Middle East expert Robert Kagan argues in a new book that American foreign policy has spawned a golden age of liberal democracy. He’s wrong.
A Somalia-style debacle in Egypt, an Islamist tyranny in Tunisia, civil war in Syria, and similar horrors through the Arab world now seem a likelier terminus for the so-called Arab Spring than a “healthier world order.”
Kagan states that “Americans believe that democracy is the best form of government and the only legitimate form of government for everyone everywhere.” Never does it occur to him that democracy might not take root in largely illiterate populations immured in tribal life. Nearly half of Egyptians are illiterate, and nine-tenths of Egyptian women suffer genital mutilation. Three-fifths of Egypt’s people live on or around farms, but the country imports half its caloric consumption. Few of the country’s 3 million university students are employable by world standards.
In Kagan’s way of looking at the world, differences among cultures and religions do not come into consideration. No matter that America’s notion of “inalienable rights” descends from the biblical concept of covenant, an act of divine self-limitation unthinkable for Islam’s absolutely transcendent deity. Nor does he consider the possibility that some cultures may encounter modernity and crack up.
Kagan simply venerates the form of democracy itself, with the passion of the true believer. “It is demonstrably true that democracies rarely go to war with other democracies,” Kagan claims. That is a strange argument for any American to make, given that one democracy—the Confederacy—fought the bloodiest war in our history against another democracy, namely the Union of northern states. The South went democratically to war for the evil goal, among others, of expanding slavery. Another democratically decided war—against Mexico in 1846—prepared the ground for the Civil War. Ulysses S. Grant wrote in his Memoirs, “The Southern rebellion was largely the outgrowth of the Mexican war. Nations, like individuals, are punished for their transgressions. We got our punishment in the most sanguinary and expensive war of modern times.”
The South fought until nearly a third of its military-age men had fallen. Except for the Serbs in World War I, no people in modern times sacrificed more than the South, showing that democracy can unite a people behind an evil cause. In that respect the Confederacy emulated democratic Athens of the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides explains why Athens voted for an attack upon the Sicilian city of Syracuse, also a democracy: “The general masses and the average soldier himself saw the prospect of getting pay for the time being and of adding to the empire so as to secure permanent paid employment in the future.”
Why the South would lose 300,000 men to defend slavery, or Athens 10,000 men to conquer Sicily, is easy to understand. Less obvious is why the North would sacrifice 500,000 to stop it. The Union marched to war singing of the grapes of wrath in paraphrase of Isaiah 63:3, where God declares, “I have trodden the winepress alone; and of the people there was none with me: for I will tread them in mine anger, and trample them in my fury; and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments.”
American democracy brought forth good as well as evil, and the defining event in our history was the conflict between them. Surely there must be something greater than democratic procedure that informs the American character. But it removes the moral onus, not to mention the painful historical memory, to flatter ourselves with the notion that our democratic institutions as such are the solution to all problems and that the world would be a happy place if everyone did what we did.
Instead of looking at ideas in the abstract, Kagan might pay closer attention to the interplay of ideas and actual human behavior. Kagan frets that “Americans may convince themselves that decline is inevitable,” citing Charles Krauthammer’s quip that decline is a choice. Maybe so, but that choice is not based simply on our abstract ideas about America’s proper role in the world. It is based on the deeply significant choices that we make every day as individuals and as members of families, choices that in our society continue to be heavily influenced by religion.
Far from declining, America’s relative strength will increase in the coming decades, and for a reason that Kagan excludes from consideration: the fact that we continue to have children. Among the major industrial nations the United States is the only one with a fertility rate at replacement level. It is the only industrial nation with a growing workforce. At the present trend, America’s share of the working-age population of the industrial world plus emerging Asia will grow from 12 percent to 28 percent by the end of the century.
Trends of this sort never continue in a straight line, to be sure. But America’s demographic momentum is so much stronger than its competitors’ that a relative decline in America’s economic position is extremely unlikely. In the long run, all nations die, unless we have children. The great fertility differential will make our epoch a golden age for some people but not for others.
In the new collected stories of Nathan Englander, and in his revised Haggadah, Jews cling tenuously to the easily broken chains of tradition