1584 Le Roy Avenue
Berkeley, California 94708-1942
November 7, 2014
Ms Hillary Rodham Clinton
120 West 45th Street, Suite 2700
New York, NY 10036
Dear Ms. Clinton,
I send this letter to you as a member of my party and national leader of major scope. It is a rebuttal to an article by Robert Kagan which appears to have been written to appeal to you, but which deserves to be read with the greatest skepticism. Kagan’s advice, although it is seductively conventional or “mainstream,” could lead the country toward very serious troubles indeed, and it should not be absorbed by your foreign policy staff, and even by you, without contestation.
The May 26th New Republic cover article, What America Still Owes the World, Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire, was reported by the NY Times on June 15th as a significant contribution to the national foreign policy conversation. It is a broad new statement of an outlook currently labeling itself “liberal interventionism.” It seems to have been written to appeal to you, now almost our presumptive next President. As a potential candidate, you are working out your policy positions, both in support of President Obama’s and in contrast with his. In mid-2014, the U.S. relationship with Israel is a litmus issue, and as Mr. Kagan would surely recommend, your comments have suggested that you are more supportive of the Netanyahu government than the President appears to be.
This Kagan piece is expansive in its language, and sophisticated and smoothly written in tone, but it is based on a cherry-picked and self-serving version of history, and is swirling and hortatory, rather than tight and consecutive in its logic. More important, it is dated and narrow in its analysis, since Kagan’s outlook over-focuses obsessively on the politics of power and prestige among national governments, neglecting what goes on in surrounding national and international worlds, such as economic and technological rises and falls, the transforming development of science, the traditionality or the modernity of cultures, worldwide population growth and urbanization, the challenge of climate protection, and the human claims of domestic life within countries, communities, and families. Asserting with some truth that international power politics cannot be avoided, Kagan goes overboard and gets even his international politics wrong by seemingly taking nothing else into account.
Kagan is unfrank about the concrete policy agenda for the United States (support for Likudist Israel and containment of a rising China) which quietly underlies his doctrinal rhetoric. He encourages the U.S. to acknowledge and sustain a world of militarized competing nations, indeed he presses us to predominate in such a world which is very much like the one that a hundred years ago tipped into the catastrophes of World Wars One and then Two. Freighted with continued heavy military spending and force readiness, this siren-song from the right (despite the camouflage of repeatedly calling its policies “liberal”) urges on the U.S. public, and on you, visceral old attitudes, expectations and policies that could lead to disaster for our country and our period in history.
Today’s world is undeniably dangerous and is changing at a head-spinning pace, but it has different forms of challenge and conflict from the older, perhaps simpler and certainly more familiar, world of national power concern and competition. The new international world ahead of us presents no shortage of issues and problems, but it also has the potential to be far safer and more prosperous than the traditional one. The United States can lead in that better direction. Mr Kagan’s article, contrarily, would fix us unbudgingly in the old world. It needs a vigorous rebuttal.
Kagan’s thesis is that “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire.” He urges the U.S., after years of exertion, to avoid lassitude and resist the temptation to pull back and manage our foreign affairs merely for the interests of our own individual situation, which he identifies with a pre-FDR “normalcy.” Rather, he says, we must continue to maintain and use power, including military capacity, to fill the worldwide order-framing and order-preserving role of our years as a superpower since WWII, and especially since the end of the Soviet Union in 1990.
There does exist a consciously system-preserving, conflict-abating role in world politics, above and beyond the preservation of individual national interests. However, beyond the very short range, this function is not one for a single paramount nation, nor is such a role as uniquely ours as Kagan would have it. We should continue to invest in an orderly world system and in its maintenance, but not alone, not primarily militarily, and not for the goals, explicit and implicit, that drive Kagan’s article.
Bull-headed and tunnel-vision pursuit of conventional and popular, but outdated, goals can be very dangerous. Contrary to popular myth, “keeping the U.S. “Number 1”” is not in itself a legitimate goal of policy. Habitually, even naturally, we too often practice a form of power mercantilism, and work to hoard and increase our own power for its own sake. But that is a different proposition when one is already the leading country in the world, from when one is smaller and struggling for a place at the table. In our case now, preservation of our own centrality and control in the system, as such, independent of the substance and merits of particular issues, is not always a justified motive. In many cases, the U.S. suffers from too much concentrated power in our own hands--our defense budget has been grossly disproportionate to the military spending of other countries for decades. The task now is rather to diffuse and spread order-keeping power and responsibility rather than concentrate it upon ourselves. Rather than further accumulation, we need to share leadership and to broaden the collective system’s base so as to increase its stability and durability. We must accept that a good international order may operate less than in the past on our own American patterns of economic and social organization, the so-called “Washington consensus.”
Kagan regrets that keeping up our international power, largely meaning military capacity, is now seen as a burden that Americans are eager to lay down. This is disingenuous. Such central, nationalist power is not simply a burden; it also has intense rewards, psychological and material, that appeal to very large numbers of Americans, probably including the sleeping political center of gravity of our population. Maintaining and even amplifying our paramountcy has a broad, ever-present and sometimes vociferous constituency in U.S. politics to which Kagan is tacitly appealing. Such American feelings make it a requirement upon our President to be tough and “in charge” in virtually all situations, and he or she is held responsible for how each of them comes out. This demand from the public for macho leadership is not conducive to successful long-term policy. In the ever-changing real world even immense power often proves to be a mercurial, will-o-the-wisp quantity--where was our defense budget of trillions over many decades when a non-traditional and asymmetric aggressor killed three thousand Americans by hijacking domestic civilian airplanes and flying them into our skyscrapers? Or, for many decades, how did the immense defense spending of the cold war bring security and safety to our city streets after nightfall?
Although now in this article Kagan goes to great lengths to extend the label of “liberal” to Americans whose concerns are centered on national political-military strength, in fact they are found primarily on the right, usually Republican, side of the political spectrum. Former Republican House leader, Eric Kantor, was calling for more overt American strength when he lamented what he said was the United States’ diminishing role in the world: “The American dream often seems to be in retreat at home, while American power and principles are receding abroad.” (NYT, July 31, 2014) At the level of caricature, conservative commentator Ann Coulter taunts Barack Obama as a wimp and thinks that Bibi Netanyahu would make a better U.S. president, while many less partisan citizens are disquieted by the President’s seeming detachment and coolness, contributing to his present low support in the polls. But detachment and restraint are what is needed in foreign policy. An overheated and hawkish public opinion is an unhelpful constraint on the President and a liability for the country in the search for effective policy that serves our real major strategic interests.
Defining a “world order” requires both caution and open-mindedness; one man’s order is another’s suffocation. Kagan, on the contrary, entirely assumes that his undefined, but very limited and nostalgic conception of an orderly world is the only possible one.
Order maintenance does not mean preservation of the world as it is, although it easily morphs into just that. An incumbent leader strains to preserve in amber a world order as it exists (or is imagined to exist) at the best moment, and “preserving order” becomes window dressing for a politics of nostalgia, stasis and reaction. Rather we need an order of orderly change and adaptation, a flexible order, open to address new problems, to legitimize and institutionalize new realities as they emerge, and to discard old ones as they fade or become maladaptive, minimizing episodes of chaos and violence in transitions.
In his advocacy of an order-preserving role for the United States, Kagan skirts two capital, long term, real world, order issues of today, which in fact are likely the motivating preoccupations of his piece. On the first of these, contrary to Kagan, true strategic order will be upheld by recognizing, and not obstructing, the inevitable rise of China. Secondly, maintaining order means letting go of ambitions that have become obsolete or distorted,and become untenable in the longer run, notably support for a militarized, and even expansionist, Likudist Israel confronting, rather than negotiating with, a turbulent but slowly awakening Arab/Islamic world.
But there are other strategic values for which we as a currently leading world power should be ready to spend resources and political capital, and to do so steadily.
A. As implied earlier, one of these is building the long term sustainability of the international order itself. In practice, this means inclusion, power sharing, power spreading and maintaining resilience and adaptability as modernization sweeps the world.
B. A goal is an international order that fosters cooperation, not conflict or even competition. Can we invent Jean Monnets, the father of the European Community, without having to have the World War II from which he sprang? The Marshall Plan was a triumph of foreign policy. The United States under Bill Clinton reached out to save the Mexican economy in the 1990’s and we fund the IMF and the World Bank to do that sort of thing on a regular basis. The George W. Bush administration devised a newly effective way to deliver foreign aid to Africa in the Millenium Development Challenge, and gave South Africa intelligent and effective help with AIDS in the PEPFAR program that saved thousands of lives and communities. Much very useful cooperation goes on through United Nations, including its alphabet soup of specialized bodies.
C. Related to this is a world order for the coming period that, rather than dramatizing and focusing on competitive or antagonistic relations among men and states, prioritizes working on the relationship of man with the physical world. Let's capitalize on the staggering human successes in this domain in our period. For example, agriculture that is vastly more productive, science-based public health and health care that adds decades to life-spans, and the building of infrastructure, such as dams that allow irrigation, that moderate floods and that produce energy. In its relations with the physical world, India has just triumphed over polio, which history will certainly see as a better use of attention and resources than a minor gain in New Delhi’s eternal jousting with Pakistan.
D. The husbanding of nature means safeguarding the environment as well as economic development. The immediate, epic challenge of the first half of 21st century is climate protection, or the decarbonization of energy supply. This is firstly a domestic question, country by country, and for the present is only secondarily a problem of international cooperation. But it is also a problem with a time dimension, a ticking clock that will not wait. Traditional international power politics risk being a distraction from much more important concerns at a critical time. Will we say to our descendants struggling in a wounded climate, ”We were busy making sure China didn’t get ahead of us too fast?”
E. A serviceable world order should be a stabilizing institutional framework for the trading of goods and services, and for mobility of information, technology and capital, encouraging economic development. Under the leadership of the West, we have in fact made significant progress in this direction.
F. But as the world becomes richer, no matter how unevenly different countries go forward, we need a severe downplaying of violent power aggrandizement as among persons, states, corporations. There has been progress here as well. The entire gigantic social and physical apparatus of power competition (indeed it is a culture of its own), is a vestige of a history based on scarcity and more recently on hyper-nationalism. It must be gradually left behind. How pervasively this culture gripped and controlled the civilized world can be seen in Margaret MacMillan’s history of the path to World War One, The War that ended Peace, and some progress against it is recorded in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, How Violence has Declined.
G. A good world order/system must not only facilitate the production of material goods, but also the appropriate spread or distribution of those goods and of employment opportunities. It is as necessary to outgrow traditional untamed capitalism as it is to outgrow traditional nationalism. The macro-direction of history, which we should join, not oppose, is toward a base-line “middle class” life for all, i.e., for the end of poverty, as discussed in the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030. Its outline can also be seen in fleeting passages of Piketty’s Capitalism in the 21st Century.
A good world system/order should spread modernity/technology, but in a soft, not a hard way, recognizing that there are legitimate alternative goals, such as those held out by traditionalist forms of social solidarity.
We should concern ourselves much less than Kagan does with the internal decision- making modes of other countries. Evangelism for “democracy” has become transparently self-serving, and the general American public should be released from its spell as soon as possible. The actual meaning of “democracy” is painfully unclear when given serious scrutiny, and it is a fiction that a “democracy” cannot be warlike. Our own democracy is far from perfect, and the idea that another country’s being “democratic” is invariably in our interest is groundless, although verbally it is all around us, certainly in Kagan. For the moment, “democratic” is a label too often used to justify taking sides in support of Israel over the Arabs, and India and Japan over China, where clearly it is only a marginally relevant consideration.
Superpowers can’t retire, Kagan says. Not so. Superpowers as system creators, like the founders of a family firm must retire, and share leadership or pass it on to successors, rather than cling to it. Paramountcy and responsibility for world order by a single country, particularly when it wants to be universal and permanent, is by definition unstable and unsustainable, as Kissinger perceives, since others will inevitably come together to challenge it. A patriarch or a hegemon can retire gracefully and gradually, with a voice in a coherent succession, or can cling to power and be driven from it through force. It’s obvious which path leads to safety and prosperity, and which to ruin.
It is a serious matter that Kagan, with his attachment to the U.S.-centric world order since 1945 or since 1990, and his readiness to back it with force, entirely neglects that the forms of conflict have changed radically. As our reliance on computers and the extraordinary richness of modern communications increases, so does our vulnerability to cyber-intervention. In other ways as well, the possibilities of unconventional, asymmetric warfare have greatly broadened. Capital and corporations are no longer national in the way they were, and economies play a different role in relation to politics than they did before. Moreover, the kind of major-power conflict that looms behind Kagan’s arguments could easily become nuclear as it almost did in October of 1962, opening a terrain that is completely unknown, except that it has possibilities of extraordinary historical crime. All these factors are ignored by Kagan, preoccupied as he is by the traditional narrow political, military and statist international world.
In brief, the major change now going on in the world is the rise of China, with four times our population. It will soon have a technical and shortly an economic, level approaching our own, and just in the last couple of years has come under a newly firm and assertive top leadership. China must be integrated into the world order without war, the great transition that failed in the mid-twentieth century rise of Germany and Japan. The further major challenges to the world in coming decades are to continue both the production and diffusion of wealth and employment, and to mitigate and end greenhouse climate change. Coming back to a shorter time perspective, we need to curb our dangerously unruly client state, Israel, establish some distance from the turmoil in the Arab/Persian/Islamic world, and steer away from the early steps of an inevitably fruitless effort at the “containment” of China.
For the dangerous but brave new international world, our public needs education. It must be prepared and comprehending, gradually letting go of traditional casts of mind and some foolish and naive visceral illusions (such as American exceptionalism), and dropping the practices and institutions of the 20th and preceding centuries that are no longer relevant. As mentioned above, a willful but uneducated public in a powerful country is itself a danger.
As a Democrat and presumptive successor to the presidency, I hope that you, Mrs. Clinton, will see that Presidential politics with its glare of media attention over many months is a prime teaching vehicle for important and needed lessons. Our leaders can strengthen the old order by pandering to the public’s inevitably ingrained ways of responding to challenge, its attachment to traditional ways of thinking and disposition to respond to change with fear and a reflexive, business-as-usual chauvinism, as Kagan does.
Alternatively, a reflective and analytical leadership can use a Presidential campaign to introduce new realities and new needs so that the public can navigate better in an evolving, but also promising, future world. A real Democratic leader can use these early months to show that an enlightened, foresighted and well-functioning American foreign policy can in fact be understood by our public and find genuine democratic roots.
With every best wish,
1584 Le Roy Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94708