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Transcript: Dialogues on American Foreign Policy and World Affairs: A Conversation with Robert Kagan

Walter Russell Mead

Following is the full transcript of the Hudson Institute event titled Dialogues on American Foreign Policy and World Affairs: A Conversation with Robert Kagan

Disclaimer: This transcript is based off of a recorded video conference and periodic breaks in the stream have resulted in disruptions to the audio and transcribed text.

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Walter Russell Mead:
So hello, everyone, and welcome to the Hudson Institute Dialogues on American Foreign Policy and World Affairs Series. My name is Walter Russell Mead. And today I have the great pleasure of speaking with Dr. Robert Kagan for the second time in this series. Dr. Kagan is the Steven and Barbara Friedman senior fellow with the project on international order and strategy and the foreign policy program at Brookings. He’s also contributing columnist at the Washington Post, an author of numerous books, including “Dangerous Nation: America’s Place in the World, from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the 20th Century”. And most recently “The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World”. His next book, “The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941” is a continuation of “Dangerous Nation,” and is scheduled to be released in 2023. I, for one, I’m looking forward to that book tremendously, I’ve taught “Dangerous Nation” in my classes on American foreign policy and students are always disappointed when it ends and want to know how the story comes out.
So you can expect some readers from my classes. So, Bob, many thanks for joining me for this. And I think this is going to be a terrific discussion for readers. Bob really is one of America’s foremost strategic thinkers, particularly on subjects of world order and American foreign policy. And at a time when these topics are on everybody’s mind, it’s a great time to have him with us. This is a time when this world order that at the end of the Cold War looks so secure and so well established is now coming under challenges from Russia, China, and other countries. It appears that things are getting steadily more unstable. So Bob, let’s start kind of at the level of globally. How do you see the state of world order in 2022?

Robert Kagan:
Well, I have to say I’m neither as surprised as many people to see what’s happening. I think where we are today is the product of a long process that has been going on since the end of the Cold War. It’s a natural process. We have countries seeking their ambitions as nations do in accord with their perceptions of their own power and their perceptions of their potential enemies’ power. And certainly, Putin has been on a mission to restore as much of the old Russian empire as possible. And he’s been working at it for well over a decade. And the latest move is just the latest move, it’s where he’s been heading. And obviously, China is what we would call a dissatisfied power. It lives in the middle of a world order that was not devised to serve its interests.
And therefore China has been seeking to change that order mostly peacefully, but at the end of the day, military power is always a critical element in changing an order. So we’re dealing with that too. So that we are in this situation is not surprising that we have handled it perhaps less than brilliantly. If you think about the history of American foreign policy is also not surprising. If we’ve been slow to realize that the world is not the utopia that we expected after the end of the Cold War which is also what we expected after the end of World War I. It’s all too painfully recognizable in a certain sense. That having been said, I must say the United States and its liberal allies which is what the liberal world order is. Liberal order is not the whole world, the liberal world order includes the United States and those peoples around the world who share fundamental liberal principles.
That liberal world order is still pretty strong. And I think that the difficulty that Russia is having accomplishing its objectives in Ukraine, I think caution with which China moves despite its general, its clear purpose reflects an understanding or the reality that the United States is still in a sort of remarkably strong position given not only it’s only invulnerable still in a geopolitical sense but also the many alliances it has with what happened to be the richest and potentially most powerful parts of the world. And so I think that both Russia and China face obstacles, and I think the liberal world order so far, hasn’t done everything it needs to do but is responding relatively well to the situations.

Walter Russell Mead:
Okay. I think for some of our viewers, it may be helpful to define a little bit more tightly sort of what do we mean by this phrase that you hear all the time in foreign policy circles, liberal world order, or sometimes rules-based international order? And also why should the average American care about whether such a thing exists or whether it’s strong or weak at any given moment? As you’ve said, America is practically invulnerable. So some viewers I think are going to say, “Well, if we’re so invulnerable, why do we care what’s happening in Kazakhstan?”

Robert Kagan:
Well, we have yet to show a great deal of interest in what’s happening in Kazakhstan, but Ukraine is an interesting case. And I think it’s been interesting to see the American and European reaction to the latest Russian invasion of Ukraine. I think you could easily make the case and I’m sure people who call themselves realists or restrainers are making the case a little more quietly than usual. I must say that the United States has no interest in Ukraine. Certainly, if Ukraine were to fall, it would not have an immediate appreciable effect on American security. So if you’re just thinking in terms of American security, we don’t have to be concerned about these things looking at security from a narrow perspective. And by the way, I mean just one of the essays I just wrote and it comes out of the new book that you mentioned, The Ghost at the Feast shows that those who said that it didn’t really matter to us whether Germany took over all of Europe, they had a point too.
It was very unlikely actually that Hitler was going to invade the United States anytime soon or perhaps at all. And it was quite possible to imagine the United States could make itself strong enough to be impervious to intervention. So if you just look strictly at the question of defense of the American Homeland, I don’t know that the United States has too many interests that meet that challenge, terrorist attacks notwithstanding. But, in fact, Walter, as you know, that is not how Americans have behaved. Americans have consistently both in the 1930s, then during the Cold War, and I think most recently in the case of Ukraine responded to a perceived threat not necessarily to them directly but to the kind of fundamentally liberal world that Americans would like to live in. And they have responded to perceived threats to basically what I would call the liberal hegemony or at least the balance of power that favors liberalism.
And I think the American response to Ukraine has been very much about that. Now I would say we have questions as we always do about how directly we want to get involved, but the fact is we’re pretty involved pretty directly. And I think that can be explained best by a perception that Putin is potentially a real threat to the balance of power that favors liberalism. And that is, by the way, I think American people are right about that. I think if Putin were allowed to succeed in Ukraine, that would be the beginning of his efforts, not the end. I think other countries in Europe would be at much greater risk. We would be moving back towards something like the Cold War standoff in Europe.
And I think Americans are right to think that would be a bad idea. Europeans who are right there, obviously very strongly believe that that would be a bad idea, but they still rely on the United States to prevent that from happening. So to sum it all up, I would say Americans have a very confused notion of what their interests are and there’s a big gap between what this sort of discourse that international relations theorists have about interests and what Americans actually perceive and act on in the world. And I guess I would say Ukraine is the perfect example of that.

Walter Russell Mead:
But you’ve talked a lot about liberal world, liberal hegemony. I want to just make sure all our viewers are clear on what does that mean? What’s the difference between an liberal world and an illiberal or non-liberal world?

Robert Kagan:
Well, it’s actually quite concrete. There are governments and peoples around the world who share fundamental liberal principles. They’re fundamentally democratic. They fundamentally believe in the rights of the individual versus the state as opposed to other governments that and other societies where the state is supreme and the individual is subordinate. And that is clearly the view of Chinese government, if not all of Chinese society. It’s clearly Putin’s view of the proper of form of government in Russia. It was the view of Wilhelmine, Germany, before and during World War I, before it was destroyed. That is the alternative.
There is a fundamentally anti-liberal belief that government should focus on the needs of the state, not the individual. And then there is a fundamentally liberal view that the state exists to preserve individual rights. We know which countries those are from Japan and the other Asian democracies on one side to the European democracies on the other, that is the liberal world order or those countries that do not share that view are outside the liberal world order. And this tension has always existed. It goes back really in to the beginning of liberalism in the late 18th century and has been the major dividing line in the world ever since.

Walter Russell Mead:
And I think it’s also worth, again, and not all of our viewers are going to be IR experts and all, but do countries that are liberal-democratic in their domestic arrangements, does this change the way they behave toward each other and therefore affect the dynamics of international politics? I want to just draw you out on that just a little bit.

Robert Kagan:
Well, I mean, there’s what we used to call democratic peace theory. And it’s a belief that I think that Americans have had since the founding. I mean, there is this general belief that democracies are more Pacific in their approach to the world and dictatorships tend to be more aggressive. I don’t know. It’s very hard to… We don’t have a good sample in a way. All we know is that in a world that has been contested, whether during the Cold War or in the first half of the 20th century, the democracies tended to stick together and not go to war with one another.
If the world were entirely made up with democracies, I’m not sure that that means there would be no war between them because countries can differ about a lot of different issues. I think it’s fair to say that the prospects of war would be lower than in a world in which you really do have contention where ideology and geopolitics sort of overlap and you have contested spheres of power but also contested spheres of theology and belief. And that is what clearly has made for conflict over the past two centuries.

Walter Russell Mead:
As you noted a little earlier after World War I, World War II, for that matter, and the Cold War, sort of American society, or at least a lot of our foreign policy leadership was convinced not only that the hour of stable liberal triumph was possible, but that it was actually here. So Woodrow Wilson with the League of Nations, Franklin Roosevelt, and Truman with the United Nations, and then George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton with the new world order all saw this vision, and yet it hasn’t come yet. What’s that all about?

Robert Kagan:
Well, setting aside your discussion of those presidents because I don’t think that Wilson was just an airy idealist I think.

Walter Russell Mead:
No, no, no, no, no. I agree.

Robert Kagan:
Was in fact, an attempt at a very practical answer to a very practical problem. But setting that aside for a second, there’s no question that liberalism with its sort of deep enlightenment heritage has an inherent belief in the idea of progress. And the idea that as knowledge increases and as commerce increases that human behavior just simply improves. And you can read some of this stuff now in works by Steven Pinker, for instance, just all he can see is the progress that’s occurring or people who believe that the Kellogg–Briand Pact is finally having a real impact on international relations. I don’t know how they feel about that argument lately, but it’s a very deeply ingrained view of liberalism that things are heading in a direction that history is teleological and that we are heading toward a better and better world where people more and more respect the rights, et cetera, et cetera.
And to some extent within the confines of the liberal world order, which is to say those countries that share these views, that kind of progress has occurred. I mean, in civil rights movements, in other ways in which individual rights have expanded, people don’t torture than much as they used to, et cetera. A lot of that progress has occurred and sometimes people think, well, that’s just what’s happening to humanity instead of realizing that that is what is happening in a world where liberalism is solidly grounded and supported and defended but nothing like that is happening outside the liberal order. If you look at the what Russians are willing to do in Ukraine, not only to Ukrainians but also to each other, it’s clear that there’s been no actual progress in terms of the way humans are capable of treating each other.

Robert Kagan:
But we are constantly believing that progress is on the cusp and when we believe that, we tend to believe that therefore we can sort of relax our defenses just wait. I mean Frank Fukuyama’s basic point was, it’s a victory of the idea. All you have to do is sit back and watch the idea win whereas in reality, it was force that ultimately led to the victory of that idea and it is force that will undo that victory. So, but that is a very painful… It’s kind of a last thing in the world Americans in particular want to believe.

Walter Russell Mead:
Yeah. One thing I think both of us sometimes feel when studying history is that one of the things you learn from the study of history is that people don’t easily learn from history and it’s amazing how much we repeat some of the same ideas and mistakes from generation to generation.

Robert Kagan:
Well, and again, the reason is it’s this enlightenment heritage. History is not so meaningful if you’re constantly moving ahead and improving, and progress is inevitable because whatever horrible things happened in the past, well, that was in the past and we’ve changed. I mean, really if you read Stephen Pinker or others, their view is we’ve changed. The human race has changed and if you’re someone like me and I think you, Walter, human nature doesn’t change. The only thing that changes are configurations of power and the power of ideas and how people are basically taught to think about or learn to think about the world.

Walter Russell Mead:
Well, I’m glad we’ve started our conversation this way because very often conversations about foreign policy and politics proceed on the basis of all kinds of very well-developed ideological or intellectual views but they’re often not articulated. And so I think it’s good for our listeners to see how the analysis that we’re going to move into more specific issues and problems around the world is grounded in a worldview that Dr. Kagan has been developing for many years and working on in the research of his books. So let’s stop talking about the world and start talking about parts of the world. And right now, while we are always talking about pivoting to Asia and the Indo-Pacific as the main arena, Europe keeps popping up in world affairs and keeps drawing our attention. And now we have Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and all the consequences that are flowing from that. From your point of view, what is this? Why does Putin oppose this liberal order? Why is he opposed to the status quo? What’s he trying to accomplish? And how successful is he likely to be?

Robert Kagan:
Well, people talk a lot about how Putin’s main motive is to undo the liberal world order. I would say that that is a tactic and a means of accomplishing what he really wants. And what he clearly really wants, as I say, is to re-establish some semblance of what many Russians feel is their natural place in the world, which is not just one of many European powers, not just another seat at a NATO table, in which everybody is sort of living in the American design world, but he wants to reassert Russia’s what they regard is their traditional sphere of interest and domination which certainly includes Ukraine and every other part of what they call their near abroad. But it also obviously includes the Baltic States.

Robert Kagan:
If you think historically, it means that the very least a dominant position in central Europe, so that countries like Poland which from a Russian point of view is supposed to be subservient to Russia at times it has been absorbed into Russia, but certainly that it would take its guidance from Moscow and not from Washington, or Paris, or London, or even Warsaw for that matter. And that is a classic Russian goal. He, I think with justification, compares himself to Peter the Great. We say, “Oh my God, how could you think of yourself as Peter the great?” But if he accomplishes his objectives, why not? And he does think in these historical terms. And I think it’s also pretty clear that for a lot of Russians, the collapse of the Soviet Union really was a humiliation from which they have not recovered.

Robert Kagan:
It’s a little bit like many Germans in Myanmar, Germany, who never really recovered from the loss of World War I, who believed that they were tricked, stabbed in the back, surrounded by these liberal powers who’ve ordered them around, et cetera and that justice requires a reassertion of Russian power to what they regard as its traditional position in the global firmament. And I think that’s, what’s driving him, yes. Does he see the liberal world as an enemy? Sure. But I think that’s, as I say, that’s more a tactic. He would like to divide the liberal world. He would like to be able to raise a banner for anti-liberalism. That’s certainly what he preaches in Russia. But, I really think the ultimate goal is the restoration of Russian power.

Walter Russell Mead:
And so as we look at how this project of his is going, he’d obviously had fair amount of success starting arguably with his 2008 invasion of Georgia, his attack on Georgia, and made serial moves in former Soviet space in Syria and so on and never really encountered the kind of pushback that would really force him to draw back. And now he’s kind of escalated to this attack on Ukraine. How do you think? And clearly, he overestimated what he could accomplish in the beginning of the war, the attacks on Kyiv failed, he’s been forced to withdraw, but at the same time, he’s clearly he didn’t crumble as many thought he might when confronted with sanctions and so on from the West. And now we’re in what looks like a war of attrition, at least for now. How do you see this war going? What are his prospects of actually making progress toward his goal of restoring Russia’s great power stature?

Robert Kagan:
I mean, it’s a little hard to know because he certainly obviously as by the way, so did I don’t know what you thought, but I thought that the Russian military had the capacity to move pretty quickly to consolidate its position in Ukraine. I mean, in theory, and on paper, Russian military technological ability alone dwarfed anything that the Ukrainians had in response. He’d increased and improved and spent money on this military over the years. And I think he expected it to work, forgive me, the way the American military worked in Iraq in the first few days, in any case, whether things got complicated after that, obviously, but certainly, in terms of the first few days, I think that Putin would’ve been delighted with that outcome and that was sort of the outcome that he expected.
Okay. So then that obviously failed and his military proved to be whether because of corruption or who knows what, it certainly turned out to be not what he thought it was. But then, of course, unlike I think a typical Western reaction to that kind of failure, which would be, “Okay, how do we get out of this as quickly as we possibly can?” He responded with a Russian reaction, which is, “Okay, I’m going to have to spend a lot more and cost a lot more lives and conduct a much longer and more brutal war, but we’re going to stick it out. And we’re going to just keep pressing ahead.” Now, the fact that he wants to do that and has been doing that doesn’t mean that he can, and he may ultimately have to face the reality that his military capacity just isn’t up to the task which is interesting.
And if so, let me just say, he will fallen into the trap that so many aggressive dictators have fallen into ever since the United States became the world power that it became after the beginning of the 20th century which is simply to underestimate what it means to take on, in a sense, the liberal world in a circumstance like this. The fact is that the ability of the liberal world to pour in equipment and weapons to Ukraine, which have clearly made a big difference and to consolidate various economic sanctions which have had effect in some areas and will have more effect over time.
I mean, they are really kind of grinding the Russian economy down simply because Russian economy can’t get things they need like microchips, that this is the problem of having basically America in the world and all these aggressive dictators who basically their mentality is historical and regional. That it’s very hard for them to really understand the reach and capacity of this incredibly wealthy superpower that lives thousands of miles away where you really can’t touch them except through a nuclear war, which I’ve never understood why anybody thought that, but a nuclear war is Putin’s answer to this problem.
But that notwithstanding and so that weighs on one side, but you use the term feckless in your last piece, and I bet you probably have written the word feckless 750 times over the past 20 years, if not more. And, of course, it was also true in 1938 that if Britain and France and Czechoslovakia, which was actually quite strong relatively speaking, had just taken Hitler on and said, “Forget it, we’ll go to war with you if we need.” Hitler would’ve lost and he might well have been out of business then but because they didn’t want to because they convinced themselves that Czechoslovakia is a country that’s far away, people we don’t know, et cetera, and it’s not really worth another war and they were still suffering, still remembering the effects of World War I, that even their superior power in that situation did no lead to the defeat of Hitler.
And so what you have on the one side, I think is a clear imbalance in favor of the liberal world order in a situation like Ukraine, but real questions about the standing power of democracies in this situation. I think Putin, like many of these other dictators in the past, is counting on that. Japanese, they knew militarily there was no chance they could beat the United States, but they entertained some hope that they were tougher, that they had what they called the Yamato spirit, that they had beaten bigger countries in the past. They beat Russia in 1904, 1905, and that the Americans were weak. And I remember coming across this great line from Hitler he says, “What is America but beauty queens, bad records, and Hollywood?” He thought it was an effete, decadent society. It’s not inconceivable that Putin has that in his mind as well as he looks to the West.
Walter Russell Mead:
Yeah. I think he probably does. And some of what he said suggests very much that’s his picture, but it’s interesting that if you think about the center of gravity of Ukrainian resistance, you have the military resistance and the spirit of the Ukrainian people on the ground, but also Ukraine’s economic and military ability to continue the conflict, which does rest, as you suggest with the kind of will of the West and with the Draghi government falling in Italy, with Germany looking a little bit looking in a sense, more nervous now about this economic sanctions Russia could put on Germany in terms of the gas flow, then hopeful about the effect of sanctions Germany could put on Russia. There does seem to be some fissures developing in the coalition. How serious do you think that is? And do you think the liberal west will be able to pull together in the end on this?

Robert Kagan:
Well, again, I do think Putin’s view is that the Russians and he are tougher, they’re just tougher at the end of the day than the West. However, I must say, if you go back through, you know this Walter, if you go back through the Cold War and even in the first half, obviously in the first half of the 20th century, there’s always somebody who should be doing more. They’re not doing enough. In the Cold War, after all, you had Willie Brown and Ostpolitik, and you had the French stepping out of NATO. I mean, there’s nothing really new about that. I think given that history, the Western and liberal world has held together remarkably well and continues to do so. And I think that probably, I’m just going to say probably Putin is overestimating his own toughness and underestimating the West’s solidarity.
For whatever reason, this is one of those moments when it was clear that Western Europe, and that includes Germany really did have a kind of wake-up call as to what the possibilities were. The sort of the naked use of force, the brutal use of force, the inhuman use of force, it’s not that far from their borders. In addition to which we’re now also dealing with the fruits of you’ll forgive me, NATO enlargement, which is to say that Germany is not on the front line. Poland is on the front line, the Baltic states are on the front line and so together, the odds against Russia have actually improved, have increased because of the expansion. And because Poland is not going to say, “Okay, we don’t want to do anymore.” So that puts a lot of pressure westward. And you look at the posture that Britain has decided to take. They want to be among the hawks. That wasn’t a sure thing. So yeah. There’s room for complaint. And, of course, there’s plenty of room for concern, but I think so far it’s been pretty good.

Walter Russell Mead:
And on the American side, you think the support is going to be lasting?

Robert Kagan:
Well, I’m interested. So far I’ve been sort of pleasantly surprised that in particular, it’s not, yeah, I guess maybe for both parties, I was going to say in particular, on the Republican Party, which looked like it was getting a little bit close to an America first approach under Trump. And that’s where Trump started when the war began. And it was interesting how quickly Republicans sort of went in the other direction to the point where even Trump himself had to kind of shift his position and Democrats I just think it just happens to be the case that Putin is such an odious and ideologically antiliberal that it’s sort of easier for Democrats, even of a progressive nature who ordinarily would be very wary of involvement, it feels like a very moral cause which is very similar, by the way, interestingly to the liberal response to the Spanish Civil War when a lot of progressives who had been anti-war or anti-intervention began leaning in a different direction.
So, now, having said all that, I’m a little worried for the day that Trump announces, I do think, his candidacy because I do think he will now decide that there is political gain to be had in saying, “We’re wasting our money. We’re fighting for others. This is stupid.” And you do see some of that in Republican circles. And you see some of the Republican mouth, the sort of conservative mouthpiece in the media out there. Obviously, there’s Tucker Carlson and others. I do think it’s possible that Trump will actually take the fight in the other direction and therefore bring a lot of Republicans with him. How many, will be interesting to see. So I do worry about staying power in the United States, but so far it’s been pretty strong.

Walter Russell Mead:
Right. Well, I guess a place where I wonder how many more $40 billion aid bills for Ukraine can pass?

Robert Kagan:
Obviously, yeah.

Walter Russell Mead:
One every six months.

Robert Kagan:
Right. And that’s going to be a problem then obviously, setting aside Republican and Democrat. I mean, the country is obviously we’re having we’re in the worst economic strikes that we’ve been in for a while. Inflation, energy prices. The cost of the war is not insignificant to Americans even though we’re not directly engaged.

Walter Russell Mead:
Yeah. I hear figures like a sort of $9 billion a month shortfall in Ukraine just for the domestic economy of Ukraine which is obviously being hard hit in its tax collection and so on. And then military spending on top of that, maybe $12 billion a month as a fiscal hole, it’s hard to see where $144 billion a year is going to come from.

Robert Kagan:
Yeah, no. And I mean, then I feel like the situation is it’s going to be which side pants its way to the end successful-

Walter Russell Mead:
Yeah. Exactly.

Robert Kagan:
… and which one doesn’t, I mean, both sides have real problems sustaining this. I do think the Ukrainians have one thing going for them which is that they’re fighting for their homeland. And that can take you a long way and also allow you to put up with a lot of deprivation because you’re fighting for your homeland, the Russians aren’t fighting for their Homeland. So but welcome to warfare. You don’t how it’s going to turn out. In retrospect, we know how everything is going to turn out and can make all kinds of judgments about what was a good war and what was a bad war, but in reality, we don’t know.

Walter Russell Mead:
No. Exactly. Right. And this notion of the two parties limping to the finish line and the damage increasing on both, that’s actually a very common state of war and that ultimately kind of your fiscal inability to continue fighting or a total collapse of morale, those often lead to the end of war rather than a clear cut sort of single military event. So it’s very much up in the air, I think.

Robert Kagan:
Yeah, I mean, if you look at World War I both sides had clearly exhausted themselves. But in that case, the turning point was the entry of the United States which took one side and gave it a whole new lease on life. And in the other side, went into a deep depression and basically was ready to sue for peace almost immediately. But at the moment, I don’t see that kind of deus ex machina appearing to fundamentally shift the things away from the kind of bloody stalemate that they’re in right now.

Walter Russell Mead:
So we’re back in history.

Robert Kagan:
We never left.

Walter Russell Mead:
I agree. Let’s go to the Indo-Pacific. And one of the things that strikes me is that our alliance network in the Atlantic theater is very liberal and most of our European allies are pretty deeply committed to liberal order in much the same way that we are obviously differences of emphasis and so on. In Asia, it’s a bit different where you have Japan and Australia who anyone would call very much core members of any global liberal coalition, but then you have countries like Vietnam who’s clearly not part of it, India, whose relationship with liberal order is quite complicated. And where there’s a general kind of suspicion of liberal world order on the grounds of well is liberal world order really Western world order? Anything involving Europe, it tends to be that the ideological and geopolitical components of our policy fit fairly smoothly. Does that change in the Indo-Pacific would you say?

Robert Kagan:
Well, I mean, the dynamic is obviously different in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific, which I guess is the thing we have to say now, but you left out Korea. I mean, Korea is a real democracy, right?

Walter Russell Mead:
But then I also left out the Philippines and other places.

Robert Kagan:
Right. I understand that, but I mean you could quibble about Poland and whatnot if you wanted to also, but anyway, each region has its own dynamic. I don’t think it would make no sense to say it’s all the same kind of countries thinking in all the same kind of ways. So, but the good news in Asia is I don’t think you have to press very hard to find countries that are very worried about China, right? Regardless of what their particular ideology is, India has its own sense of morality, independence, et cetera, and not to mention the history of relations with Russia, et cetera. But I don’t think you have to worry about whether India wants to cut a deal with the Chinese, they don’t. And so you’ve got tremendous solidarity, I think, in Asia and a lot of this, well, they don’t really know how they feel about the Chinese way versus the Western liberal way.
That’s all beside the point. They are scared to death on security grounds that China will take over and bully them. Do they want to have trading relationships with China that make them money? You bet. But do they want to have security against China even more? Yes. And they have the United States behind them. And it’s to me, the most we could talk about the difference in the Asian view I’m not sure if there is an Asian view of anything, but from the European view, but the reality is, look at the Asian response to the Ukraine crisis. I mean, they immediately began to worry and I think justifiably so about what the Chinese would do next. And so there hasn’t been any difficulty in rallying Asian support against China, and even a lot of lip service paid to Ukraine as well because they want to make sure the United States is there for them in Asia.
And they look to see whether the United States was there for anybody who needed them on the other side of the world. I don’t know whether we’ve discussed it, but I’m sure we’ve certainly written about what signal was sent to Asia when president Obama backed away from his stated commitments in Syria of all places, but they don’t care about Syria, but what they care about is the reliability of America’s word and America’s guarantee and specifically on the question of military force. And so that’s been the response is pulling out America to make sure that we’re still there. So in that sense, I don’t know that it matters very much about liberalism or et cetera.

Walter Russell Mead:
Right. No, you’re right. And I wonder how that plays out, though, in the US in the sense that say for president Biden, wanting to unite the Democratic Party behind his leadership on Ukraine, it’s been very important to talk about. This is a fight for freedom and a fight for a peaceful world and highlight this is the ideological component of the American position. But when it comes to Indo-Pacific or even one could add the Middle East where the gap between a purely liberal foreign policy driven by ideology and one driven by geopolitical realities is wider. The political case gets changes in the US. And I’m wondering how significant or is that significant? Am I wasting time worrying about it?

Robert Kagan:
I don’t know whether you’re wasting your time. I mean, in the Asian scenario, I don’t think it’s a problem. For one thing, after all, we are talking about Taiwan, which is a democracy. We are talking about Japan, South Korea, Australia, and India, for that matter, still, a democracy, although with increasing concern about that. So I don’t even think that’s tough. You could throw Vietnam in there as a kind of, “Oh, what does that all mean?” But the truth is it’s not that important.

Walter Russell Mead:
Thailand is pretty important.

Robert Kagan:
Well, look, I mean, by the way, as far as I understand, Southeast Asia is not a hundred percent clear on which side it’s on. Vietnam is, but certainly, Southeast Asia as a whole is a little bit more complicated.

Walter Russell Mead:
And part of that is-

Robert Kagan:
The real issue is-

Walter Russell Mead:
… they worry that we’ll put human rights and liberal pressure on them. They actually do worry about the Chinese presence. I mean, actually the generals in Myanmar, one of the reasons they even began to open up years ago was their fear of China. And so, but their goal is to maintain power, I think ditto in Thailand. So the sense that if we become more liberal if we’re consistent in our human rights policy, we risk losing allies that we may need. That’s really where-

Robert Kagan:
Like Burma. But look, I mean, you can drill down deep enough, Walter, and find the contradictions in our policy. But I would have to say, Asia is not the place right now where we have a huge contradiction. Where we have a huge contradiction is in the Middle East. Okay, I mean-
Walter Russell Mead:
Well, let’s go there, let’s go there to the Middle East.

Robert Kagan:
That’s where I would say we have the biggest, where our policy is so confused and fraught and buffeted by its past that I don’t think we have anything resembling a coherent policy in the Middle East anymore other than now, we’re kind of desperately clinging to whomever we can hold onto because we see a competition now in the Middle East between ourselves, and Russia, and China, and to a lesser extent Iran, although that’s the issue we get all worked up about, but from a kind of great power perspective, I think when Biden has to go to the Middle East and say, “Hey, we’re not going anywhere.” Boy, that’s a sign of real concern I must say. So as a result, we are therefore quite unnecessarily kissing up to dictatorships who need us much more than we need them but in classic American fashion, we are acting like we need them more than they need us.

Robert Kagan:
And so we are tossing out all kinds of principles that we used to claim to believe in. And Saudi is the hardest case and I’m sort of vaguely sympathetic. Although I think that they’ve gone in the wrong direction, but when I look at how they suck up to el-Sisi in Egypt, what does Egypt do for the United States? I really don’t understand it actually. And so it’s a classic mode. I mean, the Nixon doctrine was also a product of the Vietnam period. The perception of the United States was in decline. So what did we do? We tried to find those guys in the Middle East that we could count on like the Shah. And by the way, that really turned out great. But in any case, it’s a typical American response. And of course, we’re shoving all kinds of human rights concerns completely to the side. I think it’s foolish. I think we’re paying a lot for nothing, but I guess that’s just my view.

Walter Russell Mead:
Okay. Well, that’s great. I think we may have come more or less to the end of our time. We’ve left out Latin America and Africa, and I’m sure you would have some interesting thoughts there, but this has been really great. It’s always a pleasure and a privilege to hear from you, and I’m sure we’ll be back at it. Well, be contacting you in the future to try to do another one of these, Bob. Thank you.

Robert Kagan:
Well, it’s a great pleasure talking to Walter as always.

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