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Book Review: The Return of History and the End of Dreams by Robert Kagan

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For decades, it seemed that the contention between the US and the USSR dominated and demanded all attention around the globe. But liberalism triumphed and the Cold War ended. It was then that Francis Fukuyama wrote, “At the end of history there are no serious ideological competitors left to liberal democracy.” A "new world order" was proclaimed wherein the nations of the world would converge in a era of peace and progress.

The world has certainly changed since the end of the Cold War. Robert Kagan, a columnist for the Washington Post and author of four other books regarding foreign policy and world politics, argues in The Return of History and the End of Dreams that the hoped-for conciliatory era of progress, this "end of history" – really, the end of the struggle between nations and ideologies – has not occurred. “It is not so easy to escape history,” he notes, and the great struggles are continuing. Each nation seeks the "legitimacy of its government."

Divergence, not convergence has occurred; the philosophy of the Enlightenment has not taken over. Kagan points out that the current political climate is not unlike the nineteenth century climate. Nations have reverted to centuries-old animosities. In fact, he portrays the various nations as hungry monsters, beasts, animals locked in struggle. Some prevail, some fall only to rise again, with a new or different set of teeth.

With firm, declarative sentences Robert Kagan effectively outlines a very concise vision of the world's political alignment as it stands today. A recurring idea in the The Return of History and the End of Dreams is that of “global competition,” which he predicts to be a dominant feature of the 21st century. It's interesting to consider that hostility still grows despite growing wealth in many countries around the world. But perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise – isn't that what wealth does many times to individuals? It often creates paranoia and insecurity. Now, a variety of nations are growing their power and wealth and they will want to keep it.

Kagan's slim book, only 105 pages, is not demeaning or flattering to any nation or ruler; it points out facts as Kagan sees them – and he has an extensive bibliography to support his conclusions. In addition, it's all expressed with vibrancy, clarity, and, surprisingly, its brevity. It makes you feel as if you’ve become an expert historian and political scientist in a matter of hours.

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