Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Does the “Kagan Thesis” still hold water? – The Myth of American Decline

By M. Ulric Killion


Photo Source: Robert Kagan (View Bio); Alfred A. Knopf, 2012, “What would the world look like if America were to reduce its role as a global leader in order to focus all its energies on solving its problems at home? And is America really in decline? Robert Kagan, New York Times best-selling author and one of the country’s most influential strategic thinkers, paints a vivid, alarming picture of what the world might look like if the United States were truly to let its influence wane,” Writers' Representatives, LLC: The World America Made.

In what is undoubtedly his magnum opus, Of Paradise and Power (2004), Robert Kagan, in what is known as the “Kagan Thesis,” earlier described, “the United States as possessing unique strengths, making the world unipolar, and accounts for an increasing U.S. tilt toward unilateralism rather than multilateralism. According to this view, strong countries are attracted to unilateral options, while weak countries will seek refuge in multilateralism. This model is thought to typify the European weakness in international relations. The Kagan Thesis primarily addresses the growing transatlantic divide between the United States and the European Union. In terms of international relations, the Kagan Thesis specifically addressed a growing divergence between foreign policy perspectives of the United States and Europe” (M. Ulric Killion, “China’s Foreign Currency Regime: The Kagan Thesis and Legalification of the WTO Agreement,” 14 Minn. J. Global Trade 43, 65-66, 77-79, Winter 2004 [now Minnesota Journal of International Law]; Robert Kagan, Of Paradise and Power - America and Europe in the New World Order 3, Vintage Books 2004).

Robert Kagan (2004) earlier justified unilateralism as follows:

Americans are powerful enough that they need not fear Europeans, even when bearing gifts. Rather than viewing the United States as a Gulliver tied down by Lilliputian threads, American leaders should realize that they are hardly constrained at all, that Europe is not really capable of constraining the United States.

It is also notable that, “The Kagan Thesis posits that policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations rested on a common and distinctive American assumption that the United States was the indispensable nation, in that the United States seeks to defend and advance a liberal international order. The Clinton administration initially entered office talking about assertive multilateralism, but ended up talking about America as the indispensable nation,” (Killion, 2004).

On January 24, 2012, during his State of the Union address, President Obama also talked about America as the indispensable nation. According to President Obama, “Yes, the world is changing. No, we can’t control every event. But America remains the one indispensable nation in world affairs. And as long as I’m president, I intend to keep it that way,” (See State of the Union 2012: Obama speech full text, Washington Post, January 24, 2012).

There are, however, two side of this coin. On the one hand, America as the indispensable nation speaks to an inherent survivability of America as a world power, which challenges the myth of American decline.

Conversely, and problematic, “By abiding by the Kagan Thesis, U.S. foreign relations have created a “bad guy” world image. This image was further strengthened by U.S. unilateral acts in the context of the war in Iraq. Hobbesian multilateralism has farther-reaching applications, including the United States’s relationship with the developing world, and countries such as China, which are experiencing robust economic growth amidst legal and economic reform,” (Killion, 2004).

Additionally, Kagan’s new book, The World America Made, may or may not be an expansion or reinterpretation of his earlier thesis (i.e., the “Kagan Thesis”). In this respect, how one judges his new book will probably be more dependent on political preferences (i.e., Rightist, Leftists, or Centrists perspectives) than any other force of influence.

Nonetheless, his new book, as usual, is insightful about the role or place of America in the new international order, if not simply the history of the world. The following article, which is entitled, “Not Fade Away: Against the Myth of American Decline”, from The New Republic (2012), is an excellent introduction to his recent book, The World America Made. In his article, as also true of his new book, Kagan actually makes a strong case against the myth of American decline.


Not Fade Away: Against the Myth of American Decline

By Robert Kagan, Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center on the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution

The New Republic

January 17, 2012 —

Editor’s Note: In his State of the Union address on January 24, President Barack Obama argued, "Anyone who tells you that America is in decline or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about." According to a Foreign Policy report, the president was influenced by the following article, which originally appeared in The New Republic. Robert Kagan's views on America's role in the world are expanded upon in a new book, The World America Made.

Is the United States in decline, as so many seem to believe these days? Or are Americans in danger of committing pre-emptive superpower suicide out of a misplaced fear of their own declining power? A great deal depends on the answer to these questions. The present world order—characterized by an unprecedented number of democratic nations; a greater global prosperity, even with the current crisis, than the world has ever known; and a long peace among great powers—reflects American principles and preferences, and was built and preserved by American power in all its political, economic, and military dimensions. If American power declines, this world order will decline with it. It will be replaced by some other kind of order, reflecting the desires and the qualities of other world powers. Or perhaps it will simply collapse, as the European world order collapsed in the first half of the twentieth century. The belief, held by many, that even with diminished American power “the underlying foundations of the liberal international order will survive and thrive,” as the political scientist G. John Ikenberry has argued, is a pleasant illusion. American decline, if it is real, will mean a different world for everyone.

But how real is it? Much of the commentary on American decline these days rests on rather loose analysis, on impressions that the United States has lost its way, that it has abandoned the virtues that made it successful in the past, that it lacks the will to address the problems it faces. Americans look at other nations whose economies are now in better shape than their own, and seem to have the dynamism that America once had, and they lament, as in the title of Thomas Friedman’s latest book, that “that used to be us.”

The perception of decline today is certainly understandable, given the dismal economic situation since 2008 and the nation’s large fiscal deficits, which, combined with the continuing growth of the Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, Turkish, and other economies, seem to portend a significant and irreversible shift in global economic power. Some of the pessimism is also due to the belief that the United States has lost favor, and therefore influence, in much of the world, because of its various responses to the attacks of September 11. The detainment facilities at Guantánamo, the use of torture against suspected terrorists, and the widely condemned invasion of Iraq in 2003 have all tarnished the American “brand” and put a dent in America’s “soft power”—its ability to attract others to its point of view. There have been the difficult wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which many argue proved the limits of military power, stretched the United States beyond its capacities, and weakened the nation at its core. Some compare the United States to the British Empire at the end of the nineteenth century, with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars serving as the equivalent of Britain’s difficult and demoralizing Boer War.

With this broad perception of decline as the backdrop, every failure of the United States to get its way in the world tends to reinforce the impression. Arabs and Israelis refuse to make peace, despite American entreaties. Iran and North Korea defy American demands that they cease their nuclear weapons programs. China refuses to let its currency rise. Ferment in the Arab world spins out of America’s control. Every day, it seems, brings more evidence that the time has passed when the United States could lead the world and get others to do its bidding.

Powerful as this sense of decline may be, however, it deserves a more rigorous examination. Measuring changes in a nation’s relative power is a tricky business, but there are some basic indicators: the size and the influence of its economy relative to that of other powers; the magnitude of military power compared with that of potential adversaries; the degree of political influence it wields in the international system—all of which make up what the Chinese call “comprehensive national power.” And there is the matter of time. Judgments based on only a few years’ evidence are problematic. A great power’s decline is the product of fundamental changes in the international distribution of various forms of power that usually occur over longer stretches of time. Great powers rarely decline suddenly. A war may bring them down, but even that is usually a symptom, and a culmination, of a longer process. . . .

Less than a decade ago, most observers spoke not of America’s decline but of its enduring primacy. In 2002, the historian Paul Kennedy, who in the late 1980s had written a much-discussed book on “the rise and fall of the great powers,” America included, declared that never in history had there been such a great “disparity of power” as between the United States and the rest of the world. Ikenberry agreed that “no other great power” had held “such formidable advantages in military, economic, technological, cultural, or political capabilities.... The preeminence of American power” was “unprecedented.” In 2004, the pundit Fareed Zakaria described the United States as enjoying a “comprehensive uni-polarity” unlike anything seen since Rome. But a mere four years later Zakaria was writing about the “post-American world” and “the rise of the rest,” and Kennedy was discoursing again upon the inevitability of American decline. Did the fundamentals of America’s relative power shift so dramatically in just a few short years?

The answer is no. Let’s start with the basic indicators. . . .

Source: Not Fade Away: Against the Myth of American Decline - Brookings Institution


Copyright © Protected – All Rights Reserved M. Ulric Killion, 2012.

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