Last week saw the publishing of Robert Kagan's latest essay for New Republic magazine: 'Allure of Normalcy: what America still owes the world'. It is a magisterial contribution that will enter the realm of 'classic' US foreign policy essays.

There have been a number of such essays since the end of the Second World War — essays that resonated with the establishment and stimulated, informed, and guided debate. The Sources of Soviet Conduct (1947) by George Kennan, Dictatorships and Double Standards (1979) and the Myth of Moral Equivalence (1986) by Jeane Kirkpatrick, The End of History (1989) by Francis Fukuyama, Clash of Civilizations (1993) by Samuel Huntington, The Coming Anarchy (1994) by Robert Kaplan, and Foreign Policy as Social Work (1996) by Michael Mandelbaum, to name an elite few.

The potency of these essays rests in their singular capacity to influence the contours of global politics. I anticipate Kagan's latest contribution will do just that. 

Indeed, President Obama, in his West Point speech, seemed to counter Kagan and other critics directly when he noted that 'interventionists from the left and right, (say) that America’s willingness to apply force around the world is the ultimate safeguard against chaos.' That is probably a fair representation of Kagan's critique. 

Allure of Normalcy is a long piece, and at 12,000 words, New Republic (like Australia's Quarterly Essay) is to be commended for providing the increasingly rare opportunity for deep thinkers such as Kagan space to communicate at a length commensurate with the intellectual heft of their arguments.

I won't attempt to distil Kagan's argument to 800 words. It is an important contribution that deserves to be read in full. I would like, however, to highlight a few key points:

  • America is not a naturally isolationist country. A universalistic national ideology (a love of commerce, individual aspiration, and democratic openness) leads it to look outward.
  • Americans, however, don't see themselves as global activists. This cognitive dissonance leads to a cycle of engagement and retrenchment. The wavelength of this cycle is short and shallow.
  • There was a deeper and more enduring retrenchment after the First World War, a period Warren Harding called a 'return to normalcy.'
  • The Second World War redefined America's national interests and Roosevelt and his advisers devised a new grand strategy which placed the US at the centre of the international system, subsuming the national interests of many other peoples around the world.

The grand strategy forged by Roosevelt and Dean Acheson, argues Kagan, is the real revolution in American foreign policy. Americans, said Acheson, had to adjust to 'operate in a pattern of responsibility which is greater than our own interests.' It required America to become more forward-leaning and comprised constant and pervasive engagement; economically, strategically, and militarily. This engagement resulted in the liberal world order — the world America made.

America remains the indispensable nation in the preservation of that world order. Americans, however, are growing weary of their role as Atlas shouldering the world. This weariness, argues Kagan, may result in a longer, deeper period of retrenchment, similar to that experienced in the wake of the First World War. This is the allure of normalcy.

Part of that allure is the false belief that the liberal world order America created is self-sustaining. Barack Obama and Condoleezza Rice like to talk about history's 'long arc' bending towards justice (with a hat-tip, via Dr Martin Luther King Jr, to a Boston abolitionist from the 1850s). This is true, but it is not a deterministic process; it has been made so by the efforts and sacrifice of many.

Likewise, the relative peace and prosperity of the last 70 years has resulted in false impression of what the world really looks like.

Realists often repeat the mantra that they 'deal with the world as it is,' but this is incorrect. Realists deal with the world as we have made it. There are some brute facts that underpin world politics, but the world 'as it is' more resembles Hobbes' state of nature, where life is 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.'

Kagan argues the role of the US in shaping the liberal world order has been so 'unusually powerful and pervasive' that any departure from that role will result in a 'radically different' international system. No other country has the capacity, the geo-strategic circumstance, the inclination, or the habit of upholding the liberal world order. Absent American leadership and constant economic, strategic, and military engagement, the world will look very different to how it does today.

This of course has real consequences and implications for Australia, particularly as  next month Tony Abbott makes his first prime ministerial visit to Washington.

Before we ask ourselves the hard questions about China's rise and the diffusion of global power, or the desire for a larger Australia, we need to ask the first-order question: what do we want the world to look like?

Richard Armitage once  told me that China will never be great until it stands for something more than itself. America has always stood for something more than itself. Roosevelt and Acheson crafted a synergy of American and global interests that produced the liberal world order we inhabit today – a world of widespread freedom, unprecedented global prosperity, and an absence of great-power conflict.  

The sustainment of that world order is a noble and proper vocation, and it is worthy of great sacrifice.

Image courtesy of the US State Department.