Robert Kagan is a formidable figure in our country’s foreign policy establishment. He has been at its center for decades, from working for Jack Kemp and Secretary of State George Shultz during the Cold War, to his emergence in the post-Cold War era as arguably the leading intellectual advocate for a foreign policy of “benevolent global hegemony”—what scholars call “primacy.” Unsurprisingly, he was a co-founder of the Project for the New American Century and a prominent early advocate for war with Iraq in the late 1990s, well before 9/11.
Today, Kagan is an influential scholar at the Brookings Institution, a columnist at The Washington Post, and a member of the U.S. Department of State Foreign Affairs Policy Board. Despite being known as a neoconservative, his appeal spans party and ideological divides. Indeed, Kagan’s 2016 support for Hillary Clinton showed his willingness to cross these divides himself in terms of electoral loyalties.
As a writer and public intellectual, Kagan has skillfully crafted historical narratives and strategic assessments supporting his overarching neoconservative vision for U.S. foreign policy. His 1996 Foreign Affairs article with Bill Kristol, “Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy,” still resonates today as a concise hallmark statement of that approach to America’s role in the world. With a long list of prominent books and articles following in that vein, it is little wonder that Andrew Bacevich called him “the chief foreign policy theorist of the neoconservative movement.”
Kagan’s newest book, The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World, fits nicely into his corpus. It is a spirited defense of the “American-led liberal world order” by one of its most cogent and articulate advocates. It is part curated history, part philippic for his preferred strategic vision for the United States. In this small volume, Kagan argues that the enlightened order America created after World War II has allowed for much progress in the world. But this order is not natural, and its great benefits have been “made possible by the protection afforded liberalism within the geographical and geopolitical space created by American power.” To Kagan, this liberal order is “fragile and impermanent,” requiring constant care by its architect and beneficiary, the United States. He sees the liberal order as being “like a garden, artificial and forever threatened by the forces of nature.” Thus “preserving it requires a persistent, unending struggle against the vines and weeds that are constantly working to undermine it from within and overwhelm it from without.” Otherwise, the jungle will “grow back and engulf us all.”
The problem with the book is its reliance on some questionable historical and contemporary assessments, not to mention that it fails to really make the case for the necessity and desirability of the liberal order in today’s world.
Kagan begins The Jungle Grows Back by noting that the last 70 years of peace, prosperity, and the expansion of democracy and respect for individual rights have been an exception to the historical norm. Far from being the natural course or inevitable, this progress required something special and unique: that a liberal democratic country like the United States, with so many geopolitical and economic advantages, rose to international prominence after World War II. Not only that, but, as Kagan argues, American leaders were willing to use their great power at this special moment in history to act differently and to create a new and unique world order.
Rather than merely defend its narrow national interests, the United States created a liberal international order that it would take responsibility for upholding and protecting. Kagan argues that this approach wasn’t, as some might argue, directed at the Soviet Union or anyone else in particular (though he admits the rise of the Soviet threat made it easier for Americans to accept it even as the strategy became more difficult to implement). Instead, “its chief purpose was to prevent a return to the economic, political, and strategic circumstances that had given rise to the last war.” Thus, Kagan believes this internationalist approach was rooted in a realism about the nature of geopolitics in the 20th century and a realization that the world was a jungle that required “meeting power with greater power.” American leaders had learned from World War II that they had to adopt a new approach to the world, one that created, in Dean Acheson’s words, “an environment for freedom.” To do otherwise would be to let disorder reign or for others to order the international system to the detriment of American interests and values.
Kagan believes that the 1920s and 1930s taught us a lesson. Like advocates of foreign policy restraint today, many Americans between the world wars wanted to avoid overseas quagmires and worried more about economic problems at home than geopolitical troubles stirring abroad. They also worried about what the costs might be of getting back into a great power conflict. Indeed, rather dismissing them as “isolationists,” Kagan admits they were trying to act based on what they thought was realism. But Kagan—and the generation that won World War II and created the post-war order—believes that history proved the anti-interventionists wrong.
At this point in the book, Kagan provides a pretty standard internationalist history of the Cold War period. U.S. policies and troops had transformed Germany and Japan—indeed, Western Europe and East Asia as a whole—without worrying others inside the liberal order because the United States had effectively ended military and geopolitical competition. This hegemonic order was installed without provoking fear or revisionism because other countries trusted the United States “not to exploit its superior power at their expense” while creating and facilitating benefits for others. In short, Kagan holds that we deterred and reassured. But he is a fair enough observer to note that the United States was willing and able to break the rules as necessary, and our support for liberal democracy wasn’t always consistent.
Kagan then moves to discuss the decline of the Soviet Union. He notes, however, that the Cold War struggle wasn’t really the most significant thing about this era. Instead, it was “the growing power and reach of the liberal world order.” He also repeats the argument that our post-World War II approach to the world was “a general strategy for dealing with the world and avoiding the catastrophes of the first half of the twentieth century” rather than a response to the Soviet threat. This is key to his argument because it helps him justify why it needed to continue once the Soviets were gone.
Moving forward into the post-Cold War era, Kagan explains why he is alarmed over what he sees as the jungle growing back. He notes that presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton continued the older liberal world order since both believed that the United States still bore “international responsibilities” and had to be its “primary defender.” And he argues that they pursued it with “no more or less” arrogance or overbearingness than we had pursued the Cold War. But, to Kagan, there were real problems on the horizon. This included growing criticism of America’s role in the world, more questions about its cost and necessity, and the self-inflicted wounds of the 2000s, including Iraq.
Kagan then moves into philippic mode, warning, “History is returning. Nations are reverting to old habits and traditions.” And just when the United States needs to step up, the old consensus has broken down and a new consensus view has emerged, seeing the last 25 years as a “disaster” that has led to “calls for restraint and retrenchment.” Kagan proceeds to point out ominous signs in extended discussions of Russia, China, Japan, Europe, and the American home front. The reader can sense the message that is coming, something we heard before in the 2000 book Kagan edited with Bill Kristol, Present Dangers: “Everything depends on what we do now.”
Kagan doesn’t disappoint. He ends with a call to reject the siren song of the “new ‘realism’” and reaffirm our commitment to the liberal world order. Most of what Kagan believes is required is within the economic and diplomatic spheres. He argues that we need to get back to our “deep engagement” with Europe, address “democratic backsliding,” and renew our embrace of trade and international institutions. Unsurprisingly, Kagan also calls for more muscle to maintain our dominance. Thus, Americans need to increase spending on what he considers to be an underfunded military and demonstrate “the willingness to apply that power, with all the pain and the suffering, the uncertainties and the errors, the failures and follies, the immorality and brutality, the lost lives and the lost treasure.” Otherwise, the jungle will grow back at our peril.
Critics of U.S. foreign policy are unlikely to find Kagan’s defense of the status quo approach compelling, but his book is not without its virtues. First, Kagan’s discussion of restrainers past and present who have challenged the value of liberal hegemony is remarkably respectful and gentle compared to the standard treatment. He stresses that it is wrong to refer to those who ask questions about our active involvement in the world and want to return to “normalcy” as “isolationists.” Curiously, though, he does fail to cite any seminal works of restraint in the text or endnotes.
Second, Kagan does not try to pass off Vietnam and Iraq as aberrations or errors of doctrinal interpretation that better thinking within the theoretical construct could have avoided. Instead, he admits that Iraq, like Vietnam before it, “followed naturally from a foreign policy doctrine that successive administrations had embraced and justified.” He carefully acknowledges that we “will never know” if we can pursue such strategies as he advocates without “costs and failures.” Indeed, he writes soberly, “we must consider the possibility that the price paid may have been unavoidable in a real world in which failure is as much a part of the human experience as success, that even successful strategies include error and disaster, that even the most positive outcomes are not without their negative aspects.”
Of course, this means that if we are to follow Kagan’s instructions and defend the basic operating system of American foreign policy, we are going to commit “sins of commission” every once and again. Indeed, forever—since Kagan argues that “pushing the jungle back from the garden is a never-ending task.” An Iraq every generation might be the cost of doing business.
But we must not forget who must pay for this business and the sins it requires: our troops who fight and are often wounded, and in thousands of cases die on the battlefield; our families and communities that suffer from frequent deployments; American taxpayers who are left with the bill. Not to mention the costs imposed by our interventions on those we are ostensibly trying to help: innocent lives lost, property destroyed, and millions displaced.
Another problem is that Kagan’s discussion of the Iraq war’s causes underplays its revolutionary nature. There is much talk of the dangers of Saddam and WMDs, but the war was much more about remaking the Middle East itself through a revolutionary project of regime change and democracy promotion. Rather than realist, it was radical and avoidable.
Kagan also understates the importance of the Soviet threat to the depth of American commitments abroad and the willingness of Americans to pay steep costs for the liberal order in the Cold War era. This is key to his case for defending that order today because it relies on the notion that we are capable as a nation of supporting an approach that isn’t about meeting fundamental national interests in the face of a hegemonic struggle.
But the most important problem with Kagan’s argument is that, regardless of whether the creation of the liberal order was necessary after World War II, he fails to convince that it is truly necessary or desirable today. He also fails to seriously grapple with whether natural shifts in the world make such an order unreasonably difficult to maintain no matter how hard we try. Instead of a careful consideration of American interests and a tight and specific argument about how certain means meet those ends given today’s threat environment, we get general arguments about the need to be tough, to pay costs to uphold milieu goals, and ominous imagery about a jungle overcoming our nice but unnatural garden. It doesn’t engage with the toughest arguments about whether a single people like us, with a small share of global population and wealth, can infinitely desire and afford to provide all these public goods in the system without undermining the things we are trying to protect and support in the first place: our safety, our financial health, and our way of life. In other words, it doesn’t handle the problem that our specific part of the garden could desiccate by the costs and efforts of pulling weeds and cutting down the jungle. And the last 25 years of the frequently cited 70 years of the liberal order don’t make me sanguine that this is a path through the jungle that we can safely stay on.
William Ruger is a U.S. Naval Reserve officer and the vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute. Previously, he was an Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas State University, and an adjunct assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin.