The Return of History and the End of Dreams

The Return of History and the End of Dreams
By Robert Kagan
Atlantic Books London
116 pages

Kagan, who lives in Brussels, is a Senior Associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Author of Paradise and Power and with the US neo- conservative, William Kristol, Present Dangers.

Now a sadder-but-wiser Kagan, in this short book, (the title of which is in contradiction to Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History), sets out what might be described as a realistic assessment of where the world is today and where it is likely to go.

To Kagan the “end of dreams” refers to the assumptions that underpin a huge amount of what the EU has done for the last ten years:  “Europe was leading the world into a postmodern age, in which traditional national interests and power politics would give way to international law, supernational institutions, and pooled sovereignty.  The cultural, ethnic and nationalistic divisions that had plagued mankind, and Europe, would be dissolved by shared values and shared economic interests”.  As Kagan puts it “the core assumptions of the post-Cold War years collapsed almost as soon as they are formulated” due to “global divergences, and stubborn traditions of culture, civilisation, religion and nationalism that resisted or cut across the common embrace of democratic liberalism and market capitalism”.

“The return of history” in the title is in essence the return of Great Power nationalism and Great Power politics, much along the lines of 19th century Europe.  In a world, as Chinese strategists put it, of “one superpower, many great powers”, you now have the return with a vengeance of “nationalism and the nation itself” as well as “ethnic nationalisms” and “the return of Great Power nationalism”, seen in the rise of Russia, China, India, Japan, and Iran.

In Russia “the Kremlin thinks not in terms of citizen’s rights but in terms of the population’s needs”, and that “avenging the demise of the Soviet Union will keep us in power”.  Most worryingly Kagan notes “The mood of recrimination in Russia today is reminiscent of Germany after World War I, when Germans complained about the “shameful Versailles diktat” imposed on a prostrate Germany by the victorious powers, and about the corrupt politicians who stabbed the nation in the back.  Today Russia’s leaders seek to reclaim much of the global power and influence they lost at the end of the Cold War.  Their grand ambition is to undo the post-Cold War settlement and to re-establish Russia as a dominant power in Eurasia, to make it one of the two or three great powers of the world”.

China dismisses the EU’s postmodern views.  Chinese  officials speak of extending their strategic frontiers progressively outward to what they call the three “island chains”:  the first runs from Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines; the second from Sakhalin to the islands of the Southwest Pacific while the third runs from the Aleutin Islands off Alaska to the Antarctic.  The official Chinese Liberation Army Daily is quite clear: “As China’s comprehensive strength is incrementally mounting and our status keeps on going up in international affairs, it is a matter of great importance to strive to construct a military force that is commensurate with China’s status and up to the job of defending the interests of China’s development, so as to entrench China’s international status”.

The competing rise of India and the continuation of Japan’s great power status, and the competition of both with China in Asia today resembles 19th and early 20th  century Europe while “Taiwan could be the Sarajevo of the Sino–American confrontation”.  Kagan sums up that “history suggests that as China grows more confident, it will grow less not more tolerant of obstacles in its path”. The Chinese themselves have few illusions on this score.  They believe this great strategic rivalry will only “increase with the ascension of Chinese power”.

The rise of Iran, which many in Europe do not understand, is summarised well by Kagan.  “A proud and ancient civilisation, Persian Iran is famous in its region for a sense of superiority, even arrogance, and a belief in its own destiny.  Like China, India, and now Russia, Iran also has a historical sense of grievance.”  Quoting Ray Takeyh, he notes that Iran believes that by “virtue of its size and historical achievements”, it has “the right to emerge as the local hegemon” in the Middle East and Persian Gulf.  The only questions today are “how it should consolidate its sphere of influence and whether it can emerge as a regional hegemon in defiance of or in accommodation with the United States”.

Finally explaining this new world which in many ways does involve “the return of history” and the “end of dreams”, Kagan offers  his  “realist’s”  view of the rise of radical Islam.  “The struggle of radical Islamists against the powerful and often impersonal forces of modernisation, capitalism, and globalisation that they associate with the Judeo-Christian West is the other great conflict in the international system today.  It is also the most dramatic refutation of the convergence paradigm, since it is precisely convergence, including the liberal world’s conception of “universal values”, that the radical Islamists reject”.

Because of the force of modernisation, globalisation has inflamed the radical Islamist rebellion and also armed it  for the battle .  “It is a lonely and ultimately desperate fight, however, for in the struggle between traditionalism and modernity, tradition cannot win – even through traditional forces armed with modern weapons technologies and ideologies can do horrendous damage”.

Unfortunately, much of this is probably a more accurate reflection of the world as it is evolving today, rather than the world we hoped for, particularly in the EU.  The implications are sobering.

Firstly the reality that there is in fact no international community at this point, and no agreement on international values.  This means there will be more Darfurs, Burmas, Rwandas etc.

Secondly the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will continue to unravel, partly because of Iran’s behaviour and partly because of the recent deal between the USA and India.  Finally the UN Security Council “is slipping back to its long coma”.

This leads Kagan to the final part of his book where he attempts to set out what the democracies should do about these developments.  He is less sure-footed here.  He casts the upcoming confrontations as a form of competition (but not a two bloc Cold-War) between the democracies and what he terms the autocracies of Russia, China, Iran, Uzbekistan, Burma, Zimbabwe, North Korea, Vietnam, Kampuchea and Laos.

Like many others Kagan is pessimistic about the likelihood in these circumstances of keeping WMD away from terrorists:  “The willingness of the autocrats in Moscow and Beijing to protect their fellow autocrats in Pyongyang, Tehran and Khartoum increases the chances that the connection between terrorists and nuclear weapons will eventually be made”.

With respect to the challenge from radical Islamists, Kagan’s recommendation is unusual in that he recommends the introduction of democracy as quickly as possible in the Middle East even though this would mean that the holding of democratic elections in many of those states would bring the “wrong” radicals to power.  He thinks that risk is worth it, drawing on    “ … the lesson of the Reagan years when pro-American and reasonably democratic governments replaced right-wing dictatorships in El Salvador, Guatemala, the Philippines, Taiwan, South Korea and elsewhere”.  Such an approach would accelerate and intensify the confrontation with the modern globalised world on the part of the radical Islamists, but as that confrontation is inevitable, why not get it out of the way as soon as possible?

Noting  what many have missed, that India  and Japan are growing closer to the West and that India has dropped its non-aligned pretensions, Kagan suggests that the right tactical choice is for something along the lines of a concert of democracies to further Western objectives, working outside the UN Security Council if the autocracies continue to prevent its proper functioning.

This book raises two key questions for the EU.

The first is posed well by a Chinese official who around the time of Tiananmen Square said ““What right does the US government have to … flagrantly interfere in China’s internal affairs?”  What right, indeed?  Only the liberal creed grants the right, the belief that all are created equal and have certain inalienable rights that must not be abridged by governments, that governments derive their power and legitimacy only from the consent of the governed and have a duty to protect their citizens right to life, liberty, and property.  To those who share this liberal faith, foreign policies and even wars that defend these principles as in Kosovo, can be right even if established international law says they are wrong.  But to the Chinese, the Russians and others who do not share this worldview, the US and its democratic allies succeed in opposing their views of others not because they are right but only because they are powerful enough to do so.  To non-liberals, the international liberal order is not progress.  It is oppression.

This is more than a dispute over theory and the niceties of international jurisprudence.  It concerns the fundamental legitimacy of governments, which for autocrats can be a matter of life and death”.

Zimbabwe is a classic example of this problem today.  Zimbabwe may be forced to meet the desires of “the international community”, but if it is, that will simply be because it has no Great Power protector or as it lacks WMD or significant conventional military power or mineral wealth.

The second problem facing us in the EU at present is that “When the EU brought in the former Warsaw Pact states and the Baltics, it acquired not only new eastern countries but also a new eastern problem.  Or rather, it was the old eastern problem, the age-old contest between Russia and its near neighbours.  When the EU ingested Poland, it also ingested Poland’s enmity and suspicion of Russia (and of Germany).  When it took in the Baltics it took in their fear of Russia, as well as the large minority Russian population within their borders”.  Unfortunately this leaves us in a position where “Europe is neither institutionally nor temperamentally prepared to play the kind of geopolitical games in Russia’s near-abroad that Russia is willing to play”.  This in a time when the Finish Defence Minister worries that “military force” has once again become a “key element” in how Russia “conducts its international relations”.

This book should be read by all EU bureaucrats, elites and public representatives.  Kagan portrays a world neither expected, planned for, nor wanted by the EU.  However it may be the reality of what we face today.  In terms of how to address this “return of history”, Kagan’s recommendations are much less well thought through, although quite traditional, than the detailed recommendations set out by Philip Bobbitt in his new book “Terror and Consent   The Wars for the Twenty-First Century”.

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