The Return of History and the End of Dreams
Robert Kagan
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Buy *The Return of History and the End of Dreams* by Robert Kagan online

The Return of History and the End of Dreams
Robert Kagan
128 pages
May 2009
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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The demise of the former Soviet Union and the concomitant end of the Cold War in the early 1990s created an unusual state of international affairs that the word had not seen in over four decades. What was one to make of this seemingly new international order that confronted the world? Different scholars have said different things about this state of affairs, but one perspective about this condition that has attracted considerable attention has been that of Francis Fukuyama, who claimed in 1992 that because of the unambiguous triumph of the ideas put forth by liberal democracies over competing ideas, we were - in effect - at the end of history.

In this book, the title of which is an obvious twist on the title of Fukuyama’s 1992 tome, Robert Kagan takes issue with this “end of history” thesis that has become fashionable in some parts of the Western world. Specifically, Kagan argues that at the conclusion of the Cold War, what the world was witnessing was “not a transformation but merely a pause in the endless competition of nations and peoples” (p. 11). To corroborate this central claim, Kagan discusses the political aspirations of and the power politics embarked upon by, inter alia, Russia and China.

Kagan correctly points out that, the dismissive views of some in the West notwithstanding, “Russia is a great power, and it takes pride in being a force to be reckoned with on the world stage” (p. 13). This has happened because of two reasons. First, high prices for oil and gas, which Russia possesses in abundance, have allowed the Russian economy to grow at noteworthy rates and have also enabled Russia to accumulate considerable wealth in a relatively short period of time. Second, in their dealings and in their pronouncements on the international arena, Vladimir Putin and his inner circle have unequivocally decided to deviate from the policies followed in the early 1990s, which were “nothing more than a surrender imposed by the United States and Europe at a time of Russian weakness” (p. 16).

Where China is today contrasts dramatically with where this nation was even six decades ago. With well-crafted and carefully implemented policies whose objective was to gradually but surely open up the economy, China has moved forward with rapid strides and is now a key player in the international economic arena. In this regard, Kagan is certainly right when he notes that perhaps “no nation has ever moved further faster from weakness to strength” (p. 25). What does this meteoric rise of China mean for the United States? We are told that China has, for many decades now, considered the U.S. to be hostile to its global ambitions. Therefore, although Chinese leaders avoid open confrontation with the U.S. because they need the large U.S. market and because they are unsure about the outcome of such confrontation, they are under no illusion that their strategic rivalry with the U.S. will only increase with time.

In addition to Russia and China, the new international economic and political order is being shaped by the aspirations and the activities of Japan, India and, to a lesser extent, Iran. Noting the existence of an “axis of democracy” and an “association of autocrats” (p. 53), Kagan points out that if the ideas of liberal democracies are to prevail in the future over the more limited appeal of the autocracies, then the Western world in general - and the U.S. in particular - must comprehend that the autocracies of the contemporary world do not believe in the universality of liberal ideas. In Kagan’s words, to “nonliberals, the international liberal order is not progress. It is oppression” (p. 67).

In this chaotic world, made even more chaotic by the recent activities of the Islamic fundamentalists, Kagan proposes a move toward what he calls a “concert of democracies” (p. 97). Specifically, Kagan contends that the “world’s democracies need to show solidarity for one another, and they need to support those trying to pry open a democratic space where it has been closing” (p. 98).

On occasion (see pp. 13 and 56), this book makes claims without any corroborating evidence, and Kagan’s characterization of the Yasukuni Shrine on p. 39 leaves the reader with the erroneous impression that only war criminals are honored there. Also, Brazil is a major player on the contemporary world stage and along with Russia, India, and China, it is a member of the oft-mentioned “BRIC” group of nations. This notwithstanding, Kagan spends almost no time analyzing the role that Brazil plays and the impact it has on present-day international affairs. Kagan is additionally a little too sanguine about the role that repeated elections can play in eventually eliminating “radical Islamists” (p. 131) from power.

Nonetheless, overall this book presents a fine overview of contemporary international affairs from the perspectives of both the liberal democracies and the autocracies of the world.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Amitrajeet A. Batabyal, 2009

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