Power is Paradise… ?

By - Nov 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Paul McLeary

Earlier this year, political theorist Robert Kagan published a mostly harmless little book, Of Paradise and Power, that likely set neoconservative hearts aflutter. The thesis is pretty straightforward: After WWII, as the United States set about the task of becoming the global constable, Europe was given respite from its far-flung military adventures while it rebuilt its cities, repaired its economies and got to work rewiring its badly bruised psyche. As a newfound peace and prosperity took hold throughout Western Europe, Europeans became increasingly tied to a newfound pacifism, while the United States was forced to do the requisite military “heavy lifting” required to keep communism in check.

The upshot of all this is that Europe and the United States cannot see eye to eye when it comes to matters of flexing some military muscle. Europe has cultivated a desire for diplomacy over conflict, while the American postwar experience was defined by a nuclear staredown with the Soviets and hot wars with Soviet-sponsored regimes and far-flung military outposts.

The current disagreement over the need to go to war with Iraq is, according to Kagan’s reading of history, merely the latest example of the “Europe is from Venus, the United States is from Mars” point of view shared by the neoconservative movement.

Embrace Democracy or We’ll Kill You.

To grasp the full irony of Kagan’s thesis, one must understand where he is coming from. He’s a bright light in the neoconservative movement, which is mostly made up of disillusioned former leftists and Trotskyites who have moved sharply to the right and now call for a robust American military response to perceived threats throughout the world. Kagan feels that the United States has the right to intervene in the internal affairs of foreign nations, to build democratic regimes and secure U.S. interests.

Irving Kristol, often considered one of the founders of the neocon movement, defined, in part, the basic precepts of neoconservatism in the August 25, 2003 issue of The Weekly Standard:

“[The concept of] world government is a terrible idea, since it can lead to world tyranny. International institutions that point to an ultimate world government should be regarded with the deepest suspicion … for a great power, the ‘national interest’ is not a geographical term, except for fairly prosaic matters like trade and environmental regulation.

A smaller nation might appropriately feel that its national interest begins and ends at its borders, so that its foreign policy is almost always in a defensive mode. A larger nation has more extensive interests. And large nations, whose identity is ideological, like the Soviet Union of yesteryear and the United States of today, inevitably have ideological interests in addition to more material concerns. Barring extraordinary events, the United States will always feel obliged to defend, if possible, a democratic nation under attack from non-democratic forces, external or internal. No complicated geopolitical calculations of national interest are necessary.”

Sound familiar? This line of thought has come to epitomize the philosophy of the Bush administration.

It’s the same thinking that led us to invade Iraq. But the argument Kagan advances in his book tends to ring hollow, particularly when he drags old Enlightenment warhorses Thomas Hobbes and Emmanuel Kant into the fray, dressing up their theories to fit the precepts of his ideology.

Thomas Hobbes: A model for America?

Kagan perplexingly asserts that the United Sates, the tough kid on the block, lives in the Hobbesian state of nature, which Hobbes himself defines as a violent, self-interested world ruled only by the baser passions of greed, want and the use of strength to achieve goals. Similarly, Kagan holds that Europe, with its democratic socialist governments and supranational governing body, the European Union, lives in a Kantian world of reason, peace and rationality.

This is disturbing. Why would Kagan want to 1) accept the fact that the world is structured this way, and 2) boast of it? Sure, the world is a violent place, and the unfortunate fact is that warfare is sometimes necessary, but there is no reason to wallow in the depravity of warfare as an irrevocable state of being.

But if you read on…

As political theorist Benjamin Barber points out in his new book, Fear’s Empire: War, Terrorism and Democracy, Kagan’s reading of Hobbes is essentially backward. Although Kagan makes Hobbes’ state of nature sound like a movie wherein the kind-hearted tough guy (the U.S.) takes on the villainous bad guy (take your pick), there is nothing desirable about living in the violent and lawless world that Hobbes sketched. Barber points out that Hobbes’ vision was one of a world driven by anarchy and fear, and controlled by brute power alone. Kagan’s pacifist Europe, Barber says, is the key to Hobbes’ solution, which involves an abjuring of private action and individual force in the name of a collective security yielded by the social contract.

According to Hobbes himself, man only lived in a state of violence because he had yet to enter into the binding social contract of a rule-based society. This is the point Kagan seems to miss, or more likely, willfully ignore. Kagan plays a disingenuous game with his readers by ignoring the fact that Hobbes found this kind of violence abhorrent, and considered it one of the lowest levels of human social evolution. This is as insulting to serious scholarship as it is to the American people. Are we not capable of evolving politically? Instead of accepting the world as it is, why wouldn’t we work to complete the process and marry American military might with that of the European (or Kantian) model of democratic transparency and place deliberation before military adventurism? Granted, this is a tall order, as politics — especially international politics — is rarely an exercise in rationality.

But by propping up an apocalyptic vision of a world ruled by violence and revenge in order to make a cute point to his neoconservative friends, Kagan does both himself, the United States, and serious political philosophy a disservice.

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