If you want to be well informed about what is happening in international relations, you can study 100 good resources ranging from books to blogs and only scratch the surface.
If you want to know why countries do the things they do, all you need to do is read is a tiny tome that checks in at just a bit over 100 pages.
In Robert Kagan's latest and eminently readable masterpiece, The Return of History and the End of Dreams, he looks at the state of the world powers and explains who they are, how they got here, what they want and how they are likely to relate to one another in the coming century. And you get it all in about one good afternoon's worth of reading.
Francis Fukuyama has taken considerable guff for famously declaring "the end of history" in the wake of the Soviet Union's disintegration. This was, of course, only slightly more optimistic than George H. W. Bush's pronouncement of a "new world order" centered around democracy and commerce.
Such sentiment – now considered pollyannaish – was understandable considering the sudden demise of communism, which had seemed poised to threaten the world for generations to come. At the end of a monstrously bloody century in which the twin evils of communism and fascism had killed scores of millions, many too smart by half people were ready to believe the world had gotten past all that killing-for-ideology stuff.
A decade later, rhetorical shots at Fukuyama became ubiquitous as jihadists did previous ideologies one better by being both murderous and suicidal, and wars and rumors of war resulted from Islamist radicalism. Kagan's title is, of course, a direct reference to Fukuyama's misbegotten declaration.
While Kagan admits that Islamic radicalism threatens to bring about a cataclysm, in a chapter entitled "The Hopeless Dream of Radical Islam," he dismisses its long-term prospects by pointing out that a lasting victory by jihadists would be the first time in history that "tradition" won out over modernity.
It is once again the authoritarian state that will pose the great challenges to liberty in the foreseeable future. Kagan convincingly asserts the principals will be led by China and Russia.
While it is true that the end of the 20th century marked the end of the domination of a murderous ideology, Kagan asserts the world is returning to a "normalcy" in which countries where people have a say in who runs their government loosely align opposite nations where they don't.
This struggle, Kagan writes, has been going on since the Enlightenment, took a unique cast during the Cold War and has merely returned to a more classic form:
"The presumption has been over the last decade that when Chinese and Russian leaders stopped believing in Communism that they stopped believing in anything. … The rulers in China and Russia believe in the virtues of a strong central government and disdain the weaknesses of democracy. … What the world applauded as a political opening in 1989, the Chinese leaders regard as a near fatal display of disagreement.
Chinese and Russian leaders, therefore, are not just autocrats. They believe in autocracy." (emphasis mine.)
Of course, autocracy is not an overarching ideology that spawns popular movements. It more or less attracts those in power who wish to stay that way — no matter how they got there, whether by coup, election or appointment.
But if modern autocracies don't exactly require the consent of the governed, they do tend to want to keep the masses mostly happy, giving them too much to lose to get in any revolutionary moods. The Chinese, Kagan writes, were certainly the model for Russia's Vladimir Putin. Beijing produced a thriving economy, an increasingly powerful military and none of this election nonsense, which combined to provide a national success.
While liberals like to pretend that George W. Bush created all the tension in the world, Kagan writes that it was President Clinton's war in Kosovo that sent the real shock to the Russian system.
"In the post Cold War era, a triumphant liberalism has sought to expand its triumph by establishing as an international principle the right of the 'international community' to intervene against sovereign states that abuse the rights of their people."
While both countries opposed the 2003 Iraq War, Kagan says, it was this possible precedent that gave both Russia and China a major rationale for rearmament.
Kagan argues that while the United States has little competition for the role of world superpower, and that even in the post-Cold War decade—and before the current war against Islamic terrorism — the U.S. expanded its reach and influence in far-flung corners.
For many readers, the surprising assertion Kagan makes will be that the most important alliances the U.S. will have in the future to check the power of China and Russia are not with an expanded NATO or traditional allies in Europe but with a rapidly re-arming economic powerhouse of Japan and a nuclear India.
These alliances are natural fits and likely to last despite huge cultural differences — not merely because both countries are democracies and, unlike the "special relationship" with Britain, neither has much in common with us in terms of heritage, language or religion, Rather, it's because of national interests that are unlikely to change. Both Japan and India are tied economically to America, and, just as importantly, both have reasons to fear the newly aggressive regimes in China and Russia.
Kagan also identifies Iran as a wild card regional power, not only because of its Islamofascist ideology and exportation of terrorism,but also because Russia and China each use the Islamist nation to cause trouble for the United States.
In defining the United States' future role, Kagan says critics both foreign and domestic who long for a diminished American presence should be careful what they wish for. In a multipolar world, war is far more likely to break out --a nd among players with nuclear weapons.
But that doesn't mean Kagan says the U.S. should exert unilateral hegemony. Instead, he proposes a "Concert of Democracies," in which the world's free countries protect their interests and at the same time encourage other counties to join—not like the U.N. where the only qualification for membership is borders and a ruling system—but by becoming free countries themselves.
As for those who watched too much Star Trek as kids, internalized the Prime Directive, and now assert that democracy can only come about through organic means Kagan puts out this challenge:
"Should the United States and others promote democracy in the Middle East?" One way to answer the question is to turn it around. Should the United States promote autocracy in the Middle East. That is the only other choice, after all. There is no neutral stance on such mattes. The world's democracies are either supporting autocracy through aid, recognition, amicable diplomatic relations and regular economic intercourse, or they are using their manifold influence in varying degrees to push for democratic reform."
We cannot let the neo-Isolationism born of the antiwar Left or Right be foisted on a weary public to lead the United States to withdraw from this mission. Founding Father Ben Franklin's admonition about hanging together or hanging separately should be heeded in our international relations, and Kagan's plan is certainly superior to the current habit of giving intellectual cover to the world's thugs on the banks of the Hudson.
I would say that The Return of History and the End of Dreams is a singular achievement if not for the fact that Kagan has done this before. In another 100-page classic, Of Paradise and Power, he explained the differences between Old Europe and New Europe, how the United States was likely to relate to both in the coming century—and why Old Europe will always have a tendency to let the United States take care of world threats, then complain about our methods.
The Return of History and the End of Dreams brings uncommon clarity to an increasingly muddled world. It's essential reading, not only for those who would lead that world but also for those who would report on it as well.