Reviews — From the June 2012 issue
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Reviews — From the June 2012 issue
Splashy efforts to sum up the emerging strategic environment almost always enjoy an abbreviated shelf life. Kagan himself pokes fun at rivals, singling out Francis Fukuyama, Paul Kennedy, and especially Fareed Zakaria, who have in recent years presumed to decipher the course of history and establish whether the United States would determine—or conform to—that trajectory. In each case, propositions that once seemed prescient end up looking ridiculous, discredited by developments that the writers failed to anticipate.
Yet all those who engage in such forecasting, however disparate their predictions, share membership in the same fraternity. Whatever their pretense to serious analysis, they are fabulists, conjuring up simple stories that connect past, present, and future in a seamless narrative. The “declinism” that Kagan seeks to refute is, of course, one such fairy tale, but so is the American-made golden age that he offers by way of an alternative. Both qualify as the sheerest humbug, as does the predictive enterprise in general.
To divine the course of world events, you’d do as well to probe the entrails of dead animals. Better still, ask your hairstylist. She will be at least as insightful and probably more entertaining a prophet than anyone you can read in Foreign Affairs or the op-ed page of the Washington Post.
Why the purveyors of such shameless quackery continue to peddle their wares is easy to understand. It’s a good gig, offering practitioners a fair share of fame and fortune, along with a simulacrum of influence. Imagine having the president of the United States carry around your book!
That so many Americans continue to take their prognostications seriously is more baffling, and also more troubling. After all, these people have performed abysmally. Time and again—from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the events of 9/11 to the onset of the Arab Spring—events have caught the experts, whether in government or on the outside, completely by surprise. Business owners with comparable performance records go bust. Brokers lose their clients. Physicians get sued for malpractice. Yet think-tankers and policy wonks continue to opine, never pausing to reflect on—or apologize for—their spotty records.
What Kagan and others like him offer is not enlightenment but consolation. Trafficking in knowingness, as opposed to actual knowledge, they sustain the Hollywood fiction that if those who have their hands on the levers of power just do what needs to be done, things will come out all right. Books such as The World America Made fulfill our longing to believe that history does have purpose and direction, that the ongoing chronicle of collective human endeavor is not devoid of meaning. This is an illusion, of course—one to which we desperately cling, and which people like Robert Kagan exploit to the fullest. In the real world, unlike in Bedford Falls, wishful thinking won’t prevent the building and loan from collapsing. Either the books balance or they don’t. As for living happily ever after—well, that’s why we have movies.
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