Posted by: Dark Defender | October 18, 2008

Book Review: The Return of History and the end of dreams

The return of History and the end of dreams cover

I just finished reading Robert Kagan’s “The return of History and the end of dreams”.  As a person who consistently enjoys Mr. Kagan’s writing and found “Of paradise and power” an extremely useful way of understanding the Iraq inspired rift between the US and EU, I have to say I was pretty disappointed in “the return of History.”

I can sum the book up in one sentence: 98 pages of hard headed fantasy puncturing analysis, and 8 pages of self-indulgent resurrecting of old fantasies.

The book begins with an incredibly harsh and well footnoted section on the end of the cold war consensus, in which he systematically destroys the fanciful theories put forth in the post cold war frenzy of back slapping where idealists declared the end of history and the beginning of an ever lasting age of harmony and an inevitable march towards global democracy.  Its a well written and very convincing section, but hardly necessary.  In our post-Kosovo-Post-9/11-post-Iraq-Post-Georgia world does anyone really need to be convinced that history is back with a vengeance and we’ve returned to the world of Power Politics and great power competition (if we ever even left it)?

Kagan then enters the most interesting and useful section of the book, where he examines many of the major powers (US, Russia, China, India, Japan, EU sort of and Iran) and takes a look at the world through their eyes to consider their motivations and goals.  This section of the book is outstanding, it almost makes the book worth reading all by itself, almost.  His ability to quickly and relateably explain how the history of each of the powers has led to their present position and outlook is illuminating and a pleasure to read.  He is also very good at explaining how recent American actions have frightened the autocratic regimes and undermined International law, without resorting to mindless Bush bashing or equally mindless Bush defending, that he puts Kosovo front and center in the undermining of International law, seems very accurate and clearheaded.

In this area he begins developing an idea of how basically since the enlightenment there has been a competition between autocratic and democratic regimes on the international stage and that with the end of the post cold war era it is returning.  However from his own writing it appears to be a very one sided competition, mostly consisting of the democracies ignoring international law by attempting to push into the sovereignty of the autocracies in an effort to hopefully overthrow them and continue democracy’s march.  The autocracies then semi bind together out of what even Kagan seems to conclude is survival instinct. 

This is where the book veers off a cliff.  After spending the majority of the book shredding idealist’s fantasies and doing a good job seeing things from the perspective of Moscow, Tehran and Beijing, he somehow concludes that what the democracies need to do is form a grand alliance of democracies. 

What for? Not necessarily to lock us into endless conflict with the autocracies he assures us in a pro forma remark, but why he never seems to really settle on.  Either its to protect us from the autocracies (who by his own admission are very much defensively minded), or to promote more democracy or maybe its just the right thing to do, I’m not entirely sure why he (or McCain) seems to think a league of democracies is a good idea, but they definitely know they want one.

I have some issues with this.

First utility, why would one conclude that a League of Democracies is going to find it any easier to agree on common policy than say the EU? If bringing democracies together automatically results in good harmonious policy, why cant the EU even reach a real consensus on how to deal with Russia? He offers no explanation and indeed doesn’t even broach the subject, just assures us that it will be more effective than the UN because those mean ole autocracies wont be there.

Second, is spreading democracy even desirable? A large part of the reasoning behind spreading democracy seems to be how they allegedly don’t fight each other and get along harmoniously.  Despite the lack of evidence I almost never see this proposition challenged.  I will briefly, Athens had no problem suppressing and exploiting fellow democracies in the Delianleague; the arch enemy of the French revolution was the most democratic nation in Europe: Great Britain; revolutionary France and the US fought a “quasi naval war”; the no longer revolutionary US and UK fought each other in 1812 despite both being very democratic for the time and sharing a common culture; WW1 Germany actually was actually rather democratic, even having universal male suffrage for the Reichstag before the UK did for Parliament;throughout the cold war the US never hesitated to overthrown an inconvenient democratic regime which didn’t serve its interests.   This default conclusion that democracies automatically get along just isn’t supported by facts, we may wish it was so, but the facts just aren’t there.

On a similar note, we should remember that some of America’s most important allies have been autocratic regimes.  In the Revolutionary War we couldn’t have won without the support of the French monarchy, in WW1 its unlikely the allies would have survived the early years without the support of Czarist Russia, in WW2 without the Soviet Union fighting against the Nazis I don’t see how the allies could have gotten anything better than a negotiated settlement acknowledging Germany as master of the continent, in the Cold War the most pivotal nation to our ultimate victory was Communist China (by switching side), in more recent times the most important bases for our interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan have been in autocratic nations and of course our economy is utterly dependent on imports of oil from autocratic nations and cheap goods (and credit) from China.

Kagan and the book’s failing is that he doesn’t seem to consider these objections and thus the book becomes excellent analysis, with a “faith based” conclusion.

If I didn’t think so highly of Kagan I could probably forgive this failing, after all very few seem to have the courage to question our Democracy fetish.   However with the state of the world and America’s shrinking (though still dominant for now) place in it, I think we can ill afford these indulgences.  Hopes and wishes don’t make good policy, frank examinations of the facts and clear minded decisions based on those facts do.  I’m afraid that few in our political elite, certainly not McCain or Obama move beyond the hopes and wishes to actual facts.  As the world becomes more multipolar, I’m afraid we are going to pay a high price for the comforting assurances of our democracy fetish.



  1. Freakin A.. I totally agree with you on this one. Spreading popular democracy in a wanton fashion by no means works in favor of our national interest. It is time for the GOP to rethink its foreign policy platform and go back to a Nixon-Buchananite pragmatist agenda -“Realpolitik,” if you will.

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