Test-Driving the New Neoconservatism

The Return of History and the End of Dreams   By Robert Kagan Alfred A. Knopf, 115 pages, $19.95 Consider

The Return of History and the End of Dreams


By Robert Kagan

Alfred A. Knopf, 115 pages, $19.95

Consider the natural history of the Detroit muscle car: The Mustang began life in 1963 as a stripped-down roadster in the European tradition. As the culture and market matured, Ford responded each year with ad hoc modifications and additions, so that by 1972, the same basic car had become a 3,300-pound, 375-horsepower V-8 behemoth. GM’s Corvette followed more or less the same script. And so, as it happens, did that other pinnacle of quasi-imperial exceptionalism, the American neoconservative.

Robert Kagan, in The Return of History and the End of Dreams, gives us this year’s model. Officially, its history stretches back to 1973, the year OPEC put the squeeze on oil, the year Ford, knee-jerk, introduced the massively scaled-down and detuned Mustang II, the year Michael Harrington coined the term “neoconservative” in an article for Dissent. But in ideology, as in automobiles, midstream changes tend to be both more and less than what they seem.

An early champion of regime change, Robert Kagan makes more than a few concessions in this cogent, compelling and contemptible survey of present-day geopolitics. He admits to America’s “tendency toward unilateralism” and “jealous clinging to national sovereignty”; he respects his reader enough not to pretend that Iraq will be anything but a material and moral black hole for the foreseeable future. We’re 90 pages in before we’re told, in a conditional-tense whimper, that a “stable, pro-American Iraq would shift the strategic balance [in the Middle East] in a decidedly pro-American direction.” Sure.

But let’s be clear: If such rhetorical tweaks suggest a new humility born of five years of meaningless, directionless war, they also retrofit the central neocon idea, weighing it down with enough new suspension and exhaust and sheet metal to keep it relevant and road-worthy for, to paraphrase Kagan advisee John McCain, another 100 years. The world remains a Manichean place divided between “democracy” and “autocracy”; the importance of Iraq and environs, however, has faded: The real “fault lines of the new geopolitics,” Mr. Kagan tells us, are the ones that separate autocratic Russia from “postmodern” Europe, and autocratic China from its Asian-Pacific rivals, Japan, India and the United States among them.

Chastened by the disasters post-Mission Accomplished, Mr. Kagan takes pains to point out that he’s not advocating “a blind crusade on behalf of democracy everywhere at all times.” Democracies, he assures us, “need not stop trading with autocracies or engaging in negotiations with them.” Nevertheless, the distinction between the two—and the internal coherence of each—is absolute: “The world’s democracies are either supporting autocracy, through aid, recognition, amicable diplomatic relationships, and regular economic intercourse, or they are using their manifold influence in varying degrees to push for democratic reform.”

And so the ’08 neocon, like the ’72 Mustang, is both more expansive and less focused than its earlier iteration; the failure of the Bush democratic domino theory (ink-stained Iraqi fingers did not jump-start regional stability, alas) has subtly, but fundamentally, transformed the premise of the project. Indeed, to shift the archetype of autocracy, as Mr. Kagan does, from the axis of evil to China and Russia is to posit a very different timetable—and a very different endgame.

The upshot? As it emerges from the Bush years, neoconservatism has become a realism.

This sounds like something that shouldn’t be, and for good reason. Of all the nouveau technocratic disciplines—industrial sociology, organizational psychology—to be codified in the wake of World War II, only academic international relations, with its peculiarly intense penchant for self-historicization, developed a language that has colonized the general lexicon. It’s only a minor slander to say that today’s typical IR flack, basted in this triumph, sees the whole of human intellectual endeavor as the eternal reenactment of the central IR struggle: On one side, the realists, an uninterrupted lineage from Thomas Hobbes to Henry Kissinger; on the other, the idealists, stretching from Immanuel Kant to Francis Fukuyama, another uninterrupted span.

Already, the internecine IR squabbles of the 1990’s have been subsumed into the grand genealogy, written in by the same men—and they are men—who did the squabbling. You know the story, and the syllabus: As the Soviet Union imploded, Mr. Fukuyama’s 1989 National Interest article “The End of History?” predicted a Kantian perpetual peace, secured by a final convergence to market capitalism and liberal democracy. In “The Clash of Civilizations,” a 1993 piece for Foreign Affairs, Samuel Huntington served up the realist rejoinder, anticipating new and inevitable conflict, fueled by intransigent cultural difference. No contrarian, Mr. Kagan’s begins with a rote recapitulation of these developments, and it takes only a glance at his book’s title to surmise which side he finds more persuasive.

Here’s how he dismisses the Kant-Fukuyama faction: “The great fallacy of our era,” he concludes, “has been the belief that a liberal international order rests on the triumph of ideas and on the natural unfolding of human progress.” Again and again, he insists it’s human nature itself that makes any sort of long-term global peace a pipe dream.

I’m reminded here of the pistonheads who, when they saw what a bloated gelding the ’71 Mustang had become, flooded Ford with pleas to bring back the minimalist pony car of old. Even its most vehement critics, after all, must admit that the pre-Iraq neoconservatism—a crude, blunt vehicle for sure—at least boasted a certain admirable purity of logic. There was nothing realist about it—realism, in fact, was a neocon code word for unprincipled accommodation, the cynical clubby recourse of the world’s bureaucrats and consiglieres.

And in a world of New Labour and DLC retreats, where some form of Fukuyaman teleology was in fact the only option left, the neocons could quite rightfully declare themselves the idealist vanguard. Indeed, if we hold that (1) the repertoire of possible human social formations has come down to liberal markets and liberal democracy, and (2) the development of the one allows for the other, and (3) the necessary and sufficient condition of permanent peace is the extension of these anointed forms across the globe (countries with McDonalds don’t fight each other, Tom Friedman spent a decade crowing), then it’s only peevishness that keeps us from decamping to Baghdad to fight the noble war of choice. It’s an engorging thing, to be on the side of history.

Driving the latest neocon model, I’m fairly certain that Mr. Kagan would still reach the same destination, at least the ruinous war part. But the ride has become a good deal less smooth.

The ascendancy of China and Russia is so central to The Return of History because it throws into question the idea that autocracy is in its last throes; the feedback loop between economic and political freedom is no longer altogether obvious. For one thing, China “offers a model for successful autocracy, a blueprint for how to create wealth and stability without having to give way to political liberalization.” And, whereas Europeans fear above all a return to the Fascist 1930’s, Mr. Kagan shrewdly observes that the unspeakable decade for today’s Russians is the Yeltsin ’90s: impoverished, chaotic—and comparatively democratic.

At the top of his final page, Mr. Kagan nods approvingly toward Hans Morgenthau, the ur-realist who insisted that “the final curtain” would never fall on “the game of po
wer politics.” Scarcely an inch and a half below that, he writes grandly of “the responsibility [of] the democratic world.” Behold the new neocon redesign: a soberly realist body over the rusty old idealist chassis.

Which, of course, is preposterous. Having (rightly) undermined the idea of a Democratic Peace (as well as its corollary, the Late Capitalist Peace), what does it mean for Mr. Kagan to speak of a “democratic world” moved to replicate itself? The purity—the simplicity of being on the side of history—is gone; the “endless competition” goes on. To wit, it is not at all clear that an autocratic Russia would be more dangerous to American democracy and capitalism than a democratic Saudi Arabia.

Robert Kagan knows this, of course. That he doesn’t wish to face it is a fact perhaps best left to a mature international relations of the future, one that has dropped totems like “realist” and “idealist,” one that has quit making unfalsifiable appeals to human nature or national “desire,” one that aspires to a more modest study of the modern court society—the politicians, the militarists, and yes, the IR commentators and theorists—who have such an outsize hold on the power over life and death.

In the meantime, the end of The Return of History and the End of Dreams makes it clear that “democracy” is a realist concern—a word trotted out by clever states and statesmen to smooth over the play of their own interests.

The new old neoconservatism: with Henry Kissinger still at the wheel.

Jonathan Liu, a writer living in Queens, reviews books regularly for The Observer. He can be reached at jliu@observer.com Test-Driving the New Neoconservatism