History for Dummies

_guy_top_2Finally (or not so-finally), history is back in fashion. We've now arrived at the End-of-Fukyama terminus in the movie. In his essay Return of History and the End of Dreams, Robert Kagan makes history once again central to the study of international politics and announces the "world has become normal again." Those familiar characters -- the Great Powers -- are back in fashion and so is the intricate multi-polar international order of the 19th century. But instead of the old imperial cast of Habsburg, Hohenzollern and Romanov characters, today's new world order is made up of nouveau China, Russia and India capitalist stars. All very intriguing. Especially, since -- as Zizek and John Gray have both argued -- the international order is now tilting toward countries whose economic success and military has been achieved because of the absence of political democracy.

But the problem with Kagan is that, in spite of his Fukuyama-burying intelligence, he is painfully indifferent to real history. The Return of History is just over 100 pages long and he is more interested in bashing Iran and China than in seriously study the complexity of the past. It's History for Dummies and the polemical point of the essay -- McCain's Cold War notion of a league of democracies -- is particularly dumb. Kagan actually represents the other side of the identically facile Fukuyama end-of-history coin. The Return of History is the type of easy-to-digest book designed to be scanned on SFO-LAX flights (especially on Southwest -- that most unhistorical of airlines) and then regurgitated on the way back from the airport via a populist talk-in radio show. This is Fox News style history for a nation in a rush, written for a Southwest flying mob who require simple solutions to complex questions.

But for American citizens who demand complex answers to simple questions, there's a much more valuable alternative to Kagan. I've just read Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier's America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 -- a really compelling history of American foreign policy between the fall of the Berlin Wall (11/9/89) and the start of the war on terror (9/11/01). Rather than a quick LAX-SFO read, America Between the Wars kept me occupied for the full 10 hours of my Heathrow-SFO flight last week. For Americans who wonders how Clinton and both Bushes squandered the legacy of its Cold War victory, Chollet/Goldgeier's richly layered, beautifully written narrative is essential. This is history for grown-ups. Read it or remain ignorant. It's your choice, my (American) friends, your democracy.