Donald Kagan, the defensive tackle for Timothy Dwight College’s intramural football team, crouches atop torn-up grass on a brisk New Haven afternoon in 1977. He fears no one except the broad-shouldered Pierson running back barreling toward him.
“Hut … go!” Kagan’s son, Robert Kagan ’80, drives forward, ramming past his father and nearly knocking him to the ground. After the younger Kagan scores, both men laugh together about the encounter, and Donald is left with pride for the game’s star.
“He is someone who in his style of football was not afraid to hit or be hit, and I think that’s very true for him intellectually,” Eddie Lazarus ’81, a close friend of Robert Kagan, said. “He’s never been afraid to go out and slay dragons, and he’s not afraid to disagree with others in the most powerful terms, knowing he is going to take criticism for it.”
Kagan’s habit of taking unpopular positions is no secret. In 2002, as a prominent writer and columnist for publications including the Washington Post, he wrote an article with the phrase “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus” that sparked a heated transatlantic debate and, some say, even changed the course of U.S. and European foreign policies.
“Bob’s writing on foreign policy has been quite influential, certainly in a way that is an envy of many historians,” said Strobe Talbott ’68, who served as deputy U.S. secretary of state in the Clinton administration. “He comes in the tradition of Yale historians who have had a big influence on current events.”
Kagan’s contentious views have left the public struggling to define his political affiliations. While some friends call him an open-minded maverick, Washington, D.C. has labeled him a neo-conservative. But these views, which he bases largely on historical analysis, have their origins in a world that predates Gulf Wars and supranational organizations in Europe.
Instead, they stem from a Yale experience filled with all-nighters working on his start-up magazine, the Yale Political Monthly, and raging games of “Diplomacy” in his common room. And from even before Yale, they stem from nightly family dinner discussions featuring his father Donald, a world-renowned professor known for his unmatched command of ancient history.
Like father, like son?
“My father’s passion for history has rubbed off on me, and clearly, his passion for his own pagan Greek rationalist approach to things I have certainly inspired to inherit,” Kagan said. “His overall world view has shaped me.”
While his father sees this influence, he said that his son has shaped his own views just as much.
“For many, many years, there has been mutual instruction and mutual influence,” Donald Kagan said. “When I write about stuff that is not ancient, he’s my expert and so I just go to him. Bob knows American history so well, and particularly international relations, that he is a great source of knowledge and wisdom to me. I’m definitely on the receiving end now 90 to 95 percent of the time.”
Robert Kagan, who attended Yale when his father was the master of TD, said he enjoyed bumping into the elder Kagan on campus, where they often discussed sports. He added that he deeply admired his father’s character and willingness to take unpopular positions.
“Everything you need to know about him is that he was a kid living in Brooklyn rooting for the Yankees at a time when there was the Brooklyn Dodgers,” he said.
Yale history professor Kim Kagan ’93, Robert Kagan’s sister-in-law, said her family, considered one of America’s most conservative and patriotic, has dinner discussions that provoke lively debate but not necessarily consensus.
“The individual members of our family, not the collective embodiment, are extremely interested in contemporary events and are extremely interested in the public service and believe that we each as citizens can make a contribution to public life,” she said.
Today, Robert Kagan’s immediate family consists of his wife, NATO Ambassador Victoria Nuland, and two children: Elena, who he called “the most amazing 9-year-old historian I ever knew,” and David, 7.
Left-leaning Yale history professor Paul Kennedy, who sat earlier this month on a panel at the World Knowledge Forum in South Korea at which he was pitted against Robert Kagan, said he was not surprised that his opponent’s opinions did not fit what many consider the Kagan viewpoint.
“In Washington, Don Kagan is held in high regard as being one of the voices in the wilderness suspicious of the liberal influence and a scholar hero, one of the few people who stayed in the ‘pink liberal Ivy League’,” Kennedy said. “I think they say ‘Robert’s the son of Don Kagan,’ and I think they might put two and two together a little bit too fast. I see him as a more of a lone wolf. Sure he’s in this conservative milieu, but he’s a lot more idiosyncratic, less able to be categorized.”
Therein lies the crux of the Kagan school of thought: both conservatism rooted in an America-first attitude and an impartial historical perspective meant to provoke others to rethink their preconceived notions.
An influential ideology
When Robert Kagan published his ‘Mars & Venus’ idea in “Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe and the New World Order,” he said he did so primarily to sort out the relationship between the United States and Europe for himself, and was surprised to see it rise to international fame. The piece, which became a best-seller in eight countries, raised controversy among critics who felt that Kagan had created a rift between the two powers by highlighting their differences.
“I found myself sort of accused of causing the transatlantic split, and accused of creating the world view that led us into Iraq,” he said. “I just think that my article gave people a way of looking at things in that, for all I know, was an overly simplistic way of looking at a complex issue.”
But Washington Post Editorial-Page Editor Fred Hiatt said Kagan’s views are not globally disruptive.
“He is thinking about big issues and bringing to them new frameworks that immediately reshape the debate,” Hiatt said. “Even people who didn’t like his conclusions essentially had to acknowledge the power and correctness of his analysis, and today it’s rare to hear a discussion of U.S.-European relations that doesn’t take his thesis as a starting point.”
Before Kagan began to form his opinions, he saw the inner-workings of government at the Department of State from 1984 to 1988, after graduating from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Though he ultimately left government turned off from bureaucracy, he said the experience gave him a taste of the real world. Kagan was the primary speechwriter for Secretary of State George Shultz and worked for Yale Diplomat-in-Residence and former State Department chief of staff Charles Hill while in Washington.
“He was restive and disinclined to accept the standard State Department bureaucratic approach,” Hill said.
Kagan later moved to Europe with Nuland. It was there that he professed many of his outspoken views, such as his mixed-support for the Iraq war. He said that he is disappointed in the Bush administration’s handling of the conflict, but still believes that Saddam Hussein should have been removed. In 1997, he co-founded Project for a New American Century, a conservative think tank set up to promote “American global leadership.”
But even Kagan maintains that such views do not necessarily make him one of the country’s “prominent neo-conservatives,” as his Wikipedia.com entry states.
“I do not say I’m a conservative Republican … I’ve voted Democrat, which I’ve regretted, but I’ve also regretted voting Republican,” he said. “The neo-conservative label is problematic.”
As a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Kagan is currently working on a two-volume critique of American foreign policy that begins with the nation’s founding. His father said the book will be monumental but will “please no one, because it doesn’t agree with anyone.”
Hill said the book may be the best of its kind.
“When someone has got the ability to write brilliantly, then the influential scale shows a lot more weight on it,” Hill said. “Among the younger generation [of foreign policy intellectuals], I think Kagan is the best of them.”
Diplomacy and the inferno
But Kagan’s passion was not limited to reading and writing, particularly during his time at Yale. Friends said he was a mover and shaker on campus.
Peter Schultz ’80 ARC ’84, Kagan’s freshman-year suitemate, said he felt intimidated upon meeting Kagan, but quickly became his close friend.
“He seemed big and tough,” Schultz said. “One day, out of pure joy, he saw me across Old Campus, ran at me, picked me up, tackled me, swooped me up into his arms, and then dropped me.”
Kagan’s junior year roommate and friend, Craig Gilbert ’80, said although their messy room “would probably be pretty hideous for anyone to walk into,” friends came over to play “Diplomacy,” where each player represented a world power.
“It was a reflection of the fact that we were interested in sports, politics, and history, and so this was a kind of natural outlet for that,” Gilbert said.
But intellectually intense games were not all Kagan loved. He invented a game called “Knee-Football,” complete with tackling, passing, and bloody legs. Kagan was also a star of the Pierson-Davenport Intramural football team, an experience that stood out as one of his father’s all-time greatest memories.
“We played against each other twice and in his senior year he conned me into coaching his team,” Donald Kagan said. “The opportunity … which led to a dramatic and exciting last game, was the most fun I had in my entire life.”
Kagan brought the same intensity to Yale’s political discourse when he founded the Yale Political Monthly in his senior year at Yale, citing the lack of a political forum for students to engage in debate.
Joe Rose ’81, Kagan’s close friend and second editor of the YPM, said Kagan was an ideal editor because of his ability to see both sides of every issue.
“We were in a heated argument about a policy question involving the Vietnam War where he was on one side, and I was on the other,” Rose said. “But in the middle of the argument, Bob stopped, thought for a while, turned around, and started arguing the other side with equal vigor.”
Some of Kagan’s thinking was refined as a participant in Directed Studies, which his father spearheaded. Kagan said although he loved his political philosophy course, much of the material went over his head.
“I didn’t understand what it was talking about, but I think later in life, I did start to understand it and it opened up a world that I didn’t know existed,” he said. “It was also hard as hell.”
One of Kagan’s most treasured Yale legacies may have been the Pierson Inferno, a Halloween Party that attracted thousands of Yalie’s until it was suspended two years ago for rowdiness.
“I started it in 1977 with two friends, and it was just the best Halloween party ever,” Kagan said. “We hung a sign over the doorway: ‘Lasciate Ogni Speranza, Voi Ch’Entrate’ [Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter]. It was the classic Yale party of those years.”
When he was not competing, studying or partying, some saw Kagan as readying himself for a career in politics.
“We all thought that he should be secretary of state,” Schultz said.
In the minds of many Americans and Europeans, Kagan continues to stir the pot, driving at historical truths in search of new understanding of international trends and solutions for policy crises. Whichever label persists – unbending “neo-con” or pure historian — may be irrelevant in the long-term for those who know him best.
“He will not bend his integrity to suit the prejudices and values that he has,” Donald Kagan said. “His courage is that in the process, he annoys people, and he is prepared to take the consequences of speaking annoying truths. And the other thing I’m really proud of is that he had one of the greatest abilities to cut back that I’ve ever seen on a football field.”