While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today / Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign Policy and Defense Policy

By Bandow, Doug | Ideas on Liberty, March 2002 | Go to article overview

While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today / Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign Policy and Defense Policy


Bandow, Doug, Ideas on Liberty


While America Sleeps: Self-Delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to Peace Today

by Donald Kagan and

Frederick W. Kagan

St. Martin's Press * 2000 * 483 pages * $32.50

Present Dangers: Crisis and Opportunity in American Foreign Policy and Defense Policy

edited by Robert Kagan and William Kristol

Encounter Books * 2000 * 401 pages * $22.95

Americans who read While America Sleeps and Present Dangers might not recognize the world presented. The United States is at risk and embattled, sleeping while potential enemies march. Conflict, war, and disaster threaten at every turn. It is like Britain before World War II and America on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Only a massive military buildup can keep the nation safe.

It is a curious vision for a time when U.S. domination is akin to that of the Roman Empire. When it comes to conventional threats, there aren't any. The real danger, illustrated so horribly last September, is terrorism, but terrorism is largely a consequence of the sort of promiscuous American intervention favored by the authors.

Still, Donald and Frederick Kagan, Yale historian and West Point instructor, respectively, compare America today with Great Britain during the 1920s. In their view, just as the latter failed to win the peace after World War I, America risks failing to win the peace after the Cold War.

The bulk of While America Sleeps reviews British interwar policy. The analysis is interesting, but fails to demonstrate that upholding peace and stability everywhere would have advanced British interests or was sustainable.

For instance, the Kagans complain that British and/or allied weakness led to various colonial rebellions and European bullying. But Britain's failure to concentrate on its vital interests in Europe resulted in part from its dispersal of resources to police its farflung possessions.

Most important, Britain and France disagreed on how to treat defeated Germany, falling between the two stools of conciliatory revision and ruthless enforcement of Versailles. Either course might have worked. The muddled approach was almost designed to fail.

The international environments then and now also differ dramatically. The Europe of the 1920s hosted only two significant democratic powers, Britain and France; authoritarian neutrals and potential adversaries were far more numerous. Military weakness and political mistakes then led to disaster.

Compare the world confronting America today. The Russian Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall and lacks Germany's recuperative power. China could become a serious threat, but is far behind. The greatest danger is not being asleep, but being arrogant: Washington's hubris has done more to push China, India, Indonesia, and Russia together than have any common interests.

Moreover, America is spending more on the military than any other nation. In response, the Kagans wheel out one of the silliest arguments extant. The United States is spending a lower percentage of GNP on the military "than at any time since before World War II. …

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