Walter Russell Mead: A Conversation with Robert Kagan

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During the recent conference on democracy promotion put together by The American Interest and Freedom House, Walter Russell Mead sat down with Robert Kagan to discuss grand strategy in the age of Obama. Below is a lightly edited transcript of their conversation.

Walter Russell Mead: One of the central questions today’s conference raised was whether America has a grand strategy. Your response was “Uh, no.” President Obama does not, in your mind, have a grand strategy?

Robert Kagan: There’s something like a glimmer of a grand strategy in the White House, it seems to me. The thinking is that we have all these allies, and we’re indispensable in some way, but they haven’t fully articulated a strategy in the way that George H.W. Bush did in his much-maligned World Order speech, or that Bill Clinton did at various moments. Obama came close, I think, in his Nobel Peace Prize speech and in his earlier West Point speech.

WRM: I had this feeling, at least as late as fall 2012, that the White House really thought it had a strategy, and that the strategy was working. Europe was quiet and was going to stay that way; we were going to make friends with Islam; we were going to reach out to the AK Party and the Muslim Brotherhood; isolate the terrorists, defeat al-Qaeda, and open the path to democratic Islam that would reconcile us to the masses there. And then, as we saved resources in NATO and in the Middle East, we could pivot to Asia while reducing the defense budgets and reinvigorating alliances in Asia. I thought that was a strategy. It didn’t work, but I thought it was a strategy.

RK: I think what you just described is a strategy. But the strategy is in pursuit of a grand strategy.

WRM: Well, I think if you asked President Obama, “Do you think the United States should try to preserve the liberal world order?”, he’d say yes, and that was what you called a grand strategy in your talk.

RK: But it does need to be articulated as such, and I don’t feel that it has been—neither by Obama nor by any current leading political figure.

WRM: Right. In that sense we go back to the Truman era. I liked the way your New Republic article and your talk this morning discussed that as kind of a pivotal moment. Truman, Dean Acheson, and all the people around them knew that Britain had collapsed, the liberal world order that it used to provide had to endure, and the United States had to make sure it did. But the Republicans made it clear that the only way they’d get support was to say America was fighting communism. And so, even after all of these learning experiences that you talk about, from the 1920s through World War II, they still felt that they couldn’t tell the American people that the grand strategy was the maintenance of a liberal world order.

RK: My essay didn’t say that Obama isn’t getting it right, but rather that it’s really hard to get it right. It’s exactly what Roosevelt feared. The American people could never sustain this without a motivating factor, and then… communism became the motivation. What’s interesting, however, is that we were able to conduct this kind of grand strategy and these kinds of policies for 25 years after the end of the fall of communism, after the end of the Soviet Union. Perhaps American leaders had found a new model and a way to sell this, but I think it’s more likely we were just operating on fumes.

WRM: My own sense of it is that both liberal and conservative figures have said over the past 25 years that the United States will maintain the liberal world order—and that it will be very easy and cheap, with no heavy lifting. Bush said even the Iraq War would be short and cheap. Nobody has ever told the American people that we need the liberal world order, badly, but it may not be that easy to protect. “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat” is the last thing any President would say.

RK: Exactly. And that is why this is such a hard situation. We’re not right at the edge of the precipice, and therefore the need for martialing our greatest selves is not obvious. But if you believe, as I do, that things happen much more quickly than you think they do—that things can fall apart much faster, and that the fact that we don’t see the precipice doesn’t mean it isn’t there… If all that comes to pass, all of our subsequent efforts may wind up being too little, too late.

WRM: Could you draw that out a little bit? Do you envision a scenario in which we go from sitting pretty to serious trouble very quickly?

RK: It’s not the 1930s, but that doesn’t mean that the 1930s experience is irrelevant. The 1930s brought Manchuria and the election of Hitler, Ethiopia, and the Spanish Civil War. By themselves, they may have seemed insignificant.

WRM: And basically, the world went from no worries in 1933 to big worries in 1938.

RK: Total catastrophe. Of course, it’s not a perfect parallel—there is no Hitler on the scene right now.

Look, I believe we are at the beginning of very difficult period for U.S.-China relations—not anywhere near the end. And I think it’s only a matter of time given all the potential military confrontations in the offing that something snaps. I’m not saying that we can’t manage it; I’m not saying the Chinese are eager for war—they aren’t. But I would say we are at the very beginning of difficulties with China.

Furthermore, we now can see clearly that Russia really means to pursue its historical goal of reacquiring the Russian empire in some form or other, which is going to lead eventually to some kind of tension, at the very least, with NATO, the United States, and Europe.

If we are in a period where we don’t feel like taking responsibility for all these things, does the conjunction of all these problems add up to a de facto undoing of the world order? I think it could—and not, by the way, because any particular power wants to undo the world order, but just because the collection of events can produce it.

WRM: Strategy is about what you don’t do as well as what you do. And I think your critics would say, “Kagan always wants to do everything. There’s no brake in the Kagan automobile.” From your prospective, what shouldn’t we be concentrating on, or do we just need to do more everywhere?

RK: Obviously, not everywhere. At this point, I would be content if we were focusing our attention on three traditional areas: Asia, Europe, and the Middle East, the Persian Gulf. Right now we clearly have inadequate capacity to deal with crises in all those places at once.

WRM: So, we don’t care about Venezuela, for example?

RK: We care about Venezuela, and we can care about a lot of things without necessarily having to use military force to deal with them. I really don’t recommend using military force in every situation that we have before us. The fact that I do think we can, should have, and should still use force in Syria—which is in a region of significant interest to the world order—does not means that one wants to do it everywhere.

WRM: What about Ukraine?

RK: I think we’ve pursued a policy that has for the moment held Putin in check. President Obama also believes that part of the answer is a military answer. He is redeploying forces. I personally wish that they were redeploying more forces, as a long-term deterrent to Putin, but there is a case to be made that Obama also agrees that military force is part of the answer.

WRM: What would you say to this argument: Putin’s goal at this point, whatever it may have been at various points along the way, is to keep Ukraine wounded and bleeding so the West keeps pumping money into the country; that money goes to pay its Gazprom bill, and Ukraine becomes a method for Putin extracting money from the West.

RK: I think he has a long-term plan for Russia. But I think he has been very opportunistic in responding to events and carrying it out. So, I don’t think Putin thought he was going to invade Crimea if you had asked him a year ago. But when he lost Yanukovych, he felt he had to do something. Whatever is happening today is not the end of the story.

The analogy I like to use is appropriate, I think: Everybody knew in 1905 what Japan’s long-term ambitions were. But it wasn’t going to happen right away. It took thirty years for Japan to realize its plans. I think we’re much more in that kind of situation, with a country that seizes opportunities when they present themselves.

Yes, Putin wants to keep Ukraine in a state of instability until he can take it. But clearly, his larger objective is to reincorporate it into the traditional Russia.

WRM: But what’s his current objective?

RK: For all we know, he has just made the best of a situation that didn’t turn out the way he had expected. For all we know, he thought Eastern Ukraine was going to totally tumble into his arms.

WRM: Although, I have to say that Washington and Brussels were less ready for what’s happening in Ukraine than Moscow was. They’ve been more surprised.

RK: They’re appropriately surprised that he was willing to use force to take Crimea.

WRM: I have to say, I’ve been disappointed in the NSA over this. If we’ve been listening to Angela Merkel’s phone calls and we don’t know that Putin is about to invade Ukraine, it seems like we’re missing something.

RK: Well, the American intelligence services have their virtues. Somehow, when foreign countries mass troops on the border of another country, they have an amazing proclivity to say they’re not going in. When Saddam massed troops on the border of Kuwait, the intelligence assessment was, “He’s not going in.” Not being an intelligence analyst, when I see troops massed on a border…

WRM: Ah, you’re an amateur, clearly!

OK, here’s another hypothetical, the kind of thing that keeps me up at night: Let’s say in Thailand, you’ve got the situation where the military has imposed a coup. And the United States says, “We don’t like this coup, and you should do democracy”, while China says, “We have absolutely no problems with this coup.” And so your geopolitical and your democratic instincts are very much at war. From your perspective, how should the United States deal with that kind of issue?

RK: If China’s going to be on the side of the military coup, and we’re going to be on the side of undoing the military coup, that’s a pretty straightforward situation.

WRM: Well, except it’s complicated. I mean, do we choose to back the democrats in such a way that the military is very attracted to Chinese support and basically begins to align the country with China?

RK: I’m not an expert on this region, but my understanding has always been that Thailand has always been among those ASEAN states that has traditionally been more on the fence in terms of deciding between China and the United States. It’s a big player, but when we think we’re being clever by deciding that in order to win that competition we should cozy up with the military, the next thing would almost certainly be some kind of revolution overthrowing the military.

WRM: If you think about it, the people who are today the redshirts come from the regions in Thailand where, during the Vietnam era, there was more sympathy for the communist insurgencies.

RK: That’s why, in these situations, I’m generally in favor of not being too clever. We think the military coup was a bad thing, we want to see democracy restored to Thailand. That should be our position.

WRM: What if the people who genuinely want democracy don’t have the capacity to build the institutions, or to manage the economic affairs, or do any of the things that would actually make the creation of a stable democracy possible? What do we do then? Or, do such cases not really exist?

RK: No, obviously such cases exist. And I’m less interested in helping people than I am in supporting processes. If you can get a country to hold repeated, relatively fair elections, other things will follow. I don’t believe, for instance, that you can build liberal institutions in a country that’s an autocracy, in the hope that eventually it will evolve. I don’t believe that’s possible, because the autocrat never allows them to take root. In the case of Egypt, just because the people we liked decided against democracy, they weren’t necessarily right. I think they took an expedient course. They didn’t appreciate losing to Morsi. I think that they were worried about the Morsi government for legitimate reasons, and they were willing to ride the military back into power—except that now they’re not going to be back in power.

WRM: My take is a little bit different. I think that Egypt has basically been a military state since the 1950s. It was a little bit like the old PRI state in Mexico, with the difference being that the President was not term-limited, but life-limited. Mubarak then broke the deal and tried to convert it into a dynastic state. The army basically stepped back when Mubarak came under attack, let him get swept away, and then went back to its core competency, which is crushing the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s really the one thing the Egyptian army has been consistently excellent at doing for 70 years. And in all of that it looked to me as if the “transition to democracy” stuff was more noise than anything that reflected where power was going in Egypt.

RK: I mean, the story is so complicated in so many ways. But you cannot leave out the fact that they held a free and fair election—that the people who were elected were willing to participate in a democratic government. And what we usually said about Islamists—“one man, one vote, one time”—turned out to be the Egyptian military’s policy, not the Muslim Brotherhood’s policy. I think, following Reuel Gerecht and others, that Islam now has to go through this phase of governing democratically.

Now, of course the military would gladly return to the system you described if we gave them the opportunity to return to it.

WRM: Well we didn’t. The Saudis did.

RK: This is a complicated story which we have to break down to make sense of it. There was a time when Morsi and Sisi were getting along fine. Morsi cut his deal with the military. He wasn’t going after their money. He wasn’t going after their holdings. In part, Sisi and the army stepped in when the liberals and secularists decided that this was a good time for them to do it.

WRM: Again, I would say that the Egyptian military’s core competence is figuring out how to keep the Islamists and the liberals both thinking that the military is the lesser evil among them.

RK: I would say its core competence is receiving military aid from the United States.

WRM: That’s one of the side-benefits of its core competence.

RK: After all, don’t forget, the Mubarak regime deliberately kept the Muslim Brotherhood alive. And the military has now moved to a new phase in suggesting that it wants to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood.

WRM: In all of this I don’t think there was a moment when Morsi was going to actually be able to govern. We sort of think Egypt’s democrats in the current context can be what the democratic socialists were in the 1950s and 60s. But the difference between the Muslim Brotherhood and, say, the SPD is a hundred years of participation in politics, experience, institutions… And it seems to me that the Muslim Brotherhood—though ideologically it might have been at the point that you’re talking about, ready to try ruling democratically—didn’t have what it took as an organization to actually carry out that historical mission.

RK: I mean, you could have said the same thing about the ANC, for that matter.

WRM: Well sometimes things go better than you expect.

RK: The ANC did what it did because they had Mandela. And the Brotherhood had Morsi, and Morsi was not Mandela.

WRM: It’s even more than that. The ANC had Marxism, and Marxism at least gives you a capacity to organize.

RK: So what you’re really saying is: Islamists can’t do it.

WRM: I haven’t generalized about other countries. I said that in Egypt—

RK: Marxists can do it, socialists can do it…

WRM: I’m saying the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt, was not ready to take power.

RK: That may or may not be true. The way the Muslim Brotherhood behaved in power was certainly, in many respects, nondemocratic. But it was not nondemocratic in a specifically Islamic way. It was majoritarian-style democracy: “We won. You shut up.”

I don’t think it was impossible for us to force Morsi to behave differently. We did not play our role in putting pressure on Morsi to not do the things that he did, because we wanted to make sure that we had an address in Cairo where we could send the mail.

WRM: American policy can be criticized like that just about everywhere, under any administration at any time.

But compare the competence of the Muslim Brotherhood with, say, the competence of the AK Party, where Erdogan has many of the worst flaws that one could attribute to Morsi. Yet the AKP knows how to run a city hall.

RK: Well I can’t wait to see what the competence of Sisi is like. We may find that he’s not competent either.

WRM: As I say, the Egyptian military doesn’t really know how to build an effective economy. It doesn’t know how to defeat military enemies—

RK: —or to rule even an autocracy.

WRM: Well, what it can do is crush opposition.

RK: But it won’t be able to crush them. What I fear now is that we are about to be dragged into this downward spiral of increasing radicalism and terrorism and increasing repression, funded by us.

WRM: Well, that wouldn’t be a bad description of the last forty years of Egyptian history.

RK: No, Egypt was relatively stable until Mubarak blew it at the end. He blew it in two ways. One was by naming Gamal as his successor. The other was by not making the token reforms for the parliamentary elections that would have let some of the air out of the protest movement. And we put no pressure on him to undertake those reforms.

Look, I am under no illusions about the wonderful efficacy of American policy. But, it’s not as if we’ve never been in a situation where we had to intervene during a transitional period in another country.

WRM: So, looking around the world now, where do you think we could play a really serious role in advancing democracy?

RK: Well, I’m not prepared to give up on Egypt, though it calls for a radical shift from the policy path that we are currently on. Sisi’s government is not going to be stable, and there will be economic difficulties I don’t think it can handle. My concern there is that because of what’s happened, the Brotherhood is highly unlikely to take part in a political campaign any time soon.

And I’m not going to say that we could bring democracy to Syria tomorrow. But we certainly could shift the balance against Assad tomorrow. And our unwillingness to do that has, I think, cost us a great deal, not only in Syria, not only in the region, but around the world.

I do think that there’s a lot that we are going to be doing in Ukraine, and I think it’s important that we can support Ukrainian democracy.

WRM: Should we be pushing Hungary harder?

RK: Absolutely. I think it’s very incumbent on both the European Union and the United States to say, “Look, we’re not going to tell you what to do. But, you’re not part of our team if this is the direction you’re going in.” I think it’s very important that we do that in Hungary, and I think it’s very important that we do that in any other place where we see this trend emerging. And by “trend” I don’t mean just the election of right-wing political parties in the European parliament; I mean the behavior of governments. And, by the way, a lot of democracy promotion is being catcher in the rye, and preventing democracies from steering off the cliff. It’s not just, and in many cases it’s not even primarily, going in and promoting.

WRM: Again, where do you think the United States can cut back? Is there any place? Any issue, any region in the world? Or, do we just need to do more?

RK: The question is beside the point. The bottom line is that we are back to having three regions in the world, all requiring a security commitment from the United States, as they traditionally have. We didn’t think Europe was going to be one of them, and it now is. And we can’t get out of the Middle East, no matter how much some of our policymakers would like us to. If anything, we’re probably going to get deeper into the Middle East, not more out of it. And the President was absolutely right, as most strategists would say, that in Asia we must increase our capabilities and our presence across the board, not just militarily. If you want to say that therefore we’ll do less in Argentina, fine. Make yourself feel better. Do you want to say we’re going to do less in sub-Saharan Africa, fine.

WRM: Well, actually, it looks like we’re going to have to do more there, too.

RK: So all I can say is that it’s no longer this kind of 1990s problem—of choosing the next place to intervene. We’re not talking about Somalia and Haiti. Now we’re talking about mainstream, core regions of the world, all of which require increased American capability and involvement. And instead, all our capabilities are decreasing.

My question to the other side would be, which of those three regions do you want to pull back from?

WRM: As you look at the political scene and political actors, is there anyone out there—whether a candidate for president, or a senator or governor—who you think has the vision and the ability to communicate to be the kind of leader you think America may need in the next few years?

RK: There’s no one obvious at the moment. If we had a race, just hypothetically, in 2016, between Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, I would sleep easier. I think I could live with either one of them.

WRM: Elizabeth Warren and Rand Paul?

RK: In that case I would be sleeping less easily. No, I think that Hillary Clinton believes in the American role in the world, and my assumption is that Jeb Bush believes that America has this critical role in the world to play. Either of them, however, would still face a tremendously uphill battle in convincing the American people, in increasing the defense budget, in restoring what I think has become America’s fading reputation for reliability. And it’s not going to be easy.

WRM: Underlying this is a perceived lack of confidence among the American people in the foreign policy, internationalist elite.

RK: Was there a time when they had that confidence, or have we read that back into history? Do we remember the attacks on Dean Acheson?

WRM: I’m not quite old enough to remember, but I am well aware of them. During the Cold War, when an American President wanted to do something that wasn’t all that popular, he could basically go to the opposition in Congress, and even to the American people, and say, “look, if we don’t do this, the communists are going to do X, and we can’t have that.” And after a lot of grumbling, something like what the president proposed would happen. These days there’s a lot more public resistance. This is what you’re saying.

RK: For me, the key difference is that there is no communism anymore. You’re right, you could have been any goof, the American people could have no confidence in you at all, but if you said “commies” that was enough. That’s a simplification, but I think there’s a lot of truth in it. I find it hard to think back on, say, 1973 through 1979 and say “wow, look at all the confidence the American people had in the foreign policy elite.” The foreign policy elite blew up, you know?

I mean, in 1950, with the Korean War, I would say there was a tremendous loss of faith in the foreign policy elite, which Eisenhower then came in to try to reestablish in some way.

WRM: And fairly successfully.

RK: Yes, but only because he kicked all the problems down in the direction of Jack Kennedy and everything he did was quiet. So, when he wanted to deal with somebody, he rattled nuclear weapons at them or he overthrew them. Every time somebody says “I love Eisenhower”, I want to say, “If you love Eisenhower, you have to say you love threatening nuclear war, and overthrowing people you disagree with.” Because that was his foreign policy.

WRM: That’s true. It is actually interesting how often people talk about, say, Mossadegh and that terrible incident and they don’t mention that it was Eisenhower!

Well, maybe we can end by saying that if Obama’s staffers start comparing the President to Eisenhower’s the Iranians should get nervous.

RK: In that case, they should get very nervous! They would be about to get nuked or overthrown imminently!

WRM: Thanks very much for speaking with us.

RK: My pleasure.

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