The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World by Robert Kagan, Alfred A. Knopf, US $22.95, Pp 192, September 2018, ISBN 978-0525521655
Is America the world policeman? Should or shouldn’t America be the world policeman? When America is winning wars, the natural national sentiment is to play a bigger role in the world. But the sentiment changes when America is losing or simply not winning the wars. With no signs of victory in Afghanistan and worsening situation in Iraq (as a result of Americans invasions) and elsewhere, there is a growing support for American withdrawal from the rest of the world as a peace enforcer. In The Jungle Grows Back, Robert Kagan argues that American withdrawal from world affairs and conflicts is the worst option. Like a jungle will grow back after being cut down, he argues, the dangerous state and non-state actors will make the world worse if left unchecked. It is important to understand the important role America has played in the world over the decades.
Robert Kagan argues that 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 1945the 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. Robert Kagan says that our own era has not lacked its horrors, its genocides, its oppression, its barbarianism. However, by historical standards, it has been a relative paradise. Between 1500 and 1945 scarcely a year passed when the strongest powers in the world, the great powers of Europe, were not at war, but since 1945, there has been no war between the great powers. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union ended peacefully, a historical rarity.
Despite everything that has happened, if we reject the counsels of the new “realism” and resume our support for the liberal world order, it is still within our capacity to defend it and put off its collapse, perhaps for quite some time. Today the order remains intact, despite the hostility of the present administration and the weakness of the last. The international structures supporting it are durable. Robert Kagan argues that this is partly because they rest on geographical realities and a distribution of power that still favor the liberal order and still pose obstacles to those who would disrupt it. It is also because liberal values, though under assault, remain a force that binds the democratic nations of the world together. Authoritarianism also has its appeal and will always compete with liberalism, but the authoritarian governments do not feel the same sense of commonality as the monarchies and aristocracies of the early nineteenth century. The Chinese and Russians are not adversaries, but they are not allies either. They share little except their antipathy to liberalism. The democratic nations, however, are bound together by more than common adversaries, as the post-Cold War era has proved. America’s alliances in Europe and Asia have so far held, therefore, despite the weakening of America’s commitment under two administrations. There is still a liberal world order to be salvaged if the American people decide it is worth salvaging.
The Jungle Grows Back is an insightful study of American foreign policy and provides an alternative approach to President Trump’s cynical way of conducting foreign policy. Robert Kagan powerfully argues that America should keep playing its role in enforcing peace in the world. He also presents an alternative viewpoint as to what will likely happen if America withdraws inward. Giving examples from history, he convincingly argues that American withdrawal will lead to more chaos in the world and create more threats to American national security. This somewhat controversial long essay will add to the continuing debate on America’s role in the world.