Robert Kagan is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an adjunct professor of history at Georgetown University and a director at the Foreign Policy Initiative. He is the author, most recently, of The Return of History and the End of Dreams. He spoke with RealClearWorld editor Greg Scoblete.
RCW: Relative to the other challenges the Obama administration has on its plate, how large a threat is Iran?
Kagan: It's probably the biggest one they face politically, in terms of what's going to cause Obama the most difficulty. In the near term I would see them as a bigger problem than most others with the exception of the terrorist threat. In the longer run, the great powers are the bigger issue in American foreign policy. But Iran getting a nuclear weapon would be a turning point on a number of fronts - on the proliferation issue, it would be in sorry shape once Iran gets a weapon. It will have some effect on the balance of power in the region. And the wild card is what the Israelis do and I worry about the fallout from a possible Israeli strike.
RCW: There have been a range of suggestions about how to prevent Iran's nuclear progress, from sanctions to supporting the opposition to military action. Where do you fall on that continuum?
Kagan: I'm not too interested in military action. I'd like to see if there was a better way out. I'm not at all certain there can be a change in government, but it's worth making a reasonable effort to aid the opposition. If you asked me two years ago I didn't think it would succeed, but now you have to take it seriously. We've been taken by surprise by the strength of the opposition to the regime.
RCW: What do you believe the U.S. could do?
Kagan: One of the tools is sanctions. Sanctions play into the balance of power in Iran. It certainly affects the internal situation. I've spoken to the administration and they think it can have an impact on the people in Iran, although that's not their main focus. Still, you can't expect external pressure not to have some impact on the internal situation. Another element, and this is something that a number of Iran analysts have said, they've called on the administration to be more vocal [in support of the Green movement]. People denigrate this but the Iranian opposition might be heartened by it. Many Iranian experts think it would help. Who knows which button leads to which result, but I think you should push all the buttons. And negotiations are a button too.
RCW: Many people seem to be under the assumption that a change in the internal political situation in Iran would necessarily lead to a change in their nuclear policy or foreign policy. Do you believe that's the case?
Kagan: The only sane answer is we don't know. If you did get a change of government in Iran, it would need to reach out to the international community for assistance and probably wouldn't have the hard-wired opposition to the West that the current regime has. From a practical point of view they'd have to seek deeper cooperation with the international community, which would at least slow down the headlong drive to a nuclear weapon. I can see them accepting the kind of deals that the current regime is turning down and that could be significant. Some governments do change their strategic orientation when there is domestic change. There are enduring Russian interests, but it's not the same country it was when it was the Soviet Union.
RCW: Stepping back from Iran to the Obama administration's overall foreign policy. In World Affairs Journal you argued that the administration is rebalancing with respect to its democratic allies, demoting them in favor of the world's autocracies. But hasn't some of this rebalancing come from the democracies themselves who, like Japan, are maturing and desiring greater independence?
Kagan: I don't hold the administration responsible for where Japan has gone. In fact, you could argue that the administration has been too rigid in demanding Japan get back in line. But we're past this point with the Europeans. They're not showing their independence, they're worried about a lack of U.S. interest. I'm not opposed to independence. But I do think what the administration is doing, in a very pragmatic kind of way, is saying 'who has the power and who can help us with the problems that we have - Iran, Afghanistan, or even who can help us by not hurting us?' They see Europe out of the game right now. A lot of the smart money says the game is China and the game is Russia. But if you say that, then you can't pretend you're upholding the alliance system. Something has to give. As any true realist would say, the balance will shift. It's not all win-win. In the effort to engage in problem solving with the powers the administration thinks have the capacity to solve problems, leaving aside the question of whether they want to solve them, something is giving way.
RCW: But weren't those alliances formed for defensive purposes? Couldn't it be that the administration is looking at a world without the Soviet Union and concluding that we're safer now and can afford a change in strategy?
Kagan: I do think that the alliances are going to continue to be important. If they fade away, they will be harder to reconstruct. I think it would be foolish not to expect strategic competition with China. One could say that Japan's behavior is in some sense a response to this shift. It could also be seen as [Japan] accommodating a new reality, especially if we encourage them to think we're turning away. Russia is a more problematic question - who knows where Russia is going to be? China has been a careful rising power. Russia is the opposite, they're technically weaker but behave more aggressively. Russia is willing to use force, something China has not done. That does implicate countries facing Russia. We're facing a more traditional kind of power problem. It does not have to be as big a problem as the Soviet Union, but it doesn't mean we're not implicated in it. I think the policy of a Europe whole and free is a smart policy for us. And it is not necessary to tilt toward Russia. I think they are a paper tiger and all we have to say is 'these are the boundaries.'
RCW: Didn't we try that in Georgia, only to have it blow up in our face? The Bush administration was very vocal with respect to where the U.S. stood on Georgia.
Kagan: I actually think we created a blur there, which is the worst of all possible worlds. We left their status in NATO ambiguous and Russia took a preemptive action to make sure [NATO membership] would never happen.
RCW: In the 1990s you co-authored an article with William Kristol laying out the view that the U.S. should serve as a benevolent global hegemon. Is that still your guiding view of the U.S. role in the world today?
Kagan: Well, it's a question of: compared to what? It's harder to carry out that policy now because of what happened in the interim, such as Iraq, but it's important to remember that we were in the mainstream with that assessment at the time. And a genuinely multipolar world, where the poles are us, Russia, China and India (I don't think Europe is a pole), that is extremely complex and less in line with our basic interests as opposed to sustaining American predominance.
RCW: But hasn't the drive to sustain unipolarity in fact hastened its end? You mention Iraq, which was a war fought in some measure to show the U.S. was going to enforce rules, and it diminished American power.
Kagan: It's a good question, and one that can't be answered briefly. I don't want to be profligate with the use of force and it's worth saying that Iraq would have been less damaging if the war had been fought differently. If it had been wrapped up in 2004 and 2005 - the damage would not be as great. But I don't think there's any way to avoid the occasional use of force, that is still the ultimate currency in the international system - it determines what the shape of the system is going to look like. The real question now is do we have the capacity to maintain this position? I don't think there's an easy way to answer this question. I do think we're underestimating ourselves, we have a psychological depression as a result of the economic crisis. Some of it is real, and some of it is a loss of confidence. We're still an extraordinarily powerful country - with capabilities across the range of different types of power - and no other country even comes close. And I don't want us to resign ourselves to a decline that is not inevitable.