All recorded history can be viewed as a long record of the use of force, or threats of force, in relations between human communities. This applies to all epochs, civilizations, and geographic spaces. Violence is immanent to man. Its constant presence is indicative of the immutability of his nature, regardless of the cultural context or level of technological development. Hunting and war-making are two closely related—and, arguably, the oldest—human professions.
As Arnold Toynbee convincingly argued in his monumental 12-volume Study of History, we witness the rise and decline of civilizations in every age. In his view, our own age is no exception. His findings elicited many howls of rage from believers in the linear progress of an ever-improving humanity, especially among devotees of the cult of America the Exceptional, the nation that is always “on the right side of history.”
More recently, broadly similar warnings about the crisis of the West—and associated predictions regarding America’s ongoing or imminent decline—have come from Edward Luce, Paul Kennedy, Niall Ferguson, John Mearsheimer, and others. Using different methodologies, and sometimes starting from different ideological assumptions, they each conclude that the rise of great powers (and the speed and form of their eventual decline) invariably depends on their ability to devise strategies which provide a reasonable balance between their objectives and resources, between ends and means.
As the European balance-of-power system demonstrated after the Congress of Vienna, it is possible to have long periods of stable, prosperous peace as long as no key player strives for outright hegemony. It is even possible to manage the process of decline judiciously, once decision-making elites accept that the power ratio has shifted to one’s disadvantage and it is necessary to adapt to a new reality. This was ably demonstrated by the Eastern Roman Empire in the late Middle Ages, Spain after the Thirty Years’ War, and Great Britain after the Treaty of Versailles.
Protected from foreign aggression by two massive oceans and two harmless neighbors, the United States should focus in the years ahead on the urgent tasks of repairing its fractured, culturally degraded society and rebuilding its dilapidated infrastructure. These tasks present an immense challenge, but tackling them is the precondition for maintaining America’s position as a great power. Not as a global hegemon, but as a great power among powers.
It is unfortunate that the people currently shaping America’s foreign and security policy seem more inclined to follow the advice of neoconservative guru Robert Kagan. His article in the March/April issue of Foreign Affairs entitled “A Superpower, Like It or Not,” came with a chillingly menacing subtitle: “Why Americans Must Accept Their Global Role.” This is not a recommendation, nor is it an entreaty. It is an order. “Must,” no ifs, ands, or buts.
The U.S. cannot start acting like a “normal” nation, Kagan writes, as “the United States has not been a normal nation for over a century, nor has it had normal interests. Its unique power gives it a unique role.” The only hope for preserving liberalism at home and abroad is the maintenance of a world order conducive to liberalism, Kagan insists, and the U.S. is the only power capable of upholding such an order. The world needs America (even if it is not always aware of this fact, as seen in Vietnam, Iraq, etc.). And America needs the world, and to that end America should be armed to the teeth and ever ready to use military force to maintain the liberal global order. Turning Toynbee on his head, Kagan quotes him as saying that “the United States is lazily playing with a fraction of her immeasurable strength,” which Toynbee did not originally mean as a reproach.
“The time has come to tell Americans that there is no escape from global responsibility,” Kagan writes. “They need to understand that the purpose of NATO and other alliances is to defend not against direct threats to U.S. interests but against a breakdown of the order that best serves those interests.”
Most ordinary Americans, to their credit, beg to differ. A CBS News poll in January indicated only 8 percent of Americans believe the main threat to their way of life is abroad, while 54 percent point to “other people in America,” rather than, for example, China, Russia, or Iran.
It is noteworthy that Kagan at no point explains how exactly all the past wars and interventions that he approvingly lists to support his global-hegemonist edict actually benefitted Americans. Is the maintenance of a liberal world order per se literally worth any price? Must it be maintained in its current form until the end of time?
In a breathtakingly insolent passage, Kagan bewails the fact that “Americans refer to the relatively low-cost military involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq as ‘forever wars.’” He sees this as “just the latest example of their intolerance for the messy and unending business of preserving a general peace and acting to forestall threats.”
Our readers are probably immune to most of the idiotic and evil outpourings from Kagan and his ilk, but this gem takes it to a new level. Nearly seven thousand American military deaths (and a few hundred thousand local civilians, but apparently they don’t count to Kagan), over $5 trillion spent—nobody knows the exact figure—and absolutely no tangible geostrategic gain, are the fruits of a supposedly “low-cost” engagement.
Evidently in Kagan’s scheme of things we need something more zesty, redder in tooth and nail. To wit, he wanted the U.S. to fight a war in Syria, as he wrote in 2017, “to reverse the downward spiral of U.S. power and influence in the Middle East and throughout the world.” To his credit, then-President Donald Trump was not interested.
To Kagan’s likely delight, the new team in Washington appears to have bigger fish to fry than Bashar al-Assad. Admittedly U.S. jets did attack Syrian targets on Feb. 26, but that was likely only meant to present Moscow with a provocative fait accompli at a time when President Joseph Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and others started engaging in strongly anti-Russian rhetoric. On the whole, the game in Damascus is over: Western-instigated, -financed, and -armed jihadist rebellion in Syria has been decisively defeated thanks to Russia’s involvement. Belated point-scoring there by the new national security team in Washington lacks strategic rationale, and they know it.
On the other hand, and far more importantly, the past two months have seen a sudden and drastic worsening of relations between the U.S. and China. The rift became obvious at the first high-level meeting between the two sides since Biden took office. Held in Anchorage, Alaska, on March 18, it was unprecedented in the annals of great power diplomacy. Speaking first—with cameras present for what was supposed to be opening formalities— Blinken announced the U.S. would “discuss our deep concerns with actions by China, including in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan, cyber attacks on the United States, [and] economic coercion of our allies.” Blinken also criticized China for its lack of transparency on the origin of the COVID-19 virus and went on to say that “each of these actions threaten the rules-based order that maintains global stability” which the U.S. intends to uphold.
An angry response came from Yang Jiechi, the leading architect of China’s foreign policy. He upbraided the U.S. for maintaining a “Cold War mentality” and criticized America’s foreign interventions and hypocrisy on human rights. “The United States does not represent international public opinion,” Yang said, adding that the “United States does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength.”
Some commentators have subsequently suggested that it was good for the U.S. and China to “finally get real with each other.” What such pundits fail to appreciate is that the fundamentals have changed. Trump’s demands in his dealings with the Chinese were often awkwardly presented and clumsily pursued, but they were fundamentally transactional. Trump wanted a better deal for the U.S. in its economic relations with China, and he consistently prioritized trade negotiations over sanctions.
By contrast, when Blinken’s State Department accuses China of committing genocide against Uighurs, the Chinese see a deliberate attempt to delegitimize the political leadership of the People’s Republic by accusing it of the most heinous crimes imaginable; and an equally alarming attempt to internationalize issues that China sees as exclusively domestic, such as Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Xinjiang.
Coming parallel with the brewing crisis in Ukraine, the escalation of harsh rhetoric with Russia, and the ongoing attempt by the U.S. to derail the German-Russian Nord Stream 2 project as it nears completion, it is not easy to glean the current administration’s grand-strategic design. Perhaps there is none. It is entirely possible that Biden’s team simply follows Kagan’s dictum that the time has come “to tell Americans that there is no escape from global responsibility,” and that doing so includes controlling every square inch of every continent and every ocean. According to Kagan’s playbook, Americans “need to be told honestly that the task of maintaining a world order is unending and fraught with costs but preferable to the alternative.”
Kagan and his ilk are insane and evil in equal measure. In reality it is possible and necessary for America to be a nation among nations, powerful and rich and secure to be sure, but cured of delusions of exceptionalism, missionary impulses, and the globally hegemonistic ambitions of its ruling class. This will not happen any time soon—almost certainly not in the next four years—but hegemonistic overreach will inevitably lead to breakdown.
There is a growing gap between the aspirations of America’s elite class to control a global order and the decline of the country’s economic, cultural, and social power and influence vis-à-vis the rest of the world. It is in the American interest that this chasm be recognized and bridged before the Kagans, Blinkens, and others of their mindset take America, and the world, down the road to ruin.
Portions of this article on the subject of China were first published in “U.S.-China Relations: From Bad to Worse,” on April 1 on the Chronicles website blog.