The Return of History and the End of Dreams, by Robert Kagan

The view from Camp McCain
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No one could accuse this luminary of the American right of lacking modesty or ambition. In a neat 100 pages, Kagan declares an end to the "end of history" and a return to 19th-century great-power rivalry, with a dash of the Crusades (in reverse) thrown in. This is contemporary history as in the big picture and broad sweep, and – in an age when so much academic writing focuses on ever tinier particles – no worse for that. There is a place for those who see woods where others are distracted by trees.

The publishers also deserve credit. This is an exquisitely-packaged volume, from the gilt cover, with Punch cartoon of British lion, Russian bear and "scared Johnny Chinaman", to the antique typeface. Some very 21st-century typos have survived, but the whole exudes the authority that makes for a book demanding to be read.

The question that teases is how much substance resides between these handsome covers. Kagan rejects Francis Fukuyama's pronouncement of the end of history, or at least regards it as superseded rather than ill-conceived. But this is by no means new. Indeed, one senses among many American commentators an irritation that it was Fukuyama, not they, who coined such a seductive (and marketable) phrase. So each looks to make his mark by contradicting it in his own way.

Kagan's way is to see a new form of great-power competition, between democracies and autocracies, where the US represents the democratic pole, and Russia and China are examples of autocracy. In later chapters, he discusses the challenge presented by fundamentalist Islam, only to dismiss religion as a lesser force, long- term, than the contest between democracy and autocracy.

Kagan's big idea is that autocratic forms of government, allied to the concept of national sovereignty, are storming back after a period in which national borders were dissolving and brotherhood of man was all the rage. The US, he avers, will remain a great power, but it will have to learn to operate in a changed global context.

As an attempt to make sense of a complicated world, his thesis has much to recommend it. Even so, my first response would have been to file it away under the heading "more scare-mongering from the American right", had it not been for one thing. Kagan is billed as an adviser to John McCain, Republican nominee for US President.

If McCain prevails in November, then Kagan could be shaping the view from Washington. Which is where things turn serious. I found myself asking whether he really offers any more insight than a bright graduate might, if sent off to sum up the state of the world c.2007. On the two areas that I know best – Russia and China – I found his analysis derivative and simplistic, and burdened by an assumption that both will remain pretty much as they are.

Kagan does readers a favour by pointing out that autocracy has attractions. It is refreshing to find an American on the right confronting this reality. But I would not be nearly so confident as he is about where to draw the line. Take Russia. In asserting that it is, and will remain, autocratic, he has fallen for the fashionable, pessimistic, line of the neo-cold warriors. His contention that Russia's view of Nato should be a measure of its reasonableness is especially laughable. Russia took a benign view of Nato in the 1990s because it had no choice and Nato had not advanced to its borders. It was not because Moscow was more democratically-inclined than it is today.

For Kagan to bracket Russia, whose philosophical roots lie in Europe, with China, where no such thing applies, also seems misguided. His assumption that China will proceed smoothly on roughly its current trajectory looks at best incurious. If this is the advice McCain is receiving as he shifts his presidential campaign into top gear, it's not just history but reality that needs restoring to the way the American right sees the world.