The World America Unmade

Had Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan managed to win on November 6, Robert Kagan’s The World America Made would have taken on heightened significance. Even in the wake of the Republicans’ defeat, this hawkish historian’s advice to policymakers matters more than we might otherwise suppose. Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and co-founder with Irving Kristol of the Project for a New American Century, served on the Romney-Ryan team as a foreign policy adviser, but he also caught Barack Obama’s attention earlier this year. Back in January, President Obama reportedly expressed his admiration for an article Kagan had written for The New Republic. There, Kagan challenged the “Myth of American Decline,” and his protest found its way directly into the President’s January 26th State of the Union Address. “America is back,” Obama announced. “Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re [sic] talking about.”

In his latest book, Kagan continues to warn against the influence of the “declinists” among us—a group whose membership he leaves largely unnamed—and mounts a spirited defense of America’s capacity to shape the world. Talk of decline could too easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy, he fears. By the book’s end, he arrives at what might be the book’s principal aim: to answer those with the temerity to suggest that the nation’s enormous defense budget ought to be scrutinized along with all other federal spending in the coming days of fiscal retrenchment and austerity. To get to that conclusion, he argues that America must maintain the post-1945 global hegemony it created and imposed on the world and continues to benefit from nearly 70 years later. “From World War II onward,” he writes, “the United States was indeed the predominate power in the world. It wielded enormous power, more than any great power since Rome, and it accomplished much” (122).

Kagan’s Pax Americana inaugurated a reign of prosperity through free markets and free trade, advanced democracy over autocracy, and preserved exceptional order and peace among the great powers. Despite missteps and setbacks along the way, an often “reluctant,” “ambivalent” American people “grudgingly” elevated the world to an unprecedented level of prosperity, freedom, and security. If Americans are foolish enough to believe the rumors of their empire’s impending demise, then they will needlessly and prematurely sacrifice that splendid epoch of economic progress, human liberty, and limited conflict. This is the world America made. This is the world America can sustain into the future while preventing a rising power such as China from building an alternative order after its own image and likeness. America’s world order was not the gift of “divine providence or progressive teleology” or “unfolding Hegelian dialectic,” Kagan cautions (20). There was and is nothing inevitable about it. It was and remains the product of power and choice (37, 140). In short, “it is an imposition” (97).

The World America Made reads more like an extended op-ed piece than a work of historical scholarship or policy analysis. There is nothing inherently wrong with that technique, but Kagan relies on broad strokes and frequent abstractions to do a job that requires substantial evidence. Even at only 140 small-format pages, the book feels stretched and repetitive. Anyone looking for specifics and the kind of historical detail Kagan offered in his 2007 book, Dangerous Nation, will be disappointed. Kagan carries his argument straight through, without chapter divisions, from a description of what is distinctively “American” about the post-1945 world order to policy recommendations for how to respond to challengers who envision building their own world order to suit their own economic, strategic, and ideological aims.

Kagan becomes a little too fond of his triad of democracy, freedom, and prosperity. He tries to make this otherwise effective organizational device do the hard work of analysis, which it cannot. More problematic, he relies too often on vague references to “some” and “many,” instead of naming the scholars and policy analysts who counter his argument. He is content, and hopes his readers will be content, to attribute certain policies merely to “American officials” (87) and certain attitudes to “Americans” as a whole even though Americans have rarely marched in step when it comes to foreign policy. Kagan’s “Americans” are a predictable, ideological lot who promote universal principles and believe that foreign governments that deviate from these principles are “inherently illegitimate and therefore transient” (11). But these same “Americans,” Kagan reports a few pages later, “did not want colonies, even the ones they seized and held for decades” (13). Their collective ambivalence and reluctance has often led Americans to do the “wrong thing” (i.e., not intervene) but in the end they manage to do the “right thing” (i.e., intervene). Kagan reaches for such generalities as “the almost universal assumption” (109) and such passive expressions as “it is broadly accepted that” (109) at points where the burden is on him to demonstrate the veracity of his claims. He juggles such abstractions as the “free market” and “free trade” to talk about a world that has never practiced either. He also employs a Manichean framework in which the world is divided neatly into only two regime types, democracy and autocracy, influenced either by the forces of progress or reaction. And 1945 marks a dramatic transition in history: the world before American hegemony was a world of “chaos and catastrophe” (99); under America’s dominance, it has been nothing less than a “golden age for humanity” (135). Kagan’s categories are too few, his contrasts too stark, and his divisions of history too bold to stand up to the messiness of reality.

Kagan’s book begins and ends with a thought experiment inspired by Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. In the perennial holiday favorite, George Bailey is given the chance to see what his town would have been like if he had never been born. Kagan uses this cinematic version of alternative history to speculate about the world’s alternative history if America had not emerged as a global power after 1945. His thought experiment does not ask what the world would be like if America had never been born. It does not ask what the world would be like if America had never become a major industrial and commercial power. Rather, it asks what the world of the past 70 years would have been like if America had never imposed its hegemony and, by extension, what the future will likely hold if Americans dared think the unthinkable and withdraw from international dominance. This imaginative technique works well for Hollywood but not for history. There is no way for the historian to extract from history a variable as vast and consequential as the United States from history and speculate intelligently about the remainder. A historian might speculate about the consequences of George Meade making a different tactical decision at Gettysburg, and learn something useful by doing so, but what can he possibly hope to learn by removing America from the world stage after 1945?

Another serious flaw appears in light of David Hackett Fischer’s warning more than forty years ago about historians who are prone to write as if engaged in an act of “nation-building.” Kagan, we might say, engages here and elsewhere in an act of empire-building. He draws on the past to justify the present. He portrays what America has become—specifically, post-World War II—as the essence of what we have always been and were always meant to be. But history practiced as an exercise in empire-building ignores the costs of empire. Kagan’s attractive story of the world America made distracts his reader from the important story of the world America unmade. And that “world” is not the global order, but the world at home, the world of America’s own institutions, traditions, and character. We ought to ask if the republic survived the making of an empire. Did limited government survive global hegemony? If balanced budgets, low debt, and modest taxes survived the new world order. America may have made the world safe for democracy and then safe for global capitalism and for interventionism in the name of peace, but did it lose anything along the way to hegemony?

What indeed did post-1945 American foreign policy unmake? This is the unintended question Kagan impresses on his reader. It may not be the case that the making of a world order had to mean the unmaking of a domestic order, but in American history that seems to have been the case. This is the sort of damage to institutions that anti-imperialists warned about in 1898. William Graham Sumner looked at Europe’s empires and had to conclude that there were “penalties of greatness.” Great Britain had experienced those penalties by the end of the nineteenth century. Empire had brought larger armies and navies, mounting expenses, rising debt and taxes, and greater insecurity as great power collided with great power on land and sea in the mad scramble for empire. America had a choice in 1898, and it chose the path to global power with all of its benefits and costs. Chief among these costs, in Sumner’s estimation, was the undoing of constitutional government at home. America had been born in a dramatic rejection of mercantilism. The US Constitution had been crafted for a federal republic and made no provision for governing overseas colonies and ruling subject peoples. In choosing empire in 1898, the United States chose to enter its post-constitutional age. It gained wealth, power, and glory, but lost the modest republic of its ancestors.

Voters who persuaded themselves that November 6 presented them with an apocalyptic choice between the forces of light and the forces of darkness ought to consider what Kagan’s appeal to both Romney and Obama can teach them. How substantive can the difference be between the Republicans and the Democrats if Kagan has the ear of both parties? His prescription for America’s continued military, economic, and ideological dominance enjoys bipartisan support at the moment. Accounting for his standing with the right and left is not hard. Kagan’s telling of history and his policy proposals are neither conservative nor liberal. They are about power—how to get power, how to keep power, and how to project that power into the future.