Robert Kagan and “calculating self-interest”

Here is a brief excerpt from Thomas Friedman‘s weekly column for The New York Times in which he praises Robert Kagan’s recently published book, The Jungle Grows Back, about America’s unique role in the world.

“Kagan’s core thesis, as he explained in an interview, is that if you look at the broad sweep of human history, ‘democracy is the rarest form of government.’ That’s because for most of history great powers constantly clashed and most people were constantly poor. ‘But for the last 70-plus years we have been living in the greatest prosperity ever known — globally — and we’ve witnessed the most widespread booming of democracy and the longest period of great-power peace ever known.’

“The key pillars of this liberal world order, Kagan argued, were the conversion of Germany and Japan from aggressive dictatorships to pacifist democracies, the building of a global trading regime and the backing of it all with certain made-in-America norms and rules of commerce and geopolitics, buttressed by the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Army.

“We did not do all of this out of an abundance of generosity, or the post-World War II statesmen saying, ‘Gosh, how do we make the world a better place?’” he added.’It actually came from them saying: ‘How do we prevent the world backsliding into the kind of world war we just survived?’ This was not charity for them, but cold, calculating self-interest. They knew any order they created would pay back a hundred times for the world’s biggest economy.

“In other words, this liberal world order ‘is not the product of human evolution’ — as if human beings have somehow learned to be more peaceful with one another, Kagan argued. It developed because the most powerful nation on the planet, the United States of America, ‘was born of Enlightenment principles,’ and, after being dragged into two world wars in the 20th century, it decided to use its power to spread and maintain those principles — not everywhere and always, but in many places a lot of the time.”

Obviously, a foreign policy of “calculating self-interest” for a nation is not the same as a career strategy of “calculating self-interest” for those who lead it.

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Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist. He joined the paper in 1981, and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including From Beirut to Jerusalem, which won the National Book Award.

Robert Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a columnist for The Washington Post. He is also the author of The Return of History and the End of Dreams, Dangerous Nation, Of Paradise and Power, and A Twilight Struggle.


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