Neoconservative Robert Kagan says U.S. liberalism is behind expansionism, but Cornell experts strongly disagree in inaugural debate

In the spirit of civilized academic discourse, panelists at Cornell President David J. Skorton's inaugural academic symposium argued the causes and contradictions of current American foreign policy, differing on the motives behind and consequences of the U.S. military invasion of Iraq.

The symposium, "Culture, Identity and Conflict in World Affairs," featured keynote speaker Robert Kagan, a senior associate with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a self-described neoconservative. Best-selling author Kagan is also a longtime associate of William Kristol, a leading neoconservative and founder of The Weekly Standard. Kicking off two days of inaugural events to honor Skorton, the symposium was held in the newly renovated Bailey Hall and moderated by Cornell Provost Biddy Martin.

Responding to Kagan on stage were Isabel Hull, Cornell's John Stambaugh Professor of History, and Peter J. Katzenstein, Cornell's W.S. Carpenter Jr. Professor of International Studies.

In his talk Kagan asserted that it is America's collective tradition of liberalism -- that is, devotion to individual, universal rights -- that has driven its foreign policy, from the signing of the Declaration of Independence to the present-day war in Iraq. This tradition makes America "dangerous," he explained, insofar as it lacks the ability to question itself because it lacks self-awareness.

That same liberalism, Kagan said, also causes America to reject international law, because international law deals only with relations between nations and often contradicts that deep-seated devotion to individual rights.

Consequently, the Bush administration is no different in its foreign-policy approaches than previous generations of leaders, Kagan said. Motives behind America's current actions in foreign countries, he noted, is "rooted in history."

Both Hull and Katzenstein disagreed vehemently with those assertions. Hull pointed out that America's purported unawareness of its "dangerous hegemony," due to its liberal traditions, appears to give "respectable pedigree" to the "extreme policies" of the Bush administration -- a stance she said she could not accept.

She observed that not only is the United States "past the zenith of its power" -- economically and otherwise -- but its military is also "overextended." The government is weakened by tax breaks and corruption, and much of it has lapsed into ineffectiveness, she said.

She pointed to the Bush administration's "disturbing contempt" and repudiation of global law, and its desire to "slough off limits" imposed by international law, not unlike Stalin or Hitler, she said.

Taking Hull's points further, Katzenstein asserted that Kagan's view that America's lack of self-awareness due to liberalism is behind U.S. expansionism was "deeply problematic." He also disagreed that America has a collective tradition of liberalism. Instead, he said he viewed the liberal tradition as endlessly divided.

America's apparent troubles abroad, Katzenstein said, are not just "one more episode" in liberal expansion, but rather the result of a radical, neoconservative doctrine.

"The Bush administration is convinced of its undeniable virtue and historic greatness," Katzenstein said. Unlike Kagan, Katzenstein described the Bush administration as pushing a radical, new conservatism -- in contrast with the Clinton administration, which sought to deal with America's weaknesses more "pragmatically."

"We're more dangerous now than ever before," Katzenstein said, pointing to such examples as illegal wiretapping of U.S. citizens and the detention of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.

Katzenstein urged Skorton, who sat several rows back, to listen to the discourse and not to shrug off Cornell's role in bringing reason and balance to an unstable world. During the 1960s, Katzenstein said, at the height of skewed public perception of Southeast Asia, Cornell Professor George Kahin tried to bring balance to the debate. And today, neoconservative Paul Wolfowitz '65 continues to influence world politics, while maintaining ties to Ithaca and Cornell.

"Ithaca may be small and idyllic, but it does not stand apart from the world of affairs," Katzenstein said.

Following the discussion, audience members engaged the panelists in sharply edged debate. One student quipped that Kagan had indeed entered a hostile political environment here and thanked the speaker for sharing his views.

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