The Return of History and the End of Dreams

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  • Format: Trade Paper
  • Copyright: 5/5/2009
  • Publisher: Vintage

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Robert Kagan, bestselling author of Of Paradise and Power, masterfully poses the most important questions facing the liberal democratic countries in the coming decades. Hopes for a new peaceful international order after the end of the Cold War have been dashed by sobering realities: Great powers are once again competing for honor and influence. The world remains "unipolar," but international competition among the United States, Russia, China, Europe, Japan, India, and Iran raise new threats of regional conflict. Kagan challenges them to choose whether we want to shape history or let others shape it for us. From the Trade Paperback edition.

Author Biography

Robert Kagan is senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund, and a columnist for The Washington Post. He is also the author of A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977-1990, and editor, with William Kristol, of Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign and Defense Policy. Kagan served in the U.S. State Department from 1984 to 1988. He lives in Brussels with his family.


In the early 1990s, the optimism was understandable and almost universal. The collapse of the communist empire and the apparent embrace of democracy by Russia seemed to augur a new era of global convergence. The great adversaries of the Cold War suddenly shared many common goals, including a desire for economic and political integration. Even after the political crackdown that began in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and disturbing signs of instability in Russia after 1993, most Americans and Europeans believed China and Russia were on a path toward liberalism. Boris Yeltsin's Russia seemed committed to the liberal model of political economy and closer integration with the West. The Chinese government's
commitment to economic opening, it was hoped, would inevitably produce a political opening, whether Chinese leaders wanted it or not.

Such determinism was characteristic of post--Cold War thinking. In a globalized economy, most believed, nations had no choice but to liberalize, first economically, then politically, if they wanted to compete and survive. As national economies approached a certain level of per capita income, growing middle classes would demand legal and political power, which rulers would have to grant if they wanted their nations to prosper. Since democratic capitalism was the most successful model for developing societies, all societies would eventually choose that path. In the battle of ideas, liberalism had triumphed. As Francis Fukuyama famously put it, "At the end of history, there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy."

The economic and ideological determinism of the early post--Cold War years produced two broad assumptions that shaped both policies and expectations. One was an abiding belief in the inevitability of human progress, the belief that history moves in only one direction-- a faith born in the Enlightenment, dashed by the brutality of the twentieth century, but given new life
fall of communism. The other was a prescription for patience and restraint. Rather than confront and challenge autocracies, it was better to enmesh them in the global economy, support the rule of law and the creation of stronger state institutions, and let the ineluctable forces of human progress work their magic.

With the world converging around the shared principles of Enlightenment liberalism, the great task of the post--Cold War era was to build a more perfect international system of laws and institutions, fulfilling the prophecies of Enlightenment thought stretching back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A world of liberal governments would be a world without war, just as Kant had imagined. The free flow of both goods and ideas in the new globalized era would be an antidote to human conflict. As Montesquieu had argued, "The natural effect of commerce is to lead toward peace." This old Enlightenment dream seemed suddenly possible because, along with the apparent triumph of international liberalism, the geopolitical and strategic interests of the world's great powers also seemed to converge. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush spoke of a "new world order" in which "the nations of the world, East and West, North and South, can prosper and live in harmony," where "the rule of law supplants the rule of the jungle," where nations "recognize the shared responsibility for freedom and justice." It was "a world quite different from the one we've known."

The world looked different primarily because the Soviet Union was different. No one would have suggested that history had ended if the communist Soviet Union had not so suddenly and dramatically died and been transformed after 1989. The transformation of Soviet and then Russian foreign policy was remarkable. The "peaceful influence of liberal ideas" completely reoriented Russian perspectives on the world--or so it seemed. Even in the

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