The Duck of Minerva

Toward a neo-neo-Reaganite foreign policy

21 July 2007

Donald Douglas points me at Robert Kagan’s new piece in Policy Review, “End of Dreams, Return of History.” (Read Douglas’ own commentary on the piece at his blog, Burkean Reflections.)

Kagan’s piece nicely summarizes a number of important trends that academics and policy-makers have started to recognize over the last few years–ones that have formed the backdrop of some of my past (PDF)–also available here (PDF)–and future research projects:

• We’re seen a rise of deliberate counter-hegemonic activity by a number of autocratic and quasi-autocratic states, most notably Russia, China, and Venezuela. This counter-hegemonic activity involves direct attempts to limit the US sphere of influence–such as Chavez’s activities in Latin America and doings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization–and actions that indirectly cut against American political leverage, such as the Chinese pursuit of markets, lower-wage workers, and factories in Africa.

• The increasing availability of alternative partners to the US and Europe for Third World states, in fact, puts the United States and Europe at a disadvantage, particularly when dealing with autocratic and quasi-autocratic regimes. Because the US links its support to democracy promotion in a variety of ways, autocratic states will, all things being equal, prefer to deal with China, Russia, and other patrons that make no such demands.

• This new “great game” will, in the long run, be more important for the shape of international politics than the “War on Terror.”

I’ll have more to say about the essay at some point over the next few days, but my initial reaction includes the following points:

(1) Kagan spends far too much time fighting a rearguard action to the effect that neither Bush nor neo-conservative intellectuals (e.g., Kagan) have anything to do with the weakened American ability to handle these trends. Kagan’s argument here is particularly weak; it amounts to a claim that Bush’s pursuit of a regime change was not a major departure from American foreign policy, particularly after Eisenhower administration gave the CIA the “green light” to overthrow foreign governments. But this is all really besides the point; the Iraq War stands out as an ill-conceived and poorly executed attempt to implement a vacuous “democratic domino” theory in the Middle East. It greatly weakened American prestige, foreign perceptions of American power, and the ability of the US to project force to other trouble spots.

Moreover, the way the Bush administration conceptualized the War on Terror helped generate some of the contemporary competition for clients that we now see. The US decision to restructure its basing and access priorities–whatever the military merits of the policy–de-emphasized many long-term, reliable allies in favor of unstable new democracies and autocratic regimes. At the same time, authoritarian governments have used–with varying degrees of success–the War on Terror to enhance their influence and access to US patronage.

(2) Bush foreign policy, for that matter, contributed to the plausibility of the current War on Terror as a civilizational struggle between Islam and the West. Kagan rightly notes that it is no such thing. But there’s also nothing inevitable about a coming struggle between authoritarian and democratic states. There will be, however, if we adopt Kagan’s neo-Leninist approach to heightening the contradictions in autocratic regimes:

The Russian regime is also vulnerable to pressures from within and without, for unlike China, Russia still maintains the trappings of democracy. It would not be easy for a Russian leader simply to abandon all pretense and assume the role of tsar. Elections must still be held, even if they are unfair or are merely referendums on the selection of the leadership. This provides an opportunity for dissidents within and liberals on the outside to preserve the possibility of a return to democratic governance in Russia. It certainly would be a strategic error to allow Putin and any possible successor to strengthen their grip on power without outside pressures for reform, for the consolidation of autocracy at home will free the Russian leadership to pursue greater nationalist ambitions abroad. In these and other autocracies, including Iran, promoting democracy and human rights exacerbates internal political contradictions and can have the effect of blunting external ambitions as leaders tend to more dangerous threats from within.

Kagan here displays a shocking ignorance of the difference between current tensions and those of the US-Soviet struggle. American support for Soviet-era dissidents might have enhanced their position but it has the opposite effect in modern Russia, where the population has had quite enough of foreign attempts to meddle in their political system. The new authoritarianism, at least in Russia, is about national greatness and national sovereignty against the last fifteen years of humiliations at the hands of the Americans–and, increasingly, the Europeans.

Put differently, if Kagan is right that we’re entering a world of classic realpolitik struggles for power, why does he recommend we pursue policies designed to polarize many of the players into two opposing blocks? As he rightly points out, the great powers share a variety of common interests: in fighting non-state threats, in securing a stable international economic order, and so forth. Many of the factors that divide Russia and China, for example, may be swamped by a threat created by Kagan’s neo-neo-conservativism.

(3) The kinds of tensions I allude to above are nicely represented by Kagan’s other fighting-the-last-war example:

The main questions, then, are really a matter of tactics and timing. But no matter whether one prefers faster or slower, harder or softer, there will always be the risk that pressure of any kind will produce a victory for radical Islamists. Is that a risk worth taking? A similar question arose constantly during the Cold War, when American liberals called on the United States to stop supporting Third World dictators and American conservatives and neoconservatives warned that the dictators would be replaced by pro-Soviet communists. Sometimes this proved true. But other times such efforts produced moderate democratic governments that were pro-American. The lesson of the Reagan years, when pro-American and reasonably democratic governments replaced right-wing dictatorships in El Salvador, Guatemala, the Philippines, and South Korea, to name just a few, was that the risk was, on balance, worth taking.

It may be worth taking again in the Middle East, and not only as a strategy of democracy promotion but as part of a larger effort to address the issue of Islamic radicalism by accelerating and intensifying its confrontation with the modern, globalized world.

The place of these four clients in the US hegemonic system bears little resemblance to that of Egypt, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia. Moreover, in all four of the transitions facilitated by the Regan administration, the US enjoyed alternative partners to the departed autocrats. While I agree that the costs of current tensions in US policy between democratization and the strategic necessities of the war on terror require sustained assessment (they’ve produced downright schizophrenic policies in Central Asia, for example), Kagan provides no real solution to them nor any clear recognition of how Bush foreign policy made them worse.

(4) Kagan’s discussion of offshore balancing–which I am not much of a fan off–and alternative grand strategies ranges from superficial to misleading. I don’t have time to elaborate this point now, but I think it should be clear to any reader familiar with current debates in IR theory and in American Grand Strategy.

Gotta run. I’ll correct any grammatical and syntactical errors later.