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The Return of History & the End of Dreams

By Heather Wilhelm

The Return of History and the End of Dreams
By Robert Kagan
Random House
April 2008, 128 pp


Here's a fact: The human mind, despite its outward protestations, tends to like things in black and white. Yes, it's trendy to claim allegiance to many shades of postmodern, multicultural gray, but don't be fooled: the human psyche, fine-tuned through years of experience, is a sorting machine. It likes, no, it loves, categories: Good. Bad. Friend. Foe. Shaken. Stirred.

It's certainly satisfying, and sometimes even therapeutic, to be able to sort things into tidy boxes--to try to put the universe in order--and this is particularly true in politics. Unfortunately, as recent global events have shown (including the convoluted struggles in Iraq, a rising, autocratic Russia, and a locked-up Myanmar) things don't always work out that way. Many global events go beyond sorting, and others go even further, unraveling into racket-making basket cases around the planet.

It wasn't supposed to be this way, of course. In the wake of the Cold War, many political scientists, buoyed by optimism, embraced an idea made famous by Francis Fukuyama: that "The End of History," with the triumph of liberal democracy and a new, more peaceful world order, had arrived. Over the course of the new millennium, which has had its fair share of chaos, many of those same political scientists--Fukuyama included--are looking back and adding an addendum to that grand theory of a decade past: "Whoops."

"The Return of History and the End of Dreams," Robert Kagan's new book, agrees that recent hopes for a growing international love-in were sadly mistaken. "The new era," he writes, "rather than being a time of 'universal values,' will be one of growing tensions and sometimes confrontation between the forces of democracy and the forces of autocracy." Savvy political analysts, Kagan argues, should recognize that resurgent great power competition has recreated a political scene straight out of the nineteenth century. "Autocracy is making a comeback," he writes, and nationalism is on the rise. The result: a potential international powder keg.

Kagan, an American political scholar and current informal advisor to John McCain, compresses an amalgam of international relations theory into a slim, readable volume. He devotes almost half to the dissection of certain long-held, long-cherished political beliefs: the Enlightenment-born conviction in the inevitability of human progress, which Kagan calls "the great fallacy of our era"; the still-vibrant "liberal faith" in universal values; and the widely shared hope for a global, international community. The very term "international community," Kagan argues, "implies agreement of international norms of behavior, an international morality, even an international conscience. Today the world's major powers lack such a common understanding." A quick look at the situations in Darfur, Iran, and Myanmar, he notes, only underscore that gulf.

Kagan also attacks a more subtle dogma dominating much of our foreign policy, particularly regarding a rising China: the idea that commerce and economic interdependence lead to peace. "Historically," he argues, "the spread of commerce and the acquisition of wealth by nations has not necessarily produced greater global harmony. Often it has only spurred greater global competition." Nations, he points out, have often sacrificed economic interests for abstract concepts like honor, power, ideology, and pride--a point often missed when it comes to reductive materialist arguments in both domestic and foreign policy.

Kagan is at his best when slicing through the fallacies that haunt current policymaking. It is strange, then, to see him slip back into the old-time religion on several other fronts. While outwardly pooh-poohing Immanuel Kant's concept that "human nature could be improved, with the right international structures, the right politics, and the right economic systems," Kagan's policy prescriptions center upon two out of the three: a) the right international structures and b) the right politics. His primary advice for approaching the latest world order is the formation of a "concert of democracies." The UN Security Council, he notes, is bankrupt, "split between its autocratic and democratic members." How a new, similar international organization will address the challenges of an anarchic, competitive world is not fully explored.

"The Return of History" hits particularly bumpy ground with Kagan's untrammeled faith in democracy as an engine of peace. "In today's world," he writes, "a nation's form of government, not its 'civilization' or its geographical location, may be the best predictor of its geopolitical alignment." In Kagan's global cafeteria, democracies always tie their shoes, sit up straight, and eat all of their vegetables. Unfortunately, recent events--the Palestinian elections bringing Hamas to the helm; longtime sectarian struggles weakening democratic coalitions in Iraq; and radicalized popular movements in Saudi Arabia and Egypt that would surge if given free reign--indicate otherwise.

The book's most serious gap, however, centers on what could be today's most significant international security challenge: non-state actors. Kagan's is a state-based worldview that largely brushes aside the threat of radical Islam; religious "tradition," in his view, simply "cannot win" against modernity. Perhaps, but that's not the point. For many nations, today's foremost political threat comes in the form of a suicidal, non-deterrable, non-state-based terrorist with a nuclear weapon in tow. Dismissing efforts to work with autocracies like China and Russia against global terrorism, "The Return of History" prescribes nonmilitary democracy promotion and accelerating radical Islam's "confrontation with the modern globalized world." Since our current decade's most famous terrorists were well-immersed in the globalized world, complete with cell phones, universities, computers, and, most notably, international travel, one wonders what we have left to woo them with. "Grand Theft Auto?" Outback Steakhouse? A few episodes of "24"? It seems we'd better have a backup strategy in hand.

"The future international order will be shaped by those who have the power and the collective will to shape it," Kagan writes. "The question is whether the world's democracies will again rise to that challenge." It's an excellent question, and "The Return of History" does an admirable job of exploring it. The bigger question, of course, is how. That, perhaps, is for the next volume.

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