A review of the most recent writings of the leading foreign affairs theorist of America’s Neoconservative movement. Revised 24 February 2010
The History Wars: A Review of Robert Kagan’s The Return of History and the End of Dreams and a bit more…
by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
When I opened the Amazon UK mailing packet and began leafing through Robert Kagan’s 2008 tome, The Return of History, I was reminded of a scene a couple of years ago in the lobby of the New York City Opera at Lincoln Center in New York. It was a few minutes before curtain time and a hundred or more of us were slowly moving towards the stairs leading up into the theater. We were typical devotees of that staid institution, for the most part in our 60s, 70s and still older. A portly ticket inspector several stairs above us called out in a stentorian voice: “Ladies and gentlemen, you are going to enjoy tonight’s performance. It’s very short!”
Mr Kagan’s latest but surely not his last contribution to the Neoconservative literature is just 105 small-format pages of text plus 10 pages of notes and a one page description of the typeset style from Adobe Corporation. It is about 40% shorter than his best selling political tract of 2003 which we will talk briefly about at the end of this essay. Clearly Kagan is moving in the right direction!
Robert Kagan’s The Return of History carries to a new plateau what I would call ‘the history wars’ which began in 1993 with the publication of Francis Fukuyama’s End of History, a seminal work of futurology.
It seems that every several years our futurologists find a new world order and without any sense of irony, much less embarrassment, refute their recent predecessors’ reading of history’s trajectory based on the latest current events.
Back in 1993 Francis Fukuyama explained to us why democracy was triumphing worldwide. Though he reached back in time to the overthrow of dictatorships and installation of democracy in South Europe, Latin America and East Asia from the 1970s onward to show a steady expansion of the democratic roster of nations, the cataclysmic events which gave relevance and immediacy to Fukuyama’s thinking were the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union a couple of years later. These were the coordinates by which the trajectory of history could now be plotted. They indicated the entire world was headed in the same direction towards a peaceful future of capitalist economies and liberal democracy.
In 1998, based on outbreaks of ethnic and religious violence in the Balkans, the Caucasus and elsewhere globally over the preceding 5 years, Sam Huntington revealed to us that no, history had not ended, the ideological divide of the Cold War was being replaced by civilizational divides, fault lines criss-crossing the globe. For his paradigm of civilizations, he drew on Spengler and Toynbee. In Huntington’s best-selling tome, far from being triumphant, the West was shown to be already in a nearly century-long retreat that could be orderly and sustained over a long transition period if handled well, or fraught with danger and accelerated if Europe and America did not act in concert to defend their interests.
Now Kagan is telling us to forget this exotic notion of a clash of civilizations, which is passé in any case. The new hemline, the new vision of the future is based on developments which appeared at the very end of the 1990s and beginning of the new millennium as a result of expanding world trade, which brought with it not just the prosperity forecast by positivists but also a heightened assertiveness of its main new beneficiaries. What we have now is old fashioned, 19th century great power rivalry among ambitious nation-states of China, Japan, Russia, India and Iran; the revival of the centuries long divide between liberal democracies and autocratic governments as represented by the anti-NATO coalition of Shanghai Cooperation Organization countries forged by Russia and China; and an overlay of anti-modern, anti-democratic Islamic radicalism.
“As these three struggles combine and collide,” Kagan maintains, “the promise of a new era of international convergence fades. We have entered an age of divergence….History has returned, and the democracies must come together to shape it, or others will shape it for them.”
Specifically, Kagan uses this potentially violent new world to justify the continuance of American global hegemony, which, with all its flaws, he believes to be more noble and better accepted by the nations of the world generally than any alternative solution to managing international relations. And there is no reason to suppose that this world dominance can be shaken if we keep our resolve.
This tightly argued little volume has provoked lively discussion in the world of professional foreign policy analysts in the United States….
©Gilbert Doctorow 2009 – 2010
For the full analysis, see the author’s 2010 book Great Post-Cold War American Thinkers on International Relations. G. Doctorow was a 2010-2011 Visiting Scholar of the Harriman Institute of Columbia University. He is today (2013) an occasional lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and a Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest work, published in April 2013, is Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Non-conformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12. Both works are available from amazon.com and amazon websites worldwide in paperback and e-book editions. They are also on sale at Barnes & Noble and other leading bookstores.