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Old world order

Those who believed in the end of history were wrong. Nationalism and ideology are back.

August 05, 2007|Robert Kagan | Robert Kagan is a fellow at the German Marshall Fund and a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. A longer version of this article appears in the August/September issue of Policy Review.

The years immediately following the end of the Cold War offered a tantalizing glimpse at a new kind of international order -- one in which nations would grow together or disappear altogether, ideological conflicts would melt away and cultures would intermingle through increasingly free commerce and communications.

It was the end of international competition, the end of geopolitics, the end of history. The liberal democratic world wanted to believe that the conclusion of the Cold War did not end just one strategic and ideological conflict but all strategic and ideological conflict. In the 1990s, under George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, American strategy was aimed at building a post-Cold War order around expanding markets, democracy and institutions -- the triumphant embodiment of the liberal vision of international order.

But it was all something of a mirage. We now know that both nationalism and ideology were already making a comeback in the 1990s. Russia quickly lost its desire to be part of the liberal West. China had embarked on a course of growing ambition and military power. The forces of radical Islam had already begun their jihad, globalization had already caused a backlash around the world and the juggernaut of democracy had already stalled and begun to tip precariously. Yet even today many cling to the vision of "a world transformed."

The world has not been transformed. Nations remain as strong as ever, and so too the nationalist ambitions, the passions and the competition among nations that have shaped history. It's true that the world is still "unipolar," and the United States remains the only superpower. But international competition among great powers has returned, with the United States, Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India, Iran and others vying for regional predominance. Struggles for power, influence, honor and status in the world have once again become key features of the international scene.

Ideologically, this is a time not of convergence but of divergence. The competition between liberalism and autocracy has reemerged, with the nations of the world increasingly lining up, as in the past, along ideological lines. Finally, there is the fault line between modernity and tradition, the violent struggle of Islamic fundamentalists against the modern powers and the secular cultures that, in their view, have penetrated and polluted the Islamic world.

Many still prefer to believe that the world is in turmoil not because it is in turmoil but because President Bush made it so by destroying a new, hopeful era. And when Bush leaves, they believe, it can return once again to the way it was. Having glimpsed the mirage once, people naturally want to see it and believe in it again.

The first illusion, however, is that Bush really changed anything. Historians will long debate the decision to go to war in Iraq, but what they are least likely to conclude is that the intervention was wildly out of character for the United States. Since the end of World War II at least, American presidents of both parties have pursued a fairly consistent approach to the world. They have regarded the U.S. as the "locomotive at the head of mankind," to use Dean Acheson's phrase. They have amassed power and influence and deployed them in ever-widening arcs around the globe on behalf of interests, ideals and ambitions both tangible and intangible.

Since 1945, Americans have insisted on acquiring and maintaining military supremacy -- a "preponderance of power" in the world -- rather than a balance of power with other nations. They have operated on the ideological conviction that liberal democracy is the only legitimate form of government and that other forms are not only illegitimate but transitory. They have seen the United States as a catalyst for change in human affairs.

When people talk about a Bush Doctrine, they generally refer to three sets of principles -- the idea of preemptive or preventive military action; the promotion of democracy and "regime change"; and a diplomacy tending toward "unilateralism," a willingness to act without the sanction of international bodies such as the United Nations Security Council or the unanimous approval of its allies.

But these qualities of U.S. foreign policy reflect not one man or one party or one circle of thinkers. They spring from the nation's historical experience. They are underpinned, on the one hand, by old beliefs and ambitions and, on the other, by power. As long as Americans elect leaders who believe it is the role of the United States to improve the world, they are unlikely to abjure any of these tools. And as long as American power in all its forms is sufficient to shape the behavior of others, the broad direction of American foreign policy is unlikely to change.

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