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Garden-Variety Geopolitics: A Review of The Jungle Grows Back

A mural on the former American embassy in Tehran, Iran. Phillip Maiwald / Wikipedia

Early in his campaign, President Trump heralded the old call of “America First,” which, though it had once meant American neutrality in the face of World War I, has become a byword for economic protectionism, non-interventionism, and antipathy to “globalism.” When it became evident that this battle cry would wax rather than wane, Robert Kagan, a longtime advocate of “liberal interventionism” and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution left the Republican Party and backed Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. In justification he said, “She is a believer in this world order, but a great section of the country is not and is going to require persuasion and education.” In his new book, The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World, Kagan tries to do exactly that.

Few theorists are as well positioned as Kagan to write such an ambitious apologia. Over the last three decades, Kagan has been one of the brightest firebrands within the neoconservative movement. Along with Bill Kristol, Kagan co-founded the now-defunct neoconservative think tank Project for the New American Century, which he used to kindle the flames of the Iraq War, as well as its successor organization, the Foreign Policy Initiative, which agitated for higher defense budgets and military interventions abroad until it shuttered its doors in 2017. Around that time, Kagan, began to write this book. As of yet, it is the most intellectually rigorous articulation of American neoconservative thought in the age of Trump; it is compelling, partly hyperbolic, and wholly unwise.

Optimistic, teleological theories of human progress entailing the natural progression of mankind toward an ideal geopolitical condition are, according to Kagan, “a myth.” To Kagan, the world as we know it, with its robust international trade, abundance of liberal governance, and peace between powerful nations, is “a great historical aberration.” The advancements of mankind in every field of human endeavor have, according to Kagan, “brought no lasting improvements in human behavior.” He notes cynically, “History had not led to the triumph of liberalism; it had led to Hitler and Stalin.” Thus, he argues, “the creation of the liberal order has been an act against both history and human nature.”

This “unnatural” order, Kagan contends, is—and should continue to be—sustained by the United States. The US, because of its “unique and advantageous geography, a large and productive population, unprecedented economic and military power,” and “national ideology based on the liberal principles of the Enlightenment,” are, according to Kagan, uniquely positioned to hold this world order together. This is not an unprecedented notion.

In 1878, the prime minister of the United Kingdom William Gladstone wrote, “America is passing us by as if in a canter…She will probably become what we are now—head servant in the great household of the world.” In precisely that vein, Kagan doesn’t envision the U.S. as an opportunistic hegemon, but as a servant. He writes, “No nation in history has […] accepted more responsibility for the state of humankind than the United States since the Second World War.” But, Kagan stresses that this is no light duty, and assiduously notes that Americans have been “abnormal in their willingness to shoulder great moral and material burdens in order to preserve this abnormal liberal order.”

Kagan writes, “the price that would have to be paid to create this new order turned out to be higher than its founders had imagined, and certainly higher than the American public believed.” Similarly, Kagan emphasizes that Americans “never reconciled themselves to the tragic reality that it was impossible to wield power, in the best of causes, with clean hands. Americans like to believe that they were on the side of the good, but power is power, and killing is killing, no matter how virtuous the objective.” So, Kagan concedes that maintaining liberal world order is incredibly costly, morally problematic, and possibly entails a lack of democratic transparency, but it’s worthwhile, he contends, because the world is a rotten place.

Kagan cites Arthur Schopenhauer’s famous dictum, “Eadem, sed aliter” (The same, but different) to elucidate his understanding of nations. He writes, “nations travel along deep and broad ruts in which they have been traveling for hundreds of years, and though they may be knocked or pulled out of those ruts by powerful forces and events, there will always be a tendency to slip back into them.” As proof he cites multiple instances throughout history that demonstrate that whenever the U.S. steps back or bungles its geopolitical duties, the old archaic, “nationalistic” order resurfaces. For example, he notes, “The inpouring of millions of refugees from Syria […] contributed more than any other factor to the rising popularity of nationalism, ultranationalist, and even overtly fascist political parties across Europe.”

Essentially, if the U.S. fails to be perpetually vigilant, Kagan believes the world will slip back into “authoritarianism.” This, he speculates, is less a defect on humanity’s part than a feature: “Authoritarianism may be a stable condition of human existence, more stable than liberalism and democracy. It appeals to core elements of human nature that liberalism does not always satisfy.” Fundamentally, Kagan believes that the prevailing world order “is a garden that needs constant tending lest the jungle grow back and engulf us all.” Yet, the fairest blossoms that Kagan points to in justification for all this “tending” don’t seem to necessitate or justify the cost.

Kagan boasts that the prevailing world order protects individual liberties, facilitates economic prosperity, and reduces the possibility of war between great powers. Yet, none of these fine things is unique to liberal world order. Individual liberty existed in Athens and England long before American unipolarity materialized. Global economic activity and trade has been ascendant in a variety of political modalities ever since the Renaissance and seems to be able to thrive in plenty of conditions (including Chinese authoritarianism). And a reduction in the possibility of war between great powers, while laudable, seems hardly worth the high cost of perpetual war with smaller ones—especially since the mechanics of constructing liberal world order involves the creation of expansive military alliances that would make any future war between great powers deadlier than it would be otherwise.

Kagan’s argument makes sense if “authoritarianism” is an insurmountable evil to be avoided at all costs. However, Kagan’s understanding of authoritarianism seems to include not only cruel dictatorships and grim fundamentalist theocracies, but virtually all political arrangements aside modern from liberal democracy. This seems hyperbolic.

The “jungles” of antiquity yield various modes of governance and models of world order that range from the pale tribal anarchies of prehistory that pollinated amid glacial ice, to the garish interwoven empires that flourished on the shores of the Mediterranean just prior to the Late Bronze Age Collapse. For a time, each of these and other political arrangements bloomed and bore fruit that were often more noble and worthy than anything borne of liberal democracy: Egyptian theocratic monarchy produced the pyramids, Roman imperialism produced Europe, and a small short-lived jumble of quasi-democratic, occasionally tyrannous Greek city-states produced all the foundational philosophers, poets, and playwrights of Western Civilization. Relatedly, there is a good reason, and Kagan hints at this, that most nations tend toward governments that aren’t congenial to liberal world order.

Governments don’t grow in abstract, but are always rooted in particular soil; as Montesquieu wrote in The Spirit of the Laws, “Mankind are influenced by various causes: by the climate, by the religion, by the laws, by the maxims of government, by precedents, morals and customs; whence is formed a general spirit of nations.” Thus, a people without much in the way of natural resources might develop a general spirit inclined to commerce, a people with a hierarchical religion might develop a general spirit inclined to political centralization, et cetera. These spirits marshal countries’ political orders; in the words of Hegel, “In the history of the world, the Individuals we have to deal with are Peoples; totalities that are States.” So, states, being peculiar totalities animated by differing spirits have appropriately different modalities of governance.

Arguably, the United States is suited to liberal democracy because we possess, among other things (as Kagan points out), an auspicious geography, ample military, and national ideology partly derived from the Enlightenment. Not every nation is rooted in such soil and it seems unwise, if not wrong, to go from shrub to shrub methodically trimming and plucking at petals in order to impose an artificial uniformity on the world’s geopolitical flora. Even so, Kagan’s claim that extreme costs are justified in preventing the world’s nations from taking up alternative forms of government would still be reasonable if he had provided a compelling case for why “liberal world order” is so overwhelmingly superior to the alternative—especially in light of arguments that our world order is, in the words of Ezra Pound (which Kagan quotes), “a botched civilization.”

Kagan doesn’t spend a single chapter defending the idea that this order is, on its own intrinsic merit, worth the high cost of its maintenance. While he notes that the “authoritarian” alternative to his vision, “appeals to core elements of human nature that liberalism does not always satisfy,” he inexplicably offers no extensive arguments for why the prevailing world order—as a setting for the economic, spiritual, and intellectual lives of its billions of inhabitants—is so preferable to the alternatives that it merits the high costs of its maintenance. However, even if such an argument were present, another, wiser criticism would still be apt.

Kagan’s exhortation to “tend” the jungle amounts to the proposition that there exists a geopolitical ideal that facilitates a certain set of conditions contrary to the natural inclinations of humanity that must be strived for at great cost. His metaphor seems, however, to be less than apropos; a garden consists of the basic stuff of a jungle, merely trimmed. Kagan’s vision of liberal world order as “unnatural,” and an “aberration,” implies something akin to the creation of something new. Possibly, a more fitting (and colorful) metaphor for Kagan’s vision is the Tower of Babel.

Stories analogous to the Tower of Babel exists in the ancient traditions of peoples ranging from Tanzania to Central America. In some versions of the story, the purpose of the tower is to reach heaven, in others, to challenge it, while in other versions, the tower merely exists to hold up the heavens lest it topple and cause another deluge. In the best of ways, Kagan’s aims parallel these: a liberal world order would facilitate the realization of lofty ideals, stymie humanities geopolitical “tendencies,” and decrease the likelihood of another world war. Like the aims of Nimrod (the man traditionally credited as the mind behind the tower of Babel), Kagan’s aims are largely understandable, if not admirable, which makes the conclusion of the Babel story so enigmatic.

The story ends not only with the destruction of the tower (the biblical account doesn’t even mention such an occurrence), but with the confounding of languages. In the biblical account, the tower builders say, “let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The simplest reading implies that they, like Kagan, wanted to unite and live in a secure domain where their lofty ideal was reified (presumably at great cost), thus ensuring their endurance as a coherent political community. The biblical narrative concludes with the following: “the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do…let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth.” Unity became disunity; political universality became political particularity.

The Tower of Babel is one of those mythological narratives that, in the words of the 4th-century philosopher Sallustius, “never happened, but always are.” Man in his arrogance always strives against his own nature and circumstances to bring together the different nations of the world and establish an order that can facilitate some lofty ideal and he always fails. Just as Nimrod’s tower fell, so did Alexander’s, Cyrus’s, Attila’s, and Napoleon’s. This sort of geopolitical project—even when buttressed by the best reasons and most noble goals—never succeeds. That this is true cannot be established with certainty, but if one looks down the lane of history and sees Nimrod’s tower fall followed by all the towers of his successors like dominoes, it becomes difficult to turn and look at Kagan’s liberal world order optimistically.

The Jungle Grows Back is as much a triumph of scholarship as intellectual honesty; where other writers might have demurred from acknowledging that maintaining “liberal world order” is increasingly costly, morally problematic, and virtually unnatural, Kagan does so with a characteristic elegance. Yet, throughout the book Kagan repeats that “the creation of the liberal order has been an act against both history and human nature,” so often and in so many vivid ways, that he must recognize all of the aforementioned objections to his argument—which makes his lack of substantive counterarguments eerily conspicuous. To say that the U.S. shouldn’t spend trillions of dollars and spill an ocean of blood to maintain a geopolitical order merely because it is unnatural would be to commit the naturalistic fallacy, but to say that we shouldn’t because the alternative is not that unthinkable and, further, that such an order inherently cannot last. That is wisdom.

Michael Shindler is a writer living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter.