Blogs > Cliopatria > Lee P. Ruddin: Review of Robert Kagan’s The Return of History and the End of Dreams (Atlantic Books, 2008)

Jul 6, 2008 3:19 pm

Lee P. Ruddin: Review of Robert Kagan’s The Return of History and the End of Dreams (Atlantic Books, 2008)

I dreamed a dream in time gone by
When hope was high
And life worth living

But the tigers come at night
With their voices soft as thunder
As they tear your hope apart
And they turn your dream to shame

“I Dreamed a Dream,” Les Miserables, 1980

Robert Kagan’s The Return of History and the End of Dreams has been as eagerly anticipated in 2008 as Norman Podhoretz’s World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism was in 2007. Much like Podhoretz’s polemic which was endorsed by Republican presidential-wannabe, Rudy Giuliani, Kagan’s casebook is endorsed by another Republican presidential-wannabe, John McCain. (Both Messrs. Podhoretz and Kagan served as advisors.) Whereas Giuliani stood aside, rendering the World War IV thesis all but obsolete, McCain’s confirmation as the Republican nominee for 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue renders The Return of History thesis anything but.

Yet, for all the talk of the Republican Party and the presidential struggle, it is the struggle between democracy and autocracy that concerns us here. The prospect “of a new era of international convergence” (p.4) has turned out to be nothing but a “mirage” (p.3). “History has returned,” Kagan pronounces, pitting autocracies against democracies — the latter of which “must come together to shape it, or others will shape it for them” (p.4).

Convergence, commonality and commerce were the axis of the day during the Nineties. So much so, Kagan writes that “soft power was in and hard power was out” (p.21). Yet the post-Cold War dream was soon to end. Divergence, difference and destabilization have become the axis of the Noughties. Kagan, no discerner of the laws of history, remains free from quasi-Marxist determinism — suffered by Francis Fukuyama — and the view that history was moving in one ineluctable direction (read pax democratia). For this reason, Kagan is in and Fukuyama is out. In an essay entitled “The End of the End of History,” Kagan writes:

[T]he Chinese and Russian leaders are not simply autocrats. They believe in autocracy. The modern liberal mind at “the end of history” may not appreciate the attractions of this idea, or the enduring appeal of autocracy in this globalized world; but historically speaking, Russian and Chinese rulers are in illustrious company. The European monarchs of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries were thoroughly convinced, as a matter of political philosophy, of the superiority of their form of government. Along with Plato, Aristotle, and every other great thinker prior to the eighteenth century, they regarded democracy as the rule of the licentious, greedy, and ignorant mob.

Kagan, much like history, has returned and is here to stay. After a disappointing outing with Dangerous Nation: America in the World 1600-1900(2006)Kagan is back to the big-picture thinking that so first attracted me to his writing.

Simple yet scholarly; unremarkable yet remarkable; belligerent yet benign — Kagan kicks off where he finished five years ago. For those partial to a little Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (2003) you will not be disappointed with Kagan’s latest installment. Containing no chapters, Kagan’s 2008 effort — reminiscent of his 2003 work — reads much like an elongated Foreign Affairs essay. Of similar length (c. 100 pages), it, too, can be read effortlessly at one sitting (equally the time it probably took Kagan to write it). What is more, Immanuel Kant and others reappear in what could be deemed a sequel read (pp.6, 19-20, 42, 70, 84-85, 94 & 103).

Kagan utters words that sit uncomfortably with current postmodern Enlightenment lexicon. For instance: “The global divisions between the club of autocrats and the axis of democracy” renders any talk of an ‘international community’ utterly obsolete. Nevertheless the succinctness with which Kagan writes here is refreshing and quotable. That said talk of a “league of democracies” is dream-like; as Kagan himself acknowledges, “Europeans have been and will continue to be less than enthusiastic about what they emphatically do not call ‘the war on terror.’ ” Sorry to say, the author’s discussion of India is unnuanced while references to Islamism are conspicuous by their near-total absence.

In essence, The Return of History concentrates on the interplay between globalization and great power ambition; from Russia to China to Iran. Each of which is a non-status quo power that is dissatisfied with its current international status. Be sure, those in Moscow and Beijing hold the belief of “impending greatness on the world stage” (p.41). To make matters worse, those from Iran, much like those from China and Russia, have a historical sense of grievance. Kagan’s interest in history is rooted in the present, which enables him to elucidate the present sense of historical grievance. 


The mood of recrimination in Russia today is reminiscent of Germany after World War I, when Germans complained about the “shameful Versailles diktat” imposed on a prostrate Germany by the victorious powers, and about the corrupt politicians who stabbed the nation in the back. Today Russia’s leaders seek to reclaim much of the global power and influence they lost at the end of the Cold War. Their grand ambition is to undo the post-Cold War settlement and to reestablish Russia as a dominant power in Eurasia, to make it one of the two or three great powers of the world (pp.16-17).


In the early nineteenth century the Chinese found themselves prostrate, “thrown out of the margins” of a suddenly Eurocentric World. The “century of humiliation” that ensured was so shameful because China’s fall came from such a glorious height. Today the Chinese believe that their nation’s ancient centrality, appropriately adjusted for the times and circumstances, can, should, and will be restored (p.27).


China had its “century of humiliation.” Islamists have more than a century of humiliation to look back on, a humiliation of which Israel has become the living symbol (p.48).

Grievance added to the forces of globalization and great power ambition (the three Gs nexus, to paraphrase Timothy J. Lynch and Robert S. Singh, authors of After Bush: The Case for Continuity in American Foreign Policy) might just make “the hopeless dream of radical Islam” not so hope-less after all (p.80):   

The willingness of the autocrats in Moscow and Beijing to protect their fellow autocrats in … Tehran … increases the chances that the connection between terrorists and nuclear weapons will eventually be made (pp.84-85).

I dreamed a dream of a time to come where the Republican Party (not the Democratic Party) shape history as they tear apart autocratic hopes and turn their dreams to shame.

This review is dedicated to my mother, Joan Ruddin.

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More Comments:

Glenn Scott Rodden - 7/28/2008

This is a lame review about a lame book. How can Kagan, a cheerleader for the Iraq War, write a book in 2008 that barely mentions the Iraq War? How did Robert the Revolutionary become Robert the Realist overnight?

Arnold Shcherban - 7/17/2008

clearly manifests itself in the Kagan's book and Ruddin's review of it.