President Trump welcomes Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office at the White House on March 20, 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Michael Lind is a visiting professor at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, a contributing editor to the National Interest and author of “The American Way of Strategy.”

In an age of much-discussed books and essays that explain world politics on the basis of one big wrong idea, like Samuel P. Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations” and Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man,” Robert Kagan has made his own contribution to the genre in his essay “The strongmen strike back.” His idea that something called “authoritarianism” is “a profound ideological, as well as strategic, challenge” to liberal democracy is a big idea, and it is wrong.

“Authoritarianism” is a political science label slapped on radically different regimes, not a self-description. There were and are self-conscious Marxist-Leninists and Salafist theocrats. But there is no generic “authoritarian” movement and no common “authoritarian” worldview. Defining communist dictatorship, Arab monarchy and Singaporean one-party technocracy as authoritarian is accurate but trivial, like defining humans, birds and kangaroos as bipeds. You don’t know whether you need a doctor or a veterinarian.

Nor do most non-liberal, nondemocratic states share hostility to the United States or common foreign policy objectives. Singapore and Saudi Arabia, to name two authoritarian U.S. allies, flourish in the international commercial and alliance system policed by the United States, a.k.a. “the liberal world order.” In their own regions, China, Russia and Iran are trying to extend their spheres of influence, at the expense of U.S. influence, and they share a preference for a multipolar world rather than U.S. global hegemony. Russia would like to weaken the European Union for geopolitical reasons; many European national populists would like to weaken the E.U. as well — to strengthen national governments at the expense of Brussels. None of this adds up to an Authoritarian International like the Communist International (Comintern) of old. There is no Authorintern.

In Kagan’s world, Washington is to global ideology what Paris is to fashion. Because of America’s failure to somehow check the illiberal rule of Vladimir Putin, Kagan writes: “An authoritarian ‘backlash’ spread globally, from Egypt to Turkey to Venezuela to Zimbabwe, as the remaining authoritarian regimes, following Putin’s example, began systematically restricting the space of civil society, cutting it off from its foreign supporters, and curbing free expression and independent media.” But Egypt’s secular military did not need the permission provided by “Putin’s example” to overthrow the Islamist president of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi, any more than the Islamist president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, needed Putin’s example to purge Turkey’s secular military.

Could any claim be more absurd than this? Yes — Kagan’s claim that Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are American versions of the supposed global “authoritarian” backlash: “And, of course, the United States has been experiencing its own anti-liberal backlash. Indeed, these days the anti-liberal critique is so pervasive, at both ends of the political spectrum and in the most energetic segments of both political parties, that there is scarcely an old-style American liberal to be found.” Americans to the left of Clinton Democrats and the right of George W. Bush are “anti-liberals,” according to Kagan. This is red-baiting, or perhaps brown-baiting, by an adherent of the dead center in American politics.

Kagan repeatedly criticizes the Israeli scholar Yoram Hazony for arguing, in “The Virtue of Nationalism,” “that true democracy comes from nationalism, not liberalism.” Kagan’s distinction between liberalism and nationalism is common among Western academics and journalists, but it is confused. Liberalism, like democracy, refers to a form of government. Nationalism refers to a kind of state, a state identified with a cultural and linguistic (not necessarily an ethnic or religious) majority.

For two centuries, since the American and French revolutions, the most important contest of political models has been between the nation-state (democratic or undemocratic, liberal or illiberal) and the multinational state (democratic or undemocratic, liberal or illiberal). Most multinational empires, from the Habsburgs, Ottomans and Hohenzollerns to the Soviet Union, have crumbled into nation-states, democratic or otherwise. So have a number of dysfunctional multinational states such as the former Czechoslovakia, the former Yugoslavia and the former Sudan.

Few, if any, of the major conflicts in the world today are battles between liberalism and authoritarianism. Almost all involve nationalism, whether that of stateless nations that want their own nation-states, such as the Palestinians and Kurds and Catalans, or powerful nation-states such as China and Russia, which wish to increase their regional influence for nationalist reasons. To the extent that the European Union and the Pax Americana resemble liberal empires in the service of their own dominant nations — the Germans, French and Americans — the prospects for pan-Western anti-national liberalism are not bright. Giuseppe Mazzini, William Gladstone, Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt understood that liberalism and democracy are most likely to succeed when aligned with national self-determination rather than opposed to it.

As a former neoconservative foreign policy analyst like Kagan, I recognize the call-to-arms genre in which he writes. From the 1950s to the 1980s, Cold War liberals, later called neoconservatives, individually and through groups such as the Committee on the Present Danger sought to awaken their fellow citizens to the threat of communism without and within. Comparisons to the 1930s were common; among the neocons, it was always 1939.

These jeremiads seemed plausible at a time when there really was a hostile superpower promoting a universal secular creed. But even then the idea that the Cold War was a battle of -isms between democracy and communism was wrong. The United States fought two savage wars in Korea and Indochina supporting allied authoritarian dictatorships and defeated the Soviet Union in the 1980s as a de facto ally of communist China.

In today’s multipolar world of low-level, traditional great-power rivalries over regional spheres of influence, prosecuted more in trade and industrial policies and alliance diplomacy than on the military and propaganda fronts, what is needed is sober realism, not anachronistic, Manichean Cold War thinking that unites simple-minded dichotomies with crusading fervor. Realpolitik is back. In fact, it never went away.

Read more:

Robert Kagan: The strongmen strike back

Robert Kagan answered reader questions about his essay. See the Q-and-A.

Watch The Opinions Forum, a conversation about “The strongmen strike back” with national security experts

Samuel Moyn: If the liberal world offered more economic security, maybe authoritarians would lose their appeal

Cathy Young: Yes, liberal democracy is struggling, and the progressive left isn’t helping

Sheri Berman: The main threat to liberal democracy comes from within, not from authoritarians