Presidents do most of their reading in private. What lies on their bedside table is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. If a president happens to go to sleep by reading trashy novels or CIA reports, we don’t find out about it.
When White House officials do call attention to a book from the presidential reading list, there is often an implicit message or theme. In 2002, when George W. Bush and his advisers began appearing in public with Eliot A. Cohen’s “Supreme Command” — which argues that civilian leaders should make the key decisions on strategy in wartime — it seemed a signal to the military to show deference to the White House on Iraq.
So what should we make of the fact that President Obama has recently been touting parts of Robert Kagan’s new book, “The World America Made”? The president let it be known before his State of the Union address that he had been reading an essay adapted from the book, published by the New Republic under the title “The Myth of American Decline.”
On the surface, this seems surprising. Kagan’s writing at the Weekly Standard in the 1990s helped spark the revival of the neoconservative movement. He worked in John McCain’s presidential campaign four years ago and is advising Mitt Romney this year. Obama famously called the war in Iraq a “dumb war”; Kagan was among its leading supporters.
Yet when one looks more closely, Obama’s praise for Kagan is not so implausible. As president, Obama has hardly been a 1960s-style antiwar dove on foreign policy. And for his part, Kagan has never bought into the anti-Obama demonology. He seems to care less about partisanship than about ideas, particularly his advocacy for a powerful American role in the world. When Obama’s actions and rhetoric have been in line with Kagan’s views (in the surge in Afghanistan, for example), the author has been willing to praise the president — much as Kagan, unlike most Republicans, supported President Bill Clinton for his military intervention in the Balkans.
And there is much in “The World America Made” that fits Obama’s interests and principles. One of Kagan’s main arguments is that the United States is not in decline. That notion is of help to Obama or any other American president overseas; when you negotiate with other countries and leaders, you’d prefer that they perceive you as strong and powerful, not weak and faltering.
Kagan’s argument against decline also helps Obama at home, at least to some extent. His critics — the Republican presidential candidates among them — have been blaming Obama for somehow causing America to fade. The argument that the United States is and will remain for decades the most powerful nation in the world undercuts this line of attack.
Some of Kagan’s points are not all that new. Other intellectuals and policymakers, Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton among them, have been seeking to dispel the notion of American decline by pointing out that similar predictions have been made in the past and have proved wrong. We heard the same refrain — so the argument goes — with China’s communist revolution in the 1940s, Russia’s launch of Sputnik in the 1950s, the Vietnam War in the 1960s, the OPEC cartel of the 1970s and Japan’s economic prosperity in the 1980s. Like other anti-declinists, Kagan points to America’s adaptability, its open political system and its ability to reward innovation.
Kagan’s more novel and interesting argument is that those who believe in decline have a romanticized, exaggerated view of how much power America used to have. “It’s true: the United States is not able to get what it wants much of the time. But then, it never could,” he writes. “To compare American influence today with a mythical past of overwhelming dominance can only mislead us.”
Although “The World America Made” has attracted considerable attention for debunking the idea of American decline, this critique is merely one part of Kagan’s larger argument — one that should prove even more controversial on both the left and the right, once fully grasped: He maintains that the United States should continue to serve as the world’s benign hegemon, its global cop.
He starts with the idea that American power has been crucial to the spread of democracy and free trade and to the maintenance of peace among the world’s leading powers. From this arguable assertion, he leaps to the more sweeping and dubious claim that other nations accept the legitimacy of U.S. hegemony and are eager for pax Americana to endure. “Indeed, America’s great power has been more than tolerated,” he says. “Other nations have abetted it, encouraged it, joined it, and, with surprising frequency, legitimated it in multilateral institutions like NATO and the UN, as well as in less formal coalitions.”
Here Kagan is unconvincing. While the world certainly is less anti-American than it seemed at the time of the Iraq war, it is not nearly so enamored of the United States as he contends. He argues cogently for the importance of supporting democratic change; yet in many countries, the end of authoritarian rule could mean less, not more, acceptance of the supposed legitimacy of U.S. power. Witness Egypt.
En route to his conclusions, Kagan challenges the thinking of a number of other prominent writers: Francis Fukuyama’s idea that the nations are moving inevitably toward a liberal world order, Steven Pinker’s contention that the world is becoming less violent, Henry Kissinger’s devotion to a balance of power, Paul Kennedy’s theory that America is overstretched. But above all, “The World America Made” is intended as a rebuttal to the liberal theorist John Ikenberry, who has argued that a liberal world order, based on international law and institutions, is self-sustaining and could exist even without American power to support it.
The virtue of Kagan’s book is that his ideas and logic are so clearly laid out that readers can see where they agree or disagree. Its defect lies in what is left out. Kagan doesn’t focus on the possibility that the United States could at once be an enduring military power and a declining economic one. Any American diplomat or military officer can see that the United States doesn’t have as much money as China or Saudi Arabia to throw around overseas these days.
Nor does he say much about the domestic underpinnings of U.S. power. Will the United States continue to support the large defense budget Kagan seeks at a time of mounting income disparities, when many poor and middle-class people believe that the country is already in decline at home? Kagan says the country’s budget deficits are attributable mostly to “ballooning entitlement spending,” without mentioning the role that tax cuts have played.
Obama is taken with Kagan’s spirited argument against perceptions of American decline. National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor confirmed to Foreign Policy’s blog, the Cable, that Obama had recommended Kagan’s ideas to television anchors in a briefing before the State of the Union address in January. “Obama liked Kagan’s [New Republic] article so much that he spent more than 10 minutes talking about it . . . going over its arguments paragraph by paragraph,” the Cable’s Josh Rogin reported.
But it is doubtful, at best, that Obama subscribes to Kagan’s prescriptions for how to avoid decline. Kagan debunks the notion that the United States should redirect its attention from overseas to “nation building at home.”
Guess which president has espoused that idea?
THE WORLD AMERICA MADE
By Robert Kagan
Knopf. 149 pp. $21