by Bastoche | 10/15/2007 02:15:00 PM
Robert Kagan, it seems, has evolved. In his recent essay with Ivo Daalder, “The Next Intervention,” he has called for a “Concert of Democracies,” a new international “arrangement” in which “the world's democracies could meet and cooperate in dealing with the many global challenges they confront.” This new concert, composed of America, Great Britain, Germany, France, Japan, Australia, etc., would meet in order to discuss crisis situations around the globe. Most important, this group of nations would, if it achieved consensus, legitimate, on an international basis, military intervention in those critical situations, an intervention led, one assumes, by the dominant military power in the world, America.

Kagan thus seems to be pulling back, if only a little, from the position he puts forward in his most famous work, Of Paradise and Power, published in 2003, just prior to the American invasion of Iraq. In that work, Kagan attempts to account for the political rift that has opened between Europe and America and finds its cause in their divergent views of military power. The Europeans, having constructed a Kantian paradise of perpetual peace, have renounced military power as a tool of international relations while America, mired still in a Hobbesian realm of conflict, continues to use military power as a key tool of foreign policy and to use it unilaterally and without qualm if it must. (The previous installments in this series can be found here[I], here[II], and here[III].)

The Kantian paradise in which Europe lives is, according to Kagan, a realm of peace and reason. The Hobbesian realm in which the rest of the world functions, on the other hand, is a realm of conflict and power. The nations of Europe, chastened by over two centuries of competition, war, and violent death, the result of their commitment to a Hobbesian politics based on power, have renounced such a politics in favor of a Kantian one based on cooperation and rules, a politics that has the potential of realizing the Kantian ideal of perpetual peace. Unfortunately, most nations outside Europe have not renounced a politics based on Hobbesian power, and those nations still operate according to the Hobbesian methods of deception and force. Standing on the border, protecting the Kantian paradise of Europe from the Hobbesian autocrats and terrorists is America, a nation devoted to Kantian reason and rules but committed also to Hobbesian power and its effective use.

This distinction between a Kantian paradise of reason and rules and a Hobbesian realm of conflict and power is, for Kagan, a fundamental one, and he uses it as the principal structuring device of his argument. He never, though, precisely delineates either those elements of the non-European sector of the world that are specifically Hobbesian or those elements of the European sector that are specifically Kantian. He merely tells us that Europe is characterized by reason and rules and is therefore Kantian, and that the world outside Europe is characterized by power and anarchy and is therefore Hobbesian. And he pretty much leaves it at that.

We might therefore think that he is throwing around the terms “Hobbesian” and “Kantian” as rhetorical window dressing, an easy way of lending his argument a bit of intellectual heft and philosophical spiff. Such, though, is not the case. If Kagan refers to the non-European sector of today’s world as Hobbesian, he has good reason to do so and he knows it. If he refers to Europe as a realm of Kantian reason and peace, he again has good reason to do so and, again, he knows it. But even if Kagan’s use of these terms is sufficiently well-grounded in the writings of Hobbes and Kant, we would do well to perform a bit of unpacking for ourselves and determine to what extent their ideas are applicable to Kagan’s analysis of world affairs. As we’ll see, in certain respects their ideas do support Kagan’s neocon analysis of the current international situation. But as we’ll also see, their ideas illuminate the dynamics of Kagan’s neocon worldview in ways that he might not expect.

1. It’s a Jungle Out There

I’ll start with the philosopher with whom Kagan feels, I think, most attuned, Thomas Hobbes. In 1651 Hobbes published his most famous work, Leviathan, in which he argues that civic peace and prosperity can flourish only under a government in which one person has the power to promulgate laws and enforce them. In order to justify his ideal of government—a state ruled by a sovereign whose power is complete and indisputable—Hobbes begins with a depiction of a world without government, the original state of nature as he calls it, in which a central organizing power does not exist and individuals are obligated to accomplish on their own their most fundamental goal: the preservation of their lives.

For Hobbes, the fundamental and always the foremost motivation of the human individual is self-preservation. In the state of nature, as he describes it, there is no government to establish and maintain a stable society in which the individual’s life is reasonably secure. In such a situation, the individual must therefore rely solely on his own ability to preserve himself. He and he alone is responsible for rescuing himself from pain, misery, starvation, and death. And what is most troubling, he knows that pain, misery, and death are his potential lot not just today but for the whole of his future life. Past experience has taught him, for example, that the lack of food causes the pain of starvation and, potentially, death. Because he has the ability to project this experience of hunger into an indeterminate future, he knows that even if he is not suffering hunger today, the real possibility exists that he will suffer it tomorrow and for the rest of his bleak and miserable existence. Because of the individual’s ability to project this simple cause-and-effect relationship (the lack of food causes suffering and death) into an indeterminate future, Hobbes says,

it is impossible for a man who continually endeavoureth to secure himself against the evil he fears, and procure the good he desireth, not to be in a perpetual solicitude of the time to come…so that man which looks too far before him, in the care of future time, hath his heart all the day long gnawed on by fear of death, poverty, or other calamity, and has no repose, nor pause of his anxiety, but in sleep. (Chapter xii, section 5)

In the state of nature, anxiety about the future is constant and unavoidable. Even when the individual successfully procures today the good he desires and achieves some measure of happiness, he knows that his happiness is temporary, ephemeral, impermanent and that he must struggle to establish it again and yet again. At the core of his present happiness, then, tainting it, unsettling it, blighting it, is the anxiety that he will not be able forever to replicate it, indeed that he will lose it and become vulnerable to pain and misery and death. As Hobbes says, “the object of man’s desire is not to enjoy once only, and for one instant of time, but to assure forever the way of his future desire” (xi, 1). And so the individual strives to control and dominate the future, to find a way to make his present happiness permanent and thus gain the assurance that his desire will never again suffer the taint and blight of anxiety.

In the state of nature, unfortunately, such assurance proves consistently elusive. Two conditions combine to thwart the individual’s efforts to achieve his ideal state of permanent happiness. First, the resources by means of which he satisfies his needs are limited. Second, he must engage in a fierce and deadly competition with others for those limited resources. His competitors envision themselves, exactly as he does, in a future of deprivation and misery and death, and to avoid such a future they are ready, exactly as he is, to fight and kill for the resources that will insure their survival. In the state of nature, Hobbes says, “if any two men desire the same thing, which nevertheless they cannot both enjoy, they become enemies; and in the way to their end, which is principally their own conservation…endeavor to destroy or subdue one another” (xiii, 3).

The first and fundamental cause of conflict in the state of nature, then, is competition for limited resources. The second great cause of conflict in the state of nature occurs as a result of what Hobbes calls “diffidence,” that is, suspicion of the motives of others. In the initial competition for resources, the individual may successfully establish a domain that will satisfy his needs. But he can never rest content with it because other individuals will newly arrive in the vicinity. Immediately he will suspect their motives. Very likely they will envy his possessions and want them for themselves and, impelled by their envious desire, seek at some point to deprive him of his land, his goods, and his life. And so the individual, provoked by his suspicions to secure himself against such an eventuality, will do the prudent thing: he will preemptively attack and kill his potential competitor before he becomes an actual competitor. As Hobbes puts it, because of the mutual mistrust that reigns in the state of nature, “there is no way for any man to secure himself so reasonable as anticipation [preemptive attack], that is, by force or wiles to master the persons of all men he can, so long till he see no other power great enough to endanger him” (xiii, 4).

A final cause of conflict in the state of nature has its origin not in a material desire but rather in a psychological one: the drive for fame and glory. In some individuals, after they have secured sufficient territory permanently to satisfy their material needs, “there succeedeth a new desire…of fame from new conquest…” (xi, 2). Hobbes thus recognizes, and correctly so, that the drive for honor and fame and glory is a crucial factor in human endeavor and an important cause of human conflict. So too do the Kagans, Donald and Robert, recognize the drive for honor and distinction and fame as a fundamental motive in the human creation of history, and I will return to this aspect of Hobbes’ theory in my next post.

2. And In It, Only the Strong Survive

To summarize, Hobbes claims that “in the nature of man we find three principal causes of quarrel: first, competition [for resources]; secondly, diffidence [suspicion]; thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade for gain; the second, for safety; and the third, for reputation” (xiii, 6-7).

Obviously, in the state of nature in which competition for resources is a fundamental and ongoing activity, that which gives the individual an advantage over his competitors is power. Power is embodied first in his person: he is the strongest and most skillful fighter in the region. Power is also embodied in his instruments: he has weapons that augment his physical endowment. The combination of his physical endowment with the instruments that augment it enable him, in the ongoing struggle with his competitors, to acquire those objects that he needs in order to survive.

Of course, even if he is the strongest and most skillful fighter and has the best weapons, others can pool their strengths and their weaponry in such a way as to overcome his initial advantage. In order, therefore, to guarantee that he has sufficient power to prevail in any conceivable struggle for the resources he needs, he must strive ceaselessly to augment his power.

So that in the first place, I put for a general inclination of all mankind, a perpetual and restless desire of power after power, that ceaseth only in death. And the cause of this is not always that a man hopes for a more intensive delight than he has already attained to, or that he cannot be content with a moderate power, but because he cannot assure the power and means to live well, which he hath present, without the acquisition of more. (xi, 2)

Unfortunately, however great the power he acquires, he can never gain complete assurance that it will be sufficient to defeat all future competitors or groups of competitors. In the state of nature he is thus condemned to live in a state of continual uncertainty. His struggle for happiness can never be permanently decided, and peace will never be a condition he can securely enjoy. However much power he accrues, he will remain always vulnerable to attack, and his life will always stand on a shifting and precarious foundation. He will live in “continual fear and danger of violent death,” and even if he initially succeeds in the competition for resources, he knows that his success can be short-lived and that after the next fight he can be relegated quickly and for good to an existence that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (xiii, 9).

From these elements of Hobbes’ vision of the state of nature we can, I think, identify four factors that characterize the present-day Hobbesian jungle as Kagan conceives it. First, the nations outside of Europe are engaged in a competition for resources, the most important of which is at present oil. Second, each nation in the Hobbesian jungle must remain suspicious and mistrustful of the motives of every other nation. Third, in the competition for resources each nation must accrue as much military power as it can and be willing to use it to protect and promote its vital interests. Finally, and for Kagan most importantly, each nation competes for resources and for power not only as a means of augmenting its economic well-being but also, and even primarily, as a means of augmenting something less tangible but more compelling: national honor and prestige.

I’ll return to each of these in the last part of this post, but first we must briefly look at the exit strategy that Hobbes provides for those caught in the perpetual war that prevails in the state of nature, an exit strategy that Kagan, for all his celebration of power, rejects in favor of the one provided by Kant.

3. The Way Out According to Tom

From his vision of life in the state of nature Hobbes draws his basic conclusion, namely that “during the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called war, and such a war as is of every man against every man” (xiii 8). This condition of war, actual or potential, and the consequences that proceed from it—anxiety, insecurity, turmoil, violence, death—is finally insupportable to those living in it, and they are prompted to seek an exit from it by both their passions and their reason. Specifically, according to Hobbes, they are prompted to seek an exit from the state of war by two great Laws of Nature. The first Law emerges from their “passion” for self-preservation. Since in a state of war their lives stand always on a very precarious foundation, they naturally seek to replace a state of war with one of peace. The “first and fundamental law of nature,” then, according to Hobbes, is “to seek peace, and follow it” (xiv, 4).

From the first law quite reasonably follows the second, that every man, in order to achieve a stable and lasting peace, will, when he sees that every other man agrees to do the same, “lay down this right to all things, and be contented with so much liberty against other men, as he would allow other men against himself” (xiv, 5). In other words, men will lay down their arms and agree to abide by a covenant: they will give up the liberties they enjoy in the state of nature—and especially the liberty to attack and kill and subdue one another in order to control available resources—as long as all other men agree to give up the very same liberties.

In order to enforce this covenant, the people create a sovereign to whom they transfer their power. The people thus give up to the sovereign much of their liberty and virtually all of their power in order to create and preserve the one condition that guarantees the preservation of their lives—peace. Thus is the great Leviathan, the State, instituted when individuals agree to create a single locus of power, the sovereign, and authorize him to use his power to create those conditions that will ensure their safety and security. (Note: Hobbes also allows that an assembly of aristocrats can serve as such a sovereign, but the whole thrust of his argument inclines him toward a single monarchical power. See especially Chapter XIX: "Of the Several Kinds of Commonwealth.")

Once he is created and authorized, the sovereign has absolute power in all matters that pertain to the establishment and maintenance of peace, and his subjects are obligated to obey his dictates in these matters. The sovereign designs laws that compel the peaceful conduct of his subjects and will enforce those laws by punishing those who break them. Many might feel tempted to break his laws in order to satisfy their desires, and some will. But most of the sovereign’s subjects, however strong their temptation to break his laws, will abide by them because, one, they fear the sovereign’s power to punish and, two, they fear the state of universal war that will recur if the legitimacy of the sovereign disappears.

Kagan, though, does not apply Hobbes’ solution—the all-powerful sovereign—to the problem of the Hobbesian jungle with which America, in his view, has to contend. Kagan certainly envisions as a possibility a conflict between America and one or another of the world’s autocratic powers: Iran, China, Russia. After all, these autocratic nations still abide by the methods of the Hobbesian jungle, and war between America and any power that commits itself to autocracy and/or terror cannot be ruled out. But should America prevail in such a conflict, as it almost certainly would if it retains the will to use its military might, it would not act as a Hobbesian sovereign or imperialist power that would force its defeated foes forever to lay down their arms and make themselves subservient to the dictates of its hegemonic will.

Kagan remains enough of a neocon realist to reserve for America the right to use its power to achieve its goals, though he cautions that America should use its power prudently. At bottom, though, Kagan is a neocon idealist. Kagan is sincere when he claims that the origin of America is freedom and that it is America’s great destiny to spread freedom and democracy to all nations on earth. Against those terrorist and autocratic states that refuse to honor the principles of freedom America might very well have to apply military force and, after its victorious application, occupy the territory of its defeated enemy. But if America dismantled the military capacity of its defeated foe and temporarily promulgated for it rules of international conduct, it would do so only as a step toward the completion of its own historical destiny: to transform the government of the defeated autocrat and bring it into the fold of democratic nations—America, the European Union, Japan, Australia—that abide by the dictates of Kantian reason.

Kagan, therefore, would adamantly refuse to concede that his vision of America is imperialist. Imperial nations act like the successful competitor in the state of nature, as Hobbes describes it. They seek to concentrate all power in their own hands and deprive their defeated competitors of their liberty and even of their lives. Kagan would certainly concede that America seeks a predominance of military power. But for Kagan that power is an instrument designed to help America accomplish its mission in history: the realization of universal freedom and perpetual peace. We might therefore say that America is indeed in the process of establishing an empire. But it is an empire of reason and rules, an empire that derives from America’s role as the historical embodiment of freedom, the nation that, in order to achieve Kant’s ideal of perpetual peace must engage in the Hobbesian war of all against all. Simply put, by means of Hobbesian power America will achieve an empire of Kantian peace.

I will have more to say about Kagan’s imperial idealism in future posts. But first I want to examine, with the help again of Thomas Hobbes, Kagan’s devotion to that glorious intangible: honor. Though Kagan claims to admire the realm of reason and rules that Europe has created, the place in which he envisions America as an actor creating history (as do his father Donald, his brother Fred, and his sister-in-law Kimberly) is not the Kantian paradise of reason and peace but the Hobbesian jungle of power and war. For only in war can one achieve, by means of military power and prowess, that which is of the utmost importance in Kagan’s scheme of things: honor and glory and fame.

4. Tom as Our Guide to the Neocon Present

But before I discuss the role of honor in Kagan’s ideology, I want briefly to comment on those other three aspects of Hobbes’ state of nature that accord, in general, with the neocon view of the world.

As Hobbes argued, in the state of nature each competitor distrusts the motives of all other competitors. The Hobbesian sector of our present world, in the neocon view, is composed of those terrorist and autocratic governments—Iran certainly in the present, Russia and China very possibly in the future—that feel compelled to dominate not only their own peoples but the peoples of other nations as well. In order to expand the reach of their power they will manipulate and lie and practice every conceivable deception. Diplomacy is, therefore, not only useless but self-defeating as a method of dealing with such governments. We cannot trust them to abide by a diplomatic agreement, since they will honor it only as long as it is in their self-interest to do so. When they deem that it is no longer to their advantage to keep an agreement they will betray it without the flicker of an eyelash.

The only methods that, finally, are effective with nations that abide by the Hobbesian methods of deception and force are those based on military power. As long, therefore, as America remains mired in history, as Kagan puts it, and must deal with nations that act according to the methods of the Hobbesian jungle, it must maintain its military strength and the will to use it, preemptively and unilaterally if necessary.

There is, however, one essential condition that America must satisfy if it is to retain its preeminence as a military power. It must secure the resource that fuels its military might—oil. Already in November 2003, James Paul asserted the obvious:

Modern warfare particularly depends on oil, because virtually all weapons systems rely on oil-based fuel – tanks, trucks, armored vehicles, self-propelled artillery pieces, airplanes, and naval ships. For this reason, the governments and general staffs of powerful nations seek to ensure a steady supply of oil during wartime, to fuel oil-hungry military forces in far-flung operational theaters.

From the neocon point of view, we have intruded our presence into the Middle East primarily in order to establish democracy. We have also, though, and quite clearly invaded Iraq in order to secure the oil that fuels our military might. The neocons often seem loath to admit this very simple point, as if the realistic motive renders void the idealistic one. It does not. Quite the contrary, in fact. The struggle of freedom and democracy against Radical Islam will be a long one, and we must do what is necessary to secure the resources that we need to win it, oil included. Further, the struggle against Radical Islam is not the only one that we will be facing in the next half-century. The two autocratic giants, Russia and China, while not yet threats, either economically or militarily, to our global hegemony, have the potential to become so. We must therefore act decisively now to secure the fuel that our military forces will need should we be compelled to deploy them in a future clash with either the one or the other or both of these giants.

Those prospective clashes, if and when they come, will be clashes of ideology: democracy against autocracy. They will take place in a world of Hobbesian power, and America will be the nation who will protect democracy against the autocratic ambitions of Russia and China. America, that is, will once again do the honorable thing and commit its energy to the protection of freedom against those who would curtail and even eradicate it.

It sometimes seems that the neocons admire, even worship America’s military might for its own sake. Not so Robert Kagan. Kagan is a “dangerous” neocon writer and thinker because his admiration of America’s power is tied to a Big Idea: America’s power is at the service of America’s destiny and America’s honor.

Crossposted at dailykos.

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Blogger Unknown on 10/16/2007 2:33 PM:

You're making me like Kagan -- is that a good thing? I mean, I admire the man's idealism, as opposed to the fanatical realism of people like Rumsfeld and Richard Perle. Kagan, at least, is sufficiently free of the military-industrial complex to really believe in our democratic ideals, even if his view of excessive militarism goes beyond what I'm willing to accept.


Blogger Bastoche on 10/16/2007 6:16 PM:

I think I understand what you mean. Like few other neocons, Kagan has a supple and flexible mind that can adapt to new circumstances and “evolve.” His idealism isn’t so rigid (like that of Podhoretz, for example) that it refuses to assimilate new and contradictory evidence. He can, it seems, so modify his positions that he can work with liberals like Daalder and, perhaps, find a foreign policy spot in a future Democratic administration.

But he remains, finally, a neocon idealist, and it’s the specific qualities of his ideals that remain the problem. Many of us espouse a national ideal of America as a moral leader on the world stage. But that is not the same thing as espousing, as Kagan does, a nationalistic ideal of America as the moral leader on the world stage, as the nation who, above all others, is morally equipped to make precisely those policy decisions that will lead the world into a paradise of peace and prosperity. A national ideal of America as a moral leader, as opposed to a nationalistic one, allows that other nations can also demonstrate moral leadership and that America can, in certain circumstances (the last six years, for example), relinquish its moral standing among nations.

An ideal of America as a moral leader is a realistic ideal, one that has been effectively realized in history (in the New Deal, say, or in the Civil Rights Movement) and that can be again. An ideal of America as the moral leader whose destiny is to convert the world to the ideal of freedom out of which it was born is, I think, a grandiose and narcissistically distorted ideal that cannot be realized in the real world of history.

Kagan’s idealism is appealing, I think, because it strikes a responsive chord in those of us who think that the progressive tradition in America—a tradition grounded in the moral ideals of freedom and equality and solidarity—remains a vital and enduring one. What progressive, after all, does not want to spread freedom and democracy to all peoples? But it’s the nationalistic aspect of Kagan’s idealism—the idea that no other nation but America is morally equipped to spread freedom—that is distorted and potentially very dangerous.

All of this is too brief and sketchy, but I’ll return to it in the future in more detail. It is, after all, one of the reasons I started discussing these guys and gals: to distinguish between progressive ideals and neocon (regressive) ideals.


Blogger Unknown on 10/16/2007 8:57 PM:

You've hit the nail on the head -- and that's exactly the difference between me and people like Kagan, which I so often have trouble articulating. I don't believe that America itself is inherently a moral leader; for me it's what Anne-Marie Slaughter calls "the idea that is America" that should be the moral leader.

Neocons can't tell the difference.