Robert Kagan is a neoconservative writer and historian based at the Brookings Institution. A longtime proponent of an aggressive, interventionist U.S. foreign policy, Kagan has played an influential role in shaping the neoconservative policy agenda for more than two decades.
Kagan was a cofounder of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a now defunct pressure group that helped build Beltway support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. In the early years of the Obama administration, he reprised this role as a cofounder of the Foreign Policy Initiative, a PNAC successor group.
He has also served as an adviser to the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, a board member of the U.S. Committee on NATO, an "international patron" of the UK-based Henry Jackson Society, a contributing editor at the Weekly Standard, and a foreign policy adviser to the Republican presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and John McCain.
Despite his GOP bona fides, Kagan has studiously maintained a number of bipartisan affiliations. He has visited the Obama White House, for example, and helped establish a bipartisan civilian advisory board for Democratic Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. According to a July 2014 New York Times report, "Kagan has also been careful to avoid landing at standard-issue neocon think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute" and has "insisted on maintaining the link between modern neoconservatism and its roots in muscular Cold War liberalism." In fact, Kagan has even shied away from the "neoconservative" label, saying he prefers to be described as a "liberal interventionist."
In 2014, Kagan hinted that he might consider supporting a presidential bid by Hillary Clinton. "I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy," he told the New York Times. "If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue, it's something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else."
U.S. Intervention and the "Global Order"
A key theme in Kagan's work concerns the maintenance of the "liberal world order," which as he perceives it amounts to a U.S.-enforced international state system. "In my view, the willingness of the United States to use force and to threaten to use force to defend its interests and the liberal world order has been an essential and unavoidable part of sustaining that world order since the end of World War II," he wrote in a 2014 column for the Washington Post.
Kagan spelled out this view in a long 2014 essay for The New Republic. Entitled "Superpowers Don't Get to Retire," the piece purported that active, forceful U.S. intervention in the affairs of other countries had reshaped the international system for the better. "In the twenty-first century, no less than in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, force remains the ultima ratio," he claimed. "If there has been less aggression, less ethnic cleansing, less territorial conquest over the past 70 years, it is because the United States and its allies have both punished and deterred aggression, have intervened, sometimes, to prevent ethnic cleansing, and have gone to war to reverse territorial conquest."
Kagan warned darkly that if the United States didn't enforce its will on the international system, other powers would. "When Vladimir Putin failed to achieve his goals in Ukraine through political and economic means, he turned to force, because he believed that he could," Kagan wrote. He added: "What might China do were it not hemmed in by a ring of powerful nations backed by the United States? For that matter, what would Japan do if it were much more powerful and much less dependent on the United States for its security? We have not had to find out the answers to these questions, not yet, because American predominance, the American alliance system, and the economic, political, and institutional aspects of the present order, all ultimately dependent on power, have mostly kept the lid closed on this Pandora's box."
Lamenting public war weariness and the Obama administration's reluctance to intervene in Syria and Ukraine, among other venues, Kagan warned that "there is no democratic superpower waiting in the wings to save the world if this democratic superpower falters."
Some liberal hawks and neoconservatives hailed the piece as a rejoinder to the prevailing public skepticism in the United States about the use of force overseas. According to the New York Times, it "struck such a nerve in the White House that many in the foreign policy establishment considered part of Mr. Obama's speech [in June 2014] at West Point outlining a narrower vision for American force in world affairs to be a rebuttal, and the president even invited Mr. Kagan to lunch to compare world views."
However, Kagan's critics argued that he had badly exaggerated the role of the United States in shaping world events throughout the post-World War II period and glossed over many of Washington's more morally dubious policies. Calling Kagan a "polemicist and an ideologue," Andrew Bacevich argued that the piece's central assertions about the benevolence of U.S. foreign policy failed to stand up "to even casual scrutiny." Among other things, Bacevich said Kagan had overlooked Washington's steadfast support for violent, anti-democratic forces in its own sphere of influence, as well as neglected to seriously consider the fallout from catastrophic interventions in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. "If Americans appear disinclined to have a go at overthrowing Syria's Assad or at restoring the Crimea to Ukrainian control, it's due to their common-sense assessment of what U.S. policy in very recent years has produced," Bacevich concluded. "On this subject, astonishingly, Kagan has almost nothing to say."
Writing for the realist National Interest, Jacob Heilbrunn observed that Kagan's 2014 ode to American superpower "is not a novel thesis. Rather, it is Kagan's latest variation on a theme that he has consistently sounded on behalf of American global activism" since at least the 1990s. "Superpowers don't retire," Heilbrunn quipped, "but Robert Kagan should."
Kagan followed on the New Republic essay with a September 2014 Wall Street Journal op-ed titled "America's Dangerous Aversion to Conflict," which bemoaned the "yearning for an escape from the burdens of power and a reprieve from the tragic realities of human existence." He compared the current world order to pre-World War II Europe, writing: "As we head deeper into our version of the 1930s, we may be quite shocked, just as our forebears were, at how quickly things fall apart."
In response, John Heilbrunn of the National Interest wrote: "The military solution that Kagan appears to endorse, first and foremost, is hardly the best ambassador for freedom and democracy. Quite the contrary. … Maybe Kagan should have more confidence in America and its values. For all his disdain for declinism, Kagan, in blaming America first, comes dangerously close to submitting to it himself."
Hawkish Track Record
Kagan hails from a well established neoconservative family. He is the son of the conservative classicist Donald Kagan and the brother of Frederick Kagan, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute who helped promote the U.S. "troop surge" in Iraq. His spouse is Victoria Nuland, a veteran diplomat and former deputy national security adviser to Dick Cheney who is often credited as an editor of Kagan's work.
Kagan launched his career in the early 1980s as a foreign policy adviser to Rep. Jack Kemp (R-NY), a future vice presidential candidate who was closely associated with the hawkish wing of the Republican Party. Then, after a stint on the State Department's Policy Planning Staff, Kagan was appointed by Elliott Abrams in 1985 to head the Office of Public Diplomacy, which was created to push for U.S. support of the anti-communist "Contra" rebels in Nicaragua. (In his 1996 book A Twilight Struggle, which was touted as the "definitive history" of the U.S. anti-Sandinista campaign, Kagan neglected to mention Abrams' subsequent criminal conviction for lying to Congress about the Reagan administration's support for the Contras). Kagan served in the State Department until 1988, leaving the government to become a public scholar.
In 1997, in a bid to press the Clinton administration to pursue a "Reaganite" foreign policy, Kagan and veteran neoconservative activist William Kristol cofounded the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). Among other hawkish policies, the group played a key role in building elite support for a U.S. invasion of Iraq, issuing an open letter after the 9/11 attacks arguing that the United States should respond by invading Iraq "even if evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attack."
Resistance to the movement for war in Iraq from Europe and elsewhere spurred Kagan, who was then based at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, to sharpen his theses on U.S. interventionism. In a 2002 article for Policy Review that became the basis for his book Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (2003), Kagan argued, "On the all-important question of power—the efficacy of power, the morality of power, the desirability of power—American and European perspectives are diverging. Europe is turning away from power, or to put it a little differently, it is moving beyond power into a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation. It is entering a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity, the realization of Kant's 'Perpetual Peace.' The United States, meanwhile, remains mired in history, exercising power in the anarchic Hobbesian world where international laws and rules are unreliable and where true security and the defense and promotion of a liberal order still depend on the possession and use of military might."
Of Paradise and Power was widely panned for its support of U.S. unilateralism. Reviewing the book, leftist historian Howard Zinn wrote that "it is part of the corruption of contemporary language that an analysis of American foreign policy by a senior associate of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace should argue for the right of the United States to use military force, regardless of international law, and international opinion, whenever it unilaterally decides its 'national interest' requires it." Zinn opined that Kagan's book supplies "intellectual justification, superficial as it is, for the bullying and violence of United States foreign policy."
Kagan maintained his support for the Iraq War even after many of his assertions about the conflict—including that it would come to an early close and that the Bush administration's claims about WMDs in the country would be vindicated—proved wildly inaccurate. Instead of walking back his support, however, Kagan called for a troop escalation. "It is precisely the illusion that a political solution is possible in the midst of rampant violence that has gotten us where we are today," he wrote in November 2006. "What's needed in Iraq are not more clever plans but more U.S. troops to provide the security to make any plan workable. Even those seeking a way out of Iraq as soon as possible should understand the need for an immediate surge in U.S. troop levels to provide the stability necessary so that eventual withdrawal will not produce chaos and an implosion of the Iraqi state."
In March 2009, around the time that President Obama announced a plan to increase troop levels in Afghanistan, Kagan and Kristol launched the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), which liberal blogger Matt Duss dubbed "The Project for the Rehabilitation of Neoconservatism." Among Kagan's early forays on behalf of the group, he promoted the escalation of the war in Afghanistan and criticized the Obama administration for not taking a more confrontational line on Iran.
FPI's platform "is a watered-down version of the bellicose neoconservative program that worked so well over the past decade, producing a disastrous war in Iraq and a deteriorating situation in Central Asia and bringing America's image around the world to new lows," wrote Harvard international relations professor Stephen M. Walt for Foreign Policy. "The new group's modus operandi is likely to be similar to the old Project for a New American Century: bombard Washington with press releases and email alerts, draft open letters to be signed by assorted pundits and former policymakers, and organize conferences intended to advance the group's interventionist agenda."
Kagan has on occasion broken with some of his neoconservative colleagues.
One notable instance occurred in 2013, following a coup in Egypt that toppled the country's elected Muslim Brotherhood government and restored the military to power. While some neoconservatives argued that the Egyptian military would be a more reliable U.S. ally than the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, Kagan argued unequivocally that support for the military's dictatorial rule was short-sighted. It has become "fashionable," Kagan wrote, "to argue that Muslim Arabs are incapable of democracy—this after so many millions of them came out to vote in Egypt, only to see Western democracies do little or nothing when the product of their votes was overthrown." He went on to call for "a complete suspension of all aid to Egypt, especially military aid, until there is a new democratic government, freely elected with the full participation of all parties and groups in Egypt, including the Muslim Brotherhood."
Kagan's critique was notable in part for its direct confrontation of the U.S. "Israel lobby," which supported sending aid to Egypt's coup government. "To Israel, which has never supported democracy anywhere in the Middle East except Israel," wrote Kagan, "the presence of a brutal military dictatorship bent on the extermination of Islamism is not only tolerable but desirable." But, he added, "in Egypt, U.S. interests and Israel's perceptions of its own interests sharply diverge. If one believes that any hope for moderation in the Arab world requires finding moderate voices not only among secularists but also among Islamists, America's current strategy in Egypt is producing the opposite result."
Kagan is the author of several books on U.S. interventionism, including A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977-1990 (1996), Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (2003), Dangerous Nation: America's Place in the World from its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century (2006), The Return of History and the End of Dreams (2008), and The World America Made (2012).