Strategy & Policy
A Conversation with Robert Kagan

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.

Published on: June 25, 2014
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  • Anthony

    Enjoyable exchange between two excellent minds. Robert Kagan: my essay didn’t say that Obama isn’t getting it right, but rather that it’s really hard to get right. That is, sustaining and maintaining liberal world order.

    • Andrew Allison

      The catastrophic consequences of the US belief that it has a duty to sustain and maintain liberal world order are on display from Afghanistan to Libya.

  • Pete

    This guy wants to intervene just about everywhere.

    But I give him credit for at least acknowledging that the American people won’t stand for it.

    • Breif2

      RK: “My question to the other side would be, which of those three regions do you want to pull back from?”
      Pete: “Just one?!”


  • El Gringo

    WRM, are you seriously interested in Kagan’s views on grand strategy? Kagan and his neocon buddies in PNAC had a grand strategy for the U.S. and look how that turned out. Iraq and the Middle East are in flames and this guy not only has the hutzpah to criticize Obama but call for more intervention? The fact that Baghdad is at risk of falling to ISIS at this very moment should be enough to completely discredit this man, let alone his track record over the past 15 years.

    • Palinurus

      Yes, exactly, Kagan should be banished to his room. No cookies for you, Bob Kagan!

      What you hint at in your post shows that is it by talking to Bob Kagan that WRM has done even more to discredit him. WRM probed Kagan on a question of great interest to many supporters of a forward-leaning foreign policy – what are the lessons learned from our recent foreign policy debacles and, in light of them, the prescription going forward to support liberal internationalism?

      The answers are not reassuring. For all his displays of vast knowledge of diplomatic history, Kagan appears to have learned nothing from the recent past and to have little to offer to the near future. Set aside his brilliance as a conversationalist, and even Kagan’s historical learning appears dubious at best and even slightly unsavory. History has taught him that the US is constitutionally unable to maintain an active foreign policy unless it is duped; we will only go abroad to slay monsters if we’re roused and excited by tales of bad boogie men on the loose.

      The manifold ironies are enough to make reading the long transcript worthwhile: Those who would promote democracy abroad have such contempt for it at home; their ability to gain power justifies to some extent their contempt for democracy and the American people; but the uneasiness of Americans with the striped-pants poo-bahs, and their ability to see through them in the end, is perhaps their saving grace.

  • Gerald

    It seems a bit premature to talk about strategy in the absence of some postulation of America’s Objectives. There is considerable difference between the post WWII situation when Europe was decimated, China was in civil war amidst extreme poverty and the USSR was the only state that could threaten the USA. If our objective is to lead/rule the world we need substantial more military power and the willingness to use it ruthlessly. If we wish to make the world secure for ourselves and our “allies”, we had best determine who said allies are and what resources might be needed. If we simply wish to protect the USA, then defensive systems must strengthened and threats must be answered immediately and decisively. Discussions of influencing/steering every nation on earth and deluding ourselves that we share common aspirations may be interesting academic discussions, but totally unrealistic. The sooner we can determine what our objectives are, then the sooner it would be useful to formulate strategies. There is nothing in the previous actions of Mr. Obama, his cabinet or his advisers that would lead an objective observer to imagine that they have the intellect, experience, knowledge or maturity to realistically determine objectives, strategy or tactics that serve the best interest of America.

  • Breif2

    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.

    The Underpants Gnomes have taken over the White House!

    I was amused by the beginning of the exchange on Thailand:
    WRM: “So what should we do about Thailand?”
    RK: XYZ
    WRM: “Beg your pardon?”
    RK: XYZ
    WRM: “Are you sure?”
    RK: Yes, XYZ.
    WRM: “Bob, think! What should we do about Thailand?” [significant look]
    RK: XYZ.
    WRM: [sigh]

  • lukelea

    “Do you think the United States should try to preserve the liberal world order?”

    Well, yes, of course it should. The question is whether it should be primarily responsible for preserving it. In The Gathering Storm Churchill has some interesting things to say about “grand strategy” and the idea of “collective security” as the key to establishing international law. Back then it was all about The League of Nations, which failed of course. The UN doesn’t seem much better equipped.

    Maybe a third try would be charmed?

    I see a new Democratic League, composed primarily of the OECD countries, dedicated to using its combined economic, financial, commercial, industrial, technological, and military strength to enforce civilized norms around the globe. I think China could be contained better that way than any other. We need a new Roosevelt or Churchill to bring the world’s democracies together in a new Compact.

    • Andrew Allison

      Where on earth did the ridiculous idea that there’s a liberal world order come from? The world is disorderly, and the US dream of establishing a liberal world order is just that.

  • lukelea

    Bring democracy to a clannish, tribal-based society like Syria? Impossible. I can’t believe Kagan thinks we can. Also see here.

  • lukelea

    I would like to see more evidence for why Mr. Kagan thinks it is obvious that Putin is trying to reestablish the Russian Empire. I don’t say he isn’t, but I haven’t been following the story that closely (apart from what happened in Georgia and Crimea) and I would like to see the evidence. I can certainly believe Putin wants a strong Russia, but to reclaim all the territories that were formerly part of the Soviet Union? Or does Mr. Kagan mean something else?

  • Dick Pickett

    I like Ike, and Andy Jackson, too.

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