Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Of Paradise and Power

Robert Kagan's book-length essay Of Paradise and Power is about Iraq, mainly. That's at least the sharpest instance of the policy divide between the two titans of the West: Europe and the United States. Kagan argues that there is growing a perhaps irrevocable shift in the two powers' styles: one deliberative and process-based, the other urgent and unilateral. Kagan thinks he knows who should be behind the wheel and who should be fussing with the map.

But in the years since he wrote this manifesto, Europe has gained power both economic and military. It would be hard to argue that the inevitable clash between the two modes of governance has been approaching. Any damage to the transatlantic alliance can be ascribed to actions that Kagan himself has argued for.

Kagan co-founded the Project for the New American Century in 1997, and urged Bill Clinton at that time to invade Iraq. The 21st century, his recent article in the New Republic claims, will look like the 19th. Kagan has no faith in the consensus of the Enlightenment's ideas, no faith that democracy will prevail. This, from a man born in Athens, Greece. He sees the civilized world as hanging on by the barest of threads. And of course the only way America could escape this imminent standoff is to shoot its way out.

Of Paradise and Power faces the irony of this situation. America, Kagan argues, is a land of naturally progressive people who could only justify military intervention if it was carried out in the name of protecting or advancing civilization. Europe, on the other hand, is the land of mercantilism and colonialism and imperialism, what Kagan calls machtpolitik. How did these roles get reversed, with America now belligerent and Europe reliant on "soft power"?

Who knows? The main thing is, Russia's got oil and they hate us. Kagan foresees a long miserable ideological conflict wherein the petrostates, China, maybe even western Europe too, will fall like...wait for it...like dominoes, and religious fundamentalism and autocracy will reinstate itself all over the world.

The anti-pessimists and the starry-eyed Wilsonians and I disagree.