by Bastoche | 10/28/2007 03:37:00 PM
In his essay, “End of Dreams, Return of History,” (which I briefly referenced in Part III of this series and to which I will return in more detail in future posts), Robert Kagan claims that we have entered an era in which “history”—that is, the contest between ideologies and between two ideologies in particular, liberalism and autocracy—is once again determining the foreign policy choices of the world’s nations. The most fundamental choice each nation must make is, of course, on which side of the ideological divide to stand: the liberal side with America, the European Union, Japan, Australia, and India or the autocratic side with Russia, China, and Iran.

But ideology is not the only motivating force in this new era of “history.” The world’s great nations, according to Kagan, are once again being motivated by “competitive national ambitions of the kind that have shaped human affairs from time immemorial.” Nations, that is, are ambitiously competing not just for material wealth and prosperity but for commodities more intangible: status, prestige, and honor.

Such nationalistic ambition, according to Kagan, “drives China’s foreign policy today.” Although this ambition is “tempered by prudence,” the Chinese are nonetheless “powerfully motivated to return their nation to what they regard as its traditional position as the preeminent power in East Asia.” They believe, just as Americans believe, that power “is a good thing to have and that it is better to have more of it than less.” Power, though, is not an end in itself but a means to an end, and that end cannot be measured solely in the material terms of economic wealth and military might. The Chinese understand, just as Great Powers have always understood, “that status and honor, and not just wealth and security, are important for a nation.”

That other autocratic giant, Russia, is also “moved by more traditional great-power considerations, including the pursuit of those valuable if intangible national interests: honor and respect.” The Europeans too “seek honor and respect…but of a postmodern variety.” Europe’s ambition is no longer to stand on the world stage as a predominant military power, but rather “to occupy the moral high ground in the world, to exercise moral authority…to be keeper of the global conscience, and to be recognized and admired by others for playing this role.”

America, in this respect, is no different from China or Russia or Great Britain or any other powerful nation in human history. America too is ambitious for status and prestige and honor, and since America is by far the predominant military and economic power in the world, it quite naturally seeks to base its sense of national honor on its economic and military might.

But economic and military strength are not the only criteria that America uses to distinguish itself from other nations and claim for itself a place of special honor in the grand sweep of history. America seeks also the prestige that flows from a different kind of power and authority, the moral authority that the Europeans currently claim. For America, in Kagan’s view, is the nation that originated in freedom and whose destiny is to organize the world into one democratic polity of peace, thus bringing to its historical culmination the universal ideal out of which it was born.

1. The Two Ideals

America thus, in Kagan’s view of the world, gives its allegiance to two ideals of honor: the ideal of the warrior and the ideal of the moralist. America lives by the ideal of the warrior when it protects democracy from the aggression of tyranny and terror. It lives by the ideal of the moralist when it promotes democracy and actively disseminates it throughout the globe. America is uniquely fitted to live and act by both ideals because it is both militarily powerful and morally prudent. Though militarily powerful, America puts its power prudently at the service of the value out of which, as a nation, it was born—freedom—and does not use its colossal power in order to assert an autocratic and imperial agenda.

That America can live by both ideals and can shift prudently from one to the other is especially important in this era when the clash of ideologies, as Kagan puts it, is once again looming on the horizon. In the coming decades autocratic nations will be competing against one another and against liberal nations not only for resources but for status and influence, for prestige and honor. Such nations will not hesitate to employ the Hobbesian methods of deceit and force, against which the Kantian methods of reason and rules favored by the liberal nations will, predictably, prove useless. One nation, at least, while remaining devoted to reason must also so dedicate itself to military power that it can resist the attempts of the autocrats and terrorists to subvert democracy and eradicate freedom from the march of history.

One nation has indeed come forward to fight autocracy and terror and to establish freedom and democracy on a universal basis. That singular nation, the world’s “dangerous” nation, as Kagan calls it, stands at the apex of history not only as the preeminent military power but also as the preeminent moral power. That nation is, of course, America.

In Kagan’s neocon worldview, America is, simply put, history’s preeminent nation. America stands singular and alone as the embodiment of the ideal—freedom—to which history itself aspires. The Europeans may have, after centuries of violence and conflict, crafted a realm of reason and rules, but America originated as a nation of reason and rules. Further, though Europe sees itself as the embodiment of a new Kantian order, only America has the power to protect that order and to promote it throughout the globe.

In his book, Of Paradise and Power, Kagan makes the distinction between the Hobbesian world of anarchy, in which the terrorist and autocratic states of the world compete to gain power and preeminence, and the Kantian paradise of reason, in which the democratic states of Europe cooperate to maintain peace and prosperity. In Kagan’s scheme of things, America has taken on the role of the world’s Sheriff, protecting the nations that occupy the paradise of peace from those that occupy the wilderness of power. America can successfully assume this role because, on the one hand, it has the strength and will to deal effectively with the Hobbesian rogues and outlaws and, on the other, it is dedicated to reason and rules and the Kantian ideal of perpetual peace.

Kagan, however, though he refers often in his argument to Kant’s idea of perpetual peace, fundamentally misunderstands it. Kant understood that the exercise of true moral authority conforms to three imperatives: freedom, equality, and solidarity. The goal of the moral nation is not preeminence, the affirmation that one nation, above all others, is replete with power and therefore more worthy of dignity and respect than any other nation, but equality, the affirmation that every nation, irrespective of its economic and military might, is capable of autonomous self-legislation and therefore as worthy of dignity and respect as every other nation.

The ideal of the warrior, on the other hand, is based on preeminence, the acknowledged dominance of one individual or nation over all others. Only one nation can stand as the most powerful of its era, and in our era that nation is, of course, America. But, in Kagan’s view, there is more. Only one nation can boast that its military and economic might are unequaled not just now but in the entire span of human history. And, for Kagan, even that is not all. Only one nation will be able to look down from the very summit of human achievement—the organization of the world into one polity of freedom and peace—and claim that it has brought history to its culmination and close. At the end of history, when freedom overcomes terror and tyranny, peace and equality will prevail among all nations. But in that paradise of freedom and equality one nation will stand forever preeminent, the nation that will have produced, by means of its power, everlasting peace and that will, on the basis of its power, forever guarantee it: America.

As charming and seductive as Kagan’s worldview is, it radically distorts the relationship between the ideal of the warrior and the ideal of the moralist. Instead of the ideal of the moralist constraining that of the warrior, the ideal of the warrior has infected that of the moralist. Kagan’s concept of honor is a warrior’s concept of honor, and his concept of power is a warrior’s concept of power. Preeminence, domination, victory, and fame are the values that drive his worldview. As Kagan envisions it, America will ultimately stand forth not only as history’s preeminent military nation, the nation that achieved an unsurpassable apex of power, but also as history’s preeminent moral nation, the nation that brought to its final realization the ideal for which history was created: freedom.

The fatal flaw in Kagan’s worldview, in the neocon worldview generally, is that moral action and freedom do not derive from a dialectic of domination and submission, of preeminence and subservience, of power and weakness, but from a different sort of dialectic entirely, a dialectic, to use Kant’s terms, of reason and desire. Out of reason, pure practical reason, as Kant calls it, come the moral imperatives that constrain the desire to dominate and rule by means of military power: the imperatives of freedom and equality and solidarity. In the realm of practical power one nation might very well be superior to all other nations. But in the realm of practical reason, every nation is, finally, an autonomous agent of self-legislation and no more worthy of dignity and respect—of “honor”—than any other nation.

Kant upholds an ideal of human action and human agency that is rational, an ideal based on reason and leading to a struggle for equality. Kagan upholds an ideal of human action and human agency that is irrational, an ideal based on power and leading to a struggle for predominance. Kagan is committed to a view of America as the world’s predominant nation, the nation that, finally, will stand above all others in the grand narrative of history, and thus is committed not to a Kantian ideal of reason and rules but to a warrior ideal of power and preeminence—a warrior ideal of honor.

I’ll discuss in more detail Kant’s concept of perpetual peace next time, but first, with the help of Thomas Hobbes and William Shakespeare, I’ll illustrate the connection between the two attributes on which Kagan puts his main ideological emphasis: power and honor.

2. To Wear Without Corrival All Her Dignities

Harry Percy—or Hotspur, as he is better known—is annoyed (Henry IV, Part One: Act I, scene iii). He has done yeoman’s work for his King. Not only did he help Henry depose King Richard and usurp the throne, he has now helped him secure it by defeating in battle the Scottish rebel, Douglas. True, he at first refused to hand over to the King the prisoners he took from Douglas—an act of defiance that has nettled Henry. But now, come before Henry at Windsor, he agrees to do so—as long as Henry ransoms Hotspur’s brother-in-law, Mortimer, from the Welsh rebel Glendower. Henry bristles at the suggestion since Mortimer, it seems, has married Glendower’s daughter and turned rebel himself. Hotspur defends his brother-in-law, but Henry will have none of it and orders Hotspur to comply with his demand.

Henry exits, and Hotspur, incensed at being treated with such highhanded disdain, proceeds to exhibit the irascible temper that has earned him his nickname. To Hotspur it is clear that Henry, having ascended to the throne and to the title of King, has become so enamored of his power and preeminence that he treats with contempt even those who have put their lives and blood at his service. All must genuflect to his will or suffer the punitive swipe of his anger. But Hotspur has no intention of letting himself be relegated to a position of passive and abject subservience. Henry gained his preeminence through rebellion, did he? Hotspur will follow the precedent that Henry has set: he will become a rebel himself and expunge the dishonor with which Henry, in his arrogance, has sullied his name.

Listening to Hotspur’s tirade are his father Northumberland and his uncle Worcester. Hotspur shifts his annoyance to them and claims that now and in the future they will stand convicted of two shameful acts. First, they aided Henry in his deposition of Richard, “that sweet lovely rose,” as Hotspur now calls him. But that retrospective shame is mere prelude to the greater and prospective one. “And shall it in more shame be further spoken,/That you are fool’d, discarded, and shook off/By him for whom these shames ye underwent?” (177-79) Hotspur urges them not to remain the submissive recipients of Henry’s contempt and disfavor. “No, yet time serves wherein you may redeem/Your banish’d honors and restore yourselves/Into the good thoughts of the world again” (180-82).

Only one field exists on which they can cleanse themselves of the blot of shame that now disfigures their reputation and restore themselves to honor: the field of battle. By means of rebellion and war will they rescue what they have lost—their stature and prestige—and subject the one who insulted them, Henry, to the everlasting humiliation of defeat. Hotspur welcomes the contest: “Send danger from the east unto the west,/So honor cross it from the north to south,/And let them grapple” (195-97).

Indeed, Hotspur seems eager to stand at the precise juncture where danger and honor meet:

By heaven, methinks it were an easy leap,
To pluck bright honor from the pale-fac’d moon,
Or dive into the bottom of the deep,
Where fathom-line could never touch the ground,
And pluck up drowned honor by the locks,
So he that doth redeem her thence might wear
Without corrival all her dignities. (201-07)

Shakespeare here illustrates for us a central aspect of the warrior ideal of honor: the drive to stand preeminent and without rival in the world. In the scale of honor only one position is worthy of occupancy: the first position, the very summit of the scale. Any other position, from number two on down, signals a reduction of honor and of worth. And only one person can stand atop the scale. The supreme position is not meant for occupation by a crowd, and two constitutes a crowd. Anyone who pretends to climb atop and share that space with its occupant becomes a “corrival” and must either be pushed off or given sole right of occupancy. Equality is not a concept that exists in the warrior’s ideal of honor—equality at the top, that is. Below the top all are equal: equally secondary, equally diminished, equally unworthy of the fame and glory and prestige—of the honor—that accrues to the one at the summit of the heap.

Hotspur, though, wants to gain preeminence not just through any act but through an act commensurate with his own grandiose image of himself, an act akin to leaping at the moon or diving into the depths. In rebellion against his King he finds such an act. As a warrior, he knows that only one quality justifies occupancy of the realm’s supreme position: power. And as a warrior he also knows that there is only one arena in which he can most convincingly display his power: war. In that arena he has already more than once displayed his skill and courage and prowess as a warrior, in a word, his power. When, in that greatest of all competitive arenas, he next puts on display the spectacle of his power, he will defeat Henry and compel those who witness his triumph to give him his reward. And for Hotspur his reward is not just a tangible one, the throne of England, but something intangible and even more valuable: everlasting honor.

3. The Pleasure of Contemplating Their Own Power

Like Shakespeare, Hobbes also understood the connection between, on the one hand, a person’s display of power and, on the other, that which he receives as reward for such display: honor.

In Chapter X of Leviathan, “Of Power, Worth, Dignity, Honour, and Worthiness,” Hobbes defines honor and dishonor as the subjective evaluations we place on a person, the degree, that is, to which we assign a person value or worth. “The manifestation of the value we set on one another is that which is commonly called honoring and dishonoring. To value a man at a high rate is to honor him; at a low rate is to dishonor him” (x, 17).

The rate at which we value a person, the degree, that is, to which we honor or dishonor a person, is dependent primarily on a single consideration: the amount of power that person is able to display. "Honorable is whatsoever possession, action, or quality is an argument and sign of power. And therefore to be honored, loved, or feared of many is honorable, as arguments of power. To be honored of few or none, dishonorable” (x, 37-8).

Numerous qualities can prompt us to evaluate a person’s worth at a high level. Such material attributes as wealth or privilege are indications of power and therefore honorable. “Magnanimity, liberality, hope, courage, confidence” and similar character traits are honorable, “for they proceed from the conscience [consciousness] of power” (x, 40). Those glorious indices of martial success, “dominion and victory,” are also honorable “because acquired by power.” Conversely, “servitude, for need or fear, is dishonorable” (x, 39). Those who serve do so, of course, only because they are weak and without sufficient power to compel others to serve them and so are unworthy of high estimation and honor.

We might assume that conventional ideas of justice would influence our estimation of a person’s worth or value. They do not. “Nor does it alter the case of honor, whether an action (so it be great and difficult, and consequently a sign of much power) be just or unjust; for honor consisteth only in the opinion of power” (x, 48).

Hobbes does not approve of this drive for honor: in the state of nature, as he envisions it (see Part IV of this series), the desire for glory is one of the three principle causes of conflict. But Hobbes also understands that in the state of nature, in which there is no sovereign invested with the power to produce and maintain order, it makes good rational sense for an individual to accrue as much power as possible in order to compete successfully for resources and to protect what he gains.

Some individuals, though, are driven by an irrational motive in their pursuit of power, in that they “[take] pleasure in contemplating their own power in the acts of conquest, which they pursue farther than their security requires” (xiii, 4). Some individuals, that is, are driven to needless acts of war in order to display their power before the gaze of the world and to gain from such display—from their victory in combat—honor and all her dignities: prestige, fame, and glory. After they have thus distinguished themselves above all others, they will forever have the pleasure of contemplating their own power. To put it more exactly, they will forever have the pleasure of seeing reflected in the eyes of those they have subjected the image of their superiority.

It is just such a pleasure that Kagan and the neocons hope to enjoy. Kagan of course does not claim that America displays its military strength and warrior will for the sake of establishing itself at the apex of historical honor. His vision of American power is, on the surface, a prudent and practical one. The world outside Europe, as he describes it, is a world of Hobbesian anarchy, and America, as the protector of democracy and freedom, must be able to face down and defeat the autocrats and terrorists who occupy it. In the Hobbesian sector of the world it must, that is, abide by the warrior ideal of power and domination.

But for Kagan America is not only the warrior who valiantly protects the weak against terror and tyranny but also the savior who is born to bring freedom and perpetual peace to all the nations of the world. When Kagan speaks of America’s moral destiny, he seems to be shifting away from a warrior ideal to a moral ideal. But such is far from the case. Rather than relinquishing the warrior ideal for a higher moral ideal, Kagan sublimates the warrior ideal: America will once again put on display its singular greatness before the world, vanquishing its enemies (and pretenders like Europe) not only as a military power but as a moral power. Though America will earn honor in the arena of war, it will achieve its ultimate honor after it has eradicated the Hobbesian realm of anarchy and established Kantian peace on a worldwide basis. America will then stand forever as history’s preeminent nation.

But however much Kagan tries to sublimate his warrior ideal, it remains a warrior ideal, based on preeminence and power. No amount of gesturing towards the Kantian ideas of reason and peace (which he misunderstands) will transform his warrior ideal into something sublime. His ideal of America as history’s “dangerous” nation—dangerous because of its commitment to both freedom and power—remains embedded in and inseparable from his ideal of America as history’s supreme warrior nation.

Such sublimation of the warrior ideal also allows Kagan, and the neocons in general, to indulge in a neat bit of ideological shape-shifting. Given the resurgence of “history” and the looming conflict between liberalism and autocracy, there is little prospect that America will be able any time soon to establish a Kantian realm of worldwide peace. For the foreseeable future, America will have to live in a world of Hobbesian struggle and war, contending against those nations that seek to eradicate freedom and replace it with autocracy and terror. The neocon idealists, therefore, will have to forego their dream of establishing, under the aegis of American power, a worldwide empire of democracy and peace. They will have to settle for a lesser but still honorable spectacle: America, its only goal the preservation of freedom, displaying its predominant power in the glorious arena of war.

4. There is Honor and Then There is – Well, What Exactly?

In that glorious arena in which he confidently expected to win everlasting fame, Hotspur loses not only his life but something more valuable. On the field of Shrewsbury he meets not King Henry but Henry’s son, Prince Hal. In the single combat that follows, it is not the seasoned warrior, Hotspur, but the former delinquent, Hal, who emerges the victor. “O Harry, thou hast robb’d me of my youth,” Hotspur says as he is dying. “I better brook the loss of brittle life/Than those proud titles thou has won of me./They wound my thoughts worse than thy sword my flesh” (V.iv.77-80).

It is not the tangible wounds to his body but the intangible wounds to his honor that cause Hotspur grief and prompt his despair. Hal’s victory over him in battle—the glaring indication that Hotspur's power is less than that of his opponent—has dealt death not only to his body but to his reputation and his vaunting pride as a warrior. Even worse, because he has displayed in battle not strength but weakness, not power but impotence, Hotspur’s defeat has forever attached to his name the antithesis of honor: shame and humiliation.

There is, however, on the field of Shrewsbury one soldier who cares about neither honor nor humiliation. Prior to the battle Falstaff delivers a “catechism” on honor (V.i.127-41) in which he points out that honor has no power to set a leg or an arm or to “take away the grief of a wound.” If honor has no power to remedy physical hurt, what power does it have? None, really. It is but a “word” and has nothing in it but the incorporeal “air.” In battle a man might earn a title to this puff of breath, but if he dies while earning it, he’ll neither hear it applied to his name nor feel its effects. And even if he does live to enjoy its benefits, such enjoyment will be brief, for the envy of others will not long allow him to keep his title. “Therefore I’ll none of it,” Falstaff concludes, preferring a long and inglorious life without the empty title of honor to a short and glorious one with it.

Falstaff’s catechism is by no means Shakespeare’s final word on the relationship between power and honor. Shakespeare would express his mature view in the tragedies that follow the Henriad, especially King Lear and Antony and Cleopatra. But for our purposes, the individual to whom we must now turn in order to counter the neocon ideal of honor is the one to whom Kagan himself repeatedly refers: Immanuel Kant.

Crossposted at dailykos

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Blogger Unknown on 10/28/2007 5:05 PM:

Fantastic post, as usual. It bugs me to no end that Kagan and others like him have redefined the term "history" into an inherently teleological idea. Methinks they must have flunked their undergraduate history courses (General Petraeus and Newt Gingrich, who have doctorates in history, excepted). And I just love the conflation of Kagan's views on honor with Hotspur's.

Where does Kagan get off comparing Russia and China with Iran? I think Ahmadinejad would be about as offended by that idea as I am. Islamic fundamentalism is a political system run by ideology above all; Russia's "great-power" nationalism and China's economic internationalism are anti-ideological systems (China's actually makes its stated philosophy of Communism into a joke).

I wonder whether you might bring in the notion of "Southern honor" as discussed most notably by Bertram Wyatt-Brown. It seems to me that our neocons have more in common with antebellum Southerners than they do with our more "civilized" liberal intellectuals.


Blogger Bastoche on 10/28/2007 6:15 PM:

I haven’t read Wyatt-Brown, but I know of his work on the Percys of Mississippi, who claimed, as I remember, that they were indeed descended from the Percys of Scotland and thus were related to Hotspur. And the American Percys, the novelist Walker Percy among them, had, it seems, a tendency to depression, which might very well have been connected to a grandiose sense of entitlement and honor. Neither Hotspur nor Hal, his nemesis, were depressive or suicidal, but just a year or two after Shakespeare completed the Henriad he wrote his first genuinely Shakespearean tragedy, and it was about a young man who is indeed depressive and suicidal, a young man who has many attributes in common with those men of "honor," Hotspur and Hal: Hamlet.

A quick point regarding Russia, China, and Iran. Kagan groups them together as nations whose form of government is autocratic, but he does claim a difference between Russia and China on the one hand and Iran as a radical Islamist state on the other. Russia and China are modern autocracies, whereas the radical Islamists are, as he puts it, “the last holdout against the powerful forces of globalization and modernization.” Islamic tradition is at war with the forces of modernity, and in this fight, America might well find Russia and China, modern states both, as two of its allies.

Neocon though he is, Kagan recognizes at least some of the complexity in the present world situation.


Anonymous Anonymous on 10/29/2007 9:37 AM:

Title: Rumsfeld flees France fearing arrest
Source: World News
URL Source:
Published: Oct 28, 2007
Author: staff
Post Date: 2007-10-28 02:27:39 by out damned spot

Former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld fled France today fearing arrest over charges of "ordering and authorizing" torture of detainees at both the American-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the US military's detainment facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, unconfirmed reports coming from Paris suggest.

US embassy officials whisked Rumsfeld away yesterday from a breakfast meeting in Paris organized by the Foreign Policy magazine after human rights groups filed a criminal complaint against the man who spearheaded President George W. Bush's "war on terror" for six years.

Under international law, authorities in France are obliged to open an investigation when a complaint is made while the alleged torturer is on French soil.

According to activists in France, who greeted Rumsfeld shouting "murderer" and "war criminal" at the breakfast meeting venue, US embassy officials remained tight-lipped about the former defense secretary's whereabouts citing "security reasons".


Blogger Unknown on 10/29/2007 12:36 PM:

Jesse, this comment is off-topic and would be better posted in an open thread (there's one on the front page right now).


Blogger Steve on 10/31/2007 10:52 AM:

It doesn't seem to me necessary to categorize countries as authoritarian or democratic in terms of understanding that we are headed into a different geopolitical environment in which previously and currently "great power" nations are seeking their place on the world stage.

This is the playing out of Paul Kennedy's thesis about great powers. Russia, China and Iran have long perceived themselves as having something larger to give to the world, and they will do so regardless of U.S. perceptions of authoritarianism.

In any case, a wonderful posting. I advertised on the site last week for my new book, and wanted also to say thanks for the space.

Steve LeVine, author
The Oil and the Glory (Random House)


Blogger Unknown on 10/31/2007 11:12 AM:

Thanks for your support, Steve, and for an excellent comment. Good luck promoting your book!


Blogger Bastoche on 10/31/2007 4:16 PM:

Steve: Thanks for your comment.

Kagan, I think, is right when he says that we’re entering an era (if we’re not in it already) in which Great Power relations will once again be determined, to an important extent, by such intangibles as prestige and national honor. But the two political categories he’s using to describe our “new geopolitical environment” are ill-defined and applied in too simplistic a manner. As a result, rather than helping us to see our new environment clearly, they distort it. Those two categories are, of course, freedom and tyranny. Freedom is embodied in America and its allies, tyranny in those states he refers to as autocracies, and in his narrative the two are locked in an ongoing struggle to control the course of history.

As others have pointed out (Daniel Larison, for example), neither Russia nor China nor Iran is an autocracy, that is, a state ruled by a single sovereign. But Kagan, I think, knows exactly what he’s doing by using this terminology. He’s assimilating Russia and China and Iran into the Nazi/Communist paradigms. Both Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia were single-party totalitarian states and therefore were not autocracies. But in each instance the Party was dominated by a single, charismatic individual and therefore, operationally speaking, was an autocracy.

Kagan has not yet (to my knowledge) assimilated Ahmadinejad to Hitler (as Norman Podhoretz delights in doing), and I don’t think he will. But he nonetheless seems intent on inventorying the world’s nations into two, and only two, political regions: democracy and autocracy. This, of course, has implications for foreign policy. How does a democracy best deal with an autocrat? Through diplomacy or through the application of military force?

Thanks again for the comment. Good luck with your book!