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The Return of History and the End of Dreams

The Return of History and the End of Dreams by Robert Kagan. Random House (hardcover) 2008, 128 pp.; Vintage Books (paperback) 2009, 128 pp.

At the end of each major conflict of the twentieth century—World War I, World War II, and the Cold War—Americans thought that they had achieved permanent peace. In 1992, not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War, Stanford University professor Francis Fukayama wrote a book with the startling observation that history had ended. He thought so because the long struggle between Soviet Marxism and Western capitalism was finally over.

Nonetheless global struggles continued for the next 20 years, from Bosnia to Afghanistan. Again in March 2011, US pilots are engaged over Libya defending a democratic uprising against a murderous dictator.

In The Return of History, Robert Kagan says that ideological conflict seems to have reemerged and therefore history has returned. He points to Pres. Woodrow Wilson who saw in the First World War the final conflict between democracy and autocracy, rather than one between Marxism and capitalism that captured Fukayama’s attention. To Kagan it is this yet unresolved struggle between democracy and autocracy that has so bedeviled international relations.

Marxist Russia and China had seemed to be moving in the direction of capitalism and democracy as the twenty-first century was beginning, thus Fukayama’s “end of history.” Kagan finds in them strong, natural tendencies toward autocracy, thus a conflict with democratic nations. They are turning away from democracy toward their habitual autocracy. This is why Kagan proclaims “the return of history” with Russian and Chinese nationalism, their great power aspirations, and their deep mistrust of the world’s superpower, the United States.

Other nations, notably Japan, India, and Iran, also aspire to be great democratic powers. The European Union has not been forgotten in Kagan’s narrative. The EU seems to be something of an innocent bystander in the process of the return of history. The Europeans had bet on the development of a liberal democratic Russia only to have had their dreams of a new world order smashed. American dreams have been dashed as well. With the Soviet collapse, it had seemed to the Americans that the world had indeed become “safe for democracy.”

Despite the “end of dreams,” Kagan contends that the United States has been able to build alliances and rebuild its military strengths. The Russian and Chinese leaderships have come to view the world in terms of what Kagan calls “the axis of democracy and the association of autocrats.” Add to this the rise of “radical Islam” in its desperate struggle to return to the seventeenth century and you have a picture of current affairs. The Return of History is then a description of the current international order where the power of the United States is indispensible in Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East.

Kagan calls for a “concert of democracies” to bring about “actions that democratic nations deem necessary but autocratic nations refuse to countenance.” He concludes that the balance of power is currently in the hands of the democratic nations. The United States should maintain its surpassing economic, political, and military power and join the “league” of democracies. While it was a mistake believe in an inevitable triumph of liberal democracy in the world, “the future international order will be shaped by those who have the power and the collective will to shape it.”

James S. Howard

AU Press/Air Force Research Institute

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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