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Bacevich and Democratic Perpetual War Theory

Andrew Bacevich has written [1] a withering review of Robert Kagan’s The World America Made:

Yet Kagan’s tacit attempt to trivialize the Iraq War won’t wash. Among other things, that sorry episode confronts us with a troubling fact: in today’s world, the most bellicose countries tend to be democracies, with the United States very much in the vanguard.

Kagan rehashes the cliché that “democracies rarely go to war with other democracies.” While offering reassurance that friendly relations between the United States and Canada are likely to endure, this dictum leaves unanswered a more pressing question. How is it that the magnanimous United States—which Kagan wistfully likens to “the catcher in the rye, preventing young democracies from falling off the cliff”—finds itself enmeshed in quasi-permanent war across large swaths of the planet?

Part of the answer to this question may be found in the way that Kagan and other democratists think about the relations between democracies and non-democracies. Kagan often inaccurately describes the latter as “autocracies,” but more important than the terms used is the assumption that there is a mutual ideologically-informed antagonism between competing political systems. In recent years, Kagan has imagined a multipolar world as a reversion to 19th-century great power politics, but he sees major powers competing in terms of ideological rivalry [2]. One of the problems with this view is that the ideological rivalry is one-sided, and the authoritarian regimes are almost always on the defensive. Authoritarian regimes aren’t interested in exporting their political models, and they are only too happy to work with any kind of government, democratic or not, so long as it advances their perceived interests. Meanwhile, for some people in major Western democratic states, the mere existence of uncooperative or antagonistic authoritarian regimes is viewed as problem for Western democratic states to “solve,” which frequently involves subversion and may require the use of force.

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1 Comment To "Bacevich and Democratic Perpetual War Theory"

#1 Comment By CK MacLeod On May 17, 2012 @ 11:23 pm

I’ve no problem at all with a thoughtful and critical engagement with Kagan, but it should be attempted on the basis of a more or less accurate depiction of his position.  The quote from Bacevich gives the impression that Kagan is blind to U.S. history, when he’s actually quite clear about the fact that the U.S., far from being particularly “magnanimous” or pacific, has been quite violence-prone, having found diverse  reasons for going to war.  Kagan seems to view this tendency as a burden of neo-imperial leadership, of being the indispensable or, essentially, world-historical power (the view is quite Hegelian, actually, updated for the global age).  As for the motivations – those sundry reasons for fighting – they can be argued in different ways.  I’ve hardly more than read the sample chapter, but his main justification seems to be drawn from the counterfactual, alongside moderate observation of liberal-democratic virtues:  Assuming it’s even in our power to withdraw from our global commitments, or to announce our intentions and move consequentially in that direction, or simply accelerate the process under whatever cover story, what kind of results should we expect?