Robert Kagan is a senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in Foreign Policy at Brookings. He is a co-founded the Project for the New American Century (PNAC). His most recent book is The World America Made.
In an age of austerity, should the United States cut defense spending?
Well, we have to understand the role the United States has played since the end of the Second World War and still plays today, and that is as a provider of security—not only to itself but to lots of nations around the world. And I think that the general stability we’ve experienced since the Second World War has been largely due to America’s ability to play that role, and that’s what the defense budget pays for. It’s not so much dealing with threats to the homeland, the United States, although that’s important; but it is maintaining this general world order from which many people benefit, and you can see consequences in Southeast Asia where people are looking to the United States for support, the Persian Gulf, and parts of Europe. Eastern Europeans want to know the United States has these capacities.
Well, maintaining this global order is very expensive. Can we afford that?
The United States has to be able to afford this, but also when we think about the costs to ourselves of maintaining the sea lines of communication, maintaining a big navy, maintaining a big force in general, the only really intelligent way to look at this is to look at, “What are the costs of not doing that? What are the costs if this global order breaks down? What are the costs if sea lines of communication are closed in a conflict?” So people look at the number of what the defense budget is without seeing what we’re buying — it’s hard to quantify to some extent. But we saw earlier in the 20th century what the costs of the breakdown of order are, and I think those costs need to be thought about as well.
In 2013, what are our defensive priorities? What threats pose biggest challenges?
Well again, part of this is about threats, and part of this is about order and maintaining a general level of global security. Both of those are aspect of what our defense budget needs to pay for, what our defense posture needs to deal with. Obviously there are continuing threats of terrorism; obviously there are threats in the Persian Gulf from Iran. There are potential disasters out there, including the ones we can imagine and the ones we can’t imagine. You know, whether it’s Pakistan imploding, whether it’s a conflict between India and Pakistan, what have you. But the biggest role, for instance, of the American Navy, which is expensive, is to keep this open economic, political, and strategic order together. I think that’s the challenge in 2013 as it was in, you know, 1953.
You mentioned Iran. How big a threat do they pose?
I think Iran poses a real threat, certainly in the region. I don’t think there’s any question about the basically hegemonic aspirations of Iran. It’s not unusual to have memories dating back a thousand years to the Persian Empire, and Iran can imagine itself being dominant in the region. And clearly their search for a nuclear weapon for that purpose. Some of it, I think, they conceive of as defensive, but the possession of nuclear weapons will give Iran the capacity to wield influence in the region that is it does today, and that makes the other nations in the region very nervous. And so at least, another threat that could arise from Iran getting a nuclear weapon is that the whole region becomes nuclearized, which I think would be a very unpleasant situation.
To prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, do we do that through continued diplomacy and further sanctions? Or do we need to more actively seek a regime change?
Well, I think we should certainly try and see what sanctions can accomplish. I’m not very optimistic about diplomacy—the Iranians really seem to be willing to pay a very high price to achieve their nuclear ambitions—but I do give the best opportunity for sanctions possible. And then the American administration — whether it’s Republicans or Democrats, and lots of European administrations — realize that, once those fail, you have to start thinking about military options that can retard and if possible destroy the Iranian nuclear program for as long as possible because the consequences of Iran getting a nuclear weapon, including the nuclearization of the region, are very significant.
How does America benefit with the NATO alliance, and is that investment giving us a high return?
Well, obviously everyone would like to see Europeans paying a larger share on defense—I think most people think that’s really in the cards now, especially given the economic difficulties—but European leaders themselves say they ought to be paying more, so I don’t think that’s really in dispute. The question of, even under these terms, “Is NATO of value to the United States.” I think how unquestionable it is. I think NATO is one of the bits of glue that holds the transatlantic relationship together. It keeps Europe in a good place, and at a moment when, I must say, I’m surprised to even be talking about the possibility of the collapse of the EU, if the EU were to begin to break apart in any way, I think people would look to NATO more than they’re looking to it now—not only for its security, but for political cohesion, for the cohesion of what we used to call “the West.” I think NATO still plays that role.
Is there a litmus test for American military intervention?
I must say, people have been trying. People know what they don’t want, but it’s very hard to come up with a doctrine that says where do you intervene and where you don’t—there’s so many factors that go into decisions like this. Obviously you would say, “if vital interests or important interests are at stake.” But we know that certainly the United States, as well as some other countries, have intervened on humanitarian grounds because we don’t want to live in a world where there’s genocide and where people are slaughtered. We’ve witnessed enough of that. So I think there is no hard and fast rule, and that’s what statesmanship is about. And by the way, we frequently make the wrong decision, and unfortunately there’s no doctrine that tells you in advance when, necessarily, it is right and when is wrong. The only thing that I’m confident of is that the people who say we’re never going to intervene anywhere are mistaken. That’s not going to be the nature of American foreign policy, and it hasn’t in the past.
Will China’s policies in the developing world lead to a conflict with the United States?
I don’t think we’re likely to have a conflict with China, Africa, and Latin America. I think we’re likely to compete with China for influence. China has a lot of money to throw around and, in some respects, the money China does throw around works against efforts by the United States and Europe to support democratic government, to support economic reforms. China tends to walk in with a bag of money to the local dictator, which takes a lot of pressure off of them. I think if we’re going to have a conflict with China, however, it’s going to be in the neighborhood of China. I think there’s no question that we’re going to face a very serious challenge in the years to come dealing with a rising China that wants to be dominant and hegemonic in its own region, wants to control sea lines of communication, wants to control the South China Sea, and we have allies who stand to lose from that and look to us for support. I think that’s the likeliest area of actual conflict.
We’d spoken earlier about the “policing force”—the large military—and why it’s worth maintaining that. Is there any threat that fast developing nations can leapfrog us to some degree?
Well, I think the good news is that we’re still ahead technologically, and we need to be thinking about fighting future wars as well as dealing with the present. That adds to the expense, but it is very important. The Chinese are focusing on asymmetrical warfare, on access denial—which is a cheaper activity than the ability than to gain access—and we’re engaged in an arms race with China, both technological and in terms of basic arms, that we’re going to have to continue as I think that’s an inevitable challenge. People want to make a choice. They want to say focus on the current problem and less on the future. Other people say let’s focus on the future and not so much on the current problem. Unfortunately, we don’t have that option. That’s just not the role the United States plays today.
Why would a banking crisis in Europe affect the United States?
Well, obviously the global economy is interdependent—and no more than between the United States and Europe. And so what happens in Europe affects the United States and vice versa. I wish the United States had been in a position to actually be of more use to Europe during this period, but the United States economically wasn’t exactly a model of success, so the Europeans weren’t inclined to take advice. But there’s no question that the United States has a stake—not only an economic stake, but really in the health of Europe, however configured—and I would say, given the choices that Europeans have made, I think that means, in the health of the European Union. It’s always been America’s interest for a strong, capable, independent, and influential Europe. Europe is America’s leading partner in the world for a variety of reasons, and, in my view, it always will be unless Europe ceases to have that capacity.