Washington, D.C., is one of those places where having a track record of being wrong has few consequences. Washington think tanks and news outlets are full of “deep thinkers” and “observers” whose flawed analyses, failed policy proposals, and inaccurate predictions don’t undermine their status as “opinion makers” to whom the country should listen. One such deep thinker is Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, who championed the endless wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which cost thousands of lives and billions of dollars and added little, if anything, to U.S. national security. But according to Kagan’s latest article in Foreign Affairs, the United States did not wage those wars — and did not wage any of its 20th-century wars — for selfish national-security interests. Instead, Kagan writes, we fought those wars and should fight more such wars to maintain a “liberal world beyond [our] shores.”
Kagan’s immediate purpose in this article is to justify U.S. support for Ukraine in its war against Russia, but his larger purpose is to promote a national-security doctrine that he calls “liberal hegemony.” America fought in World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq in 1991, the Balkans in the 1990s, Libya in 2011, and Afghanistan and Iraq again in the 21st century, he contends, “to defend and support the hegemony of liberalism.” All of these wars, he writes, were “wars of choice,” not “wars of necessity.” “Not one [of those wars] was necessary to defend the United States’ direct security; all in one way or another were about shaping the international environment,” he explains. For Kagan, the Russia–Ukraine conflict — in which he calls us a “co-belligerent” — and a possible war in the South China Sea fit into this same category.
For Kagan, there is apparently no distinction between America’s vital and peripheral interests — all are worth fighting for. And, for Kagan, the defining U.S. national-security interest is supporting the “liberal world order” beyond our shores regardless of the specific national-security interests at stake in a conflict. The U.S., he writes, should have strongly opposed Russia in Georgia in 2008, in the Crimea in 2014, and in Syria. This, mind you, at the same time we were fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Kagan is nothing if not persistent. In his 2018 book The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World, Kagan warned that “the liberal order is like a garden, artificial and forever threatened by the forces of nature,” and it can only be preserved by a “persistent, unending struggle against the vines and weeds that are constantly working to undermine it from within and overwhelm it from without.” He identified the “vines and weeds” that threaten the liberal world order from outside as Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea, but he added that America is threatened from within by conservatives who yearn “for order, for strong leadership, and … for the security of family, tribe, and nation.” No “America First” foreign policy for Kagan.
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Kagan decries the influence of foreign-policy “realists,” naming E.H. Carr, George F. Kennan, Nicholas J. Spykman, and, surprisingly, former President Barack Obama, who were and are mainly concerned with maintaining the global balance of power instead of promoting liberal hegemony. “The defense of Ukraine,” he writes in the Foreign Affairs piece, “is a defense of the liberal hegemony,” and “the liberal world order will be threatened if Ukraine falls.” Kagan’s logic, therefore, would have U.S. and NATO troops fighting on Ukraine’s side, though he does not expressly say that.
Kagan’s doctrine of liberal hegemony is Wilsonian or, perhaps, “Bushian.” Woodrow Wilson talked about making the world “safe for democracy.” George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks talked about spreading democracy throughout the world. Kagan believes that we reluctantly inherited Great Britain’s defense of the liberal world order after World War I, but that was a war fought to uphold the European balance of power, not to protect a “liberal world order” that did not even exist at the time, unless Kagan believes that the European monarchs were secretly “liberals.” That war and the major wars that followed in the 20th century — including Korea and Vietnam — were wars about the balance of power, despite all the rhetoric of the Atlantic Charter and the United Nations.
Robert Kagan is on an ideological crusade — one whose failures are sadly manifest in so many American military cemeteries here and abroad. His realist critics rightly distinguish between vital and peripheral interests and ground their appreciation of U.S. national security on geopolitics rather than on a “liberal world order.” There indeed may be geopolitical reasons to aid Ukraine against Russian aggression and, especially, to defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion or attack, but promoting U.S. liberal hegemony is not one of them. We should learn from our mistakes, not repeat them.