The so-called liberal world order, led by the United States, has always been an imperfect system. But other alternatives have always been worse. Today, that order, with the transatlantic alliance at its core, is being threatened from within as well as from without. As “illiberal” powers are rising, the liberal democracies are having trouble responding. More than ever, Europe and the United States need to bolster liberal democracy at home as well as a forge and maintain strong relations across the Atlantic—says Robert Kagan in an interview with Aspenia.
Just how liberal is the “liberal world order”? During much of the presumed Pax Americana, there was a Cold War, after all, which set sharp limits to where the “Pax” could actually be enforced. Indeed, the West regularly made deals with authoritarian (and certainly illiberal) regimes in order to achieve its goals. Were these blurred lines one of the reasons for the current predicament of the liberal West, in the sense that double standards and compromises on basic principles may have damaged its cause in the world?
ROBERT KAGAN: Today, what people call the liberal world order often gets bad reviews. Among the many complaints heard against that order is that it was imposed by an often oppressive, selfish, hypocritical and incompetent American hegemony. And there is truth in that.
Yet, for the various disasters and hypocrisy, American hegemony was never so intolerable as to drive other members out. On the contrary, nations banged on the door to come in.
The liberal order was erected and defended by humans. But, however flawed the American-led liberal world order might be, the question remains, compared to what? We tend to view the order’s creation through the lens of the Cold War. However, the order’s goals were about more than the Soviet Union. We tend to forget that a new internationalist approach to the world was accepted by most Americans even before they thought the Soviet Union would be an adversary.
The deployment of US forces permanently in both Europe and East Asia produced a geopolitical revolution by putting a lid on the conflict in those regions. Within the confines of that system, normal geopolitical competition all but ceased.
At the end of the twentieth century, forecasters would argue that the nation-state was a thing of the past in an increasingly cosmopolitan and interconnected age. Yet, today we now see nationalism and tribalism reemerging.
Nations within the order didn’t compete with each other for military superiority; they didn’t form strategic alliances against one another or claim spheres of influence. Since no balance of power was necessary to preserve the peace among them—as it always had been in the past— they could shift substantial resources and energy from military to economic and social purposes. That order, until recently, has been quite successful. The cost of achieving this success, nevertheless, has been high. Upholding and managing a liberal order has no endpoint. Policies pursued have inevitably fallen victim to the foibles common to all humans, no matter how well-intentioned—the failures of insight and foresight, selfishness and solipsism, and the overall incompetence endemic to all human activity. The price of wielding power was to enter a moral no-man’s-land, shedding what Reinhold Neibuhr called the “innocence of irresponsibility”.
Yet, for the various disasters and hypocrisy, American hegemony was never so intolerable as to drive other members out. On the contrary, nations banged on the door to come in. Participants in the order, then and now, have shared the implicit understanding that however flawed the American-led liberal world order might be, the realistic alternatives would almost certainly be far worse.
In what ways could new technologies alter the course of international politics? Is it possible for digital technologies to change the nature of states beyond recognition, so that even traditional notions of balance (or imbalance) of power may no longer apply? To some extent, at the domestic level, the very nature of democracy is being affected by the way in which citizens get information and form opinions. Will this have an impact on great power relations or regional geopolitics?
Technological developments will affect and change the mediums through which human beings and states interact. However, human nature remains the same. If the last century has taught us anything, it is that scientific and technological progress and the expansion of knowledge—while capable of improving our lives materially—have not fundamentally altered human behavior. Technological predictions often entail sweeping change. The transatlantic world at the dawn of the twentieth century was supposed to be transformed by technology.
An increasingly globalized economy and revolutions in communication and transportation were expected to bring peoples and nations closer together. The number of democracies in the world had grown from five to ten. Many believed that, as William Jennings Bryan put it, “the idea of popular government” had become “so universal” that no one could doubt its “final triumph”. Then World War 1 began.
Similarly, at the end of the twentieth century, forecasters would argue that the nation-state was a thing of the past in an increasingly cosmopolitan and interconnected age. Yet, today we now see nationalism and tribalism reemerging: they are more than able to hold their own in the brave new world of the Internet.
The seven-plus decades since World War II— decades of relatively free trade, growing respect for individual rights, and relatively peaceful cooperation among nations—have been a great historical aberration.
Advances such as cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence, and automation will provide new domains for geopolitical competition with, as my colleague Tom Wright describes, “all measures short of war.” But fundamental to interstate relations is whether the United States will continue to play its post- WWII role of employing military force to keep a lid on the conflict in Europe and East Asia. If that basic American role were to end, then these technologies would be deployed in a much more competitive environment.
A central feature of the international order you describe—and that may now be on the brink of collapse—seems based on America’s unique ability to combine hard and soft power, to enable and encourage both economic/military power and the power of ideas. But a lot of its success also has to do specifically with economic advancements and the prospect of continuing growth. Do you see the rise of China and other “illiberal” states—with global or at least regional clout—as a fundamental break with the past? In other words, is the American model (ideas and ideals) losing some its luster just as economic and demographic factors around the world are changing radically? And if so, is this likely to be the major challenge of the next few years and decades?
It is the past decades, rather than the coming ones, that were a “break with the past”. The seven-plus decades since World War 2—decades of relatively free trade, growing respect for individual rights, and relatively peaceful cooperation among nations—have been a great historical aberration.
The world has not experienced steady progress toward liberalism. Liberal government flickered into existence at the end of the eighteenth century. But then, as liberalism grew, so did the modern police state. Stirrings of liberalism in nineteenth-century Germany, Italy and Poland were repeatedly crushed by absolutist powers using force, repression and censorship.
It is only natural that as nations such as China rise, authoritarian powers revert to old habits and traditions. Those habits are shaped by powerful forces: unchanging geography, shared history and experiences.
Even in the twentieth century, few saw liberalism on the rise in an era peopled by fascists, Nazis and communists. American power, however, suppressed these factors. First, temporarily, after World War 1; and then, for longer, after World War 2. Yet, even then, the “liberal idea” had not won a permanent victory. The world order has favored liberalism, democracy, and capitalism not only because they are right and better, but because the most powerful nation in the world since 1945 has been a liberal, democratic, capitalist nation.
Today, it is only natural that as nations such as China rise, authoritarian powers revert to old habits and traditions. Those habits and traditions are shaped by powerful forces: unchanging geography shared history and experiences. China draws adherents from its economic success; but it also draws on the fact that amidst uncertainty and insecurity, people increasingly look to tribe, race or nation for protection.
Comparatively, especially in moments of divide and gridlock, democracy can appear less energetic and effective. Liberalism can seem to provide no answers, and Enlightenment ideals of freedom and cosmopolitanism are easy to blame. How the West manages these dual assaults on the order—from without and from within—will be the major challenge of the coming decades.
The financial and economic crisis of 2008 started in the US financial system: to what extent was that a turning point? Did American voters and leaders then—almost suddenly—lose some of their confidence in the American combination of hard and soft power? Has the cost-benefit analysis changed for at least some good reasons?
The 2008 financial crisis deepened discontent and mistrust in experts; it is not surprising that faith has thus waned in the liberal world order and the need for American power to support it. We have lived so long inside the bubble of the liberal world order that we can imagine no other kind of world. We think it is natural and normal, even inevitable.
We see all the current order’s flaws and wish it could be better, but it doesn’t occur to us that the more likely alternative to it could be much worse. Westerners view history as having a direction and a purpose. We believe in “modernization,” in stages of economic and political development, in a link between prosperity and democracy. As children of the Enlightenment, we believe the expansion of knowledge and material progress goes hand in hand with improvements in human behavior and moral progress.
Hence we have come to believe that, while there may be occasional bumps and detours on the road, progress is inevitable. Unfortunately, this story of human progress is a myth. Only since the Cold War’s end has there been so little to challenge that narrative. World order is one of those things people don’t think about until it is gone.
As children of the Enlightenment, we believe the expansion of knowledge and material progress goes hand in hand with improvements in human behavior and moral progress. Unfortunately, this story of human progress is a myth.
You argue that American political culture has never been truly isolationist, but can a US administration engineer some form of coherent and deliberate retrenchment? Is this what Barack Obama tried to do? If so, to what extent did he succeed or fail? And to what extent do the differences between the Obama and Trump presidencies hide structural trends?
The term “isolationist” doesn’t capture what was happening in the 1930s nor is it relevant today. In both cases, few have ever suggested that the United States pull up the drawbridge and cut off ties with the outside world. What most critics and sceptics of American foreign policy want are for the United States to act more like a “normal nation”.
Barack Obama came into office in 2008 with a popular mandate to restore something closer to normalcy to American foreign policy. He shared the post-Cold War orthodoxy that America’s extensive interventionist role in the world had become unnecessary, unsustainable and counterproductive. He set out, therefore, to reposition the United States in a more modest role appropriate to a new era of global convergence. The little political support in the Republican Congress for Obama’s attempts to uphold a liberal world order deepened his conviction that Americans no longer favored the old activist role.
Apart from Trump, of the four major political figures on the national stage in 2016, only one stood for the old American grand strategy. The 2016 election was a repudiation of America’s traditional global role, and not because of Donald Trump.
The result was that as the liberal world order began to show further signs of strain, cracking around the edges, Obama did what the American people evidently wanted, which was very little. He limited the US response to economic sanctions following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the seizure of Crimea. He reduced the American role in the Middle East as the Arab Spring rose and fell, turmoil erupted in Egypt, the war began in Yemen, and ISIS established control of a swath of territory. Even when the Syrian crisis metastasized— killing hundreds of thousands and sending millions more as refugees into Europe— Obama remained determined to avoid a substantial commitment of American power—to the public’s indifference. Donald Trump’s election reinforced this broader trend.
Yet, apart from Trump, of the four major political figures on the national stage in 2016 (Obama, Bernie Sanders, Trump and Hillary Clinton), only one stood for the old American grand strategy. The 2016 election was a repudi- ation of America’s traditional global role, and not because of Donald Trump. He was, rather, the beneficiary of a national mood.
Trump has openly rejected most foreign policy choices made by his predecessor, but the one core decision he is making may be on China, by breaking the bonds of an almost symbiotic economic interdependence that has characterized the last three decades or so. Is this where the future of the world order is really being played out (with all other regions and relationships remaining rather marginal)?
The US-China relationship is not the sole area of importance. The fate of Europe as a set of liberal, open, democratic societies matters immensely to the future of our world order. However, if Europe is one pillar of the international order, then East Asia is the other. In approaching China, Trump, unfortunately, is only playing a geoeconomic game, ignoring the geopolitical dimension.
For China, as for past great powers, geoeconomics and geopolitics are intertwined. Trade, finance, diplomacy and military power are all aspects of comprehensive national power. If a competing power tries to reduce China’s ability to produce wealth, no matter the reason or the means, it is no different from any other type of geopolitical challenge. And if the United States’ advantage on the economic side is too great to overcome, Beijing could respond in a way Washington doesn’t want to be challenged — in the military sphere.
So far it is not clear whether Trump administration officials appreciate those tough trade policies could lead down a path toward conflict. It would be one thing if Trump’s trade policy were part of an overall geopolitical strategy to deal with a rising China, but it isn’t. Trump has not tightened ranks with allies in Europe and Asia to take on China’s problematic behaviour. On the contrary, Trump has been weakening American tools for dealing with the Chinese challenge.
The positive influence the United States had as a benign hegemon seems to have worked best within the Western alliance, allowing Western (i.e. liberal and market-style) democracies to flourish. Europe, Japan and others have not had to worry too much about broader security issues and the hard power needed to address them. Yet, even inside the “Western bloc”, many came to resent American tutelage, and after the Cold War, there was a strong tendency to try to develop a degree of autonomy in several fields. Was this a different (and more man- ageable) kind of vegetation growing, or the harbinger of the jungle growing back? How can we reset the transat- lantic alliance to make it better suited for a new era? Or is it perhaps too late?
The transatlantic alliance has been at the heart of the liberal world order. Nevertheless, there always have been divergences and frictions over that order. Europeans wanted an order that was more “rules-based” and grounded in the United Nations. The American vision of the order, on the other hand, rested on a grand bargain: the other liberal powers were to cede strategic hegemony to the United States; in return, America would not use that hegemony to constrain their economic growth.
For China, as for past great powers, geoeconomics and geopolitics are intertwined. Trade, finance, diplomacy and military power are all aspects of comprehensive national power.
It could not insist on winning every transaction. There had to be a relatively level playing field — at times even one that favored the other liberal powers. That arrangement was not perfect. Yet, unlike the Soviet bloc, American hegemony never left allies so aggrieved as to drive them away. As I mentioned, nations in Europe and Asia banged on the door to come into the network of US alliances and economic partnerships. They recognized that the American-led order was flawed, but it remained superior to any realistic alternatives.
Yes, Europeans opposed specific US foreign policy choices. From Vietnam to Iraq, they resented certain American actions as misguided, selfish, and oppressive. However, the jungle has begun to grow back in Europe not because the United States did too much, but because it has done too little. Beginning with Barack Obama, the United States decreased its involvement in Europe and its commitment to regional stability. Obama refused to use adequate force to restore some semblance of stability in Syria as the civil war drove refugees into Europe.
The American vision of the order, rested on a grand bargain: the other liberal powers were to cede strategic hegemony to the United States; in return, America would not use that hegemony to constrain their economic growth.
The resulting crisis, more than any other factor, contributed to the rising popularity of nationalist, ultranationalist, and even overtly fascist political parties across Europe. As Americans’ commitment to upholding a liberal world order came increasingly into question, it became easier for Viktor Orbán to celebrate the “illiberal state” or for democratic backsliding in Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Dealing with that resulting populism and nationalism—both in Europe and the United States—is the first step to restoring the transatlantic alliance and renewing it for the coming decades.
Is Trump deliberately working to weaken Europe, reducing the Union’s role as an autonomous actor in its own right? How should Europeans react, collectively, to the current challenge from Washington in an unstable global context?
As with China, the Trump administration is using a geoeconomics lens when it looks at Europe. Trump wants “victories” on trade deals, even when it comes to longstanding allies. They are now competitors to be beaten. With this trade-first perspective, some Americans, including their president, may not like the European Union any more than many Britons and continental Europeans do. However, they forget the importance of the EU and of the transatlantic relationship in keeping geopolitical issues at bay in Europe.
The EU binds European countries together in ways that annoy and cause conflict, but also in ways that make European disintegration less likely. Americans forget that the EU is the organization that, along with NATO, helps maintain stability on the continent. They provide reassurance to Germany’s neighbors and to Germans themselves. They contain the territorial and nationalist disputes among Eastern and Central European states.
It is hard to believe that a Europe without the European Union could remain peacefully postmodern. In this moment of challenge from the United States and with a crisis of democracy spreading across Europe, Europeans must strengthen themselves first. While populists like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in Holland lost their elections, the fact that there were widespread sighs of relief over those two outcomes shows how far the right-wing nationalist parties have come. Europeans must reinforce their own institutions and unity in order to overcome the “democracy question” that Ivan Krastev has observed is “at the heart of Europe’s troubles.”
In this moment of challenge from the United States and with a crisis of democracy spreading across Europe, Europeans must strengthen themselves first.
The United States must accept its share of the blame for what has happened to Europe—both under Obama and under Trump. But only Europeans can bolster liberal democracy at home to preserve it in a world where it is increasingly embattled.
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