Kagan: ‘We are not in decline as a global power’

Roxana Pop | Staff PhotographerBrookings Institution senior fellow Robert Kagan speaks Tuesday morning in the Amphitheater, the second lecture on Week Seven’s “Diplomacy” theme.
Roxana Pop | Staff Photographer
Brookings Institution senior fellow Robert Kagan speaks Tuesday morning in the Amphitheater, the second lecture on Week Seven’s “Diplomacy” theme.

“The United States rose to become a great power and is not surrounded by other great powers,” said Robert Kagan, Tuesday’s morning lecturer, who spoke on the week’s theme of “Diplomacy.” Kagan, a veteran of the Department of State, now serves as senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. “I apologize to Canada and Mexico, but [because of its geography], the United States has enjoyed enormous security in the region.”

Kagan traced the trajectory of America’s rise as a superpower in the past century, arguing that the intervention of the United States in World War I and World War II, as well as its hand in rebuilding Europe after those wars, has led to the peace that the world knows today. And this relatively peaceful world order, with the U.S. at the forefront, should not be taken for granted, he said.

Since 1945, the world has not seen two superpowers clash on the battlefield, Kagan said.

“As any European will tell you,” Kagan said, “the peace that Europe knows today — while it may not continue to depend on American power — depended, in its origins, on the position of the United States in Europe. We’ve put together a world order that has been rather remarkable in the annals of human history.”

Kagan cited countries’ gross domestic products as one area in which the world has improved on the whole. Since 1950, GDPs around the world have risen about 4 percent annually — a much higher rate than the .3 percent GDPs tended to rise each year before the industrial era began.

Another area in which the world has improved, Kagan said, is through the spread of democracy. After World War I, there were about 20 democracies, most of which were in Europe. Today, there are 115 democratic countries around the world.

“That is an astounding shift in the nature of the international system, which is completely unprecedented,” Kagan said. “The average human being, since the dawn of humankind, has lived under tyranny, in a state of abject poverty and in a state of constant warfare. But in this period, we have relative … peace, the great expansion of prosperity and the great expansion of democracy.”

Some believe that these global improvements are due to inherent, linear human progress — that the human race “has just gotten better.” But Kagan disagrees.

“It really wasn’t all that long ago that human beings were miserable and awful, if you think about what happened during World War II,” Kagan said. “We see examples around us everyday of what people are capable of doing to each other if given the opportunity.”

He urged the audience to remember that the status of a world power is temporary, invoking the examples of ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece, all great civilizations that fell for one reason or another.

“If the United States were to withdraw itself from active involvement in shaping the international system,” Kagan said, “the world order would be able to reflect the power of other nations. It would reflect their preferences and their predilections.”

Kagan compared today to the 1920s, when Americans were, as a whole, disillusioned with foreign involvement in the aftermath of World War I. They believed that the rest of the world could take care of itself; the U.S. wanted no part in shaping international affairs, he said.

But Kagan warned against this kind of mindset.

“I do worry that we are in a period where we are too much taking for granted that things will just ‘flow’ without our actively shaping it,” he said. “If this is our 1920s, I don’t know what our 1930s look like.”

For those concerned that America is losing its influence because of economic decline, Kagan made clear that this has been a constant worry in the attitudes of Americans since the country’s founding. Americans are often anxious that their best days are behind them. Writers, reporters and social scientists have predicted the country’s decline since its founding.

“While certainly the United States is facing its share of difficulties … we are not in decline as a global power,” Kagan said. “We are not unable to continue shaping the world as we have in the past, and it really behooves us to continue to try.”