Mythologising the past, misunderstanding the future

Robert Kagan’s hotly debated book on the return of realpolitik to international affairs paints a rosy picture of the 1990s and a nightmarish vision of our potentially China-ruled future.

Philip Cunliffe

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On the eve of the US presidential election, Robert Kagan, foreign policy adviser to Republican presidential hopeful John McCain, has published his views on international relations in the early twenty-first century.

The basic argument of The Return of History and the End of Dreams is that the soaring utopian hopes of the 1990s have been dashed. The ideal of a cooperative international order in which human rights, democracy and freedom would flourish has withered in the face of terrorism, failed states and the rise of authoritarian capitalist states in China and Russia.

Kagan’s response is to call for a retrenchment of Western ideals under American leadership, in the form of a new League of Democracies, an idea that McCain himself has floated. In place of the idealism of the 1990s, Kagan sees a world of geopolitical rivalry with newly emerging powers such as Russia and China, but also Japan, India and Iran. In place of human rights and cooperation, we will have grim realpolitik and the pursuit of egotistical national interest once again.

There are lots of problems with Kagan’s argument, but the most glaring one is the fact that the 1990s were not so gloriously idealistic in the first case – and the current international order is not that different from the 1990s, either.

If the 1990s were supposedly a golden age for human rights, NGOs and cosmopolitan values, it was also an era awash with dark Malthusian visions of international anarchy and ethnic discord. Far from being idealistic, humanitarians could only see the world in the moral terms of beleaguered, passive victims hounded by Evil. At the core of the humanitarian agenda there was a prurient misanthropy that was secretly fascinated by fables of human wickedness.

On the other hand, there is also much about the international order today that is in keeping with other trends of the post-Cold War world. For example: UN peacekeeping is booming, a lot like the early 1990s. China, indeed, is a major peacekeeping power. The UN currently deploys more peacekeepers around the world than the armed forces of any state or military alliance – with the sole exception of America. Such activity can only be premised on high levels of international agreement, there being a tacit consensus that the world’s major powers are simply unwilling to assume political responsibility for the world’s trouble spots. Instead, they are happy to hand them over to the UN.

Kagan is right that the rise of China and India is changing the international order. He is also right that we are likely to see a more competitive international order emerging than we have been used to in recent times. But the contemporary international order will not be a simple repeat of the past: it will have its own specific dynamics and texture, a product of the history that came before.

Unlike other historical rising powers, China, as Frank Furedi has argued on spiked, is a remarkably status quo power: it is well-integrated into many international institutions and has a hugely open, and therefore vulnerable, economy. Indeed, it is Western allies that are in some ways less integrated than China: it is Germany, Japan and India that do not have veto powers on the UN Security Council, whereas China does. That does not bode well for Kagan’s fantasy ‘League of Democracies’. At the end of the day, much future discord will arise on the part of the West itself rather than China or Russia.

Since the Western powers have ruled unchallenged for the past 20 years since the end of the Cold War, they are used to getting their own way. They have had the leeway to indulge every whim and passing fancy: countries have been invaded for the sake of solipsistic Western morals, crusades have been launched for human rights and democracy, vicious sanctions regimes have been imposed on countries throughout the world, and the West has used its monopoly over aid and development institutions to impose every politically correct fad on poor countries. Given this history, it is hardly surprising that the West reacts with shrill hysteria and incomprehension in response to any self-assertion on the part of Russia and China.

Having ruled the world unchallenged for so long, the diplomatic arts of compromise and negotiation will not come easily to Western powers. Kagan is leading the way into the sands of a fading mirage.

Philip Cunliffe is co-editor of Politics without Sovereignty: A Critique of Contemporary International Relations (UCL Press, 2007). Read more about it here, and buy the book here.

The Return of History and the End of Dreams, by Robert Kagan, is published by Atlantic Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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