Foreign-policy pundits increasingly argue that democracy and free markets could thrive without U.S. predominance. If this sounds too good to be true, writes Robert Kagan, that’s because it is.
By ROBERT KAGAN
History shows that world orders, including our own, are transient. They rise and fall, and the institutions they erect, the beliefs and “norms” that guide them, the economic systems they support—they rise and fall, too. The downfall of the Roman Empire brought an end not just to Roman rule but to Roman government and law and to an entire economic system stretching from Northern Europe to North Africa. Culture, the arts, even progress in science and technology, were set back for centuries.
Many of us take for granted how the world looks today. But it might look a lot different without America at the top. The Brookings Institution’s Robert Kagan talks with Washington bureau chief Jerry Seib about his new book, “The World America Made,” and whether a U.S. decline is inevitable.
Modern history has followed a similar pattern. After the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th century, British control of the seas and the balance of great powers on the European continent provided relative security and stability. Prosperity grew, personal freedoms expanded, and the world was knit more closely together by revolutions in commerce and communication.
With the outbreak of World War I, the age of settled peace and advancing liberalism—of European civilization approaching its pinnacle—collapsed into an age of hyper-nationalism, despotism and economic calamity. The once-promising spread of democracy and liberalism halted and then reversed course, leaving a handful of outnumbered and besieged democracies living nervously in the shadow of fascist and totalitarian neighbors. The collapse of the British and European orders in the 20th century did not produce a new dark age—though if Nazi Germany and imperial Japan had prevailed, it might have—but the horrific conflict that it produced was, in its own way, just as devastating.
If the U.S. is unable to maintain its hegemony on the high seas, would other nations fill in the gaps? Would the end of the present American-dominated order have less dire consequences?
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