Robert Kagan makes some curious remarks in his unnecessarily long essay on U.S. hegemony:

The sense of futility has affected policymakers, too. Senior White House officials, especially the younger ones, look at problems like the struggle in Syria and believe that there is little if anything the United States can do. This is the lesson of their generation, the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan: that America has neither the power nor the understanding nor the skill to fix problems in the world.

This is also escapism, however, for there is a myth embedded in this plea of futility. It is that wielding power effectively was ever any easier than it is today [bold mine-DL]. With rose-colored glasses we look back at the cold war and imagine that the United States used to get others to do what it wanted, used to know what it was doing, and used to wield such overwhelming power that the world simply bent to its will or succumbed to its charms. But American policy during the cold war, despite its ultimate success, was filled with errors, folly, many near-disasters, and some disasters.

There are some people that perpetuate a myth that the U.S. was able to get its way and knew how to run the world in the past, but they’re not skeptics and opponents of U.S. intervention in foreign conflicts. Contemporary hegemonists routinely look back on the Cold War with nostalgia as a simpler time when things were easier–and supposedly less dangerous–for the U.S., and they pretend that it was a time when allies never doubted U.S. “leadership” and resolve. They usually promote that myth to score points in current debates or to make the much less dangerous world of the present seem more frightening. They also do it to create the illusion that more “leadership” is all that is needed to “fix” whatever they think is ailing U.S. foreign policy.

Most of the worst errors and disasters of the Cold War came from following the advice of people that believed that U.S. involvement in far-flung conflicts was essential to guard against a supposedly monolithic communist threat. This involvement was often spun as vitally important for the U.S., because of overblown fears of “domino” effects that didn’t happen and were never going to happen, only to be revealed later as entirely irrelevant to the containment of Soviet power. Once the Cold War ended, Americans policymakers increasingly allowed themselves to forget that the single largest overseas effort that the U.S. made during the Cold War was a colossal waste. The post-Vietnam “sense of futility” was far too easily overcome by a few quick victories against much weaker opponents in the ’80s and ’90s. It would have served the U.S. well if our policymakers had remained acutely aware of how futile and unnecessary such wars usually are. This is not something that they should try to “recover” from, but make sure that it is not so easily forgotten this time so that we don’t experience a similar debacle in another twenty or thirty years.

It is critical for Kagan’s thesis to insist that the U.S. is indispensable to the “liberal world order,” but this is just an assumption and an untested one at that. The maintenance of U.S. hegemony may not be necessary for this order—such as it is—to survive, and in fact there is no good reason to think that it is. Fettweis suggested towards the end of his book that “the rest of the world can operate quite effectively without the presence of a global policeman,” and added that those who believe the contrary “base their view on faith alone.” (p. 215) More to the point, trying to maintain such hegemony indefinitely seems like a good way to help undermine and weaken international stability. Over time, fewer and fewer countries are going to accept America in its self-appointed role of global enforcer. If the U.S. persists in the same role it has filled for the last twenty years, it is likely going to drive other major powers together against us and may also alienate many of the states that might otherwise cooperate with the U.S. The real danger for the U.S. is if Washington fails to learn anything from its major failures of the last decade and continues to wear out our welcome around the world.

If there is one good thing to come out of the last thirteen years of war, it is that Americans have been reminded of just how expensive and wasteful “world order maintenance” can be. Needless to say, Americans are not going to support, much less subsidize, “world order maintenance” indefinitely, and it will become increasingly difficult to sell them on this as time goes by. The U.S. can’t reasonably be expected to provide such “maintenance” at our own expense decade after decade so that other countries can avoid the full burden of responsibility for their own security. Kagan’s attempt to guilt Americans into supporting an unnecessary and costly foreign policy doesn’t change any of that.

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