Role of U.S. Changing in New World Order
NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The world has become normal again. That's how scholar Robert Kagan begins his latest book. In a short but tightly argued volume, he describes how the end of the Cold War did not mean the end as some thought, hoped, or perhaps dreamed of ideological conflict. Just because the rulers of Russia and China stopped believing in communism, he argues, doesn't mean they rushed to embrace liberal democracy and the values of the enlightenment. Rather, Kagan says, autocrats believe in autocracy, in their interests, not universal values.
New great powers have emerged - India, or reemerged - Japan, while Iran seeks to dominate the Middle East. In fact, he suggests that the 21st century looks a lot like the 19th with shifting alliances and economic, military, political and ideological rivalries. Oh, plus one superpower with interests of its own. Robert Kagan joins us in just a moment.
Later, James Joyce followed Leopold Bloom around Dublin on this day in 1904. Scott Huler retraces the travels of his literary inspiration, Homer's Odysseus. But first, if you'd like to talk about this very different new world order and the role of the United States, our phone number is 800-989- 8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.
Robert Kagan joins us from the BBC studios in Brussels in Belgium. His new book is called "The Return of History and The End of Dreams." It's nice to have you back on the program.
Mr. ROBERT KAGAN (Author, "The Return of History and The End of Dreams"): Great to be back, Neal. Thank you.
CONAN: And when you say the world has returned to normal, you're basically refuting the arguments made at that time, at the end of the Cold War, many by some of your ideological colleagues that liberal democracy was not just better, but inevitable.
Mr. KAGAN: Well, I think most people in the liberal world wanted to believe that. I certainly wanted to believe that. But I think what we lost sight of was that the triumph such as it was of democracy and liberalism at the end of the Cold War was not just the victory of an idea, it was the victory of powers that believed in an idea. And I think that's what we were a little bit quick to forget. I think that democracy is a better idea. I think liberalism is a better idea. But it doesn't just win because it's a better idea. And right now we're seeing other ideas pushing back in Russia, in China, in Venezuela and Iran. And I don't think we can assume that democracy necessarily triumphs in those places.
CONAN: And in a world that many hoped and dreamed and believed would be, well, organized around the United Nations and around international law and around universal values of human rights, instead we see an organization that I think most Americans have heard not that much about, called the Shanghai Cooperation Association.
Mr. KAGAN: Well, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization was set up by the Chinese and joined by the Russians with the express purpose, really, of responding to what they perceived as the advancing influence of the democracies, especially in central Asia but also, from the Russian point of view, in Georgia and the Ukraine. We celebrated what we used to call the "color revolutions" in Georgia and Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan. For them, they would yield political setbacks and so they've tried to establish organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to try to push back a little bit.
CONAN: And that they saw Kosovo, the war conducted by NATO against Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia, that more important in this respect than even the invasion of Iraq.
Mr. KAGAN: Yeah. I think most people when they look at sort of Russian hostility to the West or the United States today, try to trace it back to recent events. But I think you can trace it back to the war in Kosovo, the enlargement of NATO, much of which began in the 1990s. And Kosovo, in particular, was important for both the Russians and the Chinese because there was the liberal West, NATO, taking action without a security council authorization, as everyone I think recalls, and thereby making decisions based on our sense of what humanitarian interests required, what liberalism required, which was very different from what the people in Moscow and rulers in China wanted.
CONAN: And you can see the same kind of logic in terms of Myanmar or Darfur.
Mr. KAGAN: That's right. I mean, the thing that we have to recognize is that, you know, what we used to conceive of as an international community, what we really mean is the international community of democracies, of liberal governments. Autocracies like China and Russia are not in the business of putting pressure on other autocracies like the government in Burma or the government in Darfur or in Zimbabwe or in Iran. And if you look at the UN Security Council these days, on pretty much every issue, although sometimes they can find some agreement, it's the three democracies, the United Kingdom, France and the United States pressing for tougher sanctions or pressure on all these regimes and China and Russia essentially resisting as best they can.
CONAN: Resisting as best they can. Yet, as you look at it, some in the West would believe, you know, what's the attraction of autocracy? There's no unifying belief as there was in communism, as clearly flawed as that was. We can outlast them, we can bring them into the world economic system, and eventually changes will be forced upon them by their own people, by their own emerging middle class.
Mr. KAGAN: Well, that was always the supposition. That was the great sort of thesis behind the idea of the end of history. That as nations embraced economic growth and economic modernization, this would necessarily lead to democracy, either with the agreement of the leaders or the leaders being pressured to do so by a growing middle class. But we're now in China, twenty years into this experiment, China has enjoyed tremendous economic growth, almost ten percent a year for a decade. Real structural economic changes, and yet not anything like the political opening that people anticipated and even predicted.
In fact, China today remains as closed politically, if not economically - economically, Chinese people enjoy more rights. Politically, they don't enjoy more rights. And the bargain that the Chinese leadership offers to the Chinese people is you can get rich, you can lead a reasonably decent life, just keep your nose out of politics or your nose gets cut off.
Putin now in Russia is trying to really emulate that model. In Russia's case it's based on hundred dollar-a-barrel, or hundred thirty dollar-a-barrel oil, which has produced enormous growth in Russia but not a corresponding growth in political freedom. On the contrary, political freedoms have been contracted over the past five years by concerted efforts by Putin, who's really establishing a kind of czarist regime, really, more than anything else.
CONAN: And you point out that these regimes, China certainly, Russia, you also point to India in some respects, share historical grievances. That there's an idea that they are either resuming their proper place in the world or seizing a proper place in the world and fear that in fact, it's going to be denied them.
Mr. KAGAN: Well, this is the other way in which, you know, we've returned to normal or we've returned to the history that the kind of great power ambitions and competitions that have shaped history for centuries are still very much with us. You look at, for instance, in Moscow at the inauguration of Medvedev, they had a military parade for the first time since 1990 with tanks and missile launchers, and the Russian people on the sides on the streets clapping, very proud of Russia's military might. Russia feels that it was beaten back by the West, it was exploited by the West. Putin plays upon these nationalist feelings to try to get support for Russian resurgence today.
The same is true of China, with what the Chinese people refer to as their century of humiliation. The same is true of India, with a long period of colonial subjugation. These countries, as they grow richer, as they grow more powerful, they want what countries throughout history have always wanted, including the young United States, by the way. They wanted their place on the international scene. They wanted respect. They wanted honor. They want a sphere of influence and interest. And this leads to a clashing, great power competitions of the kind that we've seen in the 19th century and in the 18th century and often throughout human history.
CONAN: Yeah. A lot of people, though, would argue that honor, status, self-respect, these are nationalistic terms, sort of outdated in the 21st century.
Mr. KAGAN: Yeah, well, that's right. I mean, we think that we're beyond all that. And you know, I suppose I wish we all were. But I think, really, most great powers in the world have these feelings, including the United States, even though I think we're not always willing to acknowledge it in ourselves. But it's in fact a very deeply rooted human quality.
And I think the mistake we make sometimes, especially after the end of the Cold War, is to believe that the only thing that matters are economics, that all people care about is how well they're doing in their pocketbook and how comfortable they are. But you know, ever since the ancient Greeks - Thucydides wrote about the desire for honor. The Greeks talked about something called "thumos," which is a spiritedness in defense of nation. And I think we see that today.
You see it clearly in Russia, you see it in China, you see it in India, you see it in Iran. And I think if you looked closely, you could see it in the United States, as well. And I think we just have to recognize that this is a really unchanging quality of human nature.
CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. Our guest, Robert Kagan. His new book, "The Return of History and the End of Dreams." 800-989-8255. Email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Joe's on the line from East Lansing, in Michigan.
JOE (Caller): Hi, this is Joe.
CONAN: Go ahead, Joe.
JOE: To go on one of your earlier points, I think part of - I actually had to write a paper on this. I think part of what it takes to build a capitalist society is a lot of what it takes to build a democratic society. I mean, you need that education. You need that base. And I - just going from some of my friends from China, what they had to say, is that that's not what you kind of get. You don't get the wide, overarching and kind of egalitarian education system that you would have in more developed democracies.
CONAN: Does that fit with your thesis, Robert Kagan, do you think?
Mr. KAGAN: Well, I'd like to read that paper because that's a very interesting point. And the basic supposition has always been that in order to succeed economically, you do have to have these rising education levels. And in order to have rising education levels, you have to have an open political system which allows people to communicate. So the theory has always been that China couldn't really - they would hit a ceiling, at some point.
Now I suppose it's possible that some day they will hit a ceiling. But most of the economists I talked to who study China say that China should be capable of maintaining this level of growth for quite some time to come. And it's partly because what they're doing is moving from kind of low-level manufacturing into sort of medium-level and upper-level manufacturing. It's possible that they can continue this economic progress for a long time without having to get to the kind of, you know, communications and education revolution that we enjoy, particularly in the United States.
So my only concern is that, yeah, China may become a democracy in 50 or 60 years, but we have to live through the intervening decades and face the strategic realities that are going to exist during that period.
CONAN: Joe, you get a good grade from the professor.
(Soundbite of laughter)
JOE: I sure did, got a free five. And just to go on that, he said it, too. In the long term, we're all dead, so...
(Soundbite of laughter)
CONAN: Joe, a real optimist there you're studying under.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. Appreciate it.
Mr. KAGAN: Well, he's quoting John Maynard Keynes, you know.
CONAN: That's true. In any case, we're going to continue our conversation with Robert Kagan and "The Return of History and the End of Dreams." Again, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
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CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The end of the Cold War seemed to suggest a new era of global convergence. Instead, we're returning to historical roots, according to Robert Kagan in his new book, "The Return of History and the End of Dreams."
If you'd like to read an excerpt from the book, you can go to npr.org. Robert Kagan is our guest today. If you'd like to talk with him about this very different new world order and the role of the United States, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check out our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. And let's get Travis on the line, Travis with us from Louisville, in Kentucky.
TRAVIS (Caller): Yes. Mr. Kagan, lately we've seen populist, left-of-center, socialist leaders elected, in many cases in landslides, in countries like Brazil, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Venezuela, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia. And even in Peru and Mexico, the socialist candidate came very close to winning. I wonder, and my first question is, what do you make of this realignment with so many populist leaders winning races, including Ortega, who's back in Nicaragua? And had these leaders had gotten elected back in the '80s, would Reagan have almost started some sort of Red scare, hemispheric, anti-communist war, much like he did with the Contras? I'll take my answer off the air.
CONAN: Travis, thanks very much.
Mr. KAGAN: Well, thanks. I mean, it's an interesting question. I guess I feel like for the most part, I'm not so concerned about the nature of the people being elected. It's the fact that they're being elected and being elected, in some cases, in free and fair elections. I don't think anyone who was following Brazilian politics is upset at Mr. Lula's policies, regardless of what he calls himself. He's clearly - Brazil is a nation that's on the move, and it's a democratic nation on the move.
You know, I guess, in a way, there was a lot of blood spilled in Nicaragua in the 1980s so that Daniel Ortega could become leader of Nicaragua democratically, instead of by force of arms, which was his first attempt. I guess I think that that's progress. And I think that, you know, I'm not so sure that Reagan would have responded the way you suggest, because some of this democratic progress began under Reagan.
It was Reagan who helped ease out Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and now we have a very successful democratic government in Chile. I mean, the disturbing place, obviously, is Venezuela, where we have a democratically elected leader, Hugo Chavez, who has hijacked the democracy in, by the way, very traditional Latin dictatorial fashion. It's not like we've never seen this before. But he is now, like Russia, supported, to some extent, by enormous oil wealth and the money he's able to bring in for his country, which compensates for, I think, pretty ineffective economic policies. And we'll see whether his influence is growing. My guess is that his influence is declining.
CONAN: Yet you say that at the end of the day, a lot of these, well, autocracies or some people who call them rogue nations - Venezuela, Zimbabwe, Sudan - find that they have no place to turn, except to support from China and Russia.
Mr. KAGAN: Well, they have no place to turn who won't put demands on them. I mean, the only people who won't put demands on someone like Hugo Chavez in order to do business is China, Russia and Iran, as you say. And so even though I don't think there's a kind of, you know, Autocracy International growing up, it is true that autocracies share something in common, which is that their position is no one should tell anybody else what kind of government they should have.
So when China does business in Africa, unlike the European Union, unlike the United States, when it provides money, it provides money with no strings attached. It doesn't say, you need to carry out economic reforms, political reforms or any other kind of reform. So naturally, autocrats around the world are very happy to be receiving their aid from China, and it gives China an increased influence. And it raises a challenge, I think, to the democratic world, which has been trying for many years to bring about reforms in some of these countries.
CONAN: And believing that time was on their side.
Mr. KAGAN: And believing that history was on their side, exactly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. KAGAN: And I think that's what we need to perhaps get over. I am actually an optimist about democracy. I believe that we can support democracy more successfully than we have been recently. But we do have to support it. And it's not something that we can just sort of wait to unfold by itself. I don't think that's what's going to happen.
CONAN: Well, one of the questions you raise in the book is what would happen if, for example, Russia decided to get tough with the democracy in Georgia, a country that wants to apply to become part of Europe, part of NATO?
Mr. KAGAN: Well, in a way, we're now seeing this unfolding before us, because Russia is sort of playing hardball. They've increased their troop levels. They've been taking actions with regard to the breakaway province of Abkhazia, which I think are designed almost to provoke a reaction from Georgia. And Europe, where I live, in Brussels, where the European Union meets, really doesn't quite know what to do about it.
And I think it's one of the great challenges that we're going to be facing in the near term, as Russia seeks to extend its sphere of influence to cover Georgia and Ukraine and even perhaps into central Europe, whether Europe, which really was not configured to deal with a power like this - Europe's a 21st century, postmodern power - it wasn't intending to have to deal with almost a 19th century power, which Russia has become. How successfully can Europe meet this challenge, and of course, how successfully can the United States meet this challenge?
CONAN: Now let's go to Adam. Adam's with us from Prescott, in Wisconsin.
ADAM (Caller): Yes. I have a fundamental disagreement with the thesis of your guest. Thank you for the show. I happen to be an historian myself. I think that the real battle today is between the great economic powers and has very little to do with democracy versus autocracy. In fact, the autocracies that are thriving are the ones that are controlling large, primary non-renewable resources, especially oil.
I think the - every single case, including especially Central Asia as the most recent example, where the United States has to choose between economics - its own economic interest versus democracy, it chooses economic interest. The thing in Iraq, for example, we have basically are fighting to keep our access to Iraqi oil. We're trying to impose an oil agreement on Iraq that the weak Iraqi government has still resisted because it would mean suicide for it.
I think that what you see is not so much a Chinese-Russian autocratic alliance, because it also included India and several other semi-democracies in Asia, but rather a struggle over gigantic economic blocks. And by the way, the American people don't benefit much from this. In fact, this is again U.S. government, big-power diplomacy on behalf of the corporate elites. And that's - I'd like to get your comment, and I'll take it off the air.
CONAN: OK, Adam. Thank you.
Mr. KAGAN: Well, I mean, I think I agree with some of what the caller said. I mean, there's no question that there are economic battles going on. I guess the only thing I would say is that they are economic battles that have geopolitical ramifications. You know, Russia is using its oil wealth as leverage for purposes that are not strictly economic. I just think we always make a mistake, whether we're talking about the United States or any other power, to think that the only thing that nations care about is economics. I think that's an overly deterministic and single - you know, it's a unitary explanation.
I think nations care about more than just economics, although they certainly do care about economics. They care about power, they care about beliefs, they care about ambition and honor. So I think, though, you have to look at the whole mix. I don't see an alliance between Russia and India and China. I see competition, to some extent, among all of them. And where I agree with the caller is that there is more going on than a conflict or a struggle between democracy and autocracy.
There is also a great power struggle that has nothing to do with that. And it's the sort of two together that are making for the kind of complex world that we're living in today. But I do believe that autocracies need to be taken seriously as autocracies, and we need to understand that they do have special interests which differ from those of the democracies, and that also explains a lot of what goes on in the world today.
CONAN: In fact, you argue that indeed India, and to some degree Japan, as well, are recoiling from this and aligning themselves much more with the United States.
Mr. KAGAN: Well, they are. I mean, one of the big strategic shifts of recent years, engineered by the Bush administration but obviously with Indian participation, is the growing alliance between the United States and India. And we have seen something that we had never seen before just last year, a very large naval exercise involving Japanese forces, Indian naval forces, American naval forces, Australian naval forces. And when the Chinese looked out at this, they called it an axis of democracy, not in a - they weren't happy about it.
CONAN: Yeah, not in a good way.
Mr. KAGAN: Yeah, they didn't mean that in a nice way. And they protested to all the governments involved. So I'm not saying that the only thing that's going on is confrontation between democracies and autocracies, but it is one of the things that is going on.
CONAN: Let's get to Laurice(ph), Laurice with us from Cedar Rapids, in Iowa.
LAURICE (Caller): Yes. I just want to make a comment. I just think that Iran, Venezuela, Russia, they just want to be respected, just like when Bush went over to Russia and tried to talk to Putin about how to run his country. And I think Iran would come along if we would only have some sort of dialogue with them and just try to understand them, and that's why I think I will vote for Obama because he's willing to talk to these countries, to try to understand them. And I'll take my comment of the air.
CONAN: All right, Lawrice, thanks very much for the call. Well, getting, besides the - you know, immediate tactical-political stuff. Iran's sense of grievance - you say, yes, Iran has a sense of grievance against the United States, in particular, as - well, the country that overthrew its democracy back in the 1950s and for any number of other reasons. Nevertheless, that Iran has its own interest, a proud, ancient culture trying to reestablish itself as the regional power in the Middle East.
Mr. KAGAN: That's right. I mean, you know, every nation is seeking respect. And whether you can give them respect merely by meeting with them is another question. I'm not sure that what Iran wants is solved by just meeting with the United States. Its ambitions are regional and not wholly about whether the United States is meeting with them or not. I don't think there's anything wrong with granting that kind of respect to countries.
But I think if you look at history, sometimes what countries need for their sense of self-respect, what they need in terms of recognition from the world is more than the world can give them. And that's what I worry about in the case of Russia.
If what Russia needs in order to regain its sense of self-respect is to reconstitute at least the sphere of influence that it enjoyed when it was the Soviet Union, I'm not sure we can give that to them, even if we have the best desires in the world. I mean, when Vladimir Putin says that the greatest strategic tragedy of the 20th century was the fall of the Soviet Union, I think that gives us a hint of what he would like. And I wonder how many countries we would have to let be swallowed up into the sphere of influence for Putin to be satisfied. And I don't really think, ultimately, that talks alone solve these problems, although there's nothing wrong with talking.
CONAN: Let's go to Hugh(ph), Hugh with us from Mt. Vernon, in Iowa.
HUGH: Yes, hi. Mr. Kagan, Professor Kagan. I am fascinated with the title of your book and the book which I just finished reading. Perhaps I have misplaced you, but I think you were have been considered one of the founders of the neocon movement. And this book, in fact, its title, "The End of the Dream," is clearly something else. And so I guess my two questions are, number one, what caused you to change and when did that take place? Same question, I guess. And if you had to give yourself a label now, what would it be?
Mr. KAGAN: Well, I've never accepted the label of neoconservative, and I don't think I'm the founder of anything in particular. But you know, I would only say, you know, you have to read what I've written over the years. I've always been concerned that we were taking it too much for granted that the world was moving in our direction. If you look at what I wrote in the 1990s you'll see that there's a concern that the United States was not necessarily playing the role necessary to shape history.
I've always been concerned with the need to continue shaping it, because others will ultimately - somebody's going to shape history, and I would prefer it be us than other people. If you ask me how to describe myself, I would describe myself as a pretty classic, traditional, American liberal when it comes to foreign policy.
HUGH: I see. Maybe one of the reasons that set me on perhaps my misinformation is the fact that you did work with William Kristol, and there seems to be that notion, you know, that somehow flowers were going to be laying in our path if we went into Iraq and so forth, not understanding the deep-seated cultural problems were there. And so I find your book very refreshing.
But I just assumed that there was a big change that had taken place. Again, the name, "The End of the Dream," is significant. Who was doing the dreaming? It was not you but it was others, or what?
Mr. KAGAN: Well, I think, you know, I would certainly say that all of us, to some extent, were hoping at least that things were changing. But look, I really - you know, you want to - you misquoted Bill Kristol. He never said any such thing. And you know, if you're going to - you know, make these judgments, you're really going to have to, you know, do your homework and actually read the people that you're talking about and then make the decision. No, I really think you're just summarizing a general view.
But look, I think the important question is - first of all, I'm grateful that you find the book refreshing, and I probably should stop arguing with you and just say that's wonderful.
CONAN: Robert Kagan is our guest and you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And of course, one of the countries, you look at Europe, the voluntary empire as you look at it. Russia, China, India, Japan, Iran, the Islamic movement. But what of the problem that much of the world has talked about for the last, well, six years, certainly, the American problem?
Mr. KAGAN: Well, you know, there's no question that there has been, you know, the world has had a problem with the United States. I would say, by the way, that that problem for a lot of the world began, actually, in the 1990s, which is kind of ironic. I mean, the period which we look back on as being a one of great global harmony.
I've done a lot of reading back into the 1990s and you find in both China in the late 1990s and Russia, as well as in France, where the French foreign minister famously referred to the United States as the hyperpower. And he didn't mean that in a good way, either.
You know, the concern that the United States was too powerful, that the United States was perhaps going to go it on its own now that it was the sole superpower, as we used to refer to it. Stretch back a while and of course, the Iraq war and the way that it played out. Particularly, I would say, the bad execution of the war but also the failure to discover weapons of mass destruction that people assumed were there. It obviously did great damage to the American reputation and it's something that I think needs to be repaired now.
And I think it's not an accident that both political candidates running for president now have talked about the need to work multi-laterally and to work more closely with other nations and to kind of reintegrate the United States into the international fabric because there has been damage to America's reputation.
CONAN: Nevertheless, you don't see America's predominant role eroding much over the next foreseeable future.
Mr. KAGAN: No, I don't, and I think, you know, that the current craze for the decline of America is tremendously overstated. I mean, if you just - if you look at any measure of combined military, economic, political, diplomatic power, including cultural power, the United States really does stand apart.
When I read Chinese strategists, they refer to the world this way. They refer to it as one superpower, many great powers. And I think that that - and they believe that that's pretty stable and likely to remain that way for quite some time, and I think that's true. There are some tremendous natural advantages that the United States enjoys in its present position, and not the least of which is that as potential challengers like China, like perhaps in a distant way Russia, arise, they tend to upset their neighbors long before they can get to the point where they can really challenge the United States.
And so we see, in fact, American relations with its Asian allies and increasingly even with its European allies improving as Russia and China grow more powerful.
CONAN: Robert Kagan, thanks as always for being with us. Nice to talk to you.
Mr. KAGAN: Pleasure, thank you.
CONAN: Robert Kagan, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book, "The Return of History and the End of Dreams," with us from the BBC studios in Brussels in Belgium.
Coming up, "The Odyssey" has got it all. Witches, monsters, good drugs. Just ask the lotus-eaters, and of course, a significant homecoming. We'll talk about it with Scott Huler. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
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