Robert Kagan Looks to American History to Explain Foreign Policy Today


Robert Kagan

Robert Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, a columnist at The Washington Post, and among the most influential writers on foreign policy today. His latest book is Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941.

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We think that because we’re children of the Enlightenment, the way the world is moving is gradually toward liberalism. I think the natural course of the world is away from liberalism and it has only been American power that has sustained this aberration in world history.

Robert Kagan

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:37
  • American and WWI – 2:37
  • Isolationism and Retrenchment – 16:40
  • Troops in the Rhineland – 31:36
  • Parallels to Today – 42:32

Podcast Transcript

When Russia invaded Ukraine last February, it changed the way many thought about what it meant to defend democracy. Before the invasion, many thought about threats to democracy as endemic. The greatest threats to democracy came from within. We worried about undemocratic politicians or undemocratic ideologies. But Russia has shown democracy faces threats from hostile neighbors as well. 

Robert Kagan believes this is a lesson Americans discovered in the past and have had to relearn once again. For those who don’t know him, Bob is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, a columnist at The Washington Post, and among the most influential writers on foreign policy today. His latest book is Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941.

Our conversation focuses on America’s foreign policy during this period. It touches on America’s involvement during WWI and its lack of involvement afterwards. But you’ll find our conversation draws frequent parallels to America’s support for Ukraine right now. So, even though we talk about history, it’s also a conversation about today’s foreign policy and the values that form its foundation. 

If you like this conversation, make sure to visit the website at The blog regularly features strong guest posts about democracy and world affairs. You can also find a complete transcript of this episode. If you’d like to write a post for the blog, send me an email to But for now… this is my conversation with Robert Kagan…


Robert Kagan, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Robert Kagan

Thank you very much. It’s great to be here.


So, Bob, your recent book, Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941, is just remarkable, not just for how comprehensive it is, but the insights that you draw and the clear parallels that we see to the world today. As we kind of start the book, it starts out before World War I, before either of the Great Wars. A line from, not the book, but an article that I’ve read that you’ve written kind of brings out the mindset during that period. You actually wrote, “Much of the drama of the past century,” and by that you mean the 20th Century, “resulted from great powers whose aspirations exceeded their capacity. Americans have the opposite problem.” As we think about the period of the 1900s and even today, what does that problem say about America’s character?

Robert Kagan

Well, the interesting thing is it says both good things and critical things. I mean, on the one hand, it has been an enormous advantage to America in terms of its leadership of the world that pretty much everyone knows, anybody who’s being sensible knows, that the United States is not in an acquisitive mode. I mean, the United States is not trying to take new territory. It’s not trying to conquer anybody. It doesn’t want to rule anybody. So, the fact that Americans don’t have an awareness of their own power in a way or even shy away from the use of their own power in a way, we should all thank goodness for that because otherwise we’d be pretty scary country.

I think one of the reasons we’re accepted as a global hegemon is precisely because people understand that it’s not an aggressive one. That it is a status quo power, that it is essentially trying to defend this liberal system. If you like the liberal system, then you don’t have a problem with America. If you don’t like the liberal system, then you do have a problem with America. So, that’s the good part of it. The bad part of it is that what the history shows is that whether Americans like it or not, fate and historical circumstances have put the United States in a particular position. That if you want to have a stable, peaceful, fundamentally liberal world order only the United States is actually capable of defending and preserving that order or at least it can’t be done without the United States.

In general, Americans take the general benevolence of the international system for granted. They don’t realize that America is the source of that relatively benevolent situation and they don’t want the responsibility. They don’t want to pay the money. They, understandably, don’t want to risk the lives. But even more than that, they don’t want to be the power responsible for the stability of the world, even though they are. So, what we see throughout this past century, ever since the United States basically became this key cog in the international system, is Americans doing everything they can to avoid taking on any of these responsibilities until it’s so apparently falling apart that they then rush to do so.

By the way, the consequence of that psychology is that other powers are constantly being fooled by the United States. We spend a lot of time telling everybody, including ourselves, and quite sincerely, we don’t want to get involved. We don’t want to get involved. So potential aggressors say, ‘Oh great, the Americans are not going to get involved. We can go do what we want to.’ Then Americans get all upset that they did it and the next thing you know, the other guy has been completely defeated. I mean, all these regimes that tested, in a sense, the state of the world miscalculated the role of the United States.

But a lot of the responsibility for that miscalculation that they make is because of the United States. We are not clear about what it is that we care about or what it is that we’re willing to potentially go to war over until it happens. That is, by the way, what just happened in Ukraine. I mean, the most recent article I’ve written in Foreign Affairs begins by pointing out what I think we all know. That if you had asked anyone on February 23rd, 2022 whether we had vital interests at stake in Ukraine, vital meaning our national security’s at risk, et cetera, our wellbeing is at risk, everyone would’ve said, ‘No. Of course not.’

But then when the invasion actually happens, I think Americans rightly respond that this may not be a threat to us at home now. But it is a threat to this fundamental liberal order that we want to live in. We have proven that we want to live in it again and again in World War I, in World War II, and during the Cold War. The thing that’s ironic is that the only people who are not aware that that is the world that we’re wanting and willing to fight for is us, because we have a way of feeling like these things are so far away. Why should we care? Yet then we do care, and that winds up trapping others into bad miscalculations.


So, the book starts with American foreign policy as we kind of move from the 19th century to the 20th century. But you just kind of brought up the fact that our involvement in foreign policy really starts with our entry into World War I. It’s a moment that draws a lot of confusion as to why the United States actually got involved. It’s a lot less clear than World War II feels. When I think about the causes, I think of things like the sinking of the Lusitania. But that happened in 1915 and we didn’t enter the war until two years later. Yet again, one of the rallying cries was still, Remember the Lusitania. It’s strange. It still wasn’t enough to bring us into war. So, Bob, can you help explain why is it that it took until 1917 for the United States to enter into World War I?

Robert Kagan

Well, I think that that is easy to explain. It isn’t too complex. Everybody could see almost immediately not only that this was a war and Americans don’t look for opportunities to go to war, but that it was the most horrific war that anyone had ever seen. I mean, the deaths in the early months of the war were already extraordinary. So, Americans knew that this was a horrendous thing to get involved with and I think that they were brought up believing that they were not supposed to get involved in affairs in Europe anyway. And who would want to get involved in this affair. So, in a way, the question is not why did we stay out? The question in a way is, why did we ever get in?

So, I mean, your starting position is you don’t want to get involved in this war. So, how did we wind up getting pulled into this war? That is a tricky subject. There’s a lot of complexity to that. The thing is, the Lusitania did matter. It just didn’t matter immediately. I mean, people were horrified by the Lusitania and horrified in a way that lasted. My argument in the book is that there were specific things that happened which we didn’t like such as getting our ships sunk. Not even the Lusitania, but any ships of ours being blown up. We didn’t like that. We didn’t like the fact that we were under all this pressure on trade. That the Germans wanted us to stop trading with the British. Of course, we were making a fortune trading with the British.

We didn’t want to be told to do that. A lot of it was honor. Woodrow Wilson talks about this a lot and I think we generally undervalue this as a motive in foreign policy. We’re a great nation and we’re actually a really powerful nation, so we don’t get pushed around and told where we can’t send our ships. So, some of it was that. But I do think at the end of the day the Lusitania introduced a notion that the Germans, and not just the German government, but all of German society was fundamentally immoral because Americans not only were upset about the fact that the Lusitania was deliberately sunk, they knew that there were almost 2000 civilian passengers on board, but when it occurred, they were popping champagne corks in the center of German cities.

I mean, the people were cheering this and there was a real sense of what kind of barbarians are these? When you add to that other things that Germany did during World War I… For instance, everyone used chemical weapons, but they were the first to use them. Ultimately, there were bombing runs, but they were the first to start bombing cities with aircraft which was prohibited by treaties that they had signed. There was a general impression which the Lusitania symbolized that they’re morally suspect. I think something’s been lost in our understanding of World War I. The international relations theorists have taken over our understanding of World War I. It’s all about how great powers accidentally fall into war with each other. That is just a complete distortion of what actually happened in World War I.

World War I was as much a war between different moralities as the Cold War was or as World War II. The German government at that time really did stand for an anti-liberal approach to government. It was about being devoted to the nation. The individual didn’t matter. The individual was subordinated to the nation and by the way, the nation had to defend them militarily and military power was what it was about. This was viewed, I think, understandably and correctly as antithetical to everything Americans stood for. If you want to ask me, what was the largest fundamental reason that the United States went to war in 1917? It was because they decided it would be intolerable for Germany to conquer Europe, for that Germany to conquer Europe. Americans are constantly moved to action by what are ultimately moral judgments.

That’s the part of it that I think is a great mystery for everyone. We talk as if we only respond to economic issues or national security issues. If you look at the whole history of American behavior, it’s pretty clear that ultimately what Americans are doing is defending a certain way of life, and not just within their own borders, but beyond their own borders. At the end of the day, the war in Europe was to defend liberalism in Europe. So, when Wilson says, make the world safer democracy, he’s often misunderstood to mean that we should spread democracy everywhere. Well, what he really meant was we are going to defend the democracies where they exist and where they are under attack now by Germany. I think in retrospect we don’t take that seriously, but that was the issue.


Do you think that the reason why morality is so important in American foreign policy is fundamental to the fact that our country is founded on democratic values? The fact that people are involved directly in the politics and there’s no way to take the people out of the politics.

Robert Kagan

Absolutely. Again, we’re taught in schools to treat international relations as essentially state to state behavior. My view is that international relations is people to people behavior. For everyone on all sides, it’s about how are we going to live our life? How do I live my life as an individual? So, for hundreds and hundreds of years we had people fighting each other over that issue. It was defined as Protestantism versus Catholicism or it was defined as Christianity versus Islam. We are now in a more secular age. But that doesn’t mean that the issues are not fundamentally larger than simple material questions of money or security.

They really are about how do people want to live their lives? I think that people who live in democracies have an instinctive understanding that democracy is the most fragile form of government in the world. If they have any historical understanding, they know that democracy is the rarest form of government in the world. So, I think there is a certain legitimate paranoia in democracies that they will lose their democracy somehow. Now, Americans tend to feel like they’ll lose their democracy because of some imported strain of alien whatever whether it’s communism or fascism or what have you. But nevertheless, if you’re an American, if you’re a person who lives in any liberal society, your individual rights are what’s most important to you.

So, if you feel that the world is moving in a such a direction, your individual rights are ultimately going to be threatened. I think that’s what makes Americans move the way they move. But it’s equally true for the Chinese. They have a certain worldview. They have a certain view of where China should sit in the sort of configuration of power and ideals. They think of China as a country that should be setting the norms, because historically that’s what they did for hundreds and hundreds of years. So, they are also in a way struggling for their way of life. Sometimes we talk about American exceptionalism as if Americans are the only ones who fight for ideals or principles or morality. But in my view, I would say that is what the jostling of international relations is about.

It’s not just about power and security and money, it’s also about ideas and beliefs and morality on all sides. The Germans in World War I, by the way, thought their approach to human existence was the right approach. They had contempt for liberalism. You should never underestimate the degree to which non-liberals are not only not liberal, but are anti-liberal. They’re hostile to liberal ideas. They don’t think individuals should be exalted. They think that’s selfishness or what have you. So, World War I was a war of ideas. World War II was a war of ideas. The Cold War was a war of ideas. Today’s struggle between the two large authoritarian great powers and the liberal world is a struggle for ideas in addition to power.


So, in the narrative of your book, the entry into World War I takes up a lot of space, because it’s a big question about why the United States should enter World War I or even whether the United States should enter World War I. But once they do it becomes inevitable that the allies are going to win the war and Germany’s going to lose.

So, the next big question that I think really applies both to today and a really unanswered question even for back then is why America pulled back afterwards, and specifically, why the Republican party led the effort to pull back, because the Republican Party had been an internationalist party before World War I. I mean, it was the party of Teddy Roosevelt. Even Henry Cabot Lodge was a very big promoter of internationalism. But then after World War I, Lodge completely changed and the party itself completely changed. Why did the Republican party become isolationist after the war?

Robert Kagan

You know, it’s a great question. It’s one of the really neglected questions and I appreciate you bringing it up. It is one of the things that I think is really an important corrective in this book. You know, there’s a one-word answer and I think, especially these days, we ought to be familiar with it. I’m sorry, it’s a two-word answer. It’s called partisan politics. I think the idea that a politician could say that he believes one thing one year and then say he believes the opposite thing another year is also something that we’ve have gotten used to. So, that is what happened. It’s a very interesting combination in a way, because on the political side, we need to remember that, first of all, the Republicans regarded the Wilson presidency as a complete fluke.

Because the Republicans had dominated American politics, particularly the White House since the 1890s, the only reason Wilson won in 1912 was because Theodore Roosevelt ran on the Bull Moose ticket and split the Republican vote, which gave Wilson a victory with like 40 plus percent of the vote. So, from Roosevelt’s and the Republican’s point of view, the Wilson thing was an aberration. Then he won again in 1916 much to everyone’s shock. So, he was either himself going to run in 1920 or obviously he was going to back some other Democratic candidate. It basically was Lodge’s job to make sure that Wilson does not get reelected or reelect a Democrat in 1920. So, everyone knows that. The issue that is going to determine that to a very large extent is the vote on the League of Nations Treaty and the Paris Treaty that Wilson comes back with.

So, Lodge is determined to defeat Wilson’s Treaty no matter what. A lot of historians wasted a lot of print trying to explain Lodge’s ideological shift to describe what are his actual foreign policy views. I think that’s a very interesting topic, but it had nothing to do with this decision. This decision was about politics. He wanted to defeat Wilson, so that they could have a Republican victory in 1920. By the way, Theodore Roosevelt was still thinking of running himself in 1920 which is why he came out against the League when he came up with the idea of the League before Wilson did. So, this is the thing about history. We all want theories that explain why this is the way America is and this is not the way America is.

Of course, Lodge could not have succeeded in defeating the treaty, if he wasn’t able to play on traditional feelings about American foreign policy. So, he was able to say, ‘Wait a second, this is just a bunch of entangling alliances and Washington said this or the Monroe doctrine is about how we don’t get involved.’ He went back to all the old shibboleths about involvement in Europe. He managed to mobilize every constituency that wasn’t happy with the Versailles Agreement. So, Italy was unhappy, therefore, Italian Americans were unhappy. Ireland was unhappy; therefore, Irish Americans were unhappy and therefore he was able to build a whole coalition of opposition. We know how these things happen. Yet it had such a dramatic effect on American foreign policy.

I believe the American people could have accepted the League of Nations and could have entered the League of Nations. Everybody thought when Wilson came back from Paris that it was a slam dunk, as we like to say these days. That the league and the treaty would pass, because what choice does Congress have. It was really required brilliant strategy on Lodge’s part to defeat it. So, I don’t want to go too far in saying it was inevitable that the American people would vote against the League of Nations and want to pull out. In a way, the politics led the policy because having defeated the treaty on the principle that we’re too involved in Europe and we shouldn’t get involved with Europe that became the winning message and that therefore became Republican party policy for the next dozen years really until the mid 1930s.


So, let me ask you kind of a big picture question that is relatable to today and might make some sense of what was happening back then too. Do you think that foreign policy shapes politics or do you think that politics shape foreign policy?

Robert Kagan

Yes. I mean, there’s a kind of interaction, a dynamic interaction, between the two of them. So, what we’re seeing right now is really interesting. For instance, I think that the sort of hardcore right wing of the Republican party wants to be against helping Ukraine and some of them are very outspoken about. But it’s still a pretty small percentage of the party. They’re clearly losing because that’s not where even Republican voters are. Republican voters have made up their mind to a substantial degree as to whether Russia’s a baddie and Ukraine is somebody worth defending now, even though there is still a huge gap between Republican numbers and Democratic numbers.

So, on the one hand, I think the foreign policy views are forcing Republican politics not necessarily to go the way they would go. But at the same time, something like 40 plus percent of Republicans say they do not want to help Ukraine more. They, in my view, are mostly following the political leadership. So, the political leadership part of the party is pushing in one direction. Public opinion is pushing in another and I think the answer is we don’t yet know who’s going to win, whether the politicians will win or the sort of policy feelings will win. Because what if something really goes wrong in Ukraine?

This is what happens, of course, if you look at every single war, especially the ones that go badly. There is a period in which they’re not going badly. There’s a period in which they enjoy overwhelming support. The Iraq War not only enjoyed support before the war, but it really enjoyed substantial support throughout the first two years. George W. Bush got reelected in 2004. That election was about Iraq as much as anything and he got reelected. It’s only later that everybody turns against it because it’s not going well.

So, it’s very hard to know how these things are going to shift. But what I find heartening is that the American response to what has happened in Ukraine is very much of a piece with their response to what was happening in Europe in 1917 and what was happening in Europe in the late 1930s. It does seem that this is not a pattern that has gone away.


It does also feel that we acted earlier than we have whether it’s World War I or World War II.

Robert Kagan

There was a reason for that and that is the thing that we need to recognize has changed. Obviously in 1917 we had no troops. Well, we had troops deployed in the Philippines, but nobody remembered what they were doing there. But essentially, we had no troops deployed around the world. We didn’t have a global navy and we certainly didn’t have allies. So, the starting point for the United States in 1917 and the starting point for the United States in December, 1941 is like starting at zero and then building it all up. But in this case, the United States is already out there. We have 50 alliances and partnerships. We have troops deployed overseas.

So, if this were the 1930s, Putin would’ve already taken Ukraine. Then we’d be deciding where we going to draw the line. But because the world is so loaded in our favor by the nature of the system that we have created and sustained even the opening move of an aggressor like Putin is hard. The opening move for Japan was the invasion of Manchuria in 1931. That was not hard. They did that unopposed. The opening move for Hitler was the reoccupation of the Rhineland in 1936. He did that unopposed. I mean, they were not a problem. The only times that these guys ran into trouble is when things really started to get serious and he invaded Poland and then he invaded France.

Putin is barely at the beginning of that process. So, we are therefore able to affect things and shape things before they get out of hand. In a way, if there’s one… I hate to come up with lessons, because history is history, but what I try to argue in the book is there actually was a moment when the United States could have had a relatively speaking minor international role that nevertheless would’ve been enough to sustain a liberal world order and a peace. What was required of us in 1919 was very, very little, much less than is required of us now. If only we had a consistent understanding that at the end of the day, we are going to get involved. If things keep going along a certain course, we are going to wind up getting involved. That’s what history suggests.

So, wouldn’t it be better to get involved earlier at lower cost when things are still manageable? There’s actually a great quote by Winston Churchill. I think it’s from 1935 or maybe even later. He says, ‘What we are doing now, if we’d done it before, we would’ve solved this whole problem at much less cost. But,’ as he says, ‘That’s not the way humans behave.’ So, in a way, the mistakes we make are sort of typical mistakes, but I also feel like they are mistakes that have to do with a lack of understanding of what our role is or an unwillingness to accept that role.


Now, I want to take a second to emphasize that in the book, you emphasize that there’s a number of different entry points that we could have had to play a role in the world with minimal involvement. One of them is clearly joining the League of Nations and playing some kind of part in that. Another one would’ve been keeping a very small military force near Germany that protected the peace in there. We’ll get back to that. There are a couple different opportunities. So, I don’t want to box you into saying it’s just about the League of Nations.

But if we had taken that extra step that you’re talking about… I mean, it’s a long way before we get to World War II and the rise of Adolf Hitler. It’s about 20 years before the United States actually enters World War II. Isn’t it possible that the United States would have made additional mistakes along the way that would’ve probably brought about war anyway, especially based on its inexperience and its lack of understanding for how to be able to play a role of a global hegemon?

Robert Kagan

You know, there’s something attractive about that judgment. I think that is a pretty common judgment and I think I was prepared to sort of accept that as a judgment. That is, after all, what George Kennan’s case is for why he was opposed to NATO. He was opposed to a continuing American role in Europe after World War II. He had a lot of reasons why, but certainly one of them was the perception, which as you said, the American people are not up to playing that kind of role. So, I can accept that they’re not going to be super focused on this.

However, as we’ve seen even today, the American people don’t have to be involved in every detail of every decision that’s made every day for them to be able to support it. You know, obviously, when things go bad and things blow up in their faces, then they say, ‘What the heck? What have we been doing here?’ But what led me to feel that we could have done this is I was surprised to discover that American diplomats throughout Europe are telling the State Department and telling the White House, ‘We really don’t have to do that much. If we could only do this, if we keep 3000 troops in the Rhineland, and if we just tell this guy…’ The whole world at that point…

We have to bring ourselves back to that world in 1919. Germany is flat on its back. It is non-existent as a power. The Soviet Union is in a state of civil war and they’re out of the game for the foreseeable future. France is crushed, basically, and never recovers from that war and to some extent that’s true of Britain too. Japan has decided in that period basically to play ball. They elect a fairly liberal government after World War I and they think the trend of the future is liberalism. So, they’re on board. My point being, those who would later oppose the United States or later oppose this liberal world order at this time, they were either flat on their backs or had no thought about challenging it at that moment.

So, you had an incredibly permissive environment at that moment. It would be one thing to say the American people can’t tolerate having 3000 troops overseas. But as I said, at that time, at that very moment, they had something between 7,000 and 10,000 troops in the Philippines that the American people didn’t even know were there. They’d completely forgotten about it. So, the notion that we couldn’t have 3,000 troops sitting in the Rhineland doing nothing, but reassuring everybody. I think, of course, we could have done that. Who was going to challenge the United States at that point? Who was going to make a war? Europe was a mess.

But there was no great power challenge to the United States at that time and only later when we allowed these great powers to get back on their feet and begin the process of revising the agreements that had been made at Paris, only then did we realize that these guys were something that we had to start worrying about. So, I actually feel that to say that it was not in our character, I think is proven to be wrong by the last 70 years. I mean, look at the commitment that the United States has sustained in terms of global presence. What I’m talking about in 1919 would’ve been a tiny, tiny fraction of that kind of commitment. So, the fact that we were obviously able to do that suggests to me that the United States would’ve been able to do it in 1919.

But the politics broke in the wrong way. It was mostly a domestic political decision. That’s sort of the tragedy of it. It wasn’t a considered, how do we feel about being involved in the world thing. It was a political battle that was won by the side that decided to play the Isolationist card and then that was it. The Democratic Party was finished for two decades after that. So, that’s just the way it happened, but it didn’t have to happen that way.


So, Bob, one of the historical facts that I drew from your book that I really had no idea about was that just about all the European powers wanted us to keep troops in the Rhineland. France did. Germany did. Britain did. It came as a complete shock to me and I didn’t understand the significance of that to be honest with you. I bet a lot of listeners aren’t aware of that and I’m sure that they’re listening to you thinking that it sounds kind of utopic that if we just kept troops there things would’ve turned out different because they don’t understand all of the implications of what happened because we didn’t keep those troops there. Can you kind of fill in the gaps about what that situation was and why it was so important and what happened, because we didn’t keep those 3000 troops in the Rhineland?

Robert Kagan

Sure, and the easiest way to do that is to note that we basically addressed the same problem after World War II and we addressed it in an entirely different way. But the reasoning in both cases would’ve been the same. The reasoning is as follows. When Germany unified as a nation in 1871 as a result of defeating the French and gaining some part of what had been French territory as German territory, and Bismarck establishes this power, it is clear almost immediately that Germany is too powerful for Europe in a sense. They’re in the middle. They’re more populous than every other nation in Europe. They’re economically much stronger than every other nation in Europe and, of course, their military potential is much greater than everyone in Europe.

Until then, Europe had been a rough balance with occasional conflicts with British coming in periodically to sort of balance things out. They would take whichever side was losing because their interest was in a balance of power in Europe. With the advent of Germany, it becomes clear, and World War I proves this, that all of the European powers together, including Britain, are not strong enough to stop Germany. Germany is going to be the hegemon of Europe if it’s just about European nations. So, when Germany is then defeated, because they can’t defeat everybody in Europe plus the United States. So, when the United States comes in, the United States has shifted the balance entirely so that Germany cannot be that hegemon, because the United States can prevent Germany from being a hegemon and American troops are now there.

So, in order for Europe to survive economically, Germany is a central part of its economy. Germany is the market. Germany is the engine of the European economy. It is today and it was in 1914 and it was in the inter-war period. So, for Europe to function economically, Germany has to be allowed to make money. But if Germany’s going to make money, who’s to say that they’re not going to do for the third time or the umpteenth time: make a lot of money, build themselves a big military force and conquer their neighbors. So, in order for Germany to be allowed to resume its sort of normal behavior, the rest of the European powers needed a guarantee that that didn’t lead to another German invasion.

That guarantee after World War II is the presence of American troops. Remember, somebody once said about NATO that its job was to keep the Americans in, the Germans down, and the Russians out, but the really important part of NATO, for instance, was making it possible for France and Britain to allow Germany to rise again in a way that was safe. That is what the situation was at the end of World War I as well. France, because it had no feeling of security about Germany, insisted on bankrupting Germany so that it could never have any power. Well, the Germans didn’t want to be bankrupted, so the Germans looked to the United States to provide security for France that would allow France to allow Germany to grow economically.


It makes a lot of sense why the presence of American troops would give France and Britain some assurances. I think what’s important to remember is that the Germans felt assurances from having the Americans there because when the Americans left France invaded Germany again. They sent troops into the Rhineland. That’s a period of history that people just completely forget, because it’s not really a war. But it is a foreign nation occupying part of another country. That’s a whole period that I think can change the perception of why it’s important to be able to have a neutral arbiter that would’ve been the United States within that situation. Again, why it’s important to have somebody with liberal aspirations being that hegemonic power at least within Europe at that time.

Robert Kagan

Yeah, and that’s well put. I also think it’s important to understand that the United States had all the money at that time. Nobody had any money. So, the Germans needed American loans to get their economy back on track. The French needed American loans and also everybody owed huge quantities of money to the United States, which I think it’s pretty clear the United States should have just forgiven that debt. But the fact that they made everybody pay that debt exacerbated the crisis in Europe. So, everybody needed the United States for something and also no one felt threatened by the United States. That’s such a critical element and this is the part of it that I think it’s very hard for everybody to understand. The United States in almost a literal sense is a Deis ex Machina for these other countries.

They have been engaged in competing with each other for hegemony and geopolitical advantage in Europe for centuries, ever since there was a Europe. The United States has never been involved in that and actually has no great aspirations in Europe except access to markets. So, what the United States wants out of Europe is a healthy economy, but other than that, it has no interest. So, you really did have a truly disinterested power in the middle of this situation, which had led to war after war after war. I don’t think there was any way for the Europeans to get out of their cycle of war without the United States coming in and providing overall security for everyone which then allowed Europe to flourish.

I mean, if you talk to Europeans who have some historical knowledge today, the flourishing of Europe in the latter part of the 20th century is a direct result of the fact that the United States kept the security arrangements in Europe and it would not have happened otherwise. In a way, you have these two strikingly different examples. You have everything that happened in Europe after World War II, which is basically a huge success story, when the United States stayed. Then you have everything that happened after World War I, when the United States got out and everything was a catastrophe, economically, politically, and ideologically in terms of conflict. And as you say, there were very few history books that talk about what a critical role the United States had to play in the 1920s that it chose not to play.

We usually focus on thing like, ‘Well, we were late responding to Hitler or we were late responding to the Japanese empire. But the truth is that the peace was lost in the twenties, not the thirties. That is a larger lesson that I think it’s worth at least knowing that that is a possibility. It is when things seem pretty much okay that you are usually sowing the seeds of the next disaster, because when things seem pretty okay, you’re not uptight about what’s happening and therefore you’re not on a hair trigger. You know, they should have known.

I’m so glad you brought up the 1923 invasion of the Ruhr by France, because the consequence of that was the radicalization of German politics. It also led to the hyperinflation that destroyed the savings of the German middle class and helped drive that middle class into the arms of the Nazis ultimately. You know, we want to look back and say, ‘Well, how could anybody have known that at the time? You know, you can’t blame us for not being able to foresee.’ I think that that’s a lot of what you’re describing. How can you blame us for knowing what was going to happen 15 years later? And I would be all like, that’s fine. I like that. Except there were people at the time saying, ‘Look, this is what’s going to happen. This is the result.’

Our ambassador, who was a Republican appointee by the way, named Alanson Houghton. He was from the Corning Glass Houghtons. He was good buddies with the Republican administration and he said, ‘You’ve just originated the next war.’ So, it wasn’t impossible to see. It was just that, I would say, as a people, the American people at that point just did not want to hear about it.


So, from a big picture perspective, does a liberal international order, does it require a hegemonic power at its center?

Robert Kagan

I don’t know whether there is a theory that is the answer to that. All I can tell you is this liberal world order requires this hegemon and would not exist without it. That’s correct, because at the end of the day, a liberal order is partly about the attractiveness of the liberal idea. But it is also about the power to defend that idea. I think we’re a little bit too sort of Frank Fukuyamaish in our belief that good ideas beat bad ideas. That liberalism was triumphant after the challenge of communism and fascism and it’s an Hegelion synthesis.

But at the end of the day, it’s power that decides what ideas are going to succeed or not. The ideas themselves have power. But without physical power, they’re not going to be. So, it is no coincidence that we have had this most liberal of all worlds for the past X number of decades and those have been the decades of American global leadership. That is the nature of regimes. Every sort of order in history was put in place by some actor or group of actors whose views of the world were reflected in that order. That is what we’ve had since the United States has been a dominant power. We know what history looks like without the United States. That’s the great thing.

In a way, this isn’t even speculation. Where was the world headed in 1941 before the United States got involved? It was headed toward great conflicts among authoritarian dictatorships. Where was the world headed in World War I? If it were not for the United States, it was German hegemony in Europe. It would’ve been the hegemony of a militaristic dictatorship in Europe. I think we think that because we’re children of the Enlightenment, we think that the way the world is moving is gradually toward liberalism. I think the natural course of the world is away from liberalism and it has only been American power that has sustained this aberration in world history.


So, to close, I want to bring the analogy back to the present day. As I’m reading your book, I’m regularly thinking about parallels between this time period and where we’re at right now especially with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Do you see a parallel between Putin’s invasion and World War II, because it does feel like it’s an overreach to be able to compare Putin to Hitler. But at the same time, it does feel like there are a lot of parallels with the sense of complacency beforehand and with his approach to taking small pieces of territory and effectively appeasing him. I mean, how do you see the parallels between this period of history and what we’re dealing with?

Robert Kagan

I think one of the mistakes we fall into, and it’s a very understandable mistake, is treating Hitler like he is such a unique figure that there could never be another Hitler. I would say what makes that a plausible thing to say is the murdering of 6 million Jews, because that is an extraordinary activity. I think if you take out the 6 million Jews aspect of the Hitler approach, I don’t know what the difference between Hitler and Putin is. If you look at the way Putin now is, I would say purely for the purposes of punishment, it’s also the coldness of this all. Just blowing up as much of Ukraine as he can although it’s partly because he doesn’t have any other real options in terms of fighting.

Still, do we think there’s anything Putin really wouldn’t do to other people? By the way, I don’t think, for instance, he’ll use nuclear weapons. I don’t actually think he’ll do that because that’s not in his interest. But if he perceives something in his interest, which is beyond our imagining in terms of brutality, do we think he wouldn’t? This is another part of our sort of enlightenment heritage, which is we keep thinking that the world is entering a new plateau below which we can’t go. You know, there’s a new floor of behavior that we can’t go below. So, we don’t execute people by drawing and quartering them anymore. I think that there is a general view that the human race has just gotten better.

We’ve learned not to treat each other that way. I think that’s just a complete misreading of the situation. We have people in power for the most part in the world who don’t permit that kind of behavior. We, within our own liberal order, have a very progressive and teleological understanding, which is true, but the world itself is not teleological. I think anything that we’ve ever seen humans do to each other in the past, we will see again just because in a fundamental way, nothing has changed. The only people who think that things have changed is us. So, what Putin has taught us, I would hope, is that the Hitlers, the Japanese empires, the Kaiser Wilhelms, the Mussolinis, all these colorful figures in the past who we think are sui generous are not sui generous.

They’re run of the mill, straightforward, aggressive autocrats. This is the way they behave. They have no respect for human life. That is their thing in a way. Not to respect human life is their thing, because we’re the ones who put such a high value on the rights of the individual and the sanctity of human life. That is a creation that we have created. It is not a fact of existence. So, that is what Putin is reminding us and I hope we don’t get to be reminded by the Chinese as well, but certainly in the way they treat their own people… No, the world will go as ugly as you can imagine it if we are not there to prevent that from happening.


Well, Bob, thank you so much for joining me today. Let me remind listeners one more time. The book is called Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941. It’s really a brilliant book. It’s so expansive, and like I said, throughout the conversation, I think that it opened my eyes to even just some raw facts that I wasn’t aware and the interpretation, like I said before, just brings out a tremendous amount of insights. Thank you so much for writing it. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Robert Kagan

Thank you. I really enjoyed our conversation. Thanks a lot.

Key Links

The Ghost at the Feast: America and the Collapse of World Order, 1900-1941 by Robert Kagan

A Free World, If You Can Keep It” by Robert Kagan in Foreign Affairs

The Weight of Geopolitics” by Robert Kagan in the Journal of Democracy

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Larry Diamond on Supporting Democracy in the World and at Home

Charles Kupchan on America’s Tradition of Isolationism

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