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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.

“The world has become normal again.” Thus begins Robert Kagan’s brief but effective in-your-face rebuttal to “end of history” historians (Francis Fukuyama most prominent among them, although the good doctor is not mentioned by name until p. 5). That group had essentially argued that the ideas of liberal democracies have achieved eternal triumph over competing ideologies, eliminating the major frictions that lead to conflicts between nations. Kagan spends his first chapter carefully crafting a straw man, recounting the optimism of the early 1990s as the Iron Curtain fell and previously enslaved socialist republics relished the fresh air of democratic ideals. “A world of liberal governments would be a world without war . . . the free flow of both goods and ideas . . . would be an antidote to human conflict,” was the popular line of reasoning.

Not so fast, says Kagan, proceeding to deliver a series of body blows to his straw man, decimating the optimistic assurances of a kinder, gentler, Barney-esque planet. Throughout, Kagan demonstrates his vast comprehension of history, capturing major world events in phrases, eons in paragraphs. His writing is liberally sprinkled with apt, quotable quotes. For strategists, this is an important work to include in the professional library. The imprecise science of the allocation of scarce (and becoming scarcer) defense resources (for force structure, readiness, personnel, and infrastructure) is heavily influenced by the probability of various alternative futures, and by the nature and severity of the threats in those various futures. Kagan paints a future with a full spectrum of potential threats to American interests and its way of life. He outlines the “geopolitical fault lines where the ambitions of great powers overlap and conflict,” starting with a resurgent Russia.

“If Russia was where history most dramatically ended two decades ago, today it is where history has most dramatically returned.” As a resurgent Russia is back on its feet, seeking to reclaim some of its lost stature, it has also reversed its leanings towards liberalism. Kagan then turns to a growing China, now a geopolitical and economic powerhouse. He makes the point that China’s growing power is changing its self-perceptions and expectations of its proper standing in the world—analogous to “ancient Egyptians, Persians, and Greeks; the Romans, Franks, Ottomans, and Venetians; the French, Spanish, British, Russians, Germans, Americans, and Japanese.” Alluding to the spark that ignited World War I, Kagan points out that “Taiwan could be the Sarajevo of the Sino-American confrontation.”

Kagan then continues his tour of the fault lines in the world’s geopolitical tectonic plates—Japan/China, India/Pakistan, and Iran/the rest of the region. He points out that the United States, following the collapse of the USSR, not only did not pull back into a defensive crouch, but rather pressed forward, extending alliances and exerting influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus. “Between 1989 and 2001, the US intervened with force in foreign lands more frequently than any other time in its history,” although possessing a self-view as a “Reluctant Sheriff.”

Kagan might be faulted for limiting his selection of fault lines and potential major players and for mentioning nonstate troublemakers as an afterthought, but this does not detract from his major thesis. If there is a weakness in Kagan’s sweeping view of the past and future, it is in his prescription to mitigate the ails that will befall our planet: form a League of Democracies to band together against the evil-doing remainder. This would no doubt entail many challenges (determining membership requirements, how to pool resources for mutual support, etc.). But beyond that, military leaders will find little in the way of prescriptive strategic military advice in Kagan’s otherwise fine work. For example, in Kagan’s world, one might readily conclude that the United States must maintain a robust, full-spectrum ability to defend its national interests, forcefully if necessary. The resources required to maintain this capability will no doubt compete with ever-increasing demands for social services, which calls to mind Sir John Slessor’s admonition: “It is customary in democratic countries to deplore expenditures on armaments as conflicting with the requirements of social services. There is a tendency to forget the most important social service a government can do for its people is to keep them alive and free.” Those who incessantly clamor for peace dividends would be wise to read Kagan’s cautionary assessment.

It has been said that everything Robert Kagan writes is worth reading, and The Return of History and the End of Dreams certainly supports this axiom. The book weighs in at a meager 105 pages, so the reading assignment can be quickly knocked out, but I suspect many readers will find that, once finished, it is worth reading again.

Lt Gen Allen G. Peck, USAF, Retired

Montgomery, Alabama

"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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