07/01/2020 No. 157
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Robert Kagan’s manifesto of neo-conservatism
By Binghe Shui Translator Sheng-Wei Wang
September 1, 2014

Not long ago, when I talked about the situation in Ukraine in the US-China Forum (http://www.us-chinaforum.org) I mentioned a lady Victoria Nuland who is the US Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs. She studied since early age at private schools that nurtured the elite, graduated from an Ivy League university, then entered the service of the State Department. But this pretty lady is a foul-mouthed strong woman. During a Youtube disclosed conversation, she blurted out "Fuck the EU", which not only exposed her contempt for the EU, but also shocked the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. According to The New York Times report, she had personally gone to the Independence Square in Ukraine to distribute biscuits to protesters, which openly demonstrated that the West, especially the United States, supported the demonstrators. I also mentioned that her husband is the famous patriarch of neo-conservatism Robert Kagan. On May 26 this year, Kagan published an article in The New Republic magazine entitled "Superpowers Don't Get to Retire: What Our Tired Country Still Owes the World" (http://www.brookings.edu/research/opinions/2014/05/26-superpowers-dont-retire-kagan).  Commentators called this “The New Manifesto of Neo-conservatism.


In this long article, he made a comprehensive survey of the American diplomatic history since the 1920s. He used well-documented and extensive evidence in his writing which was excellent in both content and language and his arguments were powerful. It is indeed a good article. The newspaper said that Obama saw this article and discussed it with his aides for as long as ten minutes (it was calculated that Obama has already played 177 golf games since he took office, so ten minutes meant he was very serious about this article). And on July 6, The New York Times placed the two photos of Robert Kagan and Hillary Clinton together with the article “The Next Act of the Neocons: Are Neocons Getting Ready to Ally With Hillary Clinton?”, meaning that, although the neocons are responsible for the wrong policies of attacking Iraq, however, after staying under water for ten years, they want to return in another guise. With the 2016 election approaching, they want to find common ground with the current presidential favorite Hillary Clinton to team up with her neo-liberalism.


Kagan at the outset pointed out that there have been two factions in the U.S. diplomatic thinking: one faction is realism, and the other one is idealism. From the beginning of 1920, namely after the end of the First World War, the rise of realism lasted for more than twenty years. During this period of time, Americans did not want to be nosy, or you can say that they were war-weary. As now, more than half of the people agree in the polls with the following sentence: The United States should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.


It was in this atmosphere of realism, that Hitler, Mussolini and the Japanese militarists ravaged Eurasia while America did nothing. Although President Roosevelt was inclined to take action, the public support was not in place. “There comes a time in the affairs of men,” he said then, “when they must prepare to defend, not their homes alone, but the tenets of faith and humanity on which their churches, their governments, and their very civilization are founded. The defense of religion, of democracy, and of good faith among nations is all the same fight. To save one we must now make up our minds to save all.”


As a result, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor decided everything. The United States broke away from its isolated realism and actively participated in the Second World War. After the war the country immediately engaged in building a new international order. With the powerful political, economic and military support of the United States, the United Nations (UN), the World Bank (WB) and the Internal Monetary Fund (IMF) have maintained a generally stable world. Kagan said, “This new American grand strategy for the postwar world could not have been a more radical departure from ‘normalcy.’ Its goals were not simply defense of the territory, prosperity, and sovereign independence of the American people, but also the promotion of a liberal world order that would defend not only America’s interests but those of many other nations as well,” he said, “This was the real revolution in American foreign policy.”


He believes that during four decades of the Cold War, the United States were subject to this set of overall strategy of defending the liberal world as guidelines. After the Cold War, the country still did not give up this strategy. From 1990 to 1999, the United States also conducted a number of sizeable military operations—roughly one every 17 months: Panama (1989), Iraq (1991), Somalia (1992), Haiti (1994), Bosnia (1995), Iraq again (1998), and Kosovo (1999). None were a response to perceived threats to vital national interests. All aimed at defending and extending the liberal world order.


What Kagan did not mention was that driven strongly by him and several other neo-conservatives, George W. Bush in 2003 attacked Iraq with the excuse of Iraq's possession of weapons of mass destruction and the development of nuclear weapons. And, Kagan did not admit his mistakes. He only said that because of the two time-consuming and heavy-loss wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans are now war-weary. More than half of the American public opinions are not in favor of military involvement in the Syria Civil War and the Ukrainian Civil War. However, after recognizing people’s tiredness, he suddenly changed his tone and returned to his theme: the United States cannot retire!


He said that the people’s tiredness is understandable, because “Americans have been Atlas carrying the world on their shoulders. They can be forgiven for feeling the temptation to put it down. ” But the problem is, “the world lacks any genuine overarching legal or institutional authority, much less a democratic authority, to which all nations subordinate themselves” and “Americans have usually had to use their power to enforce their idea of justice without any assurance beyond their own faith that they are right. This is a heavy moral burden for a democratic people to bear. ” He said, “But in the international sphere, Americans have had to act as judge, jury, police, and, in the case of military action, executioner.”


In the last few pages, he made his emotional appeal by urging the United States to continue to carry the burden of maintaining the liberal world. He accused Obama by saying that Obama’s attitude is “to deal with the world as it is rather than as it might be.” His argument was that if it were not the insistence on American idealism and liberalism, we simply would not know the real situation of the world. This implies: without the active interventions of the United States, the present state of the world could be very scary.


For China, he asked: "What might China do were it not hemmed in by a ring of powerful nations backed by the United States?" He meant, of course, that China would do some things to oppress its neighbors. What he completely ignored was that China is still in the revitalization phase. Its territorial waters are still being violated by the big- and small-sized countries backed up by the United States from behind.


If Hillary Clinton really wins the next presidential election, then we can almost be certain that her foreign policy will be tougher than Obama’s. In 2008 her major loss to Obama, according to expert analysis, was due to the fact that she supported the war in Iraq while Obama opposed it. She could really accept the new conservatism that has been spurned and go along with Kagan. But, Kagan's viewpoint contains fairly significant flaws.


First of all, with respect to the last century, the United States no longer has an absolute advantage, especially in the economic strength; long-term involvement in this kind of struggle will continue to consume the strength of the United States. Second, there exist basically irreconcilable contradictions in ideology between Islam and liberalism, at least in the Arab world. The basic teachings of Islam is “God but no God”, which in the short term definitely cannot find compromised solution with the pagans. We have seen chaos in the Arab world caused by the United States and it may last for decades. Forcing Arab countries to accept the Western liberal ideas will produce troubled consequences not only for the United States, but also for other secular regimes such as separatists in the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region of China. Third, different political systems should have the right to find their own ways in accordance with their historical and cultural traditions. Especially no force should be used or no mass movement should be secretly instigated to subvert the government of other countries forcing them to implement liberal political systems.


In short, the United States which Kagan had in his mind was the United States of idealism. However, the majority of the people believe that it was the United States that wanted to hold on to its hegemony. Objectively speaking, both factors exist. However, when we see chaos in the Arab world and in Africa, whether it is idealism or hegemony, it is a thankless task to defend hegemony. American foreign policy may be at the point of seeking reconciliation between big powers rather than dominating the world.

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Binghe Shui was born in Lanzhou City of the Gansu Province of China in 1942. He moved with his parents and all other family members to Taiwan in 1949 and settled in Hsinchu. After graduating from the Hydraulic Engineering Department of Chung Yuan Christian University, he went to the United States to study and changed his major to politics. After passing the qualifying examination as a Ph.D. candidate in political science in the University of Michigan, he entered the United Nations services until retirement. For over thirty years, his commentaries appeared throughout the Hong Kong, Taiwan and U.S. press. For a long time, he used the pseudonym Peng Wenyi (彭文逸) to write commentaries for the "Beneath the Statue of Liberty" column of The Nineties, a Hong Kong-based magazine. He has done editorial work for two U.S.-based magazines The New Earth and Intellectuals, and for the Hong Kong-based bimonthly magazineDousou (Stir Up《抖擻》). He now lives in Las Vegas. E-mail: b.h.shui @ gmail.com
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