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Reviewed by John W. Coffey

Robert Kagan, The Return of History and the End of Dreams (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008), 116 pp., $19.95.

In 1992 Francis Fukuyama published a book fancifully titled The End of History and the Last Man. The demise of the Soviet Empire, he declared, left liberal democracy globally ascendant and heralded a “world transformed” without ideological conflict and with human nature itself regenerated. Alas, these utopian musings proved illusory.

The architect of American national security, Alexander Hamilton, did not entertain this sanguine view of human nature and conflict. The experience of ages, Hamilton cautioned, teaches that the roots of conflict among nations mirror the passions of human nature – the love of power and desire for pre-eminence and dominion, jealousy of power, a desire for equality and safety, commercial rivalries, and the “attachments, enmities, interests, hopes, and fears” of leading men. Hamilton warned against the “deceitful dream of a golden age,” proposing as a “practical maxim” for policy that we “are yet remote from the happy empire of perfect wisdom and perfect virtue.”1

Now the erstwhile neoconservative Robert Kagan announces the return of history with a vengeance. Instead of a pacific global convergence, the normal world of great power struggle and the post-Enlightenment conflict between liberalism and autocracy, plus a violent clash between radical Islam and modern, secular culture, has reappeared in our new “age of divergence.” Kagan argues that the Enlightenment faith in progress and a deterministic assumption that global economic integration would soften nations’ manners ignore the Greek understanding of “thumos” in the human soul, a spiritedness and ferocity in defense of clan, tribe, city, state.

The character and conduct of nations, Kagan believes, reflect the elements of the human soul: “Nations are not calculating machines. They have the attributes of the humans who create and live in them, the intangible and immeasurable human qualities of love, hate, ambition, fear, honor, shame, patriotism, ideology and belief, the things people fight and die for, today as in millennia past.”2 Kagan follows Aristotle’s teaching that a statesman must study the “psychology of the soul.”3

Russia’s revived strength has fueled traditional Russian nationalism aimed at reasserting Russia’s dominance in Eurasia and its international “greatness.” These objectives have created a geopolitical struggle with Europe, but the EU, suffering indigestion from the enlargement of its “voluntary empire,” lacks the stomach for this fight. Would Europe, asks Kagan, “bring a knife to a knife fight?” Similarly, China’s sudden rise has infused its leaders and people with new confidence and pride and a desire to restore “Middle Kingdom” dominion in Asia.

China’s ambitions and quest for self-reliance, a sense of its importance and desire for status and honor, and its pursuit of military power-projection are the actions of a normal rising power. Russia and China have demonstrated the compatibility of economic success and autocracy. The geopolitical contest precipitated by the emergence of these two great powers punctures the illusion that the spread of commerce and acquisition of wealth by nations will produce global harmony.

In the July/August issue of Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State Rice refers to our “complex” relationships with Russia (a “disappointment”) and China without mentioning the autocratic nature of their regimes.4 Rice does not acknowledge the importance of pride and the desire for pre-eminence in nations’ behavior, implying that Russia and China fail to understand that “technological and economic development” require free societies. Kagan suggests another paradigm to fit the autocrats, that of Meiji Japan at the end of the nineteenth century – “rich nation, strong army.” According to this model, nations seek economic integration and adaptation of Western institutions, not to abandon the geopolitical struggle but to wage it more successfully.

Along the Asian fault line, Japan too is a great power, which, perceiving danger from China and North Korea, has upgraded and expanded its military’s role and drawn closer to the United States and other Asian nations. India is the third great power defining the Asian geopolitical landscape. Animated by all the passions, resentments, and ambitions of the human soul, India’s acquisition of nuclear weapons illustrates its drive to power. Viewing China as a threat, India has strengthened ties with Japan and the United States. The traditional model of national ambition, claims Kagan, also applies to Iran, which he regards as motivated not merely by calculated interest, but by a desire for honor and respect exemplified by its nuclear program. So too, the mullahs, Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Muslim Brotherhood are driven by a desire for respect and honor as well as memories of ancient superiority. Radical Islam poses the most virulent rejection of universal values and global convergence. Kagan dismisses its atavistic desire to turn the clock back 1,400 years as a “hopeless dream.” This is doubtless true, but tends to minimize the threat to civilization radical Islam poses in the short run.

Thus, the twenty-first century marks not the “end of history,” but a renewal of the post-Enlightenment struggle between liberals and autocrats who really “believe in autocracy.” The autocratic model of development, notes Kagan, holds appeal for many countries in Central Asia, Africa, and Asia. Nevertheless, autocrats see themselves as a beleaguered minority, as a triumphal liberalism asserts the right to intervene in states in behalf of human rights. Nothing less is at stake here than an overthrow of the Westphalian order of inviolable state sovereignty. For autocrats this is no mere academic debate, but a matter of life and death. In the face of the autocratic challenge, Kosovo, Darfur, Iran, and Burma have exposed the chimera of any meaningful “international community,” the UN Security Council has proven impotent, and disparate values and principles of government, exacerbated by the scramble for energy resources, render impossible any concert of competing great powers. What, then, is to be done?

With U.S. predominance unlikely to disappear soon, Kagan proposes as an alternative to the present international system a “concert of the world’s democracies.” This concert — to include the EU and NATO nations of Europe and North America, Japan, Australia, India, and other democracies such as Brazil — would hold regular meetings to forge consensus on issues of the day, establishing a “new means of gauging and granting international legitimacy to actions” and upholding the democratic idea. The concert would “complement, not replace” the UN, NATO, the G-8, and other global organizations. Kagan assures readers he does not advocate a “crusade for democracy,” only showing the flag for “democratic solidarity” and nurturing the hope for democracy in Russia and China (sic!).

Kagan does not tell us what kind of “actions” the concert might take. Would it implement and enforce decisions on which it reached consensus? How would it “complement” existing international institutions? Considering that the English-speaking members of NATO have borne the brunt of the war in Afghanistan, it seems improbable that such a grab-bag of countries would do or enforce anything. By Kagan’s account, it is not evident how the concert would amount to more than a democratic cheering section, or talk shop — NATO without muscle? — ensconced in some cushy capital like Brussels.

Kagan raises the issue of supporting democracy in the Mideast, but presents a false choice in framing the alternative as supporting autocracy. A third course lies in assisting gradual political liberalization without forcing premature democratic processes. In his book Statecraft, Dennis Ross outlines this third way.5 The competition with jihadism, Ross contends, depends upon discrediting it, and Muslims must take the lead in this effort. Ross recommends avoiding the now jaded term “democracy” in approaching the Mideast, fostering instead reforms such as “good governance,” “combating corruption,” and respect for minority and women’s rights. He urges dialogue with Muslim reformers and support for programs and services enabling them to provide a social safety net for people, just as radical Islamists do.

Over time, Kagan believes, the liberal democratic idea should prevail because it delivers the goods to people and appeals to men’s aspirations. History offers no guarantees, however; hence, the future is ours to shape, if we will. Robert Kagan’s historical wake-up call reflects a neo-conservatism chastened but unchanged. A global democratic concert has simply replaced the American hegemony he formerly championed.

Andrew Bacevich correctly observes that Kagan’s concept of statecraft is based upon a doctrine of American exceptionalism and universalism.6 This expansive view of foreign policy underlies the Bush Administration’s policy of “democratic transformation” and what Secretary Rice, the architect of that policy, terms a “uniquely American realism” that conflates interests and values. In her inordinate formulation, our national interest requires an international order reflecting our values.7 A coherent and viable American foreign policy must await a more discriminate delineation of national interests and a more modest appreciation of the limited applicability of American values.End.


1. Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist Papers, No. 6.
2. Robert Kagan, The Return of History and the End of Dreams, p. 80.
3. Aristotle, Ethics, Bk. I, chap. 13.
4. Condoleezza Rice, “American Realism for a New World,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 87 (July/August, 2008), pp. 3-5.
5. Dennis Ross, Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2007), pp. 293-305. Two other recent books recommend gradual political liberalization. See Eva Bellin, “Democratization and Its Discontents: Should America Push Political reform in the Middle East?” Foreign Affairs, vol. 87 (July/August, 2008), pp. 112-119.
6. Andrew J. Bacevich, “Present at the Re-Creation: A Neoconservative Moves On,” Foreign Affairs, vol. 87 (July/August, 2008), pp. 125-131.
7. Rice, “American Realism for a New World,” p. 26.



John W. Coffey received a Ph.D. in American history from Stanford University and taught for 20 years. He served in OSD Policy at the Pentagon from 1986-88 and as a civil servant at the Commerce and State Departments for 15 years, retiring from State in 2005. He has written widely on foreign and defense policy.

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