World Safer But More Dangerous Than Ever

Robert Kagan warns of "a changing world order." But he's grasping at rather thin straws.


Robert Kagan warns of “a changing world order.” But he’s grasping at rather thin straws.

He starts by acknowledging a reality that’s pretty sweet from an American perspective:

By most measures, reports of America’s declining power, relative to the rest of the world, have again proved premature. The U.S. economy increasingly seems to be on an upswing. The United States remains among the world’s safest and most attractive investments. The shale gas revolution is transforming America into an energy giant of the future. The dollar, once slated for oblivion, seems destined to remain the world’s reserve currency for some time to come. American military power, even amid current budget cuts, remains unmatched in quantity and quality.

Meanwhile, the “rise of the rest,” which Fareed Zakaria and other declinists touted a few years ago, has failed to materialize as expected. For all of America’s problems at home — the fiscal crisis, political gridlock, intense partisanship and weak presidential leadership — other great powers, from China to India to Russia to the European Union, have debilitating problems of their own that, in some cases, promise to grow more severe.

Overall, the much-heralded return of a multipolar world of roughly equal great powers, akin to that which existed before World War II, has been delayed for at least a few more decades. Absent some unexpected dramatic change, the international system will continue to be that of one superpower and several great powers, or as the late Samuel P. Huntington called it, “uni-multipolarity.”

So, what’s the problem?

If, however, by the normal measures of relative power things have not changed as much as some predicted, the international order certainly has entered a period of uncertainty and flux. In the United States in recent years, a great many Americans are questioning the nature and extent of their nation’s involvement in the world. It is not just the Great Recession or even unhappiness with the U.S. experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan that are driving disenchantment with what Americans used to like to call their global leadership. The old rationale for that deep global involvement, which took hold in the wake of World War II and persisted through the Cold War, is increasingly forgotten or actively rejected by Americans who wonder why the United States needs to play such an outsize role on the world stage.

But this is neither new nor significant. During the entirety of the post-Cold War period, many prominent voices have been calling for a more inward-focused America and for eschewing a role as the world’s policemen. They’ve been roundly ignored, as one president after another deploys US forces into entirely optional conflicts.

President Obama’s foreign policies have both reflected and encouraged this desire for contraction and retrenchment. In fairness, explaining to Americans why the United States should continue to play the role of “indispensable” power is more complicated than it was during World War II, the Cold War or immediately after 9/11. With Nazis and Soviets around to keep things simple, very few American presidents ever needed, or bothered, to make the larger and more fundamental case that must be made now — that America’s task since 1945 has been to foster and defend a liberal world order and stave off international anarchy, not just to pounce on the latest threat and go home. The president himself may not understand this.

But “during World War II, the Cold War or immediately after 9/11” describes almost the entirety of the past 72 years. And Obama ordered a surge in Afghanistan, a completely optional intervention in Libya, a massive escalation of the drone war, and took us to the brink of intervention in Syria. So, what exactly is new?

At the same time, others around the world are wrestling with their own questions. How should international affairs be governed and regulated? What should be the roles of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations? How should the great powers relate to one another, and what special role, if any, should the United States play? These questions have no easy answers. Around the world there is great ambivalence about the United States. Some wish to see its influence fade; others want to see the United States more engaged; still others seemingly express both desires simultaneously. But whatever one thinks about the world order shaped by and around the American superpower, it is arguably less clear than ever what kind of system might replace it.

And if not the United States, then who? For many, the United Nations does not hold the promise it once did. Saudi Arabia’s recent refusal to accept a seat on the U.N. Security Council is only one sign of the disappointment in that body, which many see as hopelessly gridlocked and unreflective of today’s world, at least in terms of its veto-wielding members. Institutions such as the European Union, which even a decade ago seemed to offer a path to a new and different kind of world order, are struggling to maintain themselves, while newer efforts to build similar institutions in Asia founder on great-power competitions and jealousies. Any hope of a great-power consortium, a global 21st-century version of the Concert of Europe, seems distant — even if such a thing were desirable.

This is nothing more than hand wringing. “Others” have been “wrestling” with these issues for the entirety of the postwar period. There is zero chance that the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, World Trade Organization, or any other major international institution is going to either go away or reorganize in such a way as to diminish American power. Zero.

I had already forgotten that the Saudis refused a Security Council seat after years of lobbying for one. Why? Because the non-permanent members of the Security Council are background noise. The permanent members have remained the same since its inception in 1944 (unless one counts the shifts in the China seat between two Chinas or the Soviets giving way to the Russians) and, while there’s been talk about changing them as long as I can remember, the logistics of change make it impossible.

Like the heralding of “American decline,” warnings about “the coming global disorder” have often proved premature.


But with Americans and others rethinking the U.S. role in the world, and with no other nation, group of nations or international institutions willing or able to take its place, global disorder seems a more distinct possibility than it has since the 1930s.

But what does that mean? Global disorder has seemed completely unlikely since the end of WWII. It still seems pretty damned unlikely, no?

Perhaps the challenge is to fashion an international order that can reflect the continuing reality of “uni-multipolarity” but that somehow accommodates both global wariness of U.S. power and Americans’ wariness of their global role.

But the present system does exactly that. Even in the unlikely event that the United States somehow decides to take a break from involving itself in others’ civil wars . . . so what? Aside from the humanitarian tragedy, how exactly is world order threatened by the Syrian civil war or unrest in Africa?

History does not offer much reason for optimism. The world order rarely changes by means of smooth transitions. Usually, such change is a result of catalytic upheaval.

But “history” has involved the great powers.  Aside from a rising China and a falling Russia exerting themselves in their own backyards, where’s the push for change, let alone “catalytic upheaval”?

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:


    So what else is new?

  2. KM says:

    Quite frankly, I tend to view those who cry about American Dominionism failing with the same light as the phony “Christians” who cry persecution in America. They have no real proof its happening – they just “know” it will. They fear a decline in power mostly because they are subconsciously aware things might not be as rosy for them as it is now and maybe, just maybe they’ll have to play on others’ terms instead of their own. They fear for a time when they are not dominant for they have no trust that others will treat them well – a reflection of their own worldview; only those in charge get the good life. We will never have the power we did in the Cold War since everyone else is building/rebuilding and are now capable of being seen as contemporaries on the world stage. Other large empires/commonwealths/kingdoms lived with rivals since the dawn of time and survived. What’s wrong with us that we can’t handle theoretical competition?

    We’re not the only Big Kids on the block anymore. This is not a bad thing unless we can’t get our heads out of asses long enough to learn how to live with “siblings” in a global family.

  3. Scott says:

    Kagan whole argument seems to me to be self-contradictory. He bemoans the minor pulling back of the US from the world stage because we should confront other rising powers. Yet, he says the US is not declining and other rising powers (China,e.g) have problems of their own. which is it?

    I think the issue he fails to grapple with is the cost of maintaining the extensive world presence that we do. Almost all argument in Washington is the cost of things and how we are going to pay for them. Yet, the discussion of the price of empire hardly ever enters into the equation.

    England declined because it fought two World Wars in 40 years. Our finances took a real beating in Iraq and Afghanistan. If we are going to have a strong presence in the world, then we have to be strong. And that takes money.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    Robert Kagan was a co-founder of PNAC. If you don’t know what PNAC was, you should. Kagan is a neocon, he wants the US to stay strong so that we can support Israel. He can’t quite say that in public, so we get this confused mishmash.

  5. michael reynolds says:

    We’ve been on the decline since I was born, with chaos, tribulation and the End Times just around the corner.

    This is a nation throughly brainwashed by Christian apocalyptic thinking. Multi-headed beasts and hooved demons are always hanging around waiting for their big moment which is coming. . . closer. . . closer. . . yeah, nothing.

    People’s heads are full of mush. They know nothing of history, have no sense of perspective, and having been raised in the world of Revelations and Left Behind novels, they actively long for some terrible disaster so that their idiot faith can be vindicated.

  6. john personna says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I’ve always suspected that there was a millennial aspect to this last decade’s fears. Maybe we are too rational to come out and say “end of the world” or “living on borrowed time.”

    But it sure seems it is beneath the surface.

    End times.

  7. Mike says:

    If this guy was an advocate of invading Iraq, then he loses all credibility.

  8. gVOR08 says:

    @michael reynolds: And they want it to happen. They’re actively working, as they see it, to make it happen.

    This silly Jews for Jesus thing that W spoke at is a bunch of Evangelicals who believe they need to convert the Jews to Christianity so that the end will come.

  9. john personna says:


    “Beam me up, Jesus”

  10. Crusty Dem says:

    Don’t know why he’s grasping at rather over straws… I know the neocons have a Dan Rather complex, but I just can’t make sense out of that..

  11. Gromitt Gunn says:

    This sort of hand wringing is just odd to me. It seems like we’re collectively better off with a largish number of regional world powers that have a stable economy. Why wouldn’t we want an economically prosperous Brazil, Argentina, Turkey, Iran, Indonesia, South Africa, Viet Nam, etc.? More stability = more trading partners and less need to function as Team America – World Police.

  12. Pinky says:

    I have to stop reading articles about articles.

    The original was fine, although I disagreed with some points. This one is a mess. It misses the point of the original. I think the problem is the “fisking” mentality. Taking an article apart and commenting / criticizing it bit by bit doesn’t allow the reader to get the overall feel of the original piece. And Kagan isn’t making an argument; he’s describing sweeps of history, past, present, future, and expected but failing to occur.

    I don’t get why James thinks international organizations can’t change. Also, history doesn’t necessarily involve great powers. The Roman Empire wasn’t beaten by a bigger empire. Postwar Europe gave up its colonies willingly. The Soviets were defeated by tribesman and alcoholism as much as by the US.

  13. gVOR08 says:

    @Pinky: While I don’t see Jame’s post as a model of clarity, you do have to have articles about articles because Kagan’s article, as noted by commenters above, doesn’t make any sense. It doesn’t make sense because he is being deliberately duplicitous. He is arguing for us to maintain our role as world policeman, but he does not want to say why. See my comment above. @gVOR08:

  14. James Joyner says:

    @Pinky: The article is in WaPo and getting wide recirculation in foreign policy circles as a vague critique of President Obama’s foreign policy. I’m very open to that! But there’s no substance here.

    If Kagan isn’t making an argument, what is he doing? Rather clearly, he thinks something is happening and that the United States should do something about it. What those somethings are, however, is not clear.

    Do I think international organizations can change? Sure! But Kagan seems to argue that the current ones are threatened without explaining how so. I argue that they’re simply not being meaningfully challenged right now owing to alternatives.

    Is the US on verge of collapse owing to internal issues? Well, I doubt it. But Kagan doesn’t supply any evidence on that front.

  15. Pinky says:

    I don’t think Kagan is arguing a position. I think he’s providing an overview. The reason that you can’t figure out what he’s arguing for isn’t that he’s being duplicitous or following secret commands from the Jews. He’s just providing comment. His points are (1) that there hasn’t been a huge shift in geopolitics like some were expecting, but (2) there has been movement, and (3) while we don’t know where it’s going, we should pay attention, because historically things don’t get typically change for the better. He isn’t accusing the President or even criticizing him. He’s just commenting on the state of things.

  16. C. Clavin says:

    Kagan is one of the geniuses…along with Kristol, Wolfowitz, Perle, Rumsfeld, Bolton, Armitage, and others….who gave us Iraq via the Project for a New American Century or PNAC.
    Cheney was involved but did not actually sign the infamous letter to Clinton…which outlined their strategy for Iraq some 3 years before 9/11 gave them the excuse they needed to kill 4000 troops, 100,000 civilians, and spend upwards of $2T on a fools errand.

    Shame on you James…for giving this a$$-hat even a single byte of bandwidth. People like this should be so discredited as to never be heard from again. That they are given even the least voice in the public square is one of the major problems we have today. As long as we keep listening to the same imbeciles we will keep making the same foolish mistakes.

  17. JohnMcC says:

    @James Joyner: Really?! That is what gets ‘wide recirculation in foreign policy circles’? At my house it would have hit the trashcan as soon as I unwrapped the fish.

    Dr Kagan’s conclusion, that “(h)istory does not give much reason for optimism. The world order rarely changes by means of smooth transitions…” sounds to me like another way of saying “so foreign policy circles need to keep me employed.”

    The article would not have gotten a good grade in many of the classes I took in the PoliSci/History field.

    For the archetypical essay from that quarter, read Dr John Mearsheimer’s August 1990 piece in TheAtlantic, ‘Why We Will Soon Miss the Cold War’.

  18. C. Clavin says:

    @C. Clavin:
    Not to mention instituting a regime of torture.

  19. Pinky says:

    @James Joyner: James, I’m going to pick on you. Probably unfairly. Sorry.

    If Kagan isn’t making an argument, what is he doing? Rather clearly, he thinks something is happening and that the United States should do something about it. What those somethings are, however, is not clear.

    Why would you say that? If it’s so clear that he’s arguing for action, wouldn’t he have said why we should act, or what we should do? There’s nothing in this piece arguing for action, except that the President should be more articulate about the US role in the world. But even there, there’s a lot of room, because Kagan isn’t arguing for any specific role that the US should have in the world. There’s no reason, at all, to read Kagan’s piece and say that he’s clearly arguing for the US to do something but won’t say what. I mean, is there? I don’t see it. The fact that you couldn’t see it either suggests that it’s something that you brought to the article, rather than something that you found in it.

  20. C. Clavin says:

    He’s arguing for an extension of US Power in glodbal affairs.

    “Around the world there is great ambivalence about the United States. Some wish to see its influence fade; others want to see the United States more engaged; still others seemingly express both desires simultaneously. But whatever one thinks about the world order shaped by and around the American superpower, it is arguably less clear than ever what kind of system might replace it….And if not the United States, then who?

    Which is part an parcel with PNAC.
    From their Statement of Principles authored in 1997:

    As the 20th century draws to a close, the United States stands as the world’s pre-eminent power. Having led the West to victory in the Cold War, America faces an opportunity and a challenge: Does the United States have the vision to build upon the achievements of past decades? Does the United States have the resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests…”

    Again…people like Kagan and his associates should never be listened to again…unless they are to be used as a cautionary tale.

  21. gVOR08 says:

    @C. Clavin: Thank you. Given Iraq, I think the long term effect of PNAC will be to shorten “The American Century” by a couple decades.

  22. Davebo says:

    Kagan is doing what Kagan does.


    And if you’ll take a look at his editorial apologizing for his trumping up support for war in Iraq you’ll see that he doesn’t have one.

  23. pylon says:

    The world isn’t safer if you are a girlfriend of George Zimmerman.

    [stands back and waits….]

  24. C. Clavin says:

    Damn…you beat me to it.
    Only in America, home of the gun cult, would this repeat offender still be allowed to carry.
    Anxious to hear all the defenders of this scum-bag continue their defense.

  25. Ben Wolf says:

    But with Americans and others rethinking the U.S. role in the world, and with no other nation, group of nations or international institutions willing or able to take its place, global disorder seems a more distinct possibility than it has since the 1930s.

    Has it not yet dawned on Kagan that war is the most pure embodiment of disorder, and renewed American skepticism toward military interventionism may herald greater stability? The impression I get from his writing is discomfort that policies championed by the power elite are being questioned by the plebes.

  26. Tillman says:

    @michael reynolds @john personna: I think it’s just a generation in power reaching their twilight years, and realizing they’ve left the world worse off. The encroachment of death tends to clarify one’s vision.

  27. Tillman says:

    Yeah, it doesn’t seem like Kagan’s arguing about anything. This reads more as commentary. I’m not even certain how it could be considered an attack on Obama’s foreign policy – that’s how vague it is.