America is far from the greatest force for good in the world

In a recent op-ed, PolicyMic editors asked the question: “Is America the greatest force for good in the world?” Briefly, the piece talks about Robert Kagan’s assertions that America has made the world freer, safer, and wealthier, and that Pax Americana is indeed preferable to the alternatives offered by China and Russia, which, he alleges, threaten democracy and economic freedom around the world.

I would like to evaluate Kagan’s arguments.

On free markets: The free market has never existed, does not exist, and never will exist – it is an ideal construct. Since it has never existed, it cannot be threatened. Capital’s natural tendency to concentrate itself means that a mature market can only be oligarchic or monopolized. American manufacturing was wilfully given to China – in such a case, America exports primarily weapons and cars, and little else of systemic value. China and Russia are part of the global economy; the important interdependence between China and America cannot be overstated. Russia is one of the largest exporters of energy – while it is an important lever for Moscow in respect to international relations, it is also an obligation to the vitality of the global economy. Commercial relations thus govern the behaviour of both great powers, state control notwithstanding. We can ask a rhetorical question here: how free is America’s defence industry? The Pentagon is funded with tax revenue and creates an artificial market for defence companies – state contracts are the reason Lockheed Martin or Northrop Grumman are still afloat.

Democracy: Kagan is right that democracy has spread in several waves around the world over the last 100 years. He also levels the charge that America is an inspiration for democracy. Sadly, America’s democracy is far from a blueprint for the world – if slavery and the civil rights movement that happened when my parents were teenagers are taken into account. The two-party system is also not representative of the majority of American interests, and actions of American foreign policy rarely coincide with the public sentiment. Not to mention the recent allowance for companies to contribute unlimited funds for election campaigns via the Citizens United decisions. By comparison, Russia’s Duma has four parties in it, not two, and by that criterion it is ironically more democratic; while Russian democracy is indeed little more than a facade for oligarchic elites, how different, truly, is American democracy in the context of the two-party system?

Supporting dictators: China and Russia are indeed trying to keep Syria’s Bashar Al-Assad in power. However, what can we say about America’s support for South African apartheid, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Indonesian President Suharto, cooperation with the fascist Argentine junta in Nicaragua, and a whole host of other satraps? Thus, Kagan does not have the moral high ground in saying that America is indeed an exporter of democracy.

Finally, what do we mean by “good?” American foreign policy has historically maintained a discourse of promoting freedom and democracy, at odds with the facts of its practice. “Good” in the context of foreign policy is perhaps only possible when national interests are not part of the equation. For instance, American sponsorship for UNESCO was withdrawn when the organization granted full membership to Palestine; the purpose of the organization is to safeguard humanity’s legacy, which goes above the momentous political polemics and disagreements. While it most certainly can be construed as an arena of competing interests, the framework is largely humanistic – how “good” is American foreign policy, then? Robert Kagan simply misses the nuance and full implications of American foreign policy and falls in the trap that characterizes the established discourse, but is far removed from reality.

I might say the American people are a force of “good” in the world. As for Washington’s policies, they tend to disappoint more often than not.