As a life-long hypochondriac, I was laughing out loud when reading the tragic-comic inscription on the tombstone located in the cemetery in Key West, Florida: “I Told You I Was Sick!”
I could imagine the poor guy confronting family and friends and insisting to no avail that what he had was more than just the common cold or the seasonal flu.
“You are not sick” is the kind of reassuring message that Robert Kagan is sending to the nation’s foreign policy hypochondriacs aka “declinists” in his new nonfiction book The World America Made, contending that America is in tip-top military and economic health and ready to take care of the rest of the world. He recalls that the same kind of hypochondriacs had complained that America was really, really in decline in the aftermath of the Vietnam War.
But, as the sad case of our late Key Westerner demonstrates, even hypochondriacs do get sick. In the same way, great powers do decline, both in relative and absolute terms. Hence American global economic power started to decline relative to rising economic players like Japan and Germany in the post-1945 era, and relative to China and India more recently.
And while in absolute terms the US continues to maintain the largest economy — and remains the pre-eminent military superpower based on any standard one applies — it still has to operate by the realist axiom that in the long run, no great power can preserve its military superiority on the basis of a weakening economic superstructure.
Kagan, the son of a renowned historian who had studied the Peloponnesian War and the brother of the author of a book on the Napoleonic Wars, likes to present himself as a hard-core Realpolitik analyst of foreign policy, and tends to bash his intellectual rivals, the so-called “declinists,” as idealists. He says they place their faith in the dreamy notions of an evolving international community and the abolition of war through peaceful diplomacy and international law.
Not unlike your average hypochondriac who dismisses the advice of the medical doctor, these declinists refuse apparently to face reality and listen to a rational scientist of power like Kagan, and instead assume that the US interests and values would continue to prosper in the more multipolar system in the kind of post-American world that commentator Fareed Zakaria imagined in his book on the same subject.
His views matter now as he is a top foreign adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
But if anything, it is Kagan who refuses to face the reality of current American global power. He also misrepresents the views of Zakaria and other realist foreign policy analysts who believe that the most ineffective way to maintain American power and influence is by continuing to do what Kagan has been advocating since the end of the Cold War — engaging in unnecessary and wasteful wars in the Middle East and picking-up costly diplomatic fights with China and Russia while raising US defense budget to the stratosphere, igniting anti-American sentiment worldwide and eroding US credibility.
Which brings me back to the inscription in the Key West cemetery. Imagine now that the physician who was taking care of that very sick Key Westerner — let’s call him Dr. Kagan — was not only dismissing the dangerous symptoms exhibited by his patient. How would we have reacted when we found out that the medical doctor was actually the one who had recommended that his patient take an health-inducing (and democracy promoting) trip to the Greater Middle East — with a long stay in Iraq — where the poor man contracted the deadly virus that led eventually to his demise?
Indeed, there is an element of the theatre of the absurd in the spectacle of Kagan, the geo-strategist who was the leading intellectual cheerleader for the decisions to invade Iraq and launch the Freedom Agenda in the Middle East that were so central to the erosion of U.S. global position. He is now lashing out at others for their lack of faith in American power that he had so helped to diminish so much.
Kagan also fails to recognise that the policies he and other neoconservative intellectuals advocated — that were embraced by the Administration of George W. Bush — played directly into the hands of the Chinese, who were delighted to see the Americans drown in the military quagmires in the Middle East while they were spending their time and resources in opening new markets for their trade and investments, including in Afghanistan and Iraq where security was being provided by US troops.
And much of what Kagan writes about the potential threat to the post-World War II international system created by the US makes little sense. The policies pursued by the second Bush Administration based on the unilateral and pre-emptive strikes against against real and imaginary aggressors with weapons of mass destruction, and right and obligation of the U.S. to undertake “regime change” in other sovereign nation-states, were the ones that ran contrary to the set of international rules promoted by the U.S. and its allies after 1945.
In fact, these policies violated international rules established by the Westphalian Peace of 1648 to which China and Russia continue to adhere (hence their recent opposition to Western military intervention in Syria).
Moreover, it seems that Kagan believes that continuing to accumulate power and using it more often is the surest way prevent American decline. Preoccupied with the high-brow discourse about high power he refrains from engaging in such “boring” subjects, like how to fix America’s fiscal problems, to revive its manufacturing base, and to reform its ailing public education system.
All Americans need to do is to believe in their power — and it will come to be.
It is quite depressing to see that despite the fact that Kagan the geo-strategist has been so wrong in the past and helped to contribute so much to the decline in American power, he continues to be taken seriously by American policymakers and the media.
Dr. Kagan, our imaginary medical doctor from Key West, would have lost his license to practice medicine a long time ago.
The commentary was originally published in the Singapore Business Times on 2.21.12