Reviews — From the June 2012 issue

Glory Days

A pundit’s rosy view of the Pax Americana

Discussed in this essay:

The World America Made, by Robert Kagan. Alfred A. Knopf. 149 pages. $21.

Call it a hallowed tradition. To invest their views with greater authority, big thinkers—especially those given to pontificating about the course of world history—appropriate bits of wisdom penned by brand-name sages. Nothing adds ballast to an otherwise frothy argument like a pithy quotation from John Quincy Adams or George F. Kennan or Reinhold Niebuhr. In The World America Made, a slim volume of mythopoeia decked out in analytic drag, the historian and pundit Robert Kagan cites all three of those renowned figures. For real inspiration, however, he turns to a different and altogether unlikely source: Hollywood director Frank Capra. The World America Made begins and ends with Kagan urging Americans to heed the lessons of that hoariest of Christmas fantasies, It’s a Wonderful Life.

Remember Clarence, the probationary guardian angel? Clarence saves George Bailey from suicidal despair (and earns his wings) by showing George what a miserable place Bedford Falls would have been without him.

As Kagan sees it, America’s impact on history mirrors George Bailey’s impact on Bedford Falls. Thanks to the power wielded by the United States, the entire postwar era has been “a golden age for humanity.” Among the hallmarks of this golden age have been the spread of democracy, a huge reduction in world poverty, and, above all, “the absence of war among great powers.” All of this Kagan ascribes to the United States and to what he calls the “American world order.”

Accept any diminution of American preeminence and you can kiss the golden age goodbye. Just like Bedford Falls without George Bailey, the world will inevitably become a dark and miserable place. Upstart nations will “demand particular spheres of influence,” and the weakened United States will “have little choice but to retrench and cede some influence.” China, Russia, India, and others will begin flexing their expansionist muscles, with doom and gloom sure to follow. “The notion that the world could make a smooth and entirely peaceful transition” to a new order, Kagan writes, is mere “wishful thinking.”

Fortunately, none of this need come to pass if only Americans will be of good heart and heed the counsel of their own guardian angel, whose name happens to be Robert Kagan. His self-assigned mission is to prevent the United States from “committing preemptive superpower suicide out of a misplaced fear of declining power.” After all, our decline is far from inevitable. The key is to believe. Once George Bailey recovers his faith, “he solves his [firm’s] fiscal crisis and lives happily ever after.” If Americans just keep the faith, they can do likewise.

This is the stuff of stump speeches. And it’s hardly coincidental that Mitt Romney has enlisted Kagan as a “special adviser.” For when it comes to American preeminence, Romney himself is very much a man of faith, his run for the presidency anchored, he claims, in a passionate belief that “this century must be an American century.” We’re talking, of course, about a man who routinely winds up campaign appearances by leading the crowd in singing “America the Beautiful.”

Yet it would be a big mistake to associate hyperbolic sentiments like Romney’s with any particular candidate or party. In fact, such views command reflexive support across the political spectrum. So word that Barack Obama has been flashing his own copy of The World America Made comes as no surprise. Whether the president has actually read it is beside the point. Merely having the book in his possession inoculates him against the charge of “declinism.” Obama, the New York Times reports, has “brandished Mr. Kagan’s analysis in arguing that the nation’s power has waxed rather than waned.” Let there be no doubt: Obama, too, is a believer.

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is Professor of History and International Relations at Boston University. He is the editor of The Short American Century: A Postmortem, published in March by Harvard University Press.

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