Interview with Robert Kagan

Permanence of Liberal Democracy 'Is an Illusion'

Prominent U.S. conservative Robert Kagan warns that it is time for Europe to "grow up." In an interview, he talks about Trump's stance on foreign policy, the crumbling liberal democratic consensus and the precarious future of Germany and the EU.


U.S. President Donald Trump

Interview Conducted by
Friday, 11/8/2019   03:07 PM

DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Kagan, U.S. President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw troops from northern Syria had grave consequences: He opened the gate for a Turkish invasion into northern Syria, strengthened the influence of Russia and Iran and undermined the confidence of in the reliability of the United States. Do you think Trump knew what he was doing when he made his decision?

Kagan: I don't think he really was very concerned about what the consequences would be. Trump is operating on the assumption that the American people will be supportive of the idea of getting out of Syria regardless of the consequences. And he's probably right. At least I didn't hear a big public outcry.

DER SPIEGEL: Some influential Republican senators have sharply criticized Trump. Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, even wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post that Trump had led the U.S. into a "strategic nightmare."

Kagan: Trump has responded to this by leaving a few American soldiers in eastern Syria. But by and large, the president does not believe that the Republican leadership holds any sway over Republican voters. Trump ran against the Republican Party in 2016, and he won. That's why he considers people like Mitch McConnell to be paper tigers.

DER SPIEGEL: Yet it is now in the hands of the Republican party to end Trump's presidency prematurely. Republican senators must only vote with the Democrats for an impeachment. Do you think such an outcome is out of the question?

Kagan: Not completely. But if they do, the reason certainly won't be Trump's foreign policy. The Republicans will turn away from the president if they get the impression that in his insanity, he is dragging the party into the abyss. But we're not there yet.

DER SPIEGEL: The withdrawal from northern Syria was only one part of a larger promise by Trump to end the "endless wars" of his predecessors. Can Europeans fill the gap left by the U.S. in the Middle East?

Kagan: Maybe I missed something. But so far, I cannot see that Europeans are pushing to send soldiers to Syria.

DER SPIEGEL: German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has proposed securing a protection zone in northern Syria with European troops.

Kagan: As much as I wish the Europeans were involved, I have great skepticism that they are truly capable of replacing the Americans. It starts with military logistics and materials, but it's also about more fundamental issues. Are the Europeans really ready to pay the moral price of becoming a military interventionist? Because that means killing people and also enduring innocent civilians dying because mistakes are made in every war. The Germans developed into a peaceful, civilian people after World War II. I do not think they want to bear this burden.

DER SPIEGEL: Is Trump right when he insists that the Europeans finally have to stand on their own two feet 70 years after the end of World War II?

Kagan: Trump is only saying what every American president has said since John F. Kennedy, which is we want a greater burden sharing on the part of Europe. But I think that where Donald Trump is wrong, and where he's different from other presidents, is that he wants to leave Europe by itself right now.

DER SPIEGEL: Why is he wrong?

About Robert Kagan

Kagan: Over the course of decades, we told Germany: "We don't want you to be a normal nation. We want you to focus on peaceful growth, on your social well-being. We don't want you to spend 5 percent of your GDP on the military." So, for the United States to say: "We do want you to be a military power," well, I think that's a big gamble. The American role in the world was a critical part of establishing a peaceful Europe after World War II. The United States established the international trading regime, which has been important to European economic success. This regime is really in question, and also the fate of democracy as a common European ideology. One of the most important elements of the European project after World War II has been the suppression and control of nationalism. And we now see nationalism returning.

DER SPIEGEL: Trump is certainly not the only one who is responsible for this development.

Kagan: For a long time, we have been used to thinking that liberal democracy is the permanent condition of humanity. But that is an illusion. Liberal democracy always creates antibodies. The U.S. has played a key role in establishing the European democratic process, but for several years now, it has been pulling back from that role. Ever since the end of the Cold War, the American public has been increasingly questioning why they have to play this large role in the world. Why do we have troops in Europe? Why are the Europeans not taking care of themselves? After the Iraq War and the 2008 financial crisis, the discussion reached the tipping point. With Barack Obama and Donald Trump, we have had two presidents who considered it their job to pull America back from this role. Certainly, Trump is the more extreme version of that.

DER SPIEGEL: In a recent essay, you wrote that the German question will return if the U.S. is no longer willing to continue its engagement in Europe. Do you really think there is a danger of Germany once again becoming a threat to its neighbors?

Kagan: Up to the end of World War II, Germany always had the problem that it's too big for Europe. A key element of the European peace after World War II was the American security guarantee, which reassured all of Germany's neighbors that whatever else was going to happen, Germany would not become a danger again. That allowed Germany to have this great economic success without unnerving and frightening its neighbors. Once Germany was unified, it became the largest economy in Europe, the largest territory in Europe and the largest population in Europe. With that, of course, comes the potential of being the largest military in Europe. So it's not about the German character or anything.


Kagan: There are certain objective conditions that bring back the German question. You can already see the jealousies of other countries about Germany's dominance of the European economy and the resentment that that creates. If you pull the American engagement out of the equation, here's the scenario that I worry about: The neighbors of Germany could become sort of unmoored from NATO and maybe even from the EU. They will begin to look at Germany nervously and begin to undertake economic policies that are designed to break free of German hegemony. That will, in turn, create resentments in Germany. How long before you have a perfectly respectable German position that says: "Wait a second. We've got to start looking out for ourselves. Everybody else around us is looking out for themselves. Who is looking out for us?"

DER SPIEGEL: So in your view, the Europeans are eternal teenagers who start fighting as soon as America turns away.

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Kagan: Grow up! That's fine! But I think you really have to be an unwavering optimist to believe that Europe will stay stable and peaceful without the support of the United States. You can't compare the EU of the late 1990s to the EU of today. There is the United Kingdom's departure from Europe. In the eastern parts of Europe, the once democratic governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have entered various stages of decent into illiberalism. And France is only one election away from a nationalist electoral victory.

DER SPIEGEL:Do you think it's possible that Trump will pull the U.S. out of NATO if he is reelected?

Kagan: I don't rule it out. But you know what? In a way, that's not the important question. Whether the United States formally pulls out of NATO or not, does anyone think we're as committed to NATO today as we were four years ago? The Poles are very funny to me because they believe that NATO could go away, but the U.S. commitment to Poland will survive. They think they can count on Donald Trump.

DER SPIEGEL: According to polls, a majority of American voters believe the country should prioritize its domestic political problems. That also seems to be a message that the Democratic presidential candidates have understood.

Kagan: As far as foreign policy is concerned, I cannot see much of a difference between Trump, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. All three want the applause for saying that we are bringing our soldiers back home from the Middle East. I think Joe Biden probably has a different view just because he's a relic of an earlier era of American foreign policy. However, the American people are malleable on foreign policy, and if they have a president who says: "We need to work with our allies. We need to be a reliable partner," I don't know that they would necessarily reject it. Ever since the end of the 19th century when the United States emerged as a great power, our foreign policy has been like a sine wave, oscillating between periods of high involvement and periods of retrenchment. My concern now is that it will take us 20 years to come back to understanding our role, and by then, the world could be in terrible shape.

DER SPIEGEL: Given the chaos that the U.S. has produced over the last 15 years in the Middle East, many Europeans argue that the world would be safer place if the next president were to focus his or her attentions on fixing things like the health care system in the U.S.

Kagan: Look, I would be happy if the United States could avoid tragedies like the wars in Iraq or Vietnam. And we should do our best to learn from the past. But there is no doctrine other than pure isolation and inaction that can prevent such tragedies. For the United States, the choice is between the liberal world order, with all the moral and material costs that entails, or letting it collapse and courting the catastrophes that must inevitably follow.

DER SPIEGEL: What would the U.S. and the world look like after eight years of a Donald Trump presidency?

Kagan:I think so far, happily, the American system has proved resilient enough to resist the worst of what he's done. Right now, we are experiencing a fundamental conflict between liberalism and anti-liberalism, not only in the United States, but all over the globe. And for the moment, the anti-liberal forces are in the ascendency. You can see it in a hundred different places around the world: India's dealings with Pakistan, between Japan and Korea, in Israel. When the order begins to collapse, every country and every leader makes decisions based on what they're seeing. All the disincentives that used to exist to a certain kind of behavior are melting away. Four more years of Trump is four more years of the liberal world order coming down.

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