Robert Kagan is a neocon, though like most of that ilk he tends to spurn the label. Know him by his words, of course. In this editorial for the neocon Weekly Standard he hopes that the west will be wakened from complacency by the Georgia crisis in time to renew its historic struggle against "autocracy" as embodied by Russia and China. He's determined not to see the current scene as a clash of national interests. He has at least one piece of evidence to back up his view.
In fact, a global competition is under way. According to Russia's foreign minister, "For the first time in many years, a real competitive environment has emerged on the market of ideas" between different "value systems and development models." And the good news, from the Russian point of view, is that "the West is losing its monopoly on the globalization process." Today when Russians speak of a multipolar world, they are not only talking about the redistribution of power. It is also the competition of value systems and ideas that will provide "the foundation for a multipolar world order."
I don't think this means what Kagan thinks it does. At this point in history, neither Putin nor the Chinese Communist party (who by definition as a collective leadership are not an "autocracy") regards its preferred form of government as a one-size-fits-all model for all nations. More likely they mean what they say about multipolarity, and have no interest in imposing "autocracy" on the United States, and even less interest, of course, in having the American model imposed on them. But that's quite enough to offend the neocons, who reject the idea of an "American model" because they consider the ideology that prevails here as timeless and universally valid. Nor would it mollify them to be convinced that today's "autocrats" aren't interested in converting the world. The neocons have adopted Abraham Lincoln's "House Divided" viewpoint, presuming that the world can't remain "half slave, half free." As long as autocracies exist, they're a threat to democracies, and neocons presume that autocrats feel the same way about the existence of democracies.
While he doesn't make such bloodthirsty recommendations as Charles Krauthammer, Kagan wants the democracies to work on subverting the autocracies:
The world's democracies need to show solidarity with one another, and they need to support those trying to pry open a democratic space where it has been closing. That includes in the great power autocracies themselves. It is easy to look at China and Russia today and believe they are impervious to outside influence. But one should not overlook their fragility and vulnerability. These autocratic regimes may be stronger than they were in the past in terms of wealth and global influence, but they still live in a predominantly liberal era. That means they face an unavoidable problem of legitimacy. Chinese leaders race forward with their economy in fear that any slowing will be their undoing. They fitfully stamp out even the tiniest hints of political opposition because they live in fear of repeating the Soviet collapse and their own near-death experience in 1989. They fear foreign support for any internal political opposition more than they fear foreign invasion. In Russia, Putin strains to obliterate his opponents, even though they appear weak, because he fears that any sign of life in the opposition could bring his regime down.
It almost sounds like a job application. What this country needs, this neocon claims, is more neocons to propagandize and awaken humanity's latent craving for liberal democracy and free enterprise in the benighted nations. It seems like Kagan has missed the main lesson, as it's developing, of the South Ossetia story. For most of the rest of the world, it has been definitive proof, if anyone still needed it, of American hypocrisy. For Kagan, it is only proof of Russian malice and hence another negative confirmation of American virtue.
Kagan may resent the neo prefix (and who would want to be equated with Keanu Reeves, in all fairness?), but he probably would call himself a conservative. So would Pat Buchanan. That coincidence tells us that there's no such thing as a coherent, inherently conservative foreign policy. His column on the crisis could not be further from Kagan's in its conclusions.
Buchanan and his colleagues at the American Conservative, being Europhiles as part of their affirmation of a superior Euro-American culture, don't tend to be Russophobes. The Chechens never had any sympathy from him, and the Georgians get none now. Likewise, he opposed another pet cause of the neocons (and Clintonites), the dismemberment of Yugoslavia culminating in the bombing campaign against Serbia during the Kosovo conflict. He invokes that bit of business, as well as our approval of Israel's punitive attacks on Lebanon in 2006, to show the double standard at work in the Bush administration and Senator McCain's condemnation of Russia. "Is not Western hypocrisy astounding?" he asks.
It's as if Buchanan and Kagan were writing about two different countries and two different histories when both discuss Russia. Here's Buchanan's explanation for Putin's confrontational attitude toward the U.S.
For years the West has rubbed Russia's nose in her Cold War defeat and treated her like Weimar Germany. When Moscow pulled the Red Army out of Europe, closed its bases in Cuba, dissolved the evil empire, let the Soviet Union break up into 15 states, and sought friendship and alliance
with the United States, what did we do? American carpetbaggers colluded with Muscovite Scalawags to loot the Russian nation. Breaking a pledge to Mikhail Gorbachev, we moved our military alliance into Eastern Europe, then onto Russia's doorstep. Six Warsaw Pact nations and three former republics of the Soviet Union are now NATO members. Bush, Cheney, and McCain have pushed to bring Ukraine and Georgia into NATO. This would require the United States to go to war with Russia over Stalin's birthplace and who has sovereignty over the Crimean Peninsula and Sebastopol, traditional home of Russia's Black Sea fleet. When did these become U.S. vital interests, justifying war with Russia? The United States unilaterally abrogated the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty because our technology was superior, then planned to site anti-missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic to defend against Iranian missiles, though Iran has no ICBMs and no atomic bombs. A Russian counter-offer to have us together put an antimissile system in Azerbaijan was rejected out of hand. We built a Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline from Azerbaijan through Georgia to Turkey to cut Russia out. Then we helped dump over regimes friendly to Moscow with democratic "revolutions" in Ukraine and Georgia, and tried to repeat it in Belarus.
He adds: "Americans have many fine qualities. A capacity to see ourselves as others see us is not high among them. " In fact, neocons and fanatic Bushies discourage that capacity, being convinced that only the American viewpoint is moral, while everyone else's is either amorally self-interested or immorally totalitarian. Those groups may call themselves "conservative," but it seems like Buchanan more nearly lives up to the principles of philosophical conservatism, for what they're worth, just by being capable of recognizing that America, even when it advocates democracy, isn't always right.
Right now, I'm not even sure whether there's any kind of debate within the "Left" over the implications of the South Ossetia crisis. The anti-imperialists appear to side with Russia on the simplistic assumption that the only imperialists worth opposing are Americans or Israelis, while Senator Obama dutifully denounces Russia while trying to look reasonable by comparison to the Putin-hating Senator McCain. This is probably a hard call for liberals and leftists because they're more likely to perceive that Russia, Georgia, and South Ossetia all have interests that demand consideration, and are less likely to label one group as good, another as evil. As things stand, Pat Buchanan may be the most vehement "anti-imperialist" in print right now. Arguably, he's so far right on the question that he looks left, but whatever orientation he has, his judgment definitely looks better than the neocons'. Unfortunately, the neocons (not to mention the Georgia lobby, such as it is) appear to have the ear of the Republican presidential nominee, leaving Buchanan, who once sought that position, howling in the political wilderness like a mad prophet. For all that, his column should earn him respect from all directions as one of the bravest writers in the country.