February 13, 2015

Kagan urges the U.S. to "lean forward"

Is America indispensable? Robert Kagan, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former presidential foreign policy advisor, sought to answer this question during a talk on Thursday evening sponsored by the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism (CPOST) and the International House’s Global Voices lecture program. Kagan responded to this question with an emphatic yes, arguing for a more proactive policy aimed at enforcing a liberal world order and maintaining American primacy.

Kagan began by laying out his view of American foreign policy since World War I. He argued that a policy of American disengagement seemed appropriate in the context of the peaceful 1920s, when America had an isolationist foreign policy. This was discredited, he said, by the chaos of the 1930s, followed by World War II.

“I’ve often lately been accused of thinking that it’s always the 1930s as I look ahead at the future; I want to plead guilty only of always thinking it is the 1920s. Which is to say that the global order…is a fragile thing and it’s amazing how quickly it can crumble,” Kagan said.

The postwar era was built on a basis of American power to avoid a repeat of that collapse. Kagan described this era of American supremacy as a period of exceptional stability, economic growth, and democratic flourishing.

In an interview session following Kagan’s speech, political science professor Robert Pape pushed Kagan on whether the rise of new global powers might contest America’s status as a superpower. Kagan argued that China, which he sees as the most likely challenger to the standing world order, faces substantial social problems and an international community skeptical of its rise.

“Fundamentally, I think we are in a better strategic position then we were through much of the Cold War… Our situation remains tremendously advantageous for maintaining this world order,” Kagan said.

In response to Pape’s concerns that Kagan’s theory of a “lean forward” strategy might actually threaten American primacy by alienating America’s allies, Kagan claimed that many governments in the Middle East and Eastern Europe would prefer a more engaged United States.

“They’re not looking for less America; they’re looking for more America, insofar as they get alienated...because they’re getting less than they want…It’s not about love, it’s not about affection, it’s not that they think we're smart. They know we’re not smart, they don’t really love us—[but] they have the need,” Kagan said.

After the interview, the floor opened to questions. Audience members asked Kagan about the relationship between support for Israel and American national interest, a rising China, and Russian strategy in Ukraine. On the last issue, he argued for American involvement.

“I think we are being a little bit psychologically bamboozled by [Russian president Vladimir] Putin, but, if you ask me, at the end of the day I would say ‘move a NATO division forward, if that’s what it takes.’ Does he want to have a war with NATO?... However, I think that that’s not necessary; I think that we can keep him at bay,” Kagan said.

CPOST will host talks addressing foreign policy issues every two or three months over the next two years.