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The U.S. Shouldn’t Seek New ‘Ideological Confrontations’ Abroad

Kagan wants the U.S. to take a more confrontational approach to dealing with Russia and China, and in order to sell that today he has to dress it up as something more than the destructive and costly pursuit of hegemony that he has been pushing for decades.

Robert Kagan warns us about global authoritarianism:

Of all the geopolitical transformations confronting the liberal democratic world these days, the one for which we are least prepared is the ideological and strategic resurgence of authoritarianism. We are not used to thinking of authoritarianism as a distinct worldview that offers a real alternative to liberalism.

We are not used to thinking of authoritarianism as a distinct worldview because it isn’t one. All authoritarian states share certain things in common, and they may see some of the same things as threats, but there isn’t a single worldview that all authoritarian governments subscribe to. There is no one ideology that binds them together. Most of them are nationalistic to one degree or another, but because of that they usually have competing and opposing goals. Treating all authoritarian regimes as part of the same global threat lumps illiberal and majoritarian democracies together with kleptocracies, communist dictatorships, and absolute monarchies. That exaggerates the danger that these regimes pose, and it tries to invent a Cold War-like division between rival camps that doesn’t really exist. If the U.S. treats these states as if they are all in league with one another, it will tend to drive together states that would otherwise remain at odds and keep each other at arm’s length.

Kagan’s preferred foreign policy requires that there is some global “ideological confrontation” for the U.S. to be engaged in. If there isn’t one, it has to be invented. His account of the history of the 20th century shows how determined he is to see international politics in terms of grand ideological battles even when there wasn’t one. He takes seriously the idea that WWI is one of these struggles: “But for those who fought it, on both sides, it was very much a war between liberalism and authoritarianism.” Kagan makes the mistake of treating wartime propaganda descriptions of the war as the real motivation for the war, and he relies on stereotypes of the nations on the other side of the war as well. The world’s largest colonial empires were not fighting for “the liberties of Europe” and they certainly weren’t fighting for the rights of small nations, as wartime British propaganda would have it, and that became abundantly clear in the post-war settlement. It was primarily a war among empires for supremacy in Europe, and the surviving Allied empires consolidated their hold on their own colonial possessions and gained more. To the extent that Americans genuinely believed that joining the war had something to do with vindicating the cause of democracy, they were quickly disabused of that notion when they saw the fruits of the vindictive settlement that their allies imposed on the losing side.

Kagan admits that there are many differences of regime type that he is trying to collapse into one group:

We have become lost in endless categorizations, viewing each type of non-liberal government as unique and unrelated to the others — the illiberal democracy, the “liberal” or “liberalizing” autocracy, the “competitive” and “hybrid” authoritarianism. These different categories certainly describe the myriad ways non-liberal societies may be governed. But in the most fundamental way, all of this is beside the point.

In other words, Kagan isn’t all that interested in details or accuracy. Those are “beside the point.” What matters is dividing up the world into two opposing camps: “Nations are either liberal, meaning that there are permanent institutions and unchanging norms that protect the “unalienable” rights of individuals against all who would infringe on those rights, whether the state or the majority; or they are not liberal.” The criteria for qualifying as a liberal nation are extremely demanding. What institutions can honestly be called “permanent” and what norms are ever truly “unchanging”? Judged against this extreme and unreasonable standard, there won’t ever be many nations that qualify as liberal, including quite a few that we would normally consider liberal democracies in good standing. That makes it a lot easier for Kagan to exaggerate the power of “resurgent authoritarianism.”

Kagan doesn’t make it explicit in this essay, but his larger goal in all of this is to advocate for a more confrontational foreign policy mobilized against the authoritarian enemies that he has described. He hints at this when he disparages contemporary “realists” whom he doesn’t name or cite:

Just as during the 1930s, when realists such as Robert Taft assured Americans that their lives would be undisturbed by the collapse of democracy in Europe and the triumph of authoritarianism in Asia, so we have realists today insisting that we pull back from confronting the great authoritarian powers rising in Eurasia.

To be much more accurate, there are realists, non-interventionists, and progressives that see no compelling reason for the U.S. to engage in destructive rivalries with major authoritarian powers in their own backyards. Except for a lame, overused comparison to the 1930s, Kagan doesn’t even try to explain why we are wrong to think this. Kagan assumes that such destructive rivalries are both necessary and desirable, and this essay is the latest part of his effort to lay the groundwork for the ideological justification for those rivalries.

Kagan’s analysis suffers from the problem of mirror-imaging that always plagues ideologues. He assumes that everyone sees the world in starkly ideological categories just as he does, and he thinks that other actors are just as determined to export their ideology as he is. His entire worldview depends on linking great power competition with larger ideological causes, and for almost thirty years there has been no such “ideological confrontation” for Kagan to theorize about. Despite Kagan’s insistence to the contrary, there still isn’t. He wants the U.S. to take a more confrontational approach to dealing with Russia and China, and in order to sell that today he has to dress it up as something more than the destructive and costly pursuit of hegemony that he has been pushing for decades. The U.S. has spent the last twenty years fighting wars that Kagan and other like-minded interventionists advocated for and endorsed. We shouldn’t make the same mistake again when the stakes are even higher.



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