Books for Our Times: “The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World,” by Robert Kagan

First in a series, Books for Our Times

A quick thought experiment: Picture a jungle. This is how we might imagine five thousand years of human history — -a time of war, tyranny, and poverty. Now picture, within that jungle, a garden. This is how we might imagine the seventy years of post-World War II history — -a bubble in time in which a liberal world order has dominated. Today, with that liberal world order weakening, the jungle threatens to grow back and extinguish the garden.

This is the thematic metaphor driving Robert Kagan in his latest book, “The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World.” His metaphor works in all ways: It aptly underscores the historical abnormality and precious value of a liberal world order — -an order in which democracy reigns, contrasted to strongman rule and abuse. The metaphor also underscores the peril posed to that order, not only by the recrudescence of strongman rule around the world, but by the retreat of the garden’s guarantor — -America — -which Kagan deems the truly indispensable nation.

For those Americans anxious about today’s bigger picture — -who understand that it makes a world of difference what kind of power is dominant in the world — -this cogent 163-page book is a useful argument. Kagan, a conservative at the liberal think tank, the Brookings Institution, in this book (published in 2018) and in regular columns for The Washington Post, views Donald Trump and other anti-democratic rulers as both peril and symptom of late-breaking problems in the garden.

Kagan opens the book expounding on the liberal world order’s anomaly and value:

“The American-led liberal world order was never a natural phenomenon. It was not the culmination of evolutionary processes across the millennia or the inevitable fulfillment of universal human desires. The past seven-plus decades of relatively free trade, growing respect for individual rights, and relatively peaceful cooperation among nations — -the core elements of the liberal order — -have been a great historical aberration. Until 1945 the story of humankind going back thousands of years was a long tale of war, tyranny, and poverty. Moments of peace were fleeting, democracy so rare as to seem almost accidental, and prosperity the luxury of the powerful few. Our own era has not lacked its horrors, its genocides, its oppressions, its barbarisms. Yet by historical standards, including the standards of the recent past, it has been a relative paradise.”

Briskly, Kagan then describes the bubble most of his readers live in, wherein we take this liberal world order for granted: “We see all its flaws and wish it could be better, but it doesn’t occur to us that the more likely alternative to it would be much, much worse.” He gives historical context: “As children of the Enlightenment, we believe the expansion of knowledge and material progress goes hand in hand with improvements in human behavior and moral progress. From Montesquieu and Kant we learned that commerce tames the souls of men and nations, reducing conflict and increasing harmony and cooperation.” There’s more on the Enlightenment’s advances, an iteration Kagan leavens with the indisputable observation that, as to human behavior, there has been, alas, “no lasting improvement.” Elsewhere he comments on “the overall incompetence endemic to all human activity.” In other words, it’s the ideological framework, stupid, that has saved us.

The guarantor of this anomalous framework — -America — -is itself anomalous among nations. Speaking of the postwar establishment of this liberal world order, and threading his way through some international relations-speak (this reviewer majored in IR) — -“It has been the product of a unique set of circumstances contingent on a particular set of historical outcomes, including on the battlefield” — -Kagan sets the scene for the leading player, the American superpower:

“[The liberal world order] has been, above all, the by-product of a new configuration of power in the international system, the rise to preeminence of a new player on the international scene with a unique and advantageous geography, a large and productive population, unprecedented economic and military power, and, as it happened, a national ideology based on the liberal principles of the Enlightenment.”

Kagan goes on: “The present world order has favored liberalism, democracy, and capitalism not only because they are right and better….but because the most powerful nation in the world since 1945 has been a liberal democratic capitalist nation.” In this, Kagan rightly connects the “right and better,” the moral raison d’etre, with the imperative that it must be backed with sufficient power, both military and economic.

With this scene-setting, Kagan then poses the peril — -“The jungle is growing back” — -namely, the “authoritarianism surviving if not thriving” around the globe, including notably in Russia (Vladimir Putin) and China (all-powerful leader Xi Jinping now qualifies as “emperor,” says Kagan). Would-be dictators elsewhere boast of their illiberalism. Adaptation is the autocrat’s forte: “Where once we believed economic success must eventually require political liberalization, we now see autocracies successfully practicing a state capitalism compatible with regressive government.”

Shockingly, sadly, the United States is now included in this litany of bad actors. As Kagan writes, “a Counter-Enlightenment of surprising potency stirs in Moscow, Budapest, Beijing, Tehran, and Cairo, in parts of Western Europe, and even in the nation that saved liberalism seventy-five years ago.” This radical shift, of course, was signaled with the 2016 election of the anti-democratic Donald J. Trump.

Importantly, Kagan shows that this radical shift was prepared for by the American public itself, in its growing skepticism to America serving as the world’s policeman. It’s this radical loss of faith in the liberal world order that Kagan most regrets — -“a profound skepticism about the liberal order’s durability and even its desirability.” Looking back at recent history, he writes:

“An increasing number on both the left and the right have come to regard the struggle to uphold the order as either hopeless or mistaken. Self-described ‘realists’ insist that Americans must learn to accept the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be. Decrying the ‘failures and follies’ of the past quarter century — -the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the interventions of the 1990s, the expansion of NATO, which they regard as a mistake, and the broader effort to support democracy in allegedly inhospitable places — -they call for a new policy of ‘restraint.’ American policies in support of a liberal world order have not only overtaxed and exhausted Americans, they argue, but have done no good for them or for others.”

Going on, Kagan notes it was President Barack Obama who argued it was “time to focus on nation building here at home” when he announced a draw-down of troops in Afghanistan. In fact, the 2016 election was “the fourth presidential contest since the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore in 2000 in which the candidate promising to pursue a narrower definition of American interests and to reduce American involvement overseas” prevailed over candidates who stood for a more expansive foreign policy.

Thus the table was set for America’s retrenchment — -and for Donald Trump, who persuaded persuadable voters “that the liberal order was a bad deal and it was time to put ‘America first.’” Kagan cites broad agreement: “In 2016, 57 percent of Americans polled believed the U.S. should ‘mind its own business’ and let the rest of the world manage it own problems, up from just 30 percent a decade and a half earlier.” Kagan can sympathize, saying it is a mistake to call this view “isolationist”:

“What most critics and skeptics…..want is for the United States to act more like a normal nation. And it is true that for more than seven decades the United States has not been acting like a ‘normal’ country. No nation in history has ever been more deeply involved in the affairs of the world nor accepted more responsibility for the state of humankind than the United States since the Second World War. Very few nations in history have ever felt any responsibility for anything but themselves. The vast majority of nations do not think twice about looking after their own narrow interests ‘first.’ Americans have been abnormal in this respect — -abnormal in their willingness to shoulder great moral and material burdens in order to preserve this abnormal liberal order.”

And yet, and yet, with America’s retreat, Kagan shudders at the prospect of the jungle growing back, with its spheres of interest historically producing endless war and tyranny. He looks about and laments, “There is no call to action to reverse the trends.”

With this book Kagan has issued that call to action, hoping to reverse the current “excessive pessimism”; he calls his own views pessimistic but not fatalistic. Skeptics and “realists” who doubt the value of the liberal world order would benefit from Kagan’s primer. This review reflects only the book’s first chapter, where Kagan lays out his argument in full. The rest of the book develops all the points cited: the jungle and its warring spheres of interest; WWI; the “derangement” of the international economy in the 1920s and ’30s; WWII and the establishment of the postwar liberal order, with a chapter on the “steep price” to Americans for that order; the Cold War and America’s missteps since “winning” it.

Finally, two notes Kagan makes may point the way forward in this dark time. Both relate to the work of the architects of the post-World War II liberal order — -Franklin Roosevelt, Dean Acheson, George Marshall, George Kennan, Harry Truman.

One: These architects, Kagan notes, were likewise realists, who, having survived two horrific world wars, held a dim view of history and human nature. Notwithstanding the establishment of the United Nations and the spirit of cooperation it promoted, these architects continued to view the world as an international jungle, wherein, Kagan writes, “such security as was possible….could be preserved only by meeting power with greater power.” In fact during the war, in 1943, FDR stated that if America did not “pull the fangs of the predatory animals of this world,” they would “multiply and grow in strength” and would “be at our throats again once more in a short generation.” It is a view — -the international sphere as raw power politics — -that Americans do not often consider. Not that the jungle cares.

Two: Kennan’s theory of containment, which ultimately proved successful, not only called for containing our erstwhile wartime ally, the Soviet Union, from acting on its expansionist tendencies in the postwar era. It also called for protecting and strengthening the liberal order itself. Even if our nemesis were contained, Kennan argued, everything still depends on the “health and vigor of our own society.” To cope with “the responsibilities of a World Power” (those capitals are Kennan’s), he believed America needed to demonstrate a “spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time.” Kagan writes:

“Americans should be grateful for the challenge, Kennan believed, for it required ‘pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.’ It is a measure of how America has changed that such sentiments, if uttered today, would be greeted by snorts of derision by the realists of our time, by utopian determinists, and by those on the right and left who reject the very idea of responsibility and moral leadership.”

This reviewer, a liberal who protests current liberalism’s irresponsibility and licentiousness, could not agree more.

My fellow Americans: Mind the jungle.

For Robert Kagan’s columns for The Washington Post, see here. For other books by the author, see here. Full disclosure: I worked at the Brookings Institution 1972–76, where as a member of the Women’s Caucus I helped clear the jungle there to create better opportunities for women and minorities on staff.