Robert Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former presidential foreign policy advisor. He visited campus last week to discuss “Is America Indispensable?” at a talk sponsored by the Global Voices Program at International House. Kagan advocates for a more muscular U.S. foreign policy, and his 2014 New Republic cover article “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire” led to an invitation to lunch with President Obama to discuss opinions. He sat down with the Maroon to discuss his theories on the liberal order post-World War II and the United States’s main allies and adversaries today.
Chicago Maroon (CM): What is the liberal order that the US created and why is it so important?
Robert Kagan (RK): It is sort of characterized by three unique qualities, if you think about the history of the human race. One is there has been an enormous spread of democratic government. On the eve of World War II, there might have been less than 10 democracies in the world. Today there are over 120….The other thing is the economic order which has been characterized largely—although obviously with exceptions—by generally a free trade capitalist approach, which has created, again, unprecedented economic growth across the globe in a way that no one has ever seen before…And then finally, it has been an order characterized by peace among the great powers.
CM: Could you talk about the good things the current administration has done to maintain the order and maybe some things you disagree with that you think are not promoting the order?
RK: What have become the two pillars of maintaining this order are maintaining peace and security in Europe and Asia; that is the great accomplishment of this order after WWII, and until Russia invaded Ukraine, we did not have to think really much about Europe. But now we have to think about Europe again. In the case of East Asia, I think that is what people call the pivot, but in any case, this sort of rebalancing—or the effort to show that America is really committed to its allies in East Asia—has been beneficial….
I would say that has been moderately true in Europe. I think that for the most part what the administration has done in Europe has been very effective. I have to put full disclosure and say that the person in charge of that policy in the State Department is my wife [Victoria Nuland, the assistant Secretary of State, according to the New York Times]. I do think she has been doing a great job.
But the place I would say the administration has been least effective has been in the Middle East. And that is not because I believe that there were easy solutions in the Middle East, or that I have the answer in the Middle East. But I would say the very strong perception that various nations in the Middle East got [was] that the U.S. was on its way out of the region, which I think was how they read the pivot and also the withdrawal of American forces, [and that] has led to a worse kind of disorder and chaos and violence than the amount it was.
CM: Part of your work has dealt with how European and American views are diverging. Who—if not Europe—are our most reliable allies we can count on to maintain the liberal order?
RK: No, Europe are the most reliable allies, but you just have to live with the fact that because of the nature of their history, and I think we have to be very conscious of the history of the 20th century for Europe where they suffered just unimaginably from two world wars and have been determined never to fall into that again…
Their crucial role is to be a successful bastion of liberal order, which is what they have been. You know, now they are going through difficult economic times. There are going to be some changes to the European Union. We will see how this all turns out. Some may leave, some may join, but by and large, Europe has—and I wrote this at the time—Europe has performed the greatest function it can possibly perform for the United States, which is to be a Europe in peace…
The biggest challenge right now, is the challenge that is in Europe itself, or certainly that is on Europe’s frontier, which is the challenge in Russia—with Russia willing to use force. That, unfortunately, exposes Europe’s weakness, which is a country on their border that basically wants to behave in a 19th century power politics fashion: using military force—not economic cleverness, not politics—but real, hard power, on a continent where people don’t want to think about hard power anymore.
CM: The rise of China in the 21st century—do you think that we will be able to embrace the Chinese? Will they embrace us into our world order? Or, like Russia, as they grow more powerful, are we going to have them be the main ones who are trying to disrupt it?
RK: I think it is not just like Russia. China is a rising power, and you can compare them to Germany in the late 19th century. You can compare them to Japan in the late 19th and early 20th century, and they have the characteristics of rising powers—which is that they are rising into a world order that was not made for them and that they did not make. Therefore, you are faced with two choices: you can integrate yourselves in that world order or you can attempt to reshape it.
I think what you are seeing with China right now is that they want to have it both ways. They want to enjoy the benefits they get from integration, which are substantial economically. At the same time, getting to muscle their way into controlling the South China Sea, the East China Sea, being a regionally hegemon. So our task is to say, “We welcome your rise, we welcome your economic integration.”
The worst thing you can do in these situations is leave doubt in the mind of a potential aggressor—so they are not sure whether you have the capacity or the will to resist them. It is much better to say, don’t worry about it. If you do this, we are going to respond. That’s healthier for everybody. And that is something I think we have learned through bitter experience. And I don’t want us to learn through another bitter experience.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and space.