Tuesday, June 03, 2014

What Kagan Left Out

Stephen Griffin

Pundits have been paying close attention (mostly critical) to Obama's West Point speech on foreign policy.  The NYT depicted the speech as a reply to Robert Kagan's widely read essay in The New Republic, "Superpowers Don't Get to Retire."  I had to extensively research the history of US foreign policy since 1945 in order to write my book on war powers, Long Wars and the Constitution.  So I was interested to compare my "take" to Kagan's.  I should say there is much to admire in Kagan's analysis and I'm certainly not opposed to military interventions per se, one of Kagan's concerns.  What I argue is that long wars have consequences.

I won't attempt to summarize Kagan's lengthy essay.  But I should describe his main themes.  Kagan sees the US moving away from a commitment to "global responsibility" to a 1920s-style "search for normalcy" where national interests narrowly construed are defended, but little else.  Kagan is careful not to identify "normalcy" with isolationism.  But he does view it as more than a temporary retrenchment.  He thinks Americans, Obama included, want to permanently leave behind the post-WWII commitment to a dominant global role.

Both Kagan's article and Obama's speech are signs that we are in a period similar to that following Vietnam.  This period has been described as dominated by the "Vietnam syndrome," the desire to avoid more commitments, especially military, around the globe.  I speculated that we were heading into such a period in Long Wars, so I'm feeling mildly prescient.  What we should keep in mind about the post-Vietnam period, however, is that it was characterized both by a reluctance, solidly backed by public opinion, to launch any major military interventions involving ground troops and by tremendous angst among foreign policy elites that America needed to find a way to get back in the great power game.  In other words, many in the foreign policy community didn't like a postwar retrenchment back in the late 1970s any more than they do now.

But back to Kagan.  Kagan tells the story of resistance to the pleas of FDR and the Atlanticist elite that America needed to support Britain and France after 1939 in order to point out that sound rationales for intervention to shore up the international order can look "unrealistic" and unnecessarily burdensome when they are proposed.  So failure to intervene only makes matters worse.  According to Kagan, after war came, elites decided that a new approach to American foreign policy was essential.  In Long Wars, I make a similar argument but go further to say that this necessarily involved a new "constitutional order" as well.  Let's pay attention to what Kagan says are the pillars on which this new order rested: (1) national security involves deterring aggressors before they act; (2) promotion of democracy, especially in "Eurasia" (Latin America is mostly missing from Kagan's analysis); (3) a strong global economy underwritten by the US; (4) continually educating the public on the importance of the new US role.

So far, so good.  But what is Kagan leaving out?

I suppose I could say "the 1970s", but that might be misunderstood.  The biggest problem with Kagan's essay is that he runs together the period of prosperity, foreign interventions, and balance of power with the Soviet Union prevailing in the fifties and sixties with the post-1982 recession period when the cold war terminated successfully for the US.  Let me lay down these short markers of the 1970s without meaning to be comprehensive: the dollar, trade, Vietnam, domestic politics.

When the US left the gold standard in 1971, it was because we could no longer provide the kind of stability to the international economic order foreseen in the post-WWII Bretton Woods system.  Kagan emphasizes that in 1990s, the US continued to intervene to protect the global financial system from collapsing.  But the general point is that the economic road for the US became permanently more rocky and thus one of the pillars of the post-1945 order was undermined.  By the way, consider when was the last time we signed a trade agreement that was hailed as producing thousands of US jobs?  Ravaged by wage stagnation and growing inequality, it is not surprising if the public does not today see international involvement as related to prosperity.  This critical pillar of the post-1945 order has not been well maintained since the 1970s.

The next two markers go together.  To Kagan, the public has been skeptical about the value of foreign interventions since the 1990s.  But certainly a large segment of that public has been skeptical since Vietnam.  After all, that's where the "Vietnam syndrome" came from.  Kagan certainly acknowledges that Vietnam was a disaster, but treats it as a discrete, rather than a defining, episode.

So Kagan ignores the 1970s, choosing instead to make an analogy between today's politics of "normalcy" and those of the 1920s.  Why is Kagan giving the 1970s a pass?  For one thing, it would ruin his argument that US now risks destabilizing a world order continuously maintained since 1945.  The reality is that the post-1945 order has been fraying for decades.  Consider if that order required regular massive US military interventions, those weren't happening after Vietnam.  The lesson today is similar -- long wars have consequences.  Long wars like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan require enormous resources and exact tremendous costs on our nation.  The Vietnam experience suggests the current period, call it normalcy or retrenchment, may last a long time.  Kagan obviously doesn't like this but he obviously also doesn't think it's worth reflecting on how we got ourselves in to our most recent long wars.  That's too bad.

Obama's failure to intervene in Syria lurks in the background of Kagan's entire essay.  Obama's critics view that failure with special horror, even as they sometimes acknowledge he is reading public opinion correctly.  Pitching the controversy to Congress is viewed by foreign policy pros like Kagan as a sure sign of weakness, rather than as the constitutional thing to do.  We have a long way to go before foreign policy pros might see the Constitution as part of the solution rather than as part of the problem.

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