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The Folly of “World Order Maintenance”

While re-reading Kagan’s needlessly long essay on hegemony, I came across this passage:

World order maintenance requires operating in the gray areas between victory and defeat. The measure of success is often not how wonderful the end result is [bold mine-DL], but whether the unsatisfying end result is better or worse than the outcome if there had been no action. To insist on outcomes that always achieve maximum ends at minimal cost is yet another form of escapism.

It’s a somewhat odd passage, since it runs counter to so much of the triumphalism that informs most arguments about U.S. “leadership.” Kagan is all but admitting in advance that the “world order maintenance” he supports will require Americans to put up with frequent policy blunders and unsatisfying results on the unproven assumption that the world will otherwise collapse into chaos. This is remarkable, since it is the hegemonists that typically make unrealistic promises and grossly underestimate the difficulties of U.S. interventions. They are always setting up the public for disappointment with the mediocre or terrible results of the policies they advocate by insisting that “victory” is both possible and absolutely necessary. Now Kagan is saying that continued U.S. hegemony will mean a future full of underwhelming and disappointing outcomes, but that Americans should want to do it anyway because of some nebulous obligations to the rest of the world to which none of us ever consented.

Kagan is inadvertently telling us that his preferred foreign policy more or less dooms the U.S. to frequent failure in most of its international efforts, and thinks that Americans should be willing to accept that. I suppose this serves as an expedient excuse in advance for all the times when the unrealistic and aggressive policies will go awry and contribute to greater instability and disorder: “Can’t be helped. That’s just how it is with world order maintenance.” But it’s also a strange admission, since it confirms almost everything that critics of hegemony say about the folly, expense, and futility of trying to be the “indispensable nation.”

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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