Robert Kagan is a prominent historian and foreign policy expert. As an undergraduate at Yale, Kagan revived the dormant Yale Political Journal and renamed it the Yale Political Monthly. After graduating in 1980, he attended Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to obtain an M.A. in Public Policy and American University to earn a Ph.D. in history. Since then, he has served as an outside foreign policy advisor to Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, was the principal speechwriter for Secretary of State George P. Schultz, and has penned several bestselling books. Kagan founded the Project for the New American Century, a now-defunct think tank that played a pivotal advisory role on national security issues to President George Bush during early phases of the Iraq War. He is currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and a foreign policy columnist for The Washington Post.

The Politic: How has your degree in history helped you in your career in foreign policy, and how do you think foreign affairs should be studied in universities today?

That’s an excellent question. I actually feel pretty strongly about this. I really do think history training is the best preparation for thinking about foreign policy. I think as time goes by the international relations theory project proves more and more hollow. The biggest problem is that people who make American foreign policy don’t know America’s history which is particularly important now. I think people have really forgotten the history of the twentieth century.

Unless you have a broad understanding of history — not only American history, but world history — you don’t have a good grasp of how the world works. So I have to actually wish that the teaching of foreign policy at the universities would be much more grounded in the history of the United States, of Europe, of Asia, of all kinds of countries.

The Politic: We also wanted to ask you about reviving the Yale Political Monthly while you were an undergraduate here. Could you tell us why you brought the publication back and your general experience working with it?

Well, in this case, you guys have been better historians than I have — I wasn’t even aware that I was bringing something back — I thought I was starting something new.

When I was at Yale I was frustrated that things tended to be one sided. You had the Political Union; you make your argument and people argued for themselves. There was very little cross fertilization and very little debate among different points of view. One of the things that was missing from campus was a publication that would be ecumenical and actually examine all sides of issues, so that’s what I tried to do in the political monthly — this wasn’t supposed to be a conservative or liberal publication, it was supposed to be a forum for serious debate and discussion on the Yale campus.

The Politic: So would the reporters for the Yale Political Monthly write mostly reporting pieces or opinion pieces in which they’d debate each other?

Well, there was no reporting staff on the Political Monthly when we started, there were three or four of us who put the magazine out — I’d like to say every month, but that wasn’t always possible. We solicited articles from students and professors and sometimes outside people. They were in the format of policy-oriented short essays. I wouldn’t even call them opinion pieces. They weren’t like op-eds; they were supposed to be well thought-out presentations of historical facts or interesting observations. In some cases they might have pointed opinions, but it was neither really reporting or opinion pieces, it was more in the form of short essays.

The Politic: Is there anything that you believed at the time you made the Yale Political Monthly that you’ve changed your mind on today with regards to foreign policy and how it should be conducted?

I don’t know what I changed my mind about. I wasn’t particularly a foreign policy guy in college, I hadn’t gravitated in that direction, so I’m not sure how fully formed my opinions were. So rather than saying that I’ve changed my mind, I’d say I’ve just done an awful lot of learning since then.

The Politic: What really captured your interest in foreign policy if you were a history major before? Was there a moment in which you realized “this is what I want to study?”

My focus in my major was diplomatic history, so I did have some interest in it, and I guess when I was in college I wrote about a lot of things, not just foreign policy. It may have been when I went to graduate school. I did an internship at the State Department and that certainly had a huge effect on me. Not long after I got my masters degree, I went off and joined the State Department.

The Politic: You were an advisor to Hillary Clinton when she was Secretary of State. What do you think her mistakes were in her approach to foreign policy, and how do you think America’s role in the international sphere would change if she is elected president two years from now?

Well just to be clear, I was on what was called a foreign affairs policy board, which was an outside board. I was certainly not a daily advisor [to] Secretary Clinton. I was on this board with a lot of other people, and we met maybe two or three times a year with her. It was modeled more like a wise man’s group — not that I’m a wise man — for the secretary to get outside perspectives on things. I’m still on the board now that secretary Kerry is in office. My perception of Secretary Clinton is that she was a little hemmed in as Secretary of State by the White House.  It’s pretty clear that she disagreed with President Obama on some key issues such as Syria and Afghanistan but ultimately bowed, as she should, to his decisions.

I have a pretty positive view of her outlook on foreign policy. I think she has strong international relationships; she comes from the moderate wing of the Democratic Party that her husband represented while he was in office; and she believes, more importantly, from my perspective, that the United States has a really central role to play in the world. I think that her experience as Secretary of State proved that to her. Given what’s been happening recently and the kind of difficult world we’re in now, she’ll want to have a strong American role, and try to shape that role.

The Politic: What would be the foreign policy agenda of your ideal Secretary of State?

I think that the key thing for the U.S. right now is to remember that there is a reason why Americans took on this very large global role after World War II, and it was not just because they defeated Hitler and because the Soviets appeared threatening. It was because the great lesson of the period before World War II was that when the global order breaks down, ultimately Americans end up paying a very high price, and that’s a lesson that’s been forgotten by your generation. The so-called millennials can only think about Iraq and Afghanistan, and they tend to avoid that lesson. And that’s understandable, but it can’t lead us to avoid global involvement. The public right now is not isolationist, but isn’t really in favor of the U.S. playing the kind of role it’s played over the last 70 years. I think that’s dangerous.

So I think that the next Secretary of State—and really the next President, because it is really also the president’s job to explain to the American people how important the American role is—is to explain why involvement should matter to them and to make tough decisions, for instance, on defense spending and foreign aid, which are both unpopular now but represent the kind of role I think Americans need to play in the world. The Secretary of State can give good speeches and support that policy, but the President must provide that kind of leadership.

Ronald Reagan Centennial, Feb 10-11, 2011, Washington DCInterviewer: In your book Of Paradise and Power, you claim that “Americans are from Mars and Europe is from Venus” in order to highlight the differences between their foreign policies. You assert that American foreign policy relies on force, whereas European nations prefer diplomatic resolutions to conflicts. Could you quickly explain what has caused this key disparity between Europe and the United States?

Sure. There are two fundamental reasons that explain it. One is history. Consider what Europe went through in the [twentieth] century: two catastrophic wars, both caused by a combination of factors — nationalism, militarism, and a power-oriented approach to the world were key parts to that. I think that it’s very understandable that Europe would try to escape from that path and move to a different kind of international behavior — trying to unify and submerge nationalism in a union of countries, but also to move away from power politics as much as they can because they have that kind of memory.

American memory of those wars is more positive. World War II was a great moment. We call it the “Greatest Generation.” Whereas European memories of World War II are appropriately horrific, Americans just have a different view. American history until recently has been that while Americans are not eager to use force, they have some successful examples of the use of force in their past. If you go back and think about all the major wars America has fought, the Revolutionary War was a sort of glorious victory; the Civil War, if you were not from the south, was a great triumph of good; World War II may have been a mixed bag, but most people thought the US had good motives.

The other thing is that it’s a basic principle that nations that have a lot of power are more inclined to want to use that power or believe in the use of that power, and believe in the legitimacy of that power. Nations without a lot of power tend to want a constrained use of power within an international system. Nations that are much stronger want to leave themselves room to be able to use that power. And that has all kinds of implications for international law and international institutions.

European defense budgets continue to decline much [more pronouncedly than] the decline the American budget has gone through. A very low percentage of their GDP is spent on defense. They don’t have a lot of useful power, so it’s unsurprising that that’s their choice. A lot of this is going to be challenged, because for the first time since World War II, we have a nation that has essentially conquered territory through the use of force on Europe’s front door, so how Europe responds to this will be a really interesting question — whether they still take a fundamentally Venus-like approach or not is something that we’ll just have to see.

The Politic: Building off that metaphor a little more, how beneficial do you feel it is for the United States to take that “Mars approach” to foreign policy? Do you think that perhaps America should move towards a Venus approach, [and if so], what would that look like?

Well, obviously war is to be avoided. But I think that it’s a mistake not to realize the fundamentally beneficial world order that we’ve enjoyed since World War II. And let’s remember that this has been a period with [an] unprecedented spread of democracy and, even with the latest recession, a period of unprecedented prosperity for the world — a kind of world that does not have any “Great Power” wars, which used to be pretty common before the American order took hold. That order rests ultimately on America’s military power. It has been deployment of American military strength in East Asia that has put an end to the long cycle of wars between Japan and China. It was American military power in Europe which put an end to that terrible cycle of war [there] and made [it] possible for Europe to integrate, and in general it has been American power that has kept the oceans free, which has allowed global free trade and international commerce to do as well as it has.

Americans, I think, would like to think that somehow this has nothing to do with military power, because it’s inconvenient, but we need to recognize that it has been. What I said in [my] book in 2003 was that it was precisely because America was willing to use power that Europe was willing to, or could even envision, not having to worry about power. But either someone has to keep basic order in the world, or the order will collapse. There are a lot of predatory leaders and nations out there. There always are and we’ve seen that clearly now, and we need to recognize that what deters them is not good will, ultimately, but the ability to feed them, or at least convince them that they can’t prosper through the use of military force, and that requires military power.

The Politic: What do you think the world power dynamic will look like in 50 years? Will China overtake America, for instance?

Look, I think it’s impossible to say — to ask me what’s going to happen in 50 years, you might as well ask me 500 years. If you look at any 50 year period in the history of mankind, the changes are not only enormous, in many cases, but also entirely unpredictable, so I hate to make 50-year predictions. But I’m not as sure as many people seem to be that China is going to “overtake” the US. I think the problems that China faces, both in its domestic situation and in terms of the foreign policy challenges, are enormous.

I think that the actual advantages the United States enjoys, not least of which is a geographical advantage, as well as a system that, for all its flaws (and it is flawed), has nevertheless been pretty good at adapting to changes in international economic trends. You know, the United States tends to be at the forefront of technological change and innovation. It’s a relatively free system; that makes it adaptable. I just think that China in its current form of government is going to be slower to adapt. It’s going to have all kinds of domestic political pressures, not to mention environmental pressures, and so a lot of this kind of straight-line projection into the future turns out to be wrong.

Just think of the general fate of the so called BRICS over the last couple of years. It used to be the case that everyone assumed that these countries would just go zooming forward economically forever, but of course, many of them have hit bumps in the road. Turkey is suffering difficulties; India’s economy has slowed; and the Russian economy is entirely dependent on energy, so I think we have to be careful with straight line projections that predict what’s going to happen fifty years out.

The Politic: In a recent talk at Yale with Henry Kissinger, Professor John Gaddis recalled a quote from former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates: “When I look into Putin’s eyes, I expected — and I saw — a stone cold killer”. On the other hand, President George W. Bush said, “I looked the man in the eye — I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy, and I was able to get a sense of his soul”. We would like to get your take on this. What do you see when you metaphorically look into the eyes of Putin?

Well, I would say he’s a man whose main concern every day is about power, and that he is a trained manipulator of power. I see him looking at the world and I think he wants to restore Russian greatness, which he defines as the reconquest of certainly the former Soviet Union, which includes not only Ukraine but also the Baltic states and Georgia. I think that beyond that he would like to create a sphere of influence in Europe which essentially recreates in some way the Warsaw Pact of the [Cold War] era, and the only thing that constrains him from doing this is his perception of the power of those who might resist him — like the United States and NATO. I think domestically he is a true autocrat.

I think we’re going to see — and we have seen — an increasing crackdown on any notion of dissent in Russia, and he’s also enjoying an enormous popularity in Russia for taking this role. So I think that he falls into a category of [fundamentally] predatory dictators that we’ve seen many times throughout history. I don’t think he’s unusual in this respect, but I also think it’s pretty clear what he is. And I must say, I think Henry Kissinger takes a benign view of what Putin is all about. I don’t quite understand it.

The Politic: In one of your books, you explain the “American mentality” as a major factor in America’s role as a world power. How important is [this] “American mentality” to American hegemony?

Well, I don’t think that Americans really ever sought hegemony. On the one hand, the basic American aspiration — which goes back to the Declaration of Independence — is for individual happiness. Americans are basically liberal Lockean beings — they seek commerce, which has pulled them out into the world in search of commercial opportunity. They have, in addition, a universalistic ideology, which is their nationalism. The odd thing about America is there is no nation apart from the principles of the Declaration of Independence, and Americans think those principles are universal. That also pulls them out into the world, and they have acquired power over the centuries, and power in all nations tends to lead to ambition and a desire to — as much as possible — create a world around them that is conducive to their interests and their values. So in that respect, all those things have been inclined to push Americans out into the world to shape [it] in a way that suits their interests and their ideas.

At the same time, as I’ve said, Americans like to think that they’re just minding their own business. Sometimes they tire of playing this role in the world and would like to be left alone. So there’s a constant tension in the United States. I don’t believe they’re isolationists, by the way. American are not isolationists. I just think that they weary sometimes of the task that they take on for themselves.

There is a tension between all the forces that lead Americans outward and the understandable desire for Americans to just go about their daily business without worrying about a lot of these things. And we see this tension played out throughout their history. There are periods of high interventionism and high global involvement that are followed by periods of retraction and retrenchment, and a turning away from that until something happens out in the world that Americans, for one reason or another, find intolerable, and then they go back out again. You can see this sine-wave pattern tracing throughout history, certainly in the nineteenth century. I think that’s where we are right now. Americans are in a period of being world-weary and desire retrenchment. To me, the question is how long does that last and how deep does it go? My concern is that in the 1920s and 1930s it was very deep and very long, and the consequences were catastrophic. I hope that doesn’t happen again in this case.

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