratic administrations have been since the end of the Cold War. That’s fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t get to the heart of why Kagan is so completely wrong about America and the world. The biggest flaw that I noticed was that Kagan treats the world of the 1930s and today’s world as if they were almost the same, but in reality they could not be more different. As Heilbrunn notes, for neoconservatives it is always some point in the 1930s all over again. Sometimes it is 1938, and appeasement and doom are upon us very soon, or (as Kagan imagines) it is 1931 and we are the at beginning of a decade of increasing conflict and disorder in the world. No matter which part of that decade hard-liners invoke, the comparison is ludicrous on its face.
Eighty years ago, the world was suffering from economic depression and the after-effects of what had been the largest modern international war up to that point. Whatever problems there may be today, the world is both dramatically more prosperous and peaceful than it was then, and the world’s leading nations have not been recovering from anything like the massive slaughter of WWI. While there are a few serious conflicts happening around the world, most of the world is at peace and has been at peace for decades. It takes an ideologue or a con-man (or both) to look at the contemporary state of affairs and conclude that we are reliving anything like the 1930s. Either way, it a thoroughly false assessment of the state of the world and America’s role in it.
Kagan lectures us on history throughout the essay, so it’s fair to point out that his grasp on history isn’t all that firm. I happened to notice a strange throwaway remark towards the end of his essay that should make us serious doubt his judgments about the past and present. He wrote:
Russia is a declining power, they argue. But then, Russia has been declining for 400 years [bold mine-DL].
It’s true that no one would mistake Kagan for an historian of Russia, but it requires someone to be almost entirely ignorant of modern Russian history to say something like this. According to Kagan, Russia has been declining in power ever since the first Romanov came to power. That means that he thinks that Russia was declining in power during the Petrine reforms and the expansions of the 18th and 19th century. That suggests that he either doesn’t know anything about Russia or doesn’t understand the meaning of decline. Either way, we should be very wary of what he claims while claiming to interpret the past.