Seth Tomko is a writer, college-level educator, and adventurer.
Following in the footsteps of Thomas Hobbes, Robert Kagan asserts that only through cooperation and setting laws to guarantee peoples’ safety and freedom can the state of nature be held in check for humanity’s greatest achievement—civilization—to flourish. Entropy is the order of the world and international affairs. The slide toward cycles of chaos and authoritarianism are prevented by constant intervention on behalf of liberal democratic states, with the United States being foremost among them. Specifically, the relative peace and prosperity in the aftermath of two world wars has been maintained by the United States of America through constant effort. The alliances and stability enjoyed by the Western world are not natural occurrences but the result of choices by liberal democracies to engage in the world and maintain their values.
For support of his theory, Kagan draws on the historical example of the 1930s where America withdrew from the world stage. When crisis rose, authoritarianism grew unchecked by any liberal democracy until it was too late, resulting in another world war. This example is set against American engagement after World War Two, where through providing security, stability, and freedom, it and its allies were able to transform the aggressive, militaristic regimes of Germany and Japan into economically viable, liberal democracies (41-3). This is in line with the trajectory of the decades following WWII, where the constant efforts of the United States, while by no means perfect, “compared to the previous five thousand years, it was a revolutionary transformation of human existence” (57). The projection of power by liberal democracies helped establish a freer and more inclusive world than had been previously seen.
Hold the Line
Significant stretches of the book read like an apologia for the Cold War policy of containment. He does a reasonable job of giving historical evidence and pointing out how it is only with hindsight people can seriously question if all that effort was needed. Frequently, though, his concept of containment, and intervention in general, comes down to military engagement or the threat thereof. He doesn’t provide a lot of room for other methods or address historical example that were just as if not more successful than the application of military force, such as the Space Race. The military might have advanced by it, but the development of a peaceful space exploration program resulting in human being landing on the Moon is not only a testament to the achievements of liberal democracy but also an example of confronting an aggressive Soviet superpower by means other than warfare. There is almost no mention of these events in Kagan’s book.
When addressing the many strides of liberal democracy at home and abroad, he neglects to showcase how the foundational principles of the United States have not been equally applied. The benefits of liberal democracy were not granted willingly to women or people of color no matter how he argues about the “continual expansion of rights to protected minorities” (143). Similarly, he rightly attacks the abuses and coercion of past and present authoritarian regimes, but he doesn’t really engage with the illiberal and antidemocratic corporations that can and have proven threatening to liberty at home and abroad. This seems like a substantial oversight in light of how President Eisenhower declared that the military-industrial complex was a threat to democracy and peace.
Military intervention hasn’t worked nearly as well in the last couple decades with Afghanistan and Iraq showing the limits of what military intervention can accomplish. Dangerous actors have been removed from the world stage, no doubt, and the United States military remains the best equipped and advanced fighting force in the world. Promoting and maintaining the values of liberal democracy, however, requires significantly more than displays of military achievement, no matter how impressive. One of Kagan’s points–as evidences by the book’s title—is that Americans have become complacent, having only every know a post-WWII world. To him the election of Donald Trump is evidence of this ignorance and complacency because “the mere fact that Americans could elect someone with so little government experience, and no foreign policy experience at all, showed how little they cared about America’s role in the world” (103). This situation bother Kagan because entropic forces cannot be held at bay by people and governments that are unwilling to act.
Pessimistic but Not Fatalistic
To his credit, Kagan largely avoids speculation and counterfactuals, which unfortunately predominate contemporary, mainstream political writing. He relies on historical examples to support his understanding of the nature and necessity of American involvement, avoiding alignment with particular parties for being a favor with a particular idea of America’s power and responsibility in foreign policy. He points out how Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush used essentially the same arguments for their own interventionist measures (97). They were only opposed by different parties because of party politics. He also points out how party politics undermine American foreign policy efforts, and that both parties share blame for trying to score points with constituents at home at the expense of thoughtful engagement abroad (102).
The brevity of the book keeps it focused and easy for readers to follow with his arguments. That same brevity, though, makes certain blind spots more evident. Kagan is a thoughtful voice for a vision of America he fears will be undone by its own complacency when regarding its success in creating and sustaining a liberal, democratic, and prosperous world.
Kagan, Robert. The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World. Knopf, 2018.
© 2018 Seth Tomko