It is rare for a magazine article to spawn an entire counter-genre of polemic pamphlet literature, but American policy intellectuals have not yet tired of announcing the end of The End of History. If anything, the pursuit has gained in popularity as the signs of a post-unipolar twenty-first century have become more insistent. Thus Robert Kagan, whose The Return of History and the End of Dreams—its cover festooned with a self-consciously anachronistic Punch cartoon, complete with Russian bear and pig-tailed Chinaman—argues that ‘the world has become normal again’. The fall of the Soviet Union had briefly held out the utopian vision of a world without enemies, in which all significant conflict over grand strategy and ideology had come to an end. Globalizing commerce, multilateral institution-building and seamless communications technology were to have eroded the foundations of the nation-state and so the stakes of international competition. European bureaucrats dreamed that Russian acquiescence to capital account liberalization and nato expansion would melt the Eastern frontiers away and forever banish the spectre of land war in Germany. Americans saw a chance to assume a kinder, gentler leadership: the us as global sheriff, enforcing the definitive replacement of war by isolated police actions in backwards provinces.

Twenty years on, the ‘tantalizing glimpse’ of a world beyond conflict has vanished and the ‘normal tendency’ of great powers to emerge has reasserted itself. Driven by atavistic but legitimate passions—fear for their supply lines, paternalist or imperial concern for their hinterlands, desire for recognition or prestige—the rising powers, here Russia, China, Japan, India and Iran, are following in the footsteps of Venice and Persia, the ancient Egyptians and the Franks. They are making their presence felt in ways that had grown unfamiliar even during the Cold War, a long, aberrant interlude of bipolarity in international affairs. We face instead a ‘new nineteenth century’ of great-power rivalry and conflict, in which autocracies again challenge the pre-eminence of democratic government, and competing claims to regional spheres of influence stand in the way of the construction of a single, liberal-interventionist international order. In the face of this only half-comprehended threat, Kagan calls for a ‘Concert of Democracies’: as only their combined efforts can preserve the hard-won fruit of history, which never comes to an end.

A signatory of the notorious 1998 Project for the New American Century letter that called on President Clinton to pursue a unilateral policy of regime change in Iraq, and best known for his 2003 Paradise and Power, a short and provocative essay on European and American self-perceptions, Kagan is no outsider to Washington policy circles. Born in 1958, his degrees are from Yale, the Kennedy School and American University in dc. After cutting his teeth as an advisor to Jack Kemp and a speechwriter for George Schultz, he worked in the second Reagan administration at the State Department’s Latin American desk. Kagan is on the roster of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Carnegie Endowment, and writes regular columns for the Washington Post, Commentary, the New Republic and, with Bill Kristol, for the Weekly Standard. His wife was the us permanent representative to nato from 2005–08, their sojourn in Brussels doubtless the source of the cosmopolitan touches with which Kagan occasionally tempers his brisk Atlanticism—‘as an American living in Europe’, etc. His father, Donald, is a conservative historian at Yale and translator of Thucydides; his brother, Frederick (Yale, and then Yale), is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a co-author of its refutation of the Iraq Study Group’s report.

But there are grounds for taking Kagan more seriously than many of his Beltway peers. Besides displaying a capacity for forthrightness in his columns and popular writing, he is the author of two scholarly works setting out a subtle and equivocal vision of foreign relations—one on us intervention in Nicaragua, the other on American foreign policy since the birth of the Republic. The first, 1996’s A Twilight Struggle, is a scrupulously documented, 800-page history based on primary sources and interviews with key figures on all sides of the conflict. Of course Kagan does not repudiate his work for Reagan; but he is lucid and sobering about the unenviable consequences for both parties when us military interference becomes a routinized fact of domestic political life in a small country. And although he rejects the ‘realist’ interpretation of foreign policy decisions, he is candid about the ways in which the us’s ideological aims in Latin America were always subject to the shifting tides of political capital and congressional advantage—not just under Reagan and Carter, but also Taft, Wilson and Roosevelt.

In Paradise and Power, written during the altercations over the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Kagan turned to tackle European and American self-perceptions. While Europe had embarked on the postmodern path towards ‘a self-contained world of laws and rules and transnational negotiation and cooperation . . . a post-historical paradise of peace and relative prosperity’, the us remained ‘mired in history’, and in a power politics increasingly repugnant to European sensibilities. But both were suffering from a mutual misunderstanding about the relation of democratic government to power. On the one hand, Europe flatters itself that its decision to abjure war is fully conscious and enlightened, rather than the result of its increasing inability to fight. On the other, Americans flatter themselves that they are a pacific people, and that the wars they fight are forced on them by circumstance. This double delusion falsifies Americans’ and Europeans’ shared ends—and sharply unequal means. For the strong naturally rely on strength to achieve their aims; the weak naturally pursue the strategies of weakness. If the eu were a military force on a world scale, capable of projecting power across two oceans, the compass of its external policy would necessarily expand; it too would become more assertive about the shape of the world in which it is embedded. Yet for Kagan, ‘the caricatures do capture an essential truth’: after centuries of brutality and violence, Europe has broken out into something like the Kantian realm of perpetual peace—with the Second World War figuring as Europe’s war to end war, and Schuman and Monnet as the unlikely agents of the final state of Kant’s essay on world history ‘which, like a civil commonwealth, can maintain itself automatically’. It is the burden of Paradise and Power to raise the stakes of force in maintaining an international order that it is much more comfortable to consider as acting ‘automatically’: Europeans revile the sometimes messy protection afforded by their less lucky but more powerful ally only at the risk of their heretofore uniquely privileged way of life.

In 2006, Kagan produced the first instalment of a projected two-volume history of America’s position in the world system. Dangerous Nation, which runs from 1600 up to the Spanish–American War of 1898, is as unflattering to the prejudices of mainstream American conservatism as its title suggests. It is an admirably frontal assault on many of the sacred cows of American historiography. Instead of denying or evading the harsh criticisms of the anti-imperialist, and occasionally socialist, tradition running from Charles Beard and William Appleman Williams through to Howard Zinn, Kagan rather proudly admits the charges. The Republic’s imperial ambitions date to its very beginnings, and Americans deceive themselves when they claim to be a peaceable people who have, unfortunately, occasionally found the role of apostles of freedom to the world thrust upon them. He has no time for the hoary old conservative defences: for instance, the timeless wisdom of Washington’s famous farewell address, with its admonitions on ‘our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world’, is deftly resituated within the domestic political disputes of the time. No one reading those lines in 1796, Kagan argues, could have failed to understand that they were aimed against Republican Francophiles and intended to sway opinion towards the Federalists in the coming election. From this dismaying beginning he then dwells on such topics as Jefferson’s private war on the Barbary Coast, the place of Polk’s invasion of Mexico in the ambitions of Southern slaveholders and the American occupation of the Philippines. The Founding Fathers are portrayed as wealthy landowners driven as much by concern for their real-estate holdings as by their republican beliefs.

It is a thought-provoking exercise in demystification which aims to uncover the role of myth-making in enabling and conditioning the nation’s reach and policy. The argument about democratic self-awareness, or the lack thereof, sketched in Paradise and Power is here put to a more stringent test. Expansionism, Kagan wants to say, is for a rising nation—the young United States as much as the newly independent and self-assertive China—an essentially avowable and legitimate aim; for America to deny its expansionist tendencies can only make it more difficult to understand the history and future of its presence in the world. And there is something especially expansionist about the American flavour of political liberalism: a society that sees itself as the ‘city on a hill’ will naturally pursue a foreign policy that is expressive of a certain vision of the world remade.