he death-of-world-order literature is large and growing, and, in The Jungle Grows Back, Robert Kagan adds to it by detailing the inception of that order itself. Kagan, a historian and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has in many ways become the biographer of American power. His previous book, The World America Made, was a seminal paean to the U.S.-led liberal world order. That book was so influential that it helped inspire President Obama’s State of the Union Address in 2012. “Decline,” Kagan wrote in that missive, echoing the late Charles Krauthammer, “is a choice. It is not an inevitable fate—at least not yet.”
In his current book, Kagan restates his belief that “it is still within our capacity to defend” the liberal world order and “put off its collapse, perhaps for some time.” But the sentiment now reads more like a weary grunt than a full-throated rebuttal.
Kagan sees the liberal world order—a world of “relatively free trade, growing respect for individual rights, and relatively peaceful cooperation among nations”—as a “great historical aberration,” a brief “anomaly” from the “war, tyranny, and poverty” that defined international relations for millennia. But history, backed by henchmen in China, Russia, Iran, and elsewhere, threatens to correct that anomaly. Kagan has been waiting for this. The liberal order, he argues, is “a garden, ever under siege from the forces of history, the jungle whose vines and weeds”—outgrowths of the chaos, brutality, and domination that long defined global affairs—“constantly threaten to overwhelm it.” The vines and weeds, Kagan warns, are here. And, as he recently wrote in the Washington Post, “the world crisis is upon us.”
The liberal world order emerged from Washington’s reaction to the wreckage of World War II. Following World War I, the United States focused on commerce, spent little on defense, and dismissed the notion of any possible existential threats. Even after World War I, Americans “had barely realized that there was a world order,” Kagan recounts, “much less that it was one from which they benefited immensely.” The old order, underpinned by European balance-of-power politics and British seapower, largely inoculated the United States from the perils of interstate competition and fostered its rise. Only its collapse convinced Americans that, to preserve their way of life, they had to assume the mantle of a great power and shape a new world.
The American order would not look like all the rest. To build a world where liberal principles could flourish, the United States had to transcend “traditional notions” of national interest, which were limited to “defense of the state’s immediate and physical and economic security.” Instead, as one of the architects of the new order, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, put it, the United States would seek to create “an environment of freedom” beyond its shores. This project would entail building an “open international economy,” as well as supporting democracies in critical areas across the globe. It also meant establishing institutions such as the United Nations that would, in Kagan’s words, “knit the members of the liberal order into what they could regard as a common international community.” No great power had ever defined its national interest in such capacious—and generous—terms.
But Acheson and his collaborators understood that drawing-room diplomacy—such as the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1929, purporting to outlaw war—would do any such thing. They did not dare to start the world from scratch or cure mankind of strife. Instead, Kagan writes, they “were in many ways pessimists” about international relations, convinced, as Acheson argued, that the world had no “rules, no umpire, no prizes for good boys.” They nonetheless hoped that if the “base and destructive elements of human nature could be contained,” other, better elements “could be unleashed.” In this way, Kagan argues, they drew from America’s Founding Fathers, who designed the U.S. Constitution not to remake mankind but to account for human nature, with its limited wisdom and virtue. Kagan stands alone among latter-day defenders of the liberal world order in noting this link and in praising it; his is the tragic case for the world America built.
And in a tragic world, there was only one true guarantor of peace: American power. The progress of the last 70 years was only possible, Kagan argues, “because the most powerful nation in the world since 1945 has been a liberal democratic capitalist nation.”
Under the U.S. security umbrella, fascist Germany and Japan transformed into placid economic powerhouses, democracy flourished, and the United States defeated the USSR without a great-power war. Only the combination of overwhelming U.S. military supremacy and unyielding U.S. commitment to pluralism could convince prideful nations to place their foreign policy, for the first time in history, in another country’s hands. In key parts of the world, America’s presence “provided the opportunity to end the cycle of multipolar military competition” that had culminated in two world wars and countless other conflicts, giving nations the opportunity to compete peacefully.
To be sure, Washington at times ran roughshod over allies, abandoned its ideals, and badly blundered. Yet, as Kagan contends, “compared to what had come before over the previous five thousand years,” America’s garden of egalitarian hegemony represented “a revolutionary transformation of human existence.”
Today, that garden is decaying. Kagan takes readers on a global tour to survey the damage, from Beijing to Brussels. But the real danger to the liberal order, Kagan believes, is spiritual rather than strategic. Rejecting the trendy view that American decline is terminal, he argues that even if the U.S. order inevitably falls, as every order does, the question of when it falls matters a great deal for its present health and what may follow. And even now, he believes, “it is still within our capacity to defend” the order and “put off its collapse, perhaps for some time.”
If the choice remains ours, the number of those willing to choose leadership is dwindling. On the left, Kagan argues, America’s Cold War victory and the halcyon days that followed convinced many that the liberal world order was “the inevitable unfolding of some Universal History” rather than a manifestation of U.S. power. Progress is inevitable, this thinking goes, and therefore the order can sustain itself without U.S. force, which is unnecessarily costly and corrupting. Recalcitrant nations, clinging to their arms and pride, will eventually fall in the ever-advancing line of liberalism. Secretary of State John Kerry epitomized that notion in 2014, when, in reaction to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he said that “you just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th-century fashion.” Kerry and others confuse the buttresses of the system—the UN, the World Trade Organization, and international law—for its foundation, American might. Classic power politics will thus perennially befuddle them.
On the right, meanwhile, a series of foreign-policy disasters, from 9/11 to Syria, fueled skepticism about the efficacy of U.S. power in the first place. Kagan recounts how a “new self-described ‘realism’ came into vogue.” It held that global instability “was intractable…and that rather than fix things the employment of American power only made things worse.” Some conservatives tired not so much of U.S. preeminence as of the self-imposed burden to wield it with restraint. They fumed as China and Russia brazenly bullied opponents and Europe finger-wagged Washington on America’s defensive dole.
Following the Cold War, then, Americans on the left and right tired of the responsible application of U.S. power so central to the world order. For Kagan, this comes down to a failure of imagination and a failure of memory. The postwar “liberal bubble,” he says, has endured just long enough for us to forget “what the world ‘as it is’ really looks like,” how “nations have historically behaved when given the chance,” and how they may behave should that chance present itself once more. He warns that should today’s nascent weeds proliferate, it would spell danger on a level few can appreciate, and with nuclear arsenals in tow.
To those who argue that U.S. support for the liberal world order is problematic, Kagan’s response amounts to “as opposed to what?” This is a reminder of the blessings of American hegemony. But it also suggests a weariness that weighs down this slim volume. Absent from The Jungle Grows Back is a stirring call to action—one that could inspire Americans to embrace the burdens of leadership anew. “Tending the garden” is instead a conservative case for preservation. And the case for preservation is a sober one, rooted less in what we can accomplish than in what we must try to stave off, less in dreaming than in brooding.
The argument for preservation, of course, rallied Americans once before—most notably, to contain the Soviet Union. George Kennan, the author of that strategy, described it as “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment” accomplished by “the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.”
But there are key differences between Kennan’s time and ours. For one, although the architects of the liberal world order didn’t design the system in response to the Soviet Union, Kagan admits that “it is not at all clear” that Americans would have accepted the commitment to lead it “had it not been for” the Kremlin’s emergence. Now, however, Washington is not containing Communism, headquartered in Moscow, but chaos, with multiple sponsors. The disparate authoritarian challenge we face is also not a leftist vanguard but a reactionary rearguard, a confrontation of values rather than ideology. This, Kagan notes, poses a subtler threat than Communism, more “traditional, organic, [and] natural” with an appeal to strength, order, and tribe.
Bereft of a central foe or an organizing principle around which to concentrate their efforts, Americans are left with the idea of preservation alone to motivate their defense of the liberal world order. The Jungle Grows Back is a worthy attempt to remind them of what came before that order. Kagan offers an accessible overview of international affairs, an evocative portrait of the mayhem that once governed the globe, and an appreciation of the relative miracle of U.S. might that followed. What’s more, he brings to the page a true sense of the stakes involved—not some abstract notion of the “rules-based order,” but the basic security and prosperity of Americans.