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Friday, February 13, 2004

A Conversation with Robert Kagan

Yesterday, I moderated a Kentucky Author Forum event with Robert Kagan, whose Of Paradise and Power just came out in paperback last month.

I've previously blogged about his argument, so I won't repeat that now. Rather, I'm just going to summarize a few of the things he said in response to my questions. Audience members also asked questions, but I was targeting mine at areas of interest to me.

I started by asking Kagan to define a "neoconservative" and then I asked him to outline his "US is from Mars, Europe is from Venus" position. The answers were pretty much what I expected.

Kagan's new "Afterward" argues that the US needs the Europeans to provide legitimacy and the Europeans would like to cooperate with the US so as to have some say in how US power will be used. Eventually, he got around to making this point in the session Thursday.

Kagan said in reply to someone's questions that the Europeans just don't appreciate the WMD/terror threat the same way the US does since 9/11. He admitted, however, that Europeans have long faced terror, but declared that 9/11 was quite unique to the US because of the scale (and because the US had previously been relatively untouched by this problem).

I asked Kagan whether he thought the US and Europe could come to a "common assessment of the threat" (he uses virtually the same phrase as the September 2002 National Security Strategy document)? Specifically, I asked if the US could sustain a "high threat" context given the new revelations by David Kay about Iraqi WMD. Do Americans really believe they are imperiled all the time? Could the US eventually move toward the European view?

Kagan replied that people in Washington and NY certainly continue to feel threatened, as do those who fly planes. He also made a side comment that Kay really hadn't dismissed the threat, which is perhaps literally true, but is certainly not how it is being played out in the public sphere.

Then I asked Kagan to consider a counterfactual. What if the WTC buildings had been badly damaged, but had not collapsed? Would Americans still think the threat was so great if they did not have the visual image of the huge buildings collapsing. He acknowledged that the images were important, but insisted that the US would still rate these threats as high.

Later, I picked up something Bill Hartung of the World Policy Institute said last weekend in DC. When President Bush landed on that aircraft carrier last May, the US ship cost more than the entire North Korean military budget. Yet, the US is now approaching a half trillion dollar defense budget. Given that conservatives typically distrust government spending ("throwing money down a rathole"), did Kagan think the US is spending too much?

Kagan said no, and regretted that the US had reduced its military spending after the cold war ended. At one point, he noted that China was increasing its spending and he wished that the Europeans would spend more -- but doubted that would happen. Since the US is spending only about 4.5% of its GNP on defense, it could afford a lot more. It was common to spend 7% in the cold war, and the US sometimes spent as much as 15%.

Bottom line: even though Robert Kagan appreciates the importance of legitimacy, he still thinks the Europeans are wrong about the threats, wants to see a high level of US defense spending, and worries about the rise of China.

At one point, Kagan noted his support for American military intervention in the 1990s (places like Haiti and Kosovo) and declared that he was an IR liberal. Shortly after that, he said that he accepted realist arguments about the importance of power -- so he was basically trying to marry America's power to its ideals and change the world.

In short, he's still saying what the Project for A New American Century said before Bush was elected President. PNAC (Kagan was a director) called for many of the hawkish policies (warning, pdf file) the US is now pursuing . And the justification then wasn't terror or WMD. The neocons who wrote their playbook wanted to take advantage of the "unprecedented opportunity" presented by a world of great American power facing minimal great power opposition.

Let's hope the Europeans continue to deny legitimacy to the Pax Americana project.

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