Robert Kagan on America’s Future, Foreign Policy Realism, and the War in Ukraine
Yascha Mounk and Robert Kagan discuss the prospects for the American-led world order.
Robert Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. The author of Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order, his most recent book is The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World.
In this week’s discussion, Yascha Mounk and Robert Kagan discuss the danger that Donald Trump continues to pose to American democracy, what the “realist” theory of international relations gets wrong (and right), and how liberal democracies can defend their values around the world.
The transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Yascha Mounk: I want to open by talking a little bit about the study of international relations.
With Russia's assault on Ukraine, we've gotten a little bit of a primer about different approaches to foreign policy, in part because of a debate between liberals, realists, and neoconservatives. My understanding is that although you are often called a neoconservative, you don't exactly fit into any of those views. Where do you anchor yourself relative to these theories?
Robert Kagan: Well, categories are always problematic. I wouldn't know what to call myself because I think that my own views are grounded in realism, in the sense that I think that power is a critical determinant of international and political affairs, and that if you don't recognize the comparative power structure of the international system, you're not going to understand why nations are doing what they're doing.
But where I think I part from people who are self-described realists is in believing that issues of belief, faith, ideas, ideology, the way people live and the way they want to live, are at least as powerful as any of the more tangible things that realists tend to focus on. Realists think that the nation state has a set of interests which are different from what the people in those nations want. I think that's just wrong and misleading. No nation is a unified collective. Every nation is a collection of competing interests, and foreign policy is set by whichever of those interests has become dominant.
In democracies, obviously, there is a kind of a competition for control of foreign policy between people whose interests clash. A lot of conservatives up until the invasion of Ukraine found themselves very sympathetic to Putin, seeing him as a strong, anti-liberal Christian leader who somehow stood for the kind of nationalism that some conservatives would like to see in America—which, by the way, was also true in the 1930s, when conservatives, in general, were far more worried about communism than about fascism (and by default, really, were even sometimes sympathetic to fascists). And the liberals were more worried about fascism, so they were inclined to be soft on the Soviet Union but hard on Nazi Germany. You can’t understand what the outcome of a foreign policy debate is unless you understand how much of that foreign policy debate is actually rooted in domestic debate.
Mounk: A realist might think that the relative peace that the United States has managed to keep in the world since the end of World War II has to do with structural features of great power competition during the Cold War period, or a kind of unilateral hegemony in the decades after 1989. But your explanation puts a little bit more emphasis on the nature of American power, if I understand that right. Talk us through that.
Kagan: For whatever reason, realists tend to cling to a multipolar model of international relations. I think if you scratch them, you would find that their ideal circumstances are like the Congress of Vienna (1814-5) and the few years following it, where you had aristocratic diplomats getting together and arranging a balance of power. And there's a kind of moralism to the realist position which suggests that the only just world is a world in which multiple powers are balanced against each other. Because otherwise, you have hegemony and domination.
Henry Kissinger wrote a book called A World Restored. He discusses the Congress of Vienna at great length. If you read biographies of Kissinger, it's pretty clear that that is the ideal situation for him. From it, he and other realists derive the idea that you can't let ideology get in the way of the stable balance of power that allegedly exists. At the Congress of Vienna, you had countries that didn't necessarily agree. Britain and Austria didn't share political or ideological perspectives. But they did share a desire to maintain the balance of power. If you go back and read Hans Morgenthau, realists’ greatest fear is Napoleon. Napoleon is the great disaster, because he had universalist pretensions, of which realists are all highly suspicious. In their view, communism and liberal democracy were in a sense equally messianic, and therefore equally likely to lead the world to destruction. They didn't think that because the United States was a democracy, it was necessarily better for world peace than the Soviet Union. That leads them to miss a lot of things. And I think the thing that they most miss is the success of the American order. They missed the possibility of a unilateral hegemon in the world, because it's not a theory. It's just a reality of geography and wealth and power, but it has turned out to be a very stable situation, as you mentioned.
Realists also leave out the key element of that stability, which is that those within the American security umbrella, those who are willing participants in the American-led liberal order, are themselves liberals. That's critical, because Europeans, from the beginning, welcomed and even invited American power. I think that's because of ideological affinity. They knew that American power does not threaten their fundamental freedoms, whereas the rise of other great powers who don't share these liberal values would inherently threaten their liberal values. So, you do need to put the unique circumstances of American power together with the historically unusual fact that you have a universalist, liberal democracy that also happens to be the global hegemon, and those two things together create a highly unique set of circumstances which you can't really replicate in any other way. In a way, it's anti-theory. It just happened as a series of historical accidents. But it is a powerful force, nevertheless, as we've seen.
Mounk: There is one obvious response to that, which is: but what about all of the ways in which the United States has used naked power, often in morally dubious ways—since 1945, with the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq—but also before that, with the Monroe Doctrine and U.S. control over the Americas?
What might the world have looked like after 1989 if America hadn't been a democracy?
Kagan: Well, things would have been worse, if you believe in democracy; if you don't believe in democracy, they would have been better. The interesting thing about Putin's invasion of Ukraine is that I think it reaffirms this. In the case of American power, or any other leader of a world order, the question is, “What is the actual alternative?” No sensible person would claim that the United States has behaved either flawlessly or with perfect morality or consistency. We are subject to hypocrisy and bad decisions and even immoral decisions. But if you don't have the United States in this position, what are you likely to have instead? I think that there is a tendency to feel that you would have a nice multipolar, stable world in which the United States wasn't throwing all its weight around.
That has to be the assumption, because otherwise you would not say, “I'd rather have 30 years of global conflict instead of American hegemony.” I'm not sure you would be likely to make that choice, unless you were in Moscow, Beijing, or Tehran. It seems like it's pretty clear that the alternative is not finding a new stable order, but rather, quite aggressive leaders taking quite aggressive and violent actions to reshape things. You're not going to get some wonderful 18th century monarch as your alternative; you're going to get Mussolini, Stalin, Hitler, Mao, Xi, Putin. And I think that once you realize that those are the actual choices in the era in which we live, it throws in somewhat starker relief the fact that American hegemony, for all its many flaws, is still a better situation than the absence of it in the real world.
Mounk: This gets to the brilliant title of your last book, The Jungle Grows Back. What does it mean for the jungle to grow back, and is the war in Ukraine one example?
Kagan: The premise of the book is that this historically remarkable, liberal democratic order that has been largely at peace in terms of great power conflict, is not somehow a product of the evolution of the human species. It’s not that the world had reached a new plateau, somehow, which is a classic Enlightenment, liberal perspective.
They believed that in the years before World War I. There was the famous book by Norman Angell explaining how war had become obsolete for all kinds of reasons. If we know that that is not true, we should understand that the very nature of the international system means that there are dissatisfied powers who do not feel happy in the liberal world order, even if they benefited from it to some extent. I mean, China is a great beneficiary of the American-led world order. It's been great for China's security, which has allowed China to focus on its economy. But of course, the world was not shaped for China, so it's not unusual, even if it may be unwise, for China to want to reshape the world in such a way that benefits itself.
We need to understand that those are natural forces, that the jungle is always trying to grow back, and that it requires the exercise of power in a variety of forms, not just military power, but economic, political, and diplomatic power, to keep those forces in check. But Americans have their own psychological hang-ups about how they feel about the world. We are very reticent in general about taking any action that has not been sort of forced upon us by an external event.
We, in a way, don't even recognize that our great power is affecting the way other countries behave, and so we're not ready for their response. Whereas if we were more conscious of the role that we're playing, then I think we would have the capacity to be more conscious of what is necessary to reduce conflict. The problem is that we, Americans in general, begin with the prejudice that nothing out there in the world really can affect or hurt us. There is a certain truth to that, but what we don't realize is that there are things in the world that are frightening and intolerable. A shift in the global balance of power away from liberalism and toward autocracy would be damaging and worrying for us.
But Americans spend a lot of time deceiving themselves about what they need to do and what they want to do, only to find themselves then doing it, and usually in the most disadvantageous situation possible. If you look at the history of World War I and World War II, we've always been able to eventually accomplish what needs to be accomplished, but at a much higher price than if we had been engaged all along.
Mounk: One strain of realist thought is going to say that the United States is now rivaled economically by China; also, that it is, in limited ways, at least insofar as nuclear capability is concerned, rivaled militarily by Russia. That seems quite scary. But perhaps it's actually a good thing, because we'll get back to a kind of new Congress of Vienna-style balance of power. Now, we can try to negotiate that order to be as close to our interests as possible. Perhaps it is even possible to somehow make sure that Ukrainians can freely choose their own fate. But ultimately, we just have to accept that there are spheres of influence, and while our sphere is going to be significant, Russia, China, and the U.S. will have to sit around a table and make deals, and that's just the way it's going to work.
You're saying that that's a mistake, because the jungle is going to grow back and this is going to have really bad consequences. What are those consequences, and what is the alternative?
Kagan: It's very good to talk about spheres of interest, unless you’re the countries that live in those spheres. What people are really talking about, if they're honest, is consigning Japan, Korea, Southeast Asia and who knows who else, to Chinese domination, which will, if they accept it, have all kinds of internal implications for the politics of these countries. I fear that when people talk about these things, especially realists, they posit a kind of smooth transition in which these countries just acquire their spheres of interest, and somehow there are no victims that we have to worry about, and there are no dangers. I think that is a very ahistorical view.
Self-described realists thought that the United States was always too weak to accomplish anything other than accepting a balance of power. Henry Kissinger predicted that the United States would have to share a multipolar world because it didn't have the capacity to remain hegemonic. But as a result of Putin's invasion of Ukraine, we have seen how potent the liberal world order still is. Even I have to admit to some surprise myself, because after the Trump years, and even the Obama years, it was reasonable to assume that the American security structure and alliances system had really frayed, and that countries were having real doubts about whether the United States was still in the game. But the response to the invasion of Ukraine has really been remarkable in that regard. The degree of unanimity among the democratic allies, and the degree to which the democratic allies have all looked to the United States to provide the essential leadership—militarily but also in terms of organizing the economic response—is proof that the United States still wields enormous influence in the international system.
Mounk: I want to turn to the domestic political situation, and a much discussed essay of yours that you wrote after reflecting on January 6, arguing that the United States is now headed for a genuine and unprecedented constitutional crisis, perhaps in 2024, perhaps after. What makes you so worried about the American domestic political scene right now?
Kagan: I actually wrote that article before we learned much about what had happened on January 6, and we certainly haven't gotten the detail that the January 6 investigating committee has opened up.
There are more reasons to be concerned now than there were when I wrote that, but what I was basically getting at was, first of all: when you have the overwhelming majority of one political party, either actually believing or pretending to believe that the last election—about which there has been no question of its legitimacy—was, in fact, a fraud, then that is a constitutional crisis. And from the point of view of the people who feel that way, the only problem in the last election was that they didn't have their people counting the votes. They have now set about, since then, replacing as many of those people as possible. States have taken steps to grant legislatures increasing power to overturn the decisions of election officials. A contested election is enough to throw the United States into a constitutional crisis— and literally so, because the Constitution doesn't have an answer to this problem.
One of the things we've learned since Trump took power is that a lot of things Americans thought were automatic structures in the system that spring into place whenever there's a threat to it—it turns out that there aren't any such things. The Founders, for a variety of reasons, were not able to establish a foolproof method of preventing dictatorship through this means. And therefore, it's really up to people. It's up to individuals all the way up, down, and across society, from the president, the vice president, the Supreme Court, the members of Congress, down to volunteer election officials (those are the people who saved us, in a way, in 2020). Unfortunately, I don't know that there is a legal or constitutional fix to what ails us. What I am most worried about is moving into a period where, let's say two or three states which hold the balance in the Electoral College are completely contested. There is every prospect of mass protests from both sides. People are increasingly tending to come to those protests heavily armed. We could be in a situation in 2024 where there is no obvious way out, and then we'll be left with President Biden, or whoever is in charge at that time, having to make what amounts to extra-constitutional decisions in order to save our democracy, because there is no constitutional remedy.
Mounk: What would it mean to have to resort to extra-constitutional measures to guarantee the Constitution?
Kagan: I'm always brought back to this wonderful speech that Daniel Day-Lewis gives in the film Lincoln, which I don't think Lincoln necessarily said, but which was brilliantly done by the screenwriters. He explains how the Southern secession basically threw him into a constitutional no man's land. When he made decisions about freeing the slaves, or he made decisions about how to treat a secession—he was very frank in understanding that he was charting his own course at that point.
If you're a president in a situation where a couple of states are hopelessly deadlocked because you've got mobs in the street, how do you get out of that situation? At what point are you able to say, “No, I won,” or “they won,” and that's the end of it? Is he going to call out the National Guard? Is he going to call up the Army? Once you have gotten to the point where the established means of choosing a president and all that comes with that have been cast to the winds, you really are in an extra-constitutional situation. That just means that whatever a president does in that situation, the other side will accuse them of being a tyrant, just the way Lincoln was accused of being a tyrant—to some extent, justifiably so. I don't want Donald Trump to be president after 2024 because I think he will then dismantle American democracy. Because he doesn't have any belief in American democracy. But even before you would get to Trump being in office, you would be in this crisis where we do not have a legitimate president. That's what I'm worried about.
Mounk: It's quite likely that Donald Trump, or somebody who is similarly willing to subvert free and fair elections, is going to be the Republican nominee. And if they should lose, they will try to put pressure on local elected officials to subvert the certification of the election in a place like Arizona, for example, or perhaps a place like Georgia, in an even more extreme way than they did in 2020. They may have a real chance at succeeding, and there has been no easy remedy to ensure that Donald Trump or another similar candidate doesn't get seated as president, or at least isn't in a position to convince a very large percentage of the US population that he should be legitimately seated as president.
What would have to happen, not just for America to somehow get past the dangers in 2024, but for this broader moment of real danger to pass? Now, it strikes me that in a way, your answer to that might be a little bit more hopeful than mine. I've been worried about the rise of populism and some of the structural features that have fueled it. And so while I certainly recognize that Donald Trump is a uniquely dangerous individual, I am a little bit skeptical that if, let's say, Donald Trump had a heart attack and passed away next month, that would really make the danger pass. But you seem to have a slightly more personalistic interpretation of Trump's ability to present this danger.
Kagan: I do think Donald Trump is special, and I personally will not be able to forgive Republicans who made it possible for Donald Trump to be Donald Trump, and who have been so cowardly in confronting him ever since. But comparatively speaking, I would be happy to have any one of them running for office rather than Donald Trump. Because I do think that in the absence of Trump, his movement itself is likely to splinter. I don't think there's anybody who has the particular type of charisma that Trump brings that these people find so attractive. I think in the absence of Trump, you probably have three or four pretenders to the throne, and probably things will divide up. So for me, Trump not getting the nomination should be everyone's first goal. But unfortunately, I'm not convinced that there is any way to stop him from getting the nomination. Now, non-Trump Republicans (I won't call them anti-Trump Republicans) are trying to convince themselves that Trump is finished. And so their view is that we don't have to worry about Trump ultimately.
There's no question that there are conditions in the United States in terms of the way people feel about things, the way people behave, what they value and what they don't—that is a problem that exists apart from Donald Trump. And the question then is, has it always existed? Is there something new about what we're seeing today? I think there's a reasonable case to be made. But racism is certainly not new in America. White anxiety is not new. We never think about this, but the 1920s were a very similar period. What you had then was intense xenophobia, intense anti-immigration, anti-science in the Scopes Trial, the rise of the second Klan—these tendencies have, I think, always existed and are sort of inherent to the American experience, unfortunately. The 1930s were a time that was ripe for a Donald Trump, and the Donald Trumps were out there in Father Coughlin and Huey Long. The difference, I think, was that the nominating process at the time was such a smoke-filled, backroom negotiation, that they were never going to let any of those people get the nomination.
I think one of the consequences of the democratization of the Republican primary system—something that Democrats, by the way, cured themselves of to some extent after McGovern—was giving an opportunity for someone like Trump. The question is, can anyone galvanize that movement in the same way that Trump does? There were thousands of Germans who agreed with almost everything that Hitler said, but they weren't Hitler. I do think that certain individuals come along that make a huge difference. Stalin didn't bring anything particularly new to communism other than his personality and his style. Ted Cruz says a lot of outrageous things. I would rather have almost anybody in the world president than Ted Cruz. But I don't fear Ted Cruz the way I fear Donald Trump. Maybe this is just irrational on my part, or too much wishful thinking, although I don't usually consider myself a wishful person. But I do think he's special. And as to these other problems that exist independently of Trump, we do need to work on them, and we need to fight that battle. And that battle now, as we can see, needs to be fought again, at every level of society. You know, you have to fight it at the school board and in the local community center. We are in one of those moments where we can't just wait for our elected officials to solve everything for us. But to repeat myself for the umpteenth time, I do think that Trump is special. And so I do think if we can get past Trump, yes, there’s a chance that this group, which has always been around, will be out there simmering, bubbling, and occasionally giving rise to some politician’s trajectory, but it won’t be the kind of comprehensive threat that Trump has turned into.
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