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Review by John Coffey

Robert Kagan, The World America Made, ISBN-13: 9780307961310, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012, 160 pp., $21.00

In his January, 2012 State of the Union Address, President Obama declared, “The renewal of American leadership can be felt across the globe…. From the coalitions we’ve built to secure nuclear materials, to the missions we’ve led against hunger and disease, from the blows we’ve dealt to our enemies, to the enduring power of our moral example, America is back. Anyone who tells you otherwise, anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn’t know what they’re talking about.” The President drew this theme from a New Republic article adapted from the book by Brookings Institution scholar Robert Kagan. Reportedly, the article so impressed Obama that on the afternoon of his Address he discussed it in detail in a meeting with leading news anchors. When later asked his reaction, Kagan, a foreign policy advisor to the Romney campaign, replied that he was pleased Obama liked his essay and that the President was not resigned to America’s decline.1 What is it in Kagan’s message that seems to have captured the President’s attention?

The post-World War II “golden age” of peace, prosperity and democracy, Kagan maintains, was created by U.S. power and influence. Rejecting the faddish view that America’s inevitable decline is a matter of indifference to the world, Kagan believes American preeminence matters immensely everywhere and warns of the danger of “preemptive superpower suicide” resulting from a misbegotten fear of decline. The world America made is historically unique. It is ours to keep or lose.

Despite Americans’ ambivalence about assuming the burden of leadership, other nations welcomed America as leader of the trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific communities after World War II. The rebuilding of Germany and Japan from the rubble of war and the security relationships America forged with those nations established the pillars of the liberal international order for the next six decades. The flowering of democracy, unprecedented global economic growth, and great power peace of recent years are due, not to American charity, but to its enlightened self-interest – an exercise of Franklinesque doing well by doing good – in building and defending a liberal international order.2

Other nations have abetted and joined U.S. leadership in the belief that America acts to preserve a world order benefitting all. In an historical anomaly, other countries have not formed coalitions to balance American hegemony. As Chinese strategist Yan Xuetong observes, the Americans have created “an institutionalized system of hegemony” by “establishing international norms” in accordance with American principles of behavior. Once these norms are “accepted by a majority of countries,” American hegemony becomes “legitimized.” Yan notes the resulting disparity in military power: “America has more than 50 formal military allies, while China has none.”

What would happen, Kagan asks, if American power did decline? Surveying the possible breakup of thirteen states into several partial confederacies, Alexander Hamilton foresaw frequent and violent conflict among them: “To presume a want of motives for such contests as an argument against their existence would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive, and rapacious. To look for a continuation of harmony between a number of independent, unconnected sovereignties situated in the same neighborhood would be to disregard the uniform course of human events, and to set at defiance the accumulated experience of ages.”3 Like Hamilton, Kagan argues that a multipolar world of several roughly equal powers (with far fewer common bonds among them than the thirteen states of the Confederation possessed) would not be a stable, peaceful one, as great powers compete for regional predominance – China in the South China Sea, for example, and Russia in the Baltics, Caucasus, and east Europe. Multipolarity would spur the ambitions of nations seeking to carve out spheres of influence. Only “wishful thinking,” insists Kagan, could imagine this would not sow chaos and conflict. Hamilton took it as an “axiom in politics that vicinity, or nearness of situation, constitutes nations natural enemies.”4 The liberal world order, Kagan reminds us, didn’t just grow like Topsy. It rests on the power of liberal nations to build and defend it: “International order is not an evolution; it is an imposition.”

Kagan rejects the notion of American decline. The U.S. still produces its traditional 25% share of the world’s GDP, it holds unmatched military power, the “rise of the (friendly) rest” actually benefits us, and an alleged waning of U.S. world influence derives from an illusory past where America always had its way. Our only potential competitor is China, a threat correctly not overrated by Kagan.5 China’s per capita GDP is but a fraction of America’s. She is ringed by strong neighbors aligned with the U.S. and is plagued by a myriad of domestic problems. Kagan grants that the U.S. faces a fiscal crisis, caused by runaway entitlement programs, but fails to give sufficient weight to the implications of this crisis. The present danger, he claims, is that we’ll talk ourselves into decline and forfeit the leadership on which the world order depends. Decline, he asserts, is a “choice,” not an “inevitable fate.”

While acknowledging the nation’s fiscal crisis, Kagan believes Americans have shown adaptability in overcoming past crises. Yet it is not enough to suggest that since we’ve done it before, we can do it again. Decline may be a “choice,” but averting decline also means making hard choices and inflicting pain on voters to pay for what they want. Thus far no candidate, including the author’s, is asking hard things of voters, and the reckless brinkmanship of the 112th Congress in raising the debt ceiling offers scant hope for responsible action in the future. President George W. Bush’s huge tax cuts, unpaid Medicare drug benefits, two wars on the national credit card, the financial crisis of 2008-2009 and stimulus spending to overcome it, soaring deficits and debt, and a ballooning entitlement burden for retiring boomers will severely limit the resources available for the conduct of foreign policy. Michael Mandelbaum has written a compelling account of how an age of austerity will inevitably curtail America’s post-World War II role as the guarantor of global peace and prosperity. The world’s people will be worse off with a retrenched America. The world will suffer the baleful consequences of a cash-strapped Uncle Sam: “One thing worse than an America that is too strong, the world will learn, is an America that is too weak.”6

The 2011 Budget Control Act cuts defense spending nearly $500 billion over the next decade, and if Congress fails to find more savings this year, $1.2 trillion in automatic reductions, half falling on DOD, begin January, 2013, eviscerating the military power on which Kagan says world order rests. Budgetary stringencies have already been felt. As a member of the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission quipped, China had better not invade Taiwan because, if the U.S. rode to the rescue, “we would now have to borrow the money from China to do it.”7 Despite President Obama’s pledge not to allow budgetary constraints to interfere, the administration’s strategic refocus to the Asia-Pacific region is underfunded.8

The Future Years Defense Plan (FYDP) eliminates 16 ships from the Navy’s five-year shipbuilding plan. In FY 2013 the Navy will buy only five new warships, omitting three ships from the FYDP. No new amphibious ships are funded in FY 2013, leaving amphibious craft eight ships below what the Marine Corps says it needs. The current fleet will remain at 285 ships through FY 2017, and the administration has no plan to build a 346-ship Navy recommended by the Quadrennial Defense Review Independent Panel. Long-range airpower for the Air Force and Navy is similarly stinted. The Navy’s unmanned carrier-based recon-and-strike drone is delayed two years, and only three Global Hawk maritime surveillance drones will be purchased in FY 2013. The Air Force’s new bomber is stretched out until the mid-2020s, leaving a total of 10-15 B-2 bombers to operate against enemy air-defense systems. The shortfalls in naval and air power, Robert Haddick writes, are likely to leave Asian partners “wondering whether the United States is serious about its new strategy.”

Kagan has an acute historical sense of the transience of all political regimes. As Socrates told his young student Glaucon, all cities decay according to the vice intrinsic to their principle. The timing of a regime’s passing matters greatly, Kagan rightly adds. The days of a spendthrift superpower may be over, but provided it can get its fiscal house in order, America will remain the preeminent global power for years to come. If America fails to put its fiscal house in order, no amount of exhortation to foreign policy “greatness” will avail. The future of America and the world would then be bleak indeed. In the 1958 film Touch of Evil, the bad guy played by Orson Welles stumbles into a brothel where Marlene Dietrich works as a fortuneteller. “Read my future for me,” Welles asks. She replies, “You haven’t got any. Your future is all used up.”9End.


1. President Barack Obama, “State of the Union Address,” United States Capitol, Washington, D.C., Jan. 24, 2012. Robert Kagan, “Not Fade Away: Against the Myth of American Decline,” New Republic (Feb. 2, 2012), 19-25. See Josh Rogin, “Obama Embraces Romney Advisor’s Theory on ‘The Myth of American Decline,’” Foreign Policy online blog, Jan. 26, 2012.

2. Josef Joffe makes a similar point in describing America as the “default power,” i.e., the only nation with the power and purpose to uphold the common interest. Enlightened self-interest motivated the statecraft of the “indispensable nation” in the twentieth century. See “The Default Power: The False Prophecy of America’s Decline,” Foreign Affairs (Sept./Oct., 2009), 21-35.

3. “Federalist No. 6” in The Federalist Papers, intro. by Clinton Rossiter (New York: New American Library, 1961).

4. Ibid.

5. See John Coffey, review of Aaron Friedberg, A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia, in American Diplomacy (Feb., 2012). Friedberg overrates the Chinese threat.

6. Michael Mandelbaum, The Frugal Superpower: America’s Global Leadership in a Cash-Strapped Era (New York: Public Affairs, 2010), p. 194.

7. Quoted in Josef Joffe, “Declinism’s Fifth Wave,” American Interest (Jan./Feb. 2011), p. 97.

8. “Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” Department of Defense, January 2012. Robert Haddick, “The New Defense Budget Does Not Support the Pentagon’s Strategy,” Small Wars Journal blog, 2/14/12; Craig Whitlock, “Obama’s Asia Strategy Gives Navy Key Role, Fewer Ships,” Washington Post, 2/16/12.

9. Cited in “Declinism’s Fifth Wave,” p. 97.

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John Coffey
John Coffey

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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