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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.

How well does Kagan’s Copernican interpretation of contemporary history—with America the sun around which all else orbits—stand up? Those who have already drunk the waters of American exceptionalism will likely find it persuasive, if less than novel. Others may judge the results more stringently. Even so, The World America Made deserves attention—not for the truths it purports to convey but as a sterling example of the spurious enterprise that it neatly embodies.

No doubt the postwar decades during which America was riding high do look pretty good next to, say, the period from 1914 to 1945. There Kagan has a point. Yet any such comparison sets the bar rather low. One might just as well argue that present-day Americans are enjoying an economic golden age, since the 10 percent unemployment rate reached at the nadir of the Great Recession falls well short of the Great Depression’s 25 percent.

And grateful though we may be for so far having avoided World War III, Kagan’s golden age has seen some very considerable bloodletting. Noteworthy episodes of violence include the following, with their respective death tolls in parentheses: the partition of India (1,000,000), the Korean War (3,000,000), the French Indochina War (400,000), the Algerian Revolution (537,000), the Vietnam War (1,700,000), the Cambodian Genocide (1,650,000), the Iran–Iraq War (700,000), the Soviet war in Afghanistan (1,500,000), the Rwandan Genocide (800,000), the Second Congo War (3,800,000), and the Second Sudanese Civil War (1,900,000), not to mention the U.S. war in Iraq (weighing in with a relatively modest 150,000 civilian corpses). None of these catastrophes earn more than passing mention in Kagan’s account. Yet together they call into question the premise that merely avoiding a great-power war is an adequate standard for passing out laurel wreaths like the one adorning this book’s jacket.

Kagan, it should be said, demonstrates a real facility for passing out unearned laurels. The war against Nazi Germany, he writes, ended in a “victory by Allied democracies (and the Soviet Union).” This certainly reflects the commonplace American view. But assigning credit on the basis of who did most of the fighting and dying reverses the emphasis: Stalin’s Red Army prevailed (with Yanks, Brits, and others pitching in). In other words, in the so-called Good War, one brand of totalitarianism triumphed over another, with the Allied democracies playing a helpful if less decisive role. Imagine George Bailey, his building-and-loan association tottering on the brink of collapse, enlisting the help of Mr. Potter’s (equally evil) twin, who subsequently claims the eastern half of Bedford Falls as his reward. That’s World War II in a nutshell, albeit not as Capra might have scripted it.

To celebrate the United States for averting World War III involves a similar distortion. “One of the main causes of war throughout history,” Kagan declares, “has been a rough parity of power that leaves nations in doubt about who is stronger.” Through much of the postwar era, the precise opposite proved true. During the Cold War, rough parity constituted a check against general war. Militarily, neither the Soviets nor the Americans enjoyed a significant edge. The only overarching certainty was that each possessed sufficient power to annihilate the other. The prospect of Armageddon concentrated minds and helped prevent (or at least postpone) its occurrence. Credit for the Long Peace, therefore, belongs as much to the Soviet Union as to the United States—and perhaps to the nuclear scientists on both sides who so diligently built up their deadly arsenals.

Kagan’s corollary, that “there is no better recipe for great-power peace than certainty about who holds the upper hand,” also misleads. The Cold War’s passing ostensibly removed all doubt as to exactly who held that upper hand: the world’s sole remaining superpower, the United States, could now do pretty much as it wished. Yet rather than promoting global harmony, supremacy served principally to underwrite recklessness. Convinced that the demise of the Soviet Union had freed the United States from all constraints, hawkish analysts (among them Kagan and William Kristol) urged policymakers to put American military muscle to work. Here are Kagan and Kristol in 2002, promoting preventive war against Iraq:

Whether or not we remove Saddam Hussein from power will shape the contours of the emerging world order .?.?. A devastating knockout blow against Saddam Hussein, followed by an American-sponsored effort to rebuild Iraq and put it on a path toward democratic governance, would have a seismic impact on the Arab world—for the better.

Kagan got his war, which did indeed have a seismic impact. One result was to blow a gaping hole in whatever remained of the postwar golden age. In The World America Made, however, the author skips lightly past Iraq and its consequences. Address that conflict with even a semblance of honesty and his whole argument—American power preventing war, fostering democracy, and promoting prosperity—collapses.

Yet Kagan’s tacit attempt to trivialize the Iraq War won’t wash. Among other things, that sorry episode confronts us with a troubling fact: in today’s world, the most bellicose countries tend to be democracies, with the United States very much in the vanguard.

Kagan rehashes the cliché that “democracies rarely go to war with other democracies.” While offering reassurance that friendly relations between the United States and Canada are likely to endure, this dictum leaves unanswered a more pressing question. How is it that the magnanimous United States—which Kagan wistfully likens to “the catcher in the rye, preventing young democracies from falling off the cliff”—finds itself enmeshed in quasi-permanent war across large swaths of the planet?

It’s all well and good to fret, as Kagan does, about China’s ambitions and its military buildup. Yet the last time the People’s Liberation Army invaded a country was in 1979, during its relatively brief dust-up with Vietnam. By comparison, when was the last time U.S. forces went even a single year without engaging putative adversaries in some distant quarter of the world?

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.

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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