Robert Kagan’s appeal as a thinker has always been that his arguments are less saccharine or sentimental than those of his ideological fellow travelers. One could describe his project as an attempt to show that the steely pose of most foreign policy “realists” is compatible with advocacy for America doing more abroad.
His most famous work to make this argument, Of Paradise and Power: America and Europe in the New World Order (2003), suggested that European squeamishness about the use of military power is the product of their having hid behind a mighty American shield since the end of World War II. Europeans, he argued, favor multilateralism and dialogue over the use of force because they, unlike Americans, have not had to deal with the world as it is for decades. Their Eden-like EU, the product of enlightened reason, was only possible because American hard power kept the monsters at bay. Dangerous Nation (2006) tried to be similarly hard-edged, arguing that Americans’ cherished self-image as a peace-loving people devoted to perfecting their union at home and ignoring the world beyond is a delusion. Since its inception, Kagan argued, America has violently transformed the world in the name of its own brand of commercialized liberalism. Rights and values are part of the package, but not necessarily the most pertinent part.
Of Paradise and Power was published on the eve of the second Iraq War. The Policy Review essay on which it was based came out the year before. I remember reading the essay at the time and being captivated by its ideas precisely because of this unsentimental quality. To this day, I remain attracted to foreign policy analyses that temper deeply felt American idealisms and try to channel them to sounder purposes. But as I read more Kagan through the years, it became clear that his goal was different: He sought to justify idealistic interventionism abroad by showing it was also “realistic.” Especially after the disaster of the second Iraq War, this project seemed unwise.
Donald Trump’s ascent to power has given birth to something of a cottage industry of articles and books dealing with the demise of the so-called liberal world order, and at least on its surface, Kagan’s most recent effort, The Jungle Grows Back, falls firmly within this genre’s bounds. I confess that I almost did not read the book, as this particular genre has been one of the least edifying intellectual phenomena to emerge in the last two years. Then I read an excerpt of it in the Wall Street Journal and was captivated anew. While you know from the outset exactly where he will end up, Kagan’s “realist” grittiness helps his argument transcend the genre he is playing in, even as it turns on and critiques its own premises.
So what exactly is this genre? We are all familiar with the general thrust of the “sentimental” version of the liberal world order argument. To wit: “We, in the West, have to stand up for our values against the rising authoritarian challenge. This is a civilizational struggle. Malevolent, atavistic forces are on the move. Nothing less than the world as we know it—a world we painstakingly built and sacrificed for throughout the long 20th century—is at stake.” The problem with the argument is not that it is strictly wrong, but rather that it is sloppy. Ill-defined, broad categories tumble out one after another—concepts like “the West,” “values,” and “authoritarian” abound—suggesting weighty and ominous things without ever really defining in real-world terms what is being spoken about.
It’s not that the sentimental narrative as a whole is implausible. Something is definitely changing, geopolitically speaking, and it has been doing so since at least 2010. Several large countries—albeit regional powers—are challenging a broad if uneven American hegemony in various theaters around the world. It’s an unsettling and unfamiliar time, and on some level we appreciate efforts at coming to terms with it all. Still, one can’t help shake the feeling that we’re being preached at rather than informed. There’s a strident call-to-arms quality here that feels overwrought, the product of largely self-induced panic rather than calm contemplation.
Most of these writers seem to proceed from under-examined first principles and build out from there. A key unifying belief is the existence of progress—material progress, yes, but also a kind of moral progress, an emancipation from superstition and oppression. History is nothing more than a story of this progress, and it has a broad directionality to it. Progress is achieved through the application of reason, and since reason is a universal human faculty, we can expect a kind of societal convergence over time. It may be fitful, but it is unavoidable. And it has been shown that societies progress by committing to individualism, to free trade and market economies, and to democracy. This is not a subtle philosophy that weighs the centuries of debate surrounding these complicated questions. It’s more like half-remembered para-Whiggish platitudes culled from an undergraduate political science survey textbook—more Enlightenment-as-dogma than a developed, considered worldview.
And since it is dogma, its negation arouses strong feelings. The election of Donald Trump, Brexit, the rise of “populist” forces across Europe—these events are not just seen as regrettable setbacks, but also as demonstrably wrong, and, as a result, threatening on a different scale altogether. After all, we live in democracies, which means we live and die by the voice of “the people.” And “the people” includes the poorly educated and unenlightened. (At this point, a note of condescension usually creeps into the argument.) Voters’ choices are explained away as either being the product of irrational emotional resentments that have arisen due to the cruelties of globalization, or, perhaps more ominously, as the result of machinations of foreign powers striving to subvert the sovereign will of democratic societies by confusing otherwise rational voters with disinformation.
And who would these “foreign” powers be? Non-Western challengers opposed to the liberal world order, of course—societies that have yet to properly internalize the rationally derived truths of political development, and still live by the illiberal rules of authoritarian states. Russia is often identified as the fount of the purest form of this anti-rationalist, embittered, revanchist ideology, with China and Iran as ambitious fellow travelers also seeking to profit from rewriting the rules of the game.
It all comes together quite tidily from there. Individualism, markets, trade, democracy, these are wholly good things—instrumentally good for progress, and therefore with positive moral content. Meanwhile, anyone opposed to them is either an unlettered fool helplessly swimming against the grand currents of history, perhaps justified in being frustrated but still doomed to fail; or else a dupe of one or more hostile foreign powers. The foreign powers themselves are in thrall to what amounts to a coherent but false ideology that has more than a passing resemblance to some of the intellectual currents that flourished in the interwar period in the 20th century. With that, the sermon is complete: We must gird ourselves for the ultimate moral struggle of our time, a fight of good versus an elemental evil, long thought vanquished but in fact resurgent.
The Jungle Grows Back immediately distinguishes itself from the pack by taking direct aim at the key piety that ties the standard narrative together: the idea of progress. “Unlike other cultures, which view history as a continuous cycle of growth and decay, or as stasis,” Kagan writes, “we view history as having a direction and a purpose. . . . we have come to believe that, while there may be occasional bumps and detours on the road, progress is inevitable.”
This is all a myth, he unequivocally states. The world as we know it, the international system as it is currently constructed, is a mere contingency—an historical aberration.
We have witnessed amazing progress over the past seven decades, and not just technological progress but also human progress. Yet this progress was not the culmination of anything. It was not the product of evolution, of expanding knowledge, of technological advances, the spread of commerce, and least of all of any change in the basic nature of human beings. It has been the product of a unique set of circumstances contingent on a particular set of historical outcomes, including on the battlefield, that could have turned out differently.
In other words, the liberal world order is a happy accident, the result of the liberal side triumphing in the Great Power struggle of the nuclear age. It didn’t have to work out that way. And it is precisely because of this contingency that we must prize the achievement highly. Don’t be complacent, Kagan is arguing, for it could all disappear in a heartbeat. The United States must therefore return to an expansive leadership role, one perhaps even more ambitious than the one it undertook in 1945. The rest of the book is largely Kagan making that case, and suggesting how such a newly expansive role might be shaped.
In doing so, Kagan admits something that most of his peers usually either miss or happily gloss over: America’s commitment to prosecuting the Cold War was driven by an overwhelming fear of the Soviet Union. At one point Kagan notes in passing that the direct threat to Americans’ way of life may even have been “exaggerated” by elites, both for effect but also because these selfsame elites were trapped by their own logic—that of “containment.” Kagan’s cramped history of containment leaves something to be desired; he makes no distinction, for example, between George F. Kennan’s more limited, inward-looking approach that emerged directly in the aftermath of World War II, and what containment became as early as 1951 after Paul Nitze got his hands on the concept. This is an important conflation, more on which later. But Kagan’s broader point stands, and is important: Fear of the enemy drove U.S. Cold War logic.
Kagan focuses on this because he rues the fact that, with the Soviet Union gone, no bogeyman big enough to keep Americans focused on maintaining their preeminent position in the world exists. It’s not the failures in Iraq or Afghanistan, or even the blow of the financial crisis in 2008, that have hollowed out America’s commitment. It’s that without a pervasive threat, Americans mark the world as a solved problem—“the widespread conviction that the role the United States has been playing in the world for the past seven decades is no longer necessary, perhaps was never necessary, and in any case no longer serves American interests,” he writes.
Kagan therefore makes an attempt to cast first Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and then Xi Jinping’s China, as authoritarian challengers and potential threats to the American way of life. In doing so, he makes another important assertion: The true ideological nemesis of liberalism was not communism but authoritarianism—not economics but politics. Communism, after all, was a product of Enlightenment thinking—a bastard child of liberalism and positivism—that wound up at a dead end. Their mutual antagonism from the 19th century through 1989 was a fraternal affair. Authoritarianism, however, is a reaction against the Enlightenment itself, and in Europe something that has grounded itself in, and has appealed to, human longings completely different from those satisfied by liberalism.
And so the book ends up in much the same place as every other liberal world order sermon: The ideological struggle of our time is between the forces of light (the liberal followers of Enlightenment principles) and the forces of darkness (the obscurantist reactionaries to that tradition). Americans, the purest children of the Enlightenment, may think the struggle has long ago been won, but they are wrong—as wrong as the naifs who refused to confront illiberalism in the 1930s.
But Kagan’s tone is ultimately very different. He counsels steely resolve rather than moral panic: “To know that the jungle will always be there is not to despair of keeping it at bay, as we have done for decades.”
Let’s circle back to the question of progress, because it is in denying the idea of progress that Kagan’s argument is at its most interesting and original. As noted above, he says there can be no progress because there exists a “basic nature of human beings” that remains stubbornly resistant to change. Later in the book, when contrasting authoritarianism to communism, Kagan expands on the point:
[Authoritarianism] appeals to core elements of human nature that liberalism does not always satisfy—the desire for order, for strong leadership, and perhaps above all, the yearning for the security of family, tribe, and nation. If the liberal world order stands for individual rights, freedom, universality, equality, regardless of race or national origin, for cosmopolitanism and tolerance, the authoritarian regimes of today stand for the opposite, and in a very traditional and time-honored way.
This is the primeval “jungle” of his title that keeps encroaching despite the best clearing efforts of the civilizers. And it’s not just some kind of human id at work; Kagan, following the work of Isaiah Berlin, sketches out in broad strokes a well-developed intellectual tradition that arose in reaction to the Enlightenment. Unlike Berlin, however, he is less careful about drawing out the differences among the various arguments within that tradition, and ends up suggesting at times that illiberalism necessarily leads to Hitlerism. He cites Hannah Arendt’s invocation of “subterranean streams of Western History” to make the connection, though Arendt’s approach to excavating the intellectual roots of totalitarianism is substantially different from Berlin’s, and thus from Kagan’s.
The strike against the idea of progress is at first glance welcome, for it sobers up a debate that otherwise tends toward hysteria. A Burkean pose is even detectable in some of Kagan’s passages—a world-weary acknowledgment that liberal precepts cannot sate endlessly complex and needy human souls. But his pivot back to a kind of Manicheaism is unfortunate, as it collapses important distinctions that would otherwise help us make sense of the current moment.
So is there really such a thing as an illiberal authoritarian challenge to liberalism? It’s a contentious point at minimum, and I would argue that it’s more the result of loose definitions than anything real. Or, to put it somewhat differently, what we are witnessing today looks almost nothing like the nightmare scenario that the liberal world order folks would have you believe is imminent.
The reality is that the illiberal, anti-Enlightenment tradition is far broader and most of it less dangerous than Kagan allows. American conservatives work hard to place Edmund Burke within a broad liberal tradition in order to claim him for their own, but in truth Burke was self-avowedly illiberal. He singled out John Locke for abuse, stating in Parliament that his Second Treatise was among the worst books ever written. What annoyed him most about Locke was the pretension to universal truths discoverable by reason—precisely the attitude Kagan identifies as unacceptably retrograde. Burke admitted to rights, but not “natural” ones; rights were founded on historical contingencies, and, in the case of “English rights,” a natural treasure to be carefully preserved and cultivated by the country’s elites.
There are of course illiberal thinkers who fit the mold Kagan has in mind. Joseph de Maistre, probably the second most famous critic of the French Revolution after Burke, was a brilliant and acerbic Catholic reactionary who comes under close scrutiny by Berlin as a forerunner of the “attitudes of mind” that found fullest expression in Nazi Germany. A lot separates Maistre from Burke, true, but it would be difficult to draw too thick a dividing line between the two thinkers on the question of the value of Enlightenment ideas. They are both “illiberal” critics who think that liberalism leads humanity astray. But in denying the “truth” of liberalism, does illiberalism pose a mortal threat to it?
It’s within Kagan’s grasp to lay out the way in which it doesn’t. He points out that the communist tradition could not countenance competition from liberalism because its core values sprung from the same source. Both traditions laid claim to the promise of reason to liberate humanity from both feudal penury and obscurantist religion, and both saw the success of the other as a fatal challenge to its own legitimacy. There could be only one.
Illiberalism, on the other hand, exists on a spectrum with liberalism. They are incommensurate at the extremes, yes, but it doesn’t stretch the mind to imagine illiberal conservatism and liberalism, opposed as they are to each others’ first principles, coexisting just fine in the middle. Indeed, it’s easy to imagine because that is arguably the role that a moderate Burkean flavor of “illiberalism” has played in the success of liberal democracies. Compare, for example, the success of the American Revolution to the chaos and reversals unleashed by the French. Or, as the Hungarian theorist of social democracy Karl Polanyi might have put it, just as market capitalism has atomizing tendencies that a successful society must balance against, so does pure universalist liberalism eat away at the cultural sinews that tie a polity together—a tendency that also needs balancing against if a society is to thrive.
In other words, one could think of “illiberalism” as a means of keeping liberal hubris in line.
And liberal hubris is Kagan’s greatest weakness, just as it is for of all the high priests of liberal world order. Kagan may well reject the idea that the French Revolution failed in large part because it was too imbalanced toward universal ideals, and thus far too destructive of that which kept France together as a society. At one point, he sounds as fanatical as Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson in claiming that the ideas voiced in the Declaration of Independence trump those found in the U.S. Constitution. It’s an argument of sorts, and not an uncommon one these days, but it is deeply wrongheaded nonetheless. It seems self-evident that had Jefferson been our sole Founding Father, and had his egalitarian universalism not been tempered by the skepticism of his peers, the United States would be a far inferior nation today—if it existed at all.
Or similarly, consider George F. Kennan, whom Kagan enlists as one of the heroes of his cause. In reality, Kennan was much more hostile to universals than Kagan’s telling would have you believe. He was a WASP of the old school, a religiously observant man steeped in a form of noblesse oblige that no longer exists in America—and in the grip of every single one of the soft bigotries attendant to that worldview. His idea of containment was to do the least possible to prevent the Soviet Union from occupying the urban, industrial centers of Europe and the Pacific rim, the fall of which would allow the Soviets to threaten the United States directly. He had both a deep knowledge of and a deep sympathy for Europeans, but strove to keep his cherished America at arms’ length from the continent. He was against the creation of NATO because he worried about what permanent militarization would do to his country’s soul. It’s a pity Kagan doesn’t spend more time exploring these facets of Kennan, opting instead to paint him in his own preferred color palette. While Kennan may not have been right in everything he did or advocated, his life is a testament to what a properly circumscribed, humble liberalism put into practice looks like—both as a philosophy and as a policy guide.
That is precisely what today’s moment cries out for: Kennan’s humility rather than a new crusade against a new Evil Empire. It cries out for a skeptical liberalism that sees the world as it is rather than going looking for new monsters to destroy. It’s true that the world is full of hostile powers that are increasingly pushing back on American hegemony, and that their doing so is not to our advantage or to the advantage of our allies. And it’s also true that the liberal powers that emerged victorious after 1989 are suffering self-inflicted body blows to their professed ideology. But seeing these body blows as being delivered on behalf of a rival “illiberalism” is a dangerous misdiagnosis.
Our geopolitical challenges spring from large countries jostling for relative advantage, with especially China looking to assert its growing might. But “authoritarianism” is not a rival ideology. It tells us very little about the nature of the challenge from either China or Russia or Iran. Our ideological troubles spring, I have argued before, from liberalism’s lack of perceived legitimacy. Authoritarianism emerges as a symptom either where the liberal approach to organizing society has failed to take root, or where an established liberalism is seen to be overreaching unopposed. We ought to be on the lookout for these failures of liberalism—for “the appeals to core elements of human nature that liberalism does not always satisfy,” as Kagan nicely puts it—and making humble corrections, rather than doubling down on a path that has helped to delegitimize those very ideas in a growing number of people’s eyes.
The Jungle Grows Back is an important book insofar as it contains all the debates outlined above within it. And Kagan opens the space for these ideas to breathe a little by rightly dismissing teleological progressivism in his book’s opening pages—a great service that makes reading the book a richer experience than it otherwise might have been. But a more moderate, and therefore much wiser, conclusion is passed over by an author whose commitment to his priors prevents him from seeing what a gem he might have had on his hands. It’s too bad.
3. Frank Fukuyama is all over this idea in The End of History and the Last Man with his discussion of the concept of “megalothymia.” He has expanded and updated his thinking in his most recent book Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.