Ian Buruma Reviews Kagan, Khanna, Zakaria, and Emmott

Apropos of Judah’s two posts below on Haas, Kagan and the end of America’s unipolar moment, Ian Buruma’s recent review in the New Yorker of the latest crop of books on this idea is very much worth reading.

To my eye, Buruma’s critique of recent books by Kagan, Fareed Zakaria, Parag Khanna and Bill Emmott demonstrates several virtues in his thinking: a proper sense of the complex web of motivations that influence international relations; a realistic conception of what American power can achieve; and, at the same time, a recognition that a foreign policy that is completely valueless is both impossible and morally undesirable.

A more detailed description of why I think this is so will have to await a post I’m working on about how to achieve greater clarity in debates about realism vs. idealism and interests vs. values.

Just to take one example, however, and to push back against Judah for a moment, Buruma gives greater credence to Kagan’s use of culture and ideology in explaining the motivations of states like Russia and China.

In his post on Kagan, Judah seems very reluctant to credit any analysis of Russian or Chinese foreign policy that involves ideological motivations.

Judah seems to imply that such analysis is necessarily impractical, and necessarily leads to the sort of values-based crusading foreign policy advocated by neoconservatives like Kagan. (If I’m putting words into your mouth, Judah, let me know.) By contrast, Buruma, though definitely critical of the “neoconservative project,” and of Kagan’s too-easy division of the world into autocrats and democrats, believes that a cold-eyed calculation of the ideological motivations of states is an essential element of a realist foreign policy (again, more later on what that word “realist” actually means anyway).

Here’s where Buruma credits this aspect of Kagan’s analysis, as up against Fareed Zakaria’s too-optimistic liberal internationalism:

. . . the prickly nationalism of many Chinese may have less to do with their newfound prosperity than with China’s fraught combination of political autocracy and economic liberalism: nationalism and economic boosterism are all the autocrats have at their disposal to try to legitimatize their continuing monopoly on power. In any case, Zakaria is inclined to think that rational calculation will ultimately prevail. He maintains that the Chinese are by nature a pragmatic people, who will surely realize that it is in their interest to be embedded in the liberal global order. “The veneration of an abstract idea,” he explains, “is somewhat alien to China’s practical mind-set.”

This piece of cultural analysis does not quite explain the veneration, fairly recently, of Chairman Mao’s highly abstract ideas. In fact, ideology has always played a large role in Chinese politics, and Robert Kagan, perhaps the cleverest of the neoconservatives, points out the limits of Chinese pragmatism. Like the Russians, he writes, the Chinese leaders have “a comprehensive set of beliefs about government and society and the proper relationship between rulers and their people,” and are convinced that the chaos and uncertainties of democracy pose threats to their nation. “Chinese and Russian leaders are not just autocrats therefore. They believe in autocracy.” This is indeed what Chinese rulers have believed for thousands of years, drawing support from some highly abstract ideas expressed in Confucian philosophy.

Whether you agree with this view of Chinese culture or not, to fail to recognize that there are historical and cultural factors that profoundly influence the conduct of nation-states is to invite disaster. Both liberal internationalists and neoconservatives are guilty of this. Iraq is only the latest example where American inattention to history and culture led to grave mistakes.

More World Politics Review