Robert Kagan on the Russian-Georgian Conflict

In today’s Washington Post, Robert Kagan has an op-ed on what the Russian-Georgian conflict means:

“Historians will come to view Aug. 8, 2008, as a turning point no less significant than Nov. 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. Russia’s attack on sovereign Georgian territory marked the official return of history, indeed to an almost 19th-century style of great-power competition, complete with virulent nationalisms, battles for resources, struggles over spheres of influence and territory, and even — though it shocks our 21st-century sensibilities — the use of military power to obtain geopolitical objectives. Yes, we will continue to have globalization, economic interdependence, the European Union and other efforts to build a more perfect international order. But these will compete with and at times be overwhelmed by the harsh realities of international life that have endured since time immemorial. The next president had better be ready.”

I think it’s too early to say what history will view this conflict, so it is a pretty big exaggeration for Kagan to equate this conflict with the end of the Cold War. However, what is becoming clear, at least to me, is that the so-called post-Cold War order is ending–which means the end of an unipolar international arena.

Does this put me on the side of the neocons? I don’t think so, although I agree with much of the descriptive claims put forth by the neocons: namely, that there is no reason to expect that the post-Cold War peace and the liberal democratic order will last indefinitely. In fact, historically, the post-Cold War order is a blip, compared to the hundreds of years of great power politics, spheres of influence, and multi-polarism that characterized international relations.

But where I depart from the neocons is the prescriptive claims: the neocons advocate the use of superior US military force, while it lasts, to spread a liberal democratic order so as to make it indefinite, I am fervently against this. It is important to recognize the international arena for what it truly is–an anarchic structure with no hegemony capable of dominating all others for any extended period of time–but one must find a way to work within the structure and not try to topple it by military force.

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