Matthew Yglesias calls our attention to Todd Gitlin’s quick summary of Robert Kagan’s book excerpt in The New Republic. Kagan’s book is prefigured in his same-titled Policy Review essay, “End of Dreams, Return of History,” which I blogged about some time ago.

Matt points out the most important point: if we treat what might be called “the great game, but now with new globalization sauce” as a titanic struggle between liberal democracy and “new wave” authoritarianism, we’re likely to make it so. This is pretty obviously a bad idea, because countries like Russia and China have plenty of existing and potential frictions in their own relationships. The United States probably shouldn’t be in the business of forcing such countries to overcome their various divergent interests through belligerent unilateralism aimed directly at their common interests. If we really believe that intense geopolitical competition is on the horizon, then we should start thinking like proper realists.

While I’m not opposed to many of the practical and normative dimensions of Matt’s call to meet such challenges through liberal internationalism, declining US hegemony does throw a major wrench in these schemes. The basic difficulty is that China, Russia, and others can undermine US influence–either deliberately or inadvertently–by offering exit options for other countries. In doing so they, at a minimum, enhance the bargaining leverage of weaker states that the United States needs to, or wants to, pursue strategic partnerships with. The fact that China, in particular, doesn’t require its partners to genuflect in the direction of democratization and liberalization, or otherwise do anything to risk regime stability by engaging in policy reforms, gives them a major edge over the United States.

American strategic objectives–in terms of, for instance, the War on Terror and maintaining power-projection capability–have been, in fact, on an increasing collision course with its democracy-promotion activities. This collision course can reach levels of absurdity, with the United States promoting liberalization by, for instance, funding civil-society NGOs while, at the same time, ratcheting up its resource transfers to governmental elites who feel, and not without good reason, threatened by those activities.

Grand Strategy always, of course, involves difficult tradeoffs, but adopting neo-conservativsm 3.0 will likely be self-defeating. Moral power cannot substitute for other instruments of power-political competition, and Kagan’s approach risks undermining those instruments at a time when the United States can no longer count on being the only game in town.

The real threat to US moral power, indeed, comes not from taking a softer line on democratization, but from adopting a revisionist posture towards its own hegemonic order. In this sense, the US should play a global liberal internationalist game of the type Matt suggests, but also focus much more on the micropolitics of realpolitik international competition. Contrary to what many people think, these strategies can be made complimentary, insofar as an American commitment to a liberal international order (rather than an emphasis on aggressive democracy promotion) will also make the deals it can offer to weaker states more attractive.

For more of this line of reasoning, see Alex Cooley’s and my working paper on the dynamics of the American overseas basing network (PDF), a revised version of which is currently under review.

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