A More Dangerous Place: the Kagan-Slaughter Debate

Has Obama made the world a more dangerous place? That question was the subject of an organized debate one evening in late 2014, and is also the title of a new book of the same name edited by Rudyard Griffiths, who has transcribed and edited the debate to satiate the public's reading appetite. A careful reading of the debate reveals the fault lines separating two canons of American foreign policy currently competing for supremacy.

For the view that Obama has made the world a more dangerous place, the debate featured Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution and Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal. For the view that Obama has not made the world a more dangerous place, the debate featured Anne-Marie Slaughter of the New America Foundation and Fareed Zakaria of CNN. Each debater treated the question at hand with considerable thought and seriousness, though Kagan and Slaughter emerged for their respective sides as the foreign policy heavyweights to be reckoned with, as representatives we might even say of the two foreign policy canons that emerge from between the lines of the debate.

While the discussion naturally touched on the geopolitical disruptions plaguing the Middle East and North Africa, Ukraine and Russia, the Asia-Pacific Region, and elsewhere, Slaughter used her opening remarks to center the conversation on a deeper level of abstraction: "Blaming Barack Obama for the state that the world is in right now is like blaming a Caribbean island for a hurricane," she asserted off the bat. Clarifying her meaning, she continued: "in the aftermath of a hurricane, you can certainly criticize the leaders of a country for not doing things to mitigate the damage or make it easier to rebuild, but you cannot blame them for the fact that the hurricane came in the first place."

Kagan, however, pouncing on what he surely perceived as the weakness of this peculiar hurricane analogy, responded thusly: "Is all of this Barack Obama's fault? Of course not. Have Barack Obama's policies made these situations worse? Of course they have. We know how ISIL got to be what it is today. It was because the United States prematurely withdrew a limited number of troops from Iraq." 

Obama proceeded with the withdrawal from Iraq despite warnings from American military officials that it was premature. Iraq's military afterwards failed to prevent ISIS from conquering large swaths of Iraqi territory. “Well, lo and behold," Kagan pointed out, "the vacuum has been filled by jihadists, and Iraq has begun to fall apart. Are we supposed to believe that Barack Obama had nothing to do with any of this -- that he's a Caribbean island sitting back and watching the hurricane go by?" 

Slaughter did not address Kagan's rebuttal directly, despite its direct challenge to the hurricane analogy. Instead, she pivoted.  Obama, claimed Slaughter, "understands the difficulty of trying to eradicate the group [ISIS] and is working on something more tangible." But the issue in her view runs deeper than this or that policy response to this or that event -- Obama's foreign policy to her mind is a grander vision for what the international system should be. Obama has "strengthened regional and international organizations. Contrary to what it looked like when he came into office, nobody now acts without the United Nations. He's re-established the rule of multilateralism," she explained.

The root for Slaughter is that progress lies in the development of international regulatory institutions created by multilateral agreements between nations. "Solutions to these problems are slow and complicated; they can't be plotted out on a chessboard. But by focusing on issues like development, poverty eradication, and rebuilding governance we can move toward solving longer-term crises that we ultimately have to address," Slaughter professed. Obama has "certainly done more work on these bigger issues than any president in the past few decades." Thanks to Obama's contributions to the development of international regulatory schemes that address supranational problems, the world is less dangerous, not more.

Kagan's focus is likewise a grander vision of the international system, but his gaze is dead set on how the underlying structure of international order relates to the system Obama and Slaughter want to tinker with. He spotlights history and reality as it is: "What happened in 1945 is that on the ruins of the greatest world catastrophe we had ever known, World War II, the democratic nations -- the United States, Canada, the European nations, and Japan -- got together and built a liberal world order that was strengthened over the decades and achieved three extraordinary things: one, an enormous spread of democracy; another, an enormous increase in prosperity, the likes of which we had never seen before; and finally, an end to great-power conflict of the kind we saw in the first part of the twentieth century. If the world is more dangerous it is because that is what is at risk today." 

The root for Kagan is that the future of any liberal international order is inescapably dependent on American power. "I'm always worried that the world order we've created will collapse," he explained to his interlocutors. "I am worried that if we're not careful, we will, through lack of action, through misunderstanding, and through foolishness, lose control of a liberal order from which we've all benefited so much. And let me tell you, it is fragile." American power is the indispensible variable on this view -- not because American power is good in itself, but because as a matter of ice cold reality the integrity of any iteration of a liberal international order, including one based on the "rule of multilateralism," is roughly proportional to the integrity of American power. To the degree Obama has chosen to draw back and play down American power internationally, he has to that degree made the world more dangerous, not less.

To lay out the implications more straightforwardly than a friendly debate could permit, what is being advanced when the effects of Obama's foreign policy are evaluated is a normative concept of American power, a concept that integrates the reality of force with the force of idealism and that forces to the front the relentless truth that the world in all ways seems better than it is. How to interpret and implement this concept? Those who believe the future of progress lies in regulatory institutions created by multilateral treaties and independent of any nation may be deceiving themselves. The effectual truths of history may suggest an error in the judgment.

The clash between these rival value systems reached its crescendo when the moderator asked Slaughter to "give us something specific, something that Barack Obama has done up to this point in his presidency that you think has improved the global climate." Slaughter used the opportunity to attack Kagan's worldview and reinforce her own: "Bob [Kagan] said he is worried that the world order that the United States, Canada, and all the allies in World War II built is at risk, but George W. Bush did more to disturb that system with his invasion of Iraq, against the will of the Security Council and pretty much the world, than anyone else."  Meanwhile, "Barack Obama has systematically rebuilt the trust of the world through our willingness to use the Security Council and other institutions." 

"That's just nonsense, Anne-Marie," responded Kagan, confidently. "You must not talk to anyone in the world, including our allies, in order to believe that. If you talk to Japanese officials, they are worried about the extent of America's commitment to global leadership.  Officials in Saudi Arabia, in the [United Arab Emirates], in Israel, are also worried. Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister, said the American guarantee is now worthless."

"No, he said something worse," Bret Stephens interrupted. 

"He said something worse?  What did he say?"

"He said it's bullshit," Stephens answered.    

Anthony Tsontakis is a writer based in Phoenix, Arizona.