Military policy is one of those subjects that requires certain bona fides to discuss them with any level of sophistication. It crosses history, sociology, military history and strategy, each of which is a serious study in its own right, and yet all of which are necessary to forming an opinion on military policy worth listening to. I certainly do not meet that standard. I didn’t even stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. But I did just finish reading Robert Kagan’s brisk new book, The World America Made, and am more than happy to pass along some of his sophisticated insights.
What first got me eager to discuss Kagan’s book was an intersection between his observations about democracy’s struggle to take hold internationally and some discussions here about our own democracy. I recently asked why many left-leaning, big-government types seem to care more about outcomes than process, and I also took issue with Justice Ginsburg’s statements suggesting our Constitution is outmoded. While the discussion about outcomes may change with the times, the discussion about process doesn’t. We might dispute whether the Constitution got rights right, but we don’t often tussle over whether powers should be separated, or whether life, liberty, or property should be deprived without due process of law. And yet these procedural elements define the majority of the Constitution’s work. Disparaging it suggests that we are no longer worried about slipping back into a tyrannical government in which power is concentrated in a small group of people and wielded for the benefit of friends of the elite. (Depending on your definition, this may have already occurred.)
But Kagan argues it is extremely unwise to take democracy for granted. Democracy is not a foregone conclusion; it is not our manifest destiny; and it is not the natural product of human political evolution. By the end of the 19th century, Kagan recounts, there had never been more than five democracies among the world’s nations. By 1900 there were suddenly a dozen, and that number doubled again after WWI. But then a “reverse wave” washed over the world in the ‘20s and ‘30s, wiping out democracy’s four decades of gains by the eve of WWII. What accounts for democracy’s reversal of fortune? In the face of economic instability and social and political pressures of industrialism, “fascist governments look stronger, more energetic and efficient, and more capable of providing reassurance in troubled times,” says Kagan. They are arguments that will sound familiar to observers of contemporary American domestic policy.
And yet, it may be America’s political dysfunctionalism—its antithesis to the “stronger, more energetic and efficient, and more capable” totalitarian governments—that made it such a successful world power since the end of WWII. “It is Americans’ evident reluctance to wield power, their obvious aversion to the responsibilities of ruling others—more than their commitment to laws and institutions—that makes the United States for many nations a tolerable if often misguided hegemon.” If the U.S. were an effective world leader, Kagan seems to be saying, its leadership might not be so unchallenged. And liberal political and economic principles would be less established in the world.
The year 1945—not coincidentally, Kagan notes, the birth date of the American world order—marks the beginning of the end of great-power wars. “The power of the United States has been the biggest factor in the preservation of great-power peace.” The world’s great powers from then forward would comport themselves much differently because of the U.S. Many nations welcome the opportunity to free-ride on America’s willingness to police the world. After WWII, Europeans wanted the U.S. military standing between them and the Red Army and a revived Germany. NATO was Europe’s “invitation to empire” to the U.S. By the ‘90s, the world America made saw the number of democracies explode to 120, covering half the world’s population.
There is no doubt that the U.S. could afford to significantly reduce its military budget without relinquishing its title as the world’s dominant superpower. But making America a less-clear hegemon heightens the possibility for challenges. “One of the main causes of war throughout history has been a rough parity of power that leaves nations in doubt about who is stronger.…There is no better recipe for great-power peace than certainty about who holds the upper hand.” As China accelerates its militarization while it poises to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest economy, a declining U.S. military suggests we could reach that “rough parity” sooner rather than later.
Moreover, deep cuts in military spending may prove short-sighted. Although Kagan questions claims of American decline, no one can question China’s ascendancy. That ascendancy poses a threat to liberal economies since China, though wealthy in terms of GDP, is poor in terms of per capita GDP. “This will make for a historically unique situation,” says Kagan, since the world’s largest economies have typically also been the richest. The mature economies of such nations have little to gain from protectionist measures. “China’s protectionist phase,” on the other hand, “could coincide with its rise to dominance of the global economy.” Says Kagan, “[t]hat would be unprecedented.”
Coming finally to the question of whether Americans simply spend way too much on military action abroad, Kagan has this to say:
Some of the costs of reducing the American role in the world are, of course, unquantifiable: What is it worth to Americans to live in a world dominated by democracies rather than by autocracies? But some of the potential costs could be measured, if anyone cared to try. For instance, if the decline of American military power produced an unraveling of the international economic order that American power has helped sustain; if trade routes and waterways ceased to be as secure, because the U.S. Navy was no longer able to defend them; if regional wars broke out among great powers because they were no longer constrained by the American superpower; if American allies were attacked because the United States appeared unable to come to their defense; if the generally free and open nature of the international system became less so—there would be measurable costs. And it is not too far-fetched to imagine that these costs would be far greater than the savings gained by cutting the defense and foreign aid budgets by $100 billion a year.
As I led with, I lack the bona fides to add or detract much from this. So let me make a meta-observation. I admit to being one of those conservatives who hisses at “big government” at home but cheers “big government” when it promotes our interests abroad. Given Kagan’s observations, however, perhaps that’s not inconsistent. True, America wields a big stick in the world. But it wields it clumsily, taking imprecise whacks at different ideas for different reasons. Despite an economic and military might that would make any dictator green with envy, the structural dysfunction our Constitutional democracy imposes renders our government chronically unenergetic, inefficient, and ultimately incapable of acting like a totalitarian. Consider again Kagan’s description about America’s foreign policy, and how it comports almost exactly with what conservatives would like to see in American domestic policy: an “evident reluctance to wield power, their obvious aversion to the responsibilities of ruling others—more than their commitment to laws and institutions.”
Big government engenders distrust not necessarily because it’s big. It engenders distrust when it gets comfortable wielding power and sheds its aversion to the responsibility of ruling others. That’s true of our nation’s role in governing the world, and it’s true of its role in governing us.