Correcting Kagan

By Fingleton, Eamonn | The American Conservative, May 2012 | Go to article overview

Correcting Kagan


Fingleton, Eamonn, The American Conservative


Correcting Kagan The World America Made, Robert Kagan, Alfred A. Knopf, 150 pages

Call me staid but the latest developments in the digital revolution have left me cold. You can keep Facebook and Twitter and even the iPod, but one thing that has made a difference is Amazon's "Look Inside" feature. This allows customers to dip into a book online before buying, and more than once it has saved me from burdening my already overloaded shelves with unread books.

It is perhaps significant therefore that during the launch of Robert Kagan's new book The World America Made, the publisher Alfred A. Knopf omitted to post a Look Inside feature at Amazon. For a publisher delivering short measure, this was a profitable strategy.

The World America Made is a brief book, and it has a lot be brief about. Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, comes to his theme with hardly a worthwhile thought in his head. He has a few insights, but they are largely platitudinous and could readily have been boiled down to an extended magazine commentary. For the rest, the book is a tissue of sophistry, wishful thinking, and outright misinformation.

Let's deal with the platitudes first. Kagan reports that the great powers have not engaged in any direct hot war since 1945 and that America's openness to trade in the post- World War II era has done much to enrich its trading partners. Fine - but do we need a book to tell us?

Probably not, but the platitudes are just a warm-up. This book, it turns out, is an extended apology for Big Defense. The author wants us to know that "the world American made" will collapse if voters don't continue to drink the military-industrial complex's budgetary Kool-Aid. Kagan's case is a tough sell. After all, many Americans lay much of the blame for the country's relative decline on the Defense Department's outsized share of the federal budget.

Kagan has an answer: America is not in decline. America's share of world output, he contends, is as great now as it was 40 years ago. It is a heroic argument and has generated a lot of media interest, most of it relatively credulous. Barack Obama's national security adviser, Tom Donilon, has touted Kagan's analysis as "very sophisticated." Obama himself has ostensibly been persuaded, with the result that the book comes backed by that ultimate endorsement, a blurb from a sitting president.

But where is Kagan's evidence for his thesis? Remarkably he bases his entire case on a single flawed statistical series published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This purports to show that America accounted for fully 27 percent of world gross domestic product in 2009, down only fractionally from 28 percent in 1969. Left unsaid is that calculations of this sort are highly debatable and that the Department of Agriculture's methodology - using heavily doctored exchange rates - is exceptionally so. As Edward Luce of the Financial Times has pointed out, Kagans figures are given the lie by the International Monetary Fund, whose data, constructed on a more scientific basis, indicate that America's share of global income fell from 36 percent in 1969 to 31 percent in 2000 and then plummeted to 23 percent in 2010.

This last figure is undoubtedly unduly flattering as it is based on a recent market value for the U.S. dollar that is clearly unsustainable. The dollar is being massively shored up by China, Japan, and other East Asian nations, and when the chocks are finally pulled out from under it, the currency could well drop by 50 percent or more. …

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