You don’t know much about history if you don’t know this: “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.”
That quote is from the opening chapter of Robert Kagan’s new book: “The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World.” A few words about Mr. Kagan: He is a senior fellow at the liberal Brookings Institution, he writes a column for the liberal Washington Post, and the liberal New York Times recently called him a “conservative American thinker.”
The Times has a point. Progressives believe that progress is inevitable and that history has a direction and purpose — an arc bending toward justice. Mr. Kagan’s conservative conviction: Such theories have no basis in history or reality.
Only thanks to American power and leadership did the post-World War II era become what Mr. Kagan calls “an anomaly in the history of human existence,” a time when billions of people climbed out of poverty, the number of democratic societies grew rapidly and “an ever-expanding panoply of individual rights has come to be respected.” His fear is that Americans are no longer willing to do the hard work necessary to maintain this “liberal world order.” The consequence, he warns, is likely to be a new dark age or, to employ his preferred metaphor, the rapid encroachment of the jungle and the withering of the garden.
“If Obama’s policies put a dent in the liberal world order,” he writes, “Trump’s statements and actions have been driving a stake through it.”
I’m not sure that’s quite fair. Mr. Trump may not be a constant gardener but surely he deserves some credit for going into the jungle with a weed whacker. The maximum pressure sanctions he has imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran is only the most recent example. Also, so far at least, he has consistently disappointed his isolationist supporters.
Meanwhile, liberals in droves have abandoned “liberal internationalism.” The more moderate cheer a chimera they call “the rise of the rest.” The more radical see the United States as an evil, racist, imperialist power. They are all too eager to appease or even make common cause with self-proclaimed revolutionaries, not least anti-American revolutionaries.
Mr. Kagan argues that we are now at the point where we have to choose not “between good and bad but between bad and worse. It is between maintaining the liberal world order, with all the moral and material costs that entails, or letting it collapse and courting the catastrophes that must inevitably follow.”
He reasons: “To sustain a foreign policy of enlightened self-interest requires enlightenment, a degree of generosity, a belief in the universalism of rights, and, yes, a measure of cosmopolitanism that Americans have not lately been displaying. The danger is that by the time they come of out their current mood, it may be too late to repair the damage and stem the forces of nature and history.”
I think that’s right. But I also think Mr. Kagan needs to get to work on a second volume, setting out exactly what actions Americans need to take to maintain the liberal world order in the 21st century, considering how much the political climate has changed since 1945.
I agree that members of Congress “from both parties have underfunded the military since the beginning of the post-Cold War era, but especially over the last decade.” I agree that, “Americans need to remember that deterring a war is much less expensive than fighting one.”
But is it really unfair to insist — not just suggest — that our wealthier European allies begin to seriously share the defense burden, and that they not allow themselves to become more dependent — e.g. for energy and profits — on nations hostile to the West?
Mr. Kagan argues that the United States needs to “return to the deep engagement with Europe that characterized the relationship from the postwar years to the early post-Cold War years.” Yes, but right now the Europeans are, as The New York Times reported this week, “actively working against United States policy, which effectively puts them in league with Russia, China and Iran.”
It is not America’s fault that the end of the Cold War failed to bring about the “end of history,” an expansion of freedom, democracy and market economies that many hoped for and some predicted.
Eastern Europe is a mixed bag. The Arab Spring produced few flowers. Citizens of the Republic of Turkey and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan have been casting votes for years, yet neither has become a true republic. China is proudly authoritarian, setting an example that others will follow.
What are we to do about such trends? The United States has yet to master the art of “democracy promotion” or the science of “nation-building.”
You don’t know much about history if you don’t know this: Prior to 1945, the British Empire was the predominant global power. After 1945, exhausted by two terrible wars in less than half a century, the British passed the mantle to the United States.
If Americans are no longer willing or able to carry that burden, to whom does it go? The European Union is not prepared to take it. The United Nations never will be. In the absence of leaders, it is rulers who will hold sway, and the only laws they observe are those of the jungle.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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