July 27, 2007

Kagan On American Predominance

When you have a few minutes, it's well worth spending on this essay by Robert Kagan from Policy Review via RCP. It's sort of an over-arching assessment of the geopolitical situation in the world today, with the United States as the greatly flawed, yet absolutely necessary, sole superpower. It's quite long, but Kagan is so readable that it flies by...if this kind of stuff floats your boat, that is. Here's a sample.

Predominance is not the same thing as omnipotence. Just because the United States has more power than everyone else does not mean it can impose its will on everyone else. American predominance in the early years after the Second World War did not prevent the North Korean invasion of the South, a communist victory in China, the Soviet acquisition of the hydrogen bomb, or the consolidation of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe -- all far greater strategic setbacks than anything the United States has yet suffered or is likely to suffer in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor does predominance mean the United States will succeed in all its endeavors, any more than it did six decades ago.

By the same token, foreign policy failures do not necessarily undermine predominance. Some have suggested that failure in Iraq would mean the end of predominance and unipolarity. But a superpower can lose a war -- in Vietnam or in Iraq -- without ceasing to be a superpower if the fundamental international conditions continue to support its predominance. So long as the United States remains at the center of the international economy and the predominant military power, so long as the American public continues to support American predominance as it has consistently for six decades, and so long as potential challengers inspire more fear than sympathy among their neighbors, the structure of the international system should remain as the Chinese describe it: one superpower and many great powers.

This is a good thing, and it should continue to be a primary goal of American foreign policy to perpetuate this relatively benign international configuration of power. The unipolar order with the United States as the predominant power is unavoidably riddled with flaws and contradictions. It inspires fears and jealousies. The United States is not immune to error, like all other nations, and because of its size and importance in the international system those errors are magnified and take on greater significance than the errors of less powerful nations. Compared to the ideal Kantian international order, in which all the world 's powers would be peace-loving equals, conducting themselves wisely, prudently, and in strict obeisance to international law, the unipolar system is both dangerous and unjust. Compared to any plausible alternative in the real world, however, it is relatively stable and less likely to produce a major war between great powers. It is also comparatively benevolent, from a liberal perspective, for it is more conducive to the principles of economic and political liberalism that Americans and many others value.

American predominance does not stand in the way of progress toward a better world, therefore. It stands in the way of regression toward a more dangerous world. The choice is not between an American-dominated order and a world that looks like the European Union. The future international order will be shaped by those who have the power to shape it. The leaders of a post-American world will not meet in Brussels but in Beijing, Moscow, and Washington.

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People who believe greater equality among nations would be preferable to the present American predominance often succumb to a basic logical fallacy. They believe the order the world enjoys today exists independently of American power. They imagine that in a world where American power was diminished, the aspects of international order that they like would remain in place. But that 's not the way it works. International order does not rest on ideas and institutions. It is shaped by configurations of power. The international order we know today reflects the distribution of power in the world since World War ii, and especially since the end of the Cold War. A different configuration of power, a multipolar world in which the poles were Russia, China, the United States, India, and Europe, would produce its own kind of order, with different rules and norms reflecting the interests of the powerful states that would have a hand in shaping it. Would that international order be an improvement? Perhaps for Beijing and Moscow it would. But it is doubtful that it would suit the tastes of enlightenment liberals in the United States and Europe.


Posted by dan at July 27, 2007 11:29 PM