I picked up a copy myself, but the basic gist of Kagan's thesis was laid out well in an essay at Policy Review.
It turns out that the Globe and Mail's got a new essay up discussing where Kagan's "return of history" thesis fits into the larger debates in American foriegn policy and international relations theory:
If you're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, can you judge it by its author? It would seem to be a safe bet in most cases, but Robert Kagan delights in defying conventional wisdom. Though his views are always contentious and often questionable, Kagan is one of the most interesting, intelligent and perceptive foreign-policy intellectuals of the past quarter century. He has written several bestselling books on international politics and the U.S. role in the world. He is also one of John McCain's principal foreign-policy advisers. But he is perhaps best known as a leading neoconservative intellectual, probably the leading neocon intellectual now that Francis Fukuyama has deserted the sinking ship. Yet anyone prejudging The Return of History and the End of Dreams will be in for a surprise. This is not neoconservatism as you've known it.That's a nice essay, although if you go down to the conclusion, the author provides boilerplate slurs about how Iraq's been a "disaster.
Although he is mentioned only briefly, Fukuyama is Kagan's foil. In 1992, Fukuyama published the provocative The End of History and the Last Man. Like all grand, influential ideas, Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis was deceptively simple: The end of the Cold War marked the final triumph of liberal democratic capitalism. Its rivals, from premodern monarchy and theocracy to ultramodern fascism and communism, had all failed. After 1989, history would no longer be marked by the struggle between competing systems of government; instead, it would be shaped by the inexorable spread of democracy. Thanks to the United States, humanity had reached its end point in a nirvana of political and economic freedom.
Fukuyama's post-Cold War triumphalism became the accepted wisdom for U.S. leaders across the political spectrum. Under Bill Clinton, the dynamic concepts of globalization, free trade and the "democratic peace" replaced the rather static Cold War priorities of containment, deterrence and mutual assured destruction. Not even spasms of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or violent protests in Seattle and Genoa could deflect the spread of free markets and democracy around the world.
Then came 9/11. History may have appeared to be ending from the comfortable perspective of Washington, but around the rest of the world it continued to rumble along as usual, only to explode, literally, in the political and economic centres of the United States.
As its title suggests, The Return of History and the End of Dreams tries to make sense of what followed 9/11. Kagan portrays a world Fukuyama would scarcely recognize, where autocracy is on the rise and democracy on the defensive. Old-fashioned, great-power politics have returned at the expense of the democratic peace. Kagan dismisses post-Cold War hopefulness as "a mirage." Instead, the world is now entering "an age of divergence."
In making this argument, Kagan causes literary whiplash in the unsuspecting reader by committing an act of sacrilege for any self-respecting neocon: He embraces realism. Realists have always been the bêtes noire of neoconservatives because of their belief that power, not morality, is the language of world politics. To a realist, the narrowly defined national interest, not universal ideals of human rights, should determine foreign policy. Recall James Baker, secretary of state to George H. W. Bush, on why the United States would not intervene to stop genocide in Bosnia: "We have no dog in that fight."
To the neocons, this was tantamount to moral treason. In response, Kagan spent the 1990s formulating a robust doctrine of humanitarian intervention. Yet now he tells us that power really is the language of world politics after all. Russia and China are his two big examples. Contrary to "end of history" expectations, they have not been democratized by globalization. Instead, their new wealth has simply given their autocratic governments greater power to pursue their own national interests. In an arresting analogy that recurs throughout the book, Kagan compares our world to that of the 19th century, when several great powers continually jockeyed for geopolitical positioning - right up to August, 1914. Taiwan, he notes, might end up acting as this century's Sarajevo. Hence history's unfortunate return.
But Robert Kagan is no Henry Kissinger. While much of the book offers a realist's bleak diagnosis of the world today, it ends, somewhat incongruously, by offering a neocon's rousing call to arms as the cure. Kagan dismisses international law as irrelevant and counter-productive because, being based on the principle of inviolable state sovereignty, it allows autocracies to claim that internal repression is nobody else's business. He also dismisses the UN, based as it is on international law, as unhelpful and unworkable.
Where else would Kagan have us turn? To a "Concert of Democracies" comprising North America, Europe, Japan, India and Australia. Whether we like it or not, the future of international relations will be determined not by religious wars or a clash of civilizations, or even by competition for wealth and resources, but by the contest between democracies and autocracies. "History has returned," Kagan declares, "and the democracies must come together to shape it, or others will shape it for them."
The implications of this idea could be profound: In recent speeches, McCain has called for the creation of a "League of Democracies" that would "harness the vast power" of political freedom.
Still, pay attention particularly to the notion that Kagan's "no Henry Kissinger." This point may hold implications for a McCain administration's foreign policy direction.