Last updated: December 12, 2006 3:09 pm

Ask the expert: Robert Kagan

Robert Kagan Q&A

“It is astonishing how little Americans understand their own nation, writes Robert Kagan, author of “Dangerous Nation”, a history of US foreign policy .

Mr Kagan argues that many Americans and Europeans would “like to believe that Iraq was the product of aberrant “neo-conservative” ideas about foreign policy and that a traditional America lies just around the corner. This self-image is at odds with reality, however...Americans have gone to war frequently in their history, rarely out of genuine necessity.”

Does America distort its self-image? Do you agree with Mr Kagan’s assertion that there is nothing nothing “neo” or conservative about US foreign policy and that it has almost always been liberal?

Mr Kagan answers your questions below

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You write that the US supported interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo for moral and humanitarian ends, not strategic or economic necessity. However, at the time (and on both occasions), rather than focusing on a humanitarian rationale, you stressed the imperative of preserving the Nato alliance and of protecting American credibility in Europe and beyond. Why do you now say that they were only fought on moral grounds?
Maria Ryan

Robert Kagan: You are right. I argued, and the Clinton administration argued, that our involvement, in addition to being necessary from a moral and humanitarian perspective, was also essential to preserve Nato. It was also to preserve our credibility, not so much around the world, but as a nation still committed to Europe.

I did not agree with James Baker who at the time said,”this is a European problem.” However, in the end this was still a moral and humanitarian issue. It was that first and foremost for the Europeans, and for historical reasons especially for Germany.

Europeans did not believe they could permit an act of ethnic cleansing on the continent, lest they be on the road backward toward their disastrous and horrific past. And the truth was, a Europe that permitted this slaughter was not the Europe Americans wanted or needed in the new era.

It was, therefore, in our interest to bolster Europe in meeting this challenge, and as we did our obligations as a Nato ally came into question. If we refused to support them and help them deal with this problem, then we were no longer in fact committed to Europe or the alliance.

So, yes, we intervened in part to uphold the alliance. But at the end of the day, this was still all about moral and humanitarian issues, certainly for the Europeans but also for us. My argument at the time, and now, is that there is no clear separation between our “interests” and our moral obligations. They frequently merge, as they did in the Balkans. In fact, they are often one and the same.

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As with US ambivalence towards Britain, long after independence was won, has the entire world now risen to a similar stance against the only super-power that remains? Are those controlling the levers of power in Washington reacting to this without realising the historical context, or at least looking in the mirror?
Tom Douglas, Perth

Robert Kagan: I think they realise it (and, after all, what country ever really looks at itself in the mirror?) The harder question is what to do about it. It is a truism in history that the rise of a dominant power produces a response among other powers. Yet even so, the interesting thing about the current situation is that while most other powers express hostility to the US (or is just to George W. Bush?) they are not taking the classic steps that have normally been taken. They are not creating a competing military alliance to check American power.

China is increasing its military for its own reasons, but they have been for some time. But if you look at the West, including Europe, Japan, Australia, and India, aside from complaining about American actions, there is no effort to balance against it in any concerted way. Japan and Australia look to be trying to strengthen their alliance with the United States. Germany under Merkel has moved closer to Washington. Indeed, the leaders of the opposition camp, Schröder and Chirac are either out or on their way out.

So it’s not clear to me that under a new president in 2009, the idea of the “lonely superpower” may begin to fade

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If US foreign policy under the Bush administration remains broadly within the US liberal tradition, then what is the most likely legacy of the invasion of Iraq for future administrations?
Nick Thomas

Robert Kagan: It’s hard to say, and of course it still depends on the outcome. One thing worth keeping in mind is that even though Vietnam was a debacle, and many expected it to have a profound impact on the future course of American foreign policy (just as one of the earlier questioners below assumed), within five years after Vietnam the American people elected Ronald Reagan on a platform of renewing American military strength and its mission to spread democracy around the world.

That was a pretty quick recovery from the loss. We are often surprised at how quickly memories fade. Especially for Americans, and especially when they are faced with new challenges and dangers. So I anticipate that the liberal tradition in American foreign policy will continue.

I suppose there could be a backlash against it that was reflected in the political system. But when one notices that John McCain and Rudy Giuliani are today the frontrunners for the Republican nomination in 2008, then that will not represent a departure from the course the US is already on.

I’m not even sure Hilary Clinton represents that much of a departure. Barack Obama could be more so. He will certainly run as the anti-war candidate. But will he run against the idea that America has a role to do good around the world? - the main motive force behind the liberal tradition in foreign policy? I doubt it.

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Do you think domestic electoral and public opinion considerations play a large role in shaping US foreign policy? In particular, how much importance would you attribute to American pro-Israel groups shaping US Middle East policy as opposed to this policy being shaped by a purely self-interested realist or idealist calculus?
Saifedean Ammous, New York, US

Robert Kagan: I would say my whole premise is that American foreign policy is shaped by the struggle in America to define the nation’s identity. This struggle sometimes takes shape in elections, but usually it doesn’t. There has been remarkable consistency in foreign policy, regardless of the party in power.

Today it is amusing to see Republicans supporting overseas intervention when in the 1990s, under Clinton, they denounced it. Meanwhile, Democrats who supported Clinton’s idealistic policies and his military interventions, including his bombing of Iraq in 1998, now denounce Bush as overly idealistic and interventionist. Opposition parties do what they do best: oppose. But once in power, parties and their leaders follow the broad path in foreign policy that is shaped by American ambitions and ideological convictions.

As for the influence of pro-Israel groups on American Middle East policy, it is certainly there. Every ethnic group in American history has attempted to shape American foreign policy in accord with their special interests and concerns. Many German- and Irish-Americans opposed American intervention in World War against Germany and on behalf of Great Britain.

Cuban-Americans influenced the American intervention in Cuba in 1898, and continue to influence policy more than a century later. Greek-Americans influence American policy toward Turkey and Cyprus. African Americans influenced American policy toward Haiti and South Africa. So, first, I think there is something suspicious about the recent effort to single out American Jews as if they were the only American ethnic group to seek and possess this kind of influence.

But second, I believe that no ethnic group has been successful influencing American policy in a direction contradictory to what most Americans regard as their principles and interests. The most successful lobby groups have played to important American ideals, such as democracy, and important American interests.

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I believe very strongly in the policies of Norman Podhoretz, Wolfowitz, and William Kristol as well as studies from the AEI. America needs to embrace an assertive foreign policy to end states that sponsor terror. How can the neocons, and the related think-tanks such as the AEI, convince the American people in the future to have faith in an aggressive foreign policy?
Michael Labeit, Queens, US

Robert Kagan: My view of the history of American foreign policy, and the character of the nation, is fairly deterministic. This makes me uncomfortable as a historian, and I’m waiting to be criticised on that front, though so far I haven’t been.

But as a result, I do not expect Americans to alter their nation’s course very much in the future. I wish I could say it mattered a great deal what these very impressive and articulate individuals say and do. I think it matters on specific policies. But when it comes to the broad direction of American foreign policy, my reading of history suggests that Americans will always be inclined to embrace an assertive foreign policy abroad, especially when they feel threatened.

The question comes down to skill in execution. We are unlikely to turn inward and pull up the draw-bridge then we are to stumble in pursuit of our goals.

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During the Cold War, both Europeans and Americans had to compromise with dictators around the world in order to weaken the Soviet Union and communism. What would be, in your view Mr Kagan, the new sort of compromises that the US government is willing to make to defeat terrorism?
Corneliu, Bucharest

Robert Kagan: Clearly we are making such kinds of compromises all over the place in the war on terrorism, although I must say I doubt they are proving very useful.

We are turning a mostly blind eye to the Mubarak dictatorship in Egypt, despite much rhetoric to the contrary, as well in Saudi Arabia. We have been forgiving of the dictatorships in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. Nor have we been very critical of the Putin dictatorship in Russia, no matter how many people he assassinates.

This is all largely in the service of the war on terror. During the Cold War I actually believed that we wrong to support so many dictators, for it often did not help but hurt in the struggle against communism, in addition to being a violation of the principles we were struggling to defend.

I am equally unpersuaded today that our support for these dictatorships will help us fight terrorism, and once again we pay the price of moral and ideological inconsistency.

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Has any major power that sought a world empire had a liberal foreign policy? The plutocracy in England from 1600 to 1945 did not pursue a liberal democratic foreign policy. In fact liberal and democratic are strange words. Defined by whom? Based upon what cultural experience?
Clarence Wade Pate, Ph.D, Charleston, S.C

Robert Kagan: I would say the closest was the British empire of the 19th century. In the last part of the 18th century, Edmund Burke insisted (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the British empire had to be founded on the principle of freedom for it could be founded on no other. (Feel free out there to correct me.)

In the 19th century, especially under Palmerston, there was much more talk, I believe sincere, that one of the roles of the British empire was to spread liberty, both economic and political. Whether it actually accomplished this goal is another question, which I leave to Niall Ferguson (his view is that it did, I believe.)

And you are quite right to question the universal claims of the US regarding individual rights, or even how to define those rights. Many peoples throughout history, as well as today, do not agree with the principles as Americans define them. What I think it important to realise, however, is that Americans consider those principles incapable of refutation. They are simply right. And that confidence has played a huge role in shaping American foreign policy.

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How is it that invasion of Iraq came just when the lessons of Vietnam were being widely accepted? Is it an underlying streak of global dominance in American policy or 21st century neo-imperialism?
O.P. Sabherwal, New Delhi, India

Robert Kagan: Good questions, although there are many “lessons of Vietnam” and not everyone agrees what they are. But as a general matter, I would say that the Iraq intervention came at a time when the “lessons of Vietnam” had been practically expunged from the American memory.

Since the Vietnam war ended, the US had conducted numerous interventions, both full-scale, as in the first Persian Gulf war, and smaller, as in the Balkans, Panama, and Somalia. Certainly, if one “lesson of Vietnam” was that military intervention is a mistake, that lesson had been thoroughly unlearned over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. Americans by 2000 had a fairly high degree of confidence in their ability to intervene successfully around the world.

As to your second question, the argument I am in advancing in Dangerous Nation is that there is an “underlying streak of global dominance” in American policy, and always has been. You could call it 21st century neo-imperialism if you like. But I would say that American policy continues to spring from the same ambitions, the same belief in power, and the same conviction of ideological superiority that has always shaped it.

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Mr Kagan, I know you aren’t happy with the term empire to describe America’s position. But what do you think of the relationship between its hegemonic role in the world and its republican nature? Is there, to you, any necessary contradiction between an empire of liberty and republican values? Or is it the culmination of republican values to support sister republics abroad?
Brian Stewart, Indiana, US

Robert Kagan: There is an inescapable paradox between attempting to promote the principles of liberty, individual rights, and self-determination when the means require the exercise of superior power and influence which arguably deprives others of the ability to exercise self-determination. So, yes, there is a contradiction. And I would argue that addressing and attempting to resolve that contradiction has been one of the great dramas of American foreign policy and, indeed, Americans’ attempt to understand and shape their basic identity as a nation.

As for the term, “empire,” I am unhappy with it because some seem to consider it synonymous with “great power.” Every great power, and especially a superpower like the US, exerts influence and sometimes dominant influence on other peoples. Germany exerts influence on its neighbours. China exerts vast influence beyond its shores. But I wouldn’t consider either of those empires. Nor do I consider the United States to be an empire, at least in what I regard as the only meaningful definition of the term.

To me “empire” means direct rule over other peoples, giving them their laws, policing them with force, controlling their economy, and using their resources for yourself. Now, it is true that the US has at times fulfilled most of this definition, especially in the Western Hemisphere, though not, I would argue, in the Philippines.

Some will say this is exactly what we are doing in Iraq. But the US does not desire to rule Iraq. It wants to establish a new Iraq in such a way so that it can leave as soon as possible. This is very different even from the behaviour of that most benevolent of empires, the British empire, which had no intention of ever leaving India, for instance, until compelled to do so.

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There is a perception that the US foreign policy has been overly particularistic, with selective upholding of moral principles being cleverly rationalised as mere prioritising. What are Mr Kagan’s thoughts on this?
Gordon Graham, Taipei, Taiwan

Robert Kagan: I believe there is truth to the charge that the US has often applied its morality selectively and has been hypocritical and self-serving in its justifications for its policies.

Of course, in this respect it is no different from all other nations, especially powerful nations. All nations pursue their selfish interests, and often try to dress up these pursuits as morally correct and for the benefit of mankind. And to varying degrees, these justifications are both sincere and partly true.

It is possible to do good even while serving one’s interests. In any case, the US is made up of human beings. Human beings are selfish, and they are sinners. The exception is when they act for the greater good of humanity.

In the case of the US, I would say there are two principal distinctions. The first is that Americans set a much higher standard for their behaviour than do most nations, and especially powerful nations. Americans insist that that their actions are guided by their devotion to the universal principles they hold dear. It is impossible to imagine any nation fully living up to those principles, unless it was prepared to abandon power and influence and become a nation of saints. For the great paradox of American policy is that in order to advance its principles, which include individual rights and self-determination, it cannot avoid impinging upon the individual rights and self-determination of others. Power is power, even when wielded in a good cause.

This relates to the problem of selective application of moral principles. The US being a normal, powerful nation engaged in a global struggle with other nations who oppose both it and its principles, often finds itself in the position of having to support as “allies” who do not share its principles as part of the larger struggle. There are no better examples of this than the alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union against Hitler, and then the alliance with Mao’s China against the Soviet Union. And this practice continued, especially in the Cold War, when even liberals like Kennedy preferred dictatorship in a place like the Dominican Republic to communist revolution.

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Mr Kagan, I am a big fan, but one nagging question has long been, what do you consider yourself politically? Do you see yourself as something of a classical liberal? A Lockean? Keep up the good work
Brian Johnson, Cincinnati, US

Robert Kagan: Many thanks, Brian. And I’m glad you asked me that question, because I am so tired of the label “neo-conservative.” There is nothing either “neo” or “conservative” about my views on foreign policy. I consider myself a liberal, in the mold of Truman and Acheson, but also a classical liberal in the mold of an Alexander Hamilton, Henry Clay, John Quincy Adams, William Henry Seward, James G. Blaine, Theodore Roosevelt, etc.

The desire to wield American power and influence on behalf of the liberal principles on which the nation was founded, and which are embedded in the nation’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, has always been the goal of liberals and progressives throughout American history.

Conservative foreign policy has called for restraint, modesty, and generally feared, correctly, that a big foreign policy implied a big government. The exception to this conservative pattern came during the Cold War, when conservative hostility to global communism (which they regarded as an internal threat, as well) led them to support an interventionist policy around the world. But even Ronald Reagan, the apotheosis of American globalism, had been a Truman-Acheson follower in the 1940s.

Today’s labels are both confusing and misleading, in my opinion.

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Which American wars abroad do you feel were justified, which ones where not and why?
Nanheyan Grouchuan, US

Robert Kagan: It’s a good question. The question is what do we mean by “justified”? I would argue that the war against Mexico in the 1840s was not justified. It was clearly a war of territorial aggression, and mostly for the acquisition of slave territory. And it was a war that the United States essentially provoked.

It is also true that many Americans, as well as many Mexicans, disapproved of Santa Ana’s rule, with some justification. But that wasn’t the reason for the war. Ironically, this is one of the few wars that isolationists like Pat Buchanan do approve of, because of the immense territorial benefit to the US.

It is certainly true that the US would not have become the great power it later became without conquering that territory. On the other hand, the war also led almost inevitably to the Civil War. So even from the point of view of self-interest, I’m not sure that war qualifies.

I would have a similarly difficult time saying all the American wars against the Indians were “justified.” Again, although there were often other causes, including Indian massacres of white settlers, these were all basically wars of territorial aggression.

I have a harder time finding no justification for America’s other wars. The justification of the Revolutionary War would seem self-explanatory, (though not to the British!) as would the Civil War (though not to the South!), World War I, although many Americans today consider it a mistake and not justified, and World War II, which enjoys a greater consensus of support.

The Spanish-American War of 1898 began largely as a humanitarian intervention on behalf of a Cuban population suffering near-genocide at the hands of the Spanish governors on the island. The Korean War was justified, as well, for a host of reasons. Vietnam? I have no difficulty finding an initial justification for that war, on moral and humanitarian grounds, as did John F. Kennedy and most Cold War liberal Democrats in the early- and mid-1960s, although in the end it failed to achieve any moral or humanitarian ends, and in retrospect, therefore, does not seem so easy to justify.

The same may come to be said, and is already being said, about Iraq. I would say that there was justification for the First Persian Gulf War, the invasion of Panama in 1989, the interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, and most recently Afghanistan and Iraq. The reasons the US invaded Iraq were not selfish, but had to do with preserving security in the region, the task which the West had long assigned to the US, as well as to unseat a brutal dictatorship. If the result is chaos, civil war, and greater insecurity, however, it will be difficult to justify in retrospect.

Let’s be clear, however: my outlook is an American outlook. There were many around the world who did not find any of the recent interventions justified (something we now conveniently forget), and never mind Vietnam. The problem with deciding what is justified is that it depends on moral and ideological calculations that simply aren’t the same for everyone. Even wars that have been widely supported by the West (such as Bosnia and Kosovo) have not been considered justified by the Chinese, the Russians, and by many smaller countries around the world.

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Background

Robert Kagan - How America distorts its self-image

Read an extract from Robert Kagan’s “Dangerous Nation”, a history of US foreign policy

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