When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the United States found itself the sole superpower of the world. Instead of relishing this great stroke of luck; instead of enjoying this “unipolar moment”; instead of reducing its military footprint around the world; instead of focusing on its people, their health, education, and opportunity, it decided to embark on the ambitious project of transforming the world into a liberal wonderland. This “new world order” was supposed to replace the belligerence of politics with the pacific effects of “free trade” and economic prosperity.
More than twenty-five years later, we can safely say that the liberal order has been a failure. The debacles in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere have destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives and cost trillions of dollars. Not surprisingly, Americans have soured on these costly “military adventures.” Meanwhile, the Europeans are weary of the refugee crisis that these wars have created. The result has been the rise of autocratic leaders in Turkey, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Italy, and the United States—promising to bring an end to the liberal world order. These new autocratic leaders are harbingers of a resurgence of traditional conservative values: nationalism, religiosity, community, and stability.
The election of Donald Trump was in part due to his promise to end the “stupid wars” and focus on the homeland. Unfortunately, he has surrounded himself with a collection of neoconservative hawks: Mike Pence, John Bolton, Gina Haspel, Brett Cavanaugh, Mike Pompeo, and Elliott Abrams—these people doom any hope of disentangling the United States from the quagmire of endless wars. As Stephen M. Walt asked in his recent book, The Hell of Good Intentions, how is it that the very people who led the country into these dreadful military debacles are still peddling the same disastrous policies in government and think tanks?
To his credit, Robert Kagan, who is by far the most eloquent defender of the policies that have led to the endless wars, has had the courage to respond to the current disenchantment with the liberal world order. In his recent book, The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World, Kagan declares that “the world America made,” the title of another one of his books, is unlike anything that history has ever seen. No other superpower in history could send its military all over the world, enforcing its peace without fear of being threatened on its native soil. This was made possible by the unique geography of the United States—protected with two oceans on its eastern and western borders and with weak nations on its northern and southern ones.
Kagan has no illusions that history is moving inexorably toward liberal democracy. He bravely admits that the West, led by the United States, will never enjoy a relaxed and irreversible triumph over the forces of barbarism. He admits that it has turned out to be harder and more expensive, but it is no reason to give up. In the absence of American power keeping the peace, the alternative would be terrifying—back to the balance of power politics that brought us both World Wars. Now that the nations are armed with nuclear weapons, the world would be poised on the precipice of Armageddon.
Kagan compares “the world America made” with a garden that must be tended continuously and protected against the infringements of the “jungle” that perpetually and relentlessly “grows back.” The liberal order must be backed by a power great enough to destroy any threats.
While I welcome this candid transcendence of the puerility of inevitable progress, it seems to me that the whole image of the garden is fallacious. The point of tending a garden and beating back the jungle is to preserve a manicured human ideal that is at odds with the natural and unruly wilderness. In contrast, a global garden that is determined to obliterate the jungle is at war with nature. It is a mad and misguided garden that is oblivious to its reliance on the creative harvest of the jungle to rejuvenate itself.
Not only is this garden determined to obliterate the jungle, it denounces all other gardens that harbor different plants and a different aesthetic as threats that must be destroyed or transformed. However, in the absence of the juxtaposition of the garden with the wilderness, the garden is bereft of all its charm. Besides, a garden that refuses to allow other gardens to thrive is not a liberal garden but a totalitarian one. To insist that only one flower can bloom destroys the allure of the flower in question.
Kagan is not just a champion of unregulated capitalism; he is a true liberal at heart, which is why something does not add up. On one hand, Kagan insists on the unsurpassed value of the liberal world order. On the other hand, he realizes that the triumph over communism was easy because liberalism and communism emerged from the same intellectual tradition. They both promised, equality, liberty, and prosperity. Communism collapsed because it could not deliver. Today, the liberal world order is up against a resurgent authoritarianism that has wedded itself to traditional conservative values. Kagan acknowledges the intellectual validity of these values and their power of attraction. In fact, he claims that liberalism is at a disadvantage in relation to these conventional values.
I share Kagan’s partiality for liberalism. I also agree with him that liberal values are at a disadvantage in comparison to the resurgent authoritarian conservatism. The new authoritarianism promises community instead of individuality, virtue instead of liberty, religiosity instead of secularism, and stability instead of change. The old values are familiar and comforting. It follows that those who prefer liberalism should make every effort to make it attractive. Making it the basis of a totalitarian global order is no way to highlight its charms.