Copyright (c) 2001 First Things 111 (March 2001): 51-53.
Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy. Edited by Robert Kagan and William Kristol. Encounter. 401 pp. $22.95 cloth, $15.95 paper.
Reviewed by Andrew J. Bacevich
In 1996, Robert Kagan and William Kristol published a widely read article in Foreign Affairs advancing the case for unabashed American hegemony—benevolent, to be sure—on a globe–straddling scale. In arguing for a “neo–Reaganite” foreign policy, the authors, two of the brightest stars in the neoconservative constellation, not surprisingly found much to criticize in the Clinton Administration’s approach to statecraft. But they also took aim at targets within the conservative camp—the so–called realists who, in the eyes of Kagan and Kristol, flirt with isolationism, are tone deaf to the essential moral foundation of U.S. foreign policy, and question the wisdom of a strategy aimed at maintaining perpetual global preeminence.
This impressive collection of essays is an outgrowth of that article. Its premise is stark: following the “squandered decade” of the 1990s, America, its interests, and its values are today very much at risk. But the “present dangers” of the book’s title do not reduce to a particular competitor such as China or to specific threats such as rogue states or international terrorism. The immediate danger lies here at home, in America’s own “flagging will” and confusion about its proper role in the world. The chief threat, in short, lies with the nation’s own parsimony, indifference, and irresponsibility.
To assess the implications of this brewing crisis, Kagan and Kristol have assembled an impressive roster of “conservative internationalists.” Contributors include some of the right’s most prominent foreign policy commentators, including Reagan–era veterans such as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle, and William Bennett, along with noted scholars such as Donald Kagan and Aaron Friedberg.
The essays—more than a dozen in all—are grouped into four sections. The first offers a rousing defense of Pax Americana while chastising those who through absentmindedness or naiveté would throw away the advantages that accrue to the United States as the world’s only superpower. The second surveys the looming challenge posed by actual or potential foreign adversaries, among them Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Russia, and China. The book’s third section assesses American assets, with particular attention paid to U.S. military power (waning fast) and the state of U.S. relations with key allies (in disarray). In the concluding section, three contributors prescribe the actions necessary to revitalize U.S. policy; the first and essential ingredient, as one might imagine, is bold, visionary leadership at the very top.
Woven through the collection are several recurring themes. First, U.S. interests are inseparable from American values, and so a central focus of U.S. foreign policy must be the active and energetic promotion of those values. Second, although the United States presently spends far more on defense than any other nation, it needs to spend more still. To restore the military to its Cold War–era dimensions and to deploy a national ballistic missile defense system, the U.S. must increase Pentagon spending, perhaps by as much as one–third—a Reagan–like defense build–up undertaken without the spur of an evil empire. Finally, the country needs to get tough. When adversaries “read strength and a strong will,” writes Donald Kagan in a passage that captures the book’s overall tone, “they tend to retreat and subside. When they read weakness and timidity, they take risks.” The pusillanimous policies of recent years—appeasing North Korea, allowing Iraq to wriggle free of sanctions, and giving China a pass on human rights, for example—must be reversed.
As a critique of Clinton era statecraft, there is much here to commend. As a blueprint for an alternative approach to foreign policy, however, the project leaves much to be desired. The principal shortcoming has to do with what Kagan, Kristol, and their collaborators leave out. Based on the evidence here, theirs is an international order stripped of the ambiguities and complexities that inhabit the real world.
For starters, theirs is a world in which sovereign states hold sway, their authority and freedom of action seemingly without limit; no essay in the collection takes the measure of globalization. Nor is there any essay that considers the role, salutary or otherwise, of the United Nations or any other international or multinational entity. Theirs is also a world in which political considerations dominate. Kagan, Kristol, and their collaborators are preoccupied with order and with advancing the cause of freedom, democracy, and human rights. Tellingly, no essay is devoted to international economics. Nor do the authors give more than glancing attention to the way that American commercial and economic interests complicate—and at times compromise—the pursuit of American security interests and support for American political ideals.
Finally, theirs is a world in which the imprint that the United States makes on the world is seemingly confined to making its estimable political values available for universal adoption. The contributors seem to be oblivious to the possibility that the United States is something other than simply a beacon of liberty, that the values that we actually export today go well beyond the principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.
Nor do they consider the extent to which those other values—the culture of Miramax, Eminem, Micro soft, and McDonalds—have come to define the values of the majority of Americans, or at least of those who presume to speak for that majority. In other venues, contributors to this collection do not hesitate to label that culture for what it is: shallow, frivolous, and philistine, where not simply debauched. Here they flinch from assessing the implications of that culture for how the United States is perceived in the world and for why U.S. foreign policy in the Clinton era evolved as it did. In short, the book ignores that which the editors cite at the outset as the very essence of the problem, namely us—the indifferent and irresponsible people who twice elected Bill Clinton President and would, if given the chance, likely have kept him in office for a third term.
It is far easier simply to pretend that Clinton himself was the problem. Echoing a sentiment expressed by several other contributors, William Bennett, for example, consoles himself with the knowledge that Clinton at long last is passing from the scene. He holds out hope that a President unencumbered with Clinton’s dubious moral reputation may yet be able to craft the principled foreign policy that the nation deserves. Bennett looks forward to Clinton being superseded by someone “who can summon Americans to meet their great destiny as a people, who can appeal to their unique sense of idealistic patriotism and inspire them to engage in present sacrifice, when necessary, to promote future security.”
But the conduct and the outcome of the 2000 presidential election—consistent with the outcome of the previous two presidential elections—provides precious little evidence that Americans want such a leader or such a foreign policy. Wishing it were otherwise—waxing nostalgic about traditional ideals, patriotism, and willingness to sacrifice—won’t change the facts.
Andrew J. Bacevich is director of the Center for International Relations at