In part four of his essay Mr. Kagan begins his self-congratulatory rationale for the American Empire, larded with the cliches of past empires, and the shopworn arguments of the present coterie of apologists for American Exceptionalism. Here is an example of this rhetoric, it is utterly embarrassing to read this third rate self-effacing chatter! And I have added additional examples from Mr. K.’s seemingly endless cornucopia of public moralizing.
This is understandable. Americans have been Atlas carrying the world on their shoulders. They can be forgiven for feeling the temptation to put it down. Under the best of circumstances, playing the role of upholder of the liberal world order was always a monumental task. At the dawn of the American era, Truman called it “the most terrible responsibility that any nation ever faced.” George Kennan was convinced that the American people were “not fitted, either institutionally or temperamentally, to be an imperial power in the grand manner.” Actually, he underestimated them, for Americans maintained their global commitments for decades, better than most nations.
Yet the burden has been immense, and not just the obvious costs in lives and treasure. Americans have spent vast amounts on defense budgets, more than all other major powers combined. Can’t U.S. allies carry more of the burden?
Even twenty-first-century Europeans, for all the wonders of their union, seem incapable of uniting against a predator in their midst, and are willing, as in the past, to have the weak devoured if necessary to save their own (financial) skins.
There are moral costs, too. Like most people, Americans generally like to believe that they are behaving justly in the world, that they are on the side of the right
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.
What gives the United States the right to act on behalf of a liberal world order? In truth, nothing does, nothing beyond the conviction that the liberal world order is the most just.
This moral conundrum was easier to ignore during the cold war, when every action taken, even in the most obscure corners of the world, was justified as being in defense of vital national interests. But actions taken in defense of world order are fraught with moral complexity.
A liberal world order, like any world order, is something that is imposed, and as much as we in the West might wish it to be imposed by superior virtue, it is generally imposed by superior power.
The Financial Crisis of 2008 elicits this:
Such was the reigning conventional wisdom, at least from the end of the cold war until 2008 and the beginning of the financial crisis. Then the paradigm shifted. Suddenly, instead of the end of history, it was the end of America, the end of the West. Triumphalism turned to declinism. From the post-cold-war utopia it became the post-American world. Yet this, too, turned out to be a form of escapism, for remarkably, whether the liberal world order was triumphing or America and the West were declining, the prescription remained the same: There was nothing to be done. Whereas before it had been unnecessary, and even wrong, for the United States to use its power to shape the world, now, suddenly, it was impossible, because the United States no longer had sufficient power.
Mr. K.’s continues his projection of the loss of power of the Neo-Conservative/Neo-Liberal alliance over American foreign policy as the paradigmatic Declinism/Escapism e.g. the war weary public or the just plain shirkers of American’s notional responsibility! A sense of futility adds a dimension of hopelessness to add sharpness to Mr. K.’s hectoring tone.
The sense of futility has affected policymakers, too. Senior White House officials, especially the younger ones, look at problems like the struggle in Syria and believe that there is little if anything the United States can do. This is the lesson of their generation, the lesson of Iraq and Afghanistan: that America has neither the power nor the understanding nor the skill to fix problems in the world.