Robert Kagan: Why Should Democracy Be Shy?

Robert Kagan believes a war is coming. Not necessarily one with guns and bombs, but his new book argues that a fundamental global divide is emerging between liberal democracies and autocratic governments—namely Russia and China. He and presidential hopeful John McCain, whom he advises, call for a League of Democracies, which the Republican candidate has pledged to pursue if he wins the November election. NEWSWEEK's Christopher Werth spoke with Kagan about the ascendancy of great-power competition.

NEWSWEEK: McCain doesn ' t just want a League of Democracies; he recently said he wants Russia out of the G8. How serious is he about ideas like these?
Kagan: Let's be clear, there's no establishing a League of Democracies unless the other democracies want to participate. This is not Woodrow Wilson sailing across the Atlantic with Fourteen Points and saying, "Sign here." And no one is going to be kicking Russia out of the G8. Russia would have a say in that. Other countries wouldn't agree with it. The real question is, if anyone had known that Russia was going to be the Russia it is today, would they have let it in the G8 in the first place? He wants to emphasize that we need to take Russian autocracy seriously.

At the same time, this is a critique of the U.N. Security Council?
It's an acknowledgment that the Security Council has had a hard time coming to any kind of agreement, particularly with humanitarian matters—Darfur, Burma, Zimbabwe. The autocracies and the democracies are reliably split on these issues. [McCain] has said before that the League of Democracies is not designed to circumvent—it's designed to complement—the U.N. It's worth recalling that there have been actions by something that you could call a League of Democracies. In 1999, NATO countries went to war in Kosovo. Shouldn't such a thing be more global than just the transatlantic community?

Your book, " The Return of History and the End of Dreams, " argues that many powers now exist where just 20 years ago, there were two. But the difference from the cold-war era is that, economically, these great powers are now very intertwined.
I'm weary of the tendency to believe that globalization, this increasing interdependence, essentially negates geopolitical competition and makes it relatively irrelevant—or negates the ideological tensions. If you look at the whole sweep of history, more often than not, the conflicts among great powers occur for reasons of geopolitics, clashing ambitions, often beliefs, and rarely economics. Economics don't always stop nations from coming to blows.

What do the democracies gain from framing international relations as a competition between themselves and autocracies?
We have to, to some extent, because the autocracies already look at the world through this framework. I don't deny that this will annoy Vladimir Putin. But a lot of things annoy Putin. NATO annoys Putin. The EU annoys Putin. I'm a little disturbed to see the degree to which concern about Putin's feelings, or concern that the Chinese may feel isolated, leads people to regard the notion that the democracies might want to get together as democracies as the most dangerous thing we could do.

What does this say for those, like Sen. Barack Obama, who have stressed the need for increased diplomacy?
We will obviously need to negotiate with and talk to other people with whom we disagree, but let's start by talking to the people with whom we do agree. I would say the first priority of the next president is to restore our healthy relations with our democratic allies. I don't think our first stop ought to be Tehran. I'd rather have our first stop be Paris.

What do you make of the idea that we get the kind of international relations that we ask forthat by being polarizing, the result is greater polarization?
It's so funny to me. The same people who say it's too dangerous to talk about a League of Democracies nevertheless support their government in denouncing China's treatment of Tibet. I favor it, too, but let's not be naive about what message that sends to the Chinese. They conclude that the democratic nations are hostile to them, and united in their hostility. The autocracies are perfectly aware that this competition is ongoing.