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[Robert Kagan, The Jungle Grows Back. America and Our Imperiled World. Alfred A. Knoff. New York, 2018. 179 pp.]


review / Emili J. Blasco

The Jungle Grows Back. America and Our Imperiled World

At this point in the century it is already clear that the consecration of the liberal system in the world, following the breakup of the communist bloc at the end of the Cold War, is not something that is going to happen inexorably, as was thought. It is not even likely. The divergent models of China and Russia are gaining adherents in the states. Democracy is on the decline, also in Western societies themselves.

It is the jungle that is growing back where a garden had been successfully spread. This is the image Robert Kagan uses in his new book to warn that the United States should not abdicate its responsibility to lead the effort to preserve the liberal world order. For Kagan, the liberal system "was never a natural phenomenon," but a "great historical aberration." "It has been an anomaly in the history of human existence. The liberal world order is fragile and impermanent. Like a garden, it is always besieged by the natural forces of history, the jungle, whose vines and weeds constantly threaten to cover it," he says. It is an "artificial creation subject to the forces of geopolitical inertia," so that the question "is not what will collapse the liberal order, but what can sustain it."

Kagan is still considered a neoconservative by the media label , even though his positions are in the mainstream of American Republicanism (the majority for decades, until the rise of Donald Trump; in fact, in the 2016 campaign Kagan supported Hillary Clinton) and his work is carried out at the rather Democratic Brookings Institution. He does advocate clear U.S. leadership in the world, but not out of self-assertion, but as the only way for the international liberal order to be preserved. It is not that, by sponsoring it, the United States has acted disinterestedly, for as one of its builders, Secretary of State Dean Acheson, said, in order to protect the "American experiment in life" it was necessary to create "an environment of freedom" in the world. But the other Western countries, and others where the regime of freedoms of democratic societies has also spread, have also benefited.

Kagan's central thesis is that while there was U.S. self-interest in creating the international architecture that ordered the world after World War II, it benefited many other countries and ensured the victory of free societies over communism. Crucial to this, according to Kagan, is that while Washington sometimes acted contrary to the values it preached, it generally abided by certain rules.

Thus, the United States "did not exploit the system it dominated to gain lasting economic advantages at the expense of the other powers of the order. Simply put: it could not use its military dominance to win the economic competition against other members of the order, nor could it treat the competition as zero-sum and insist on winning every time" (the latter is what Trump intends). It is true that the United States benefited from being the major player both economically and militarily, "but an element core topic in holding the international order together was the perception by the other powers that they had reasonable opportunities to succeed economically and even at times surpass the United States, as Japan, Germany, and other nations did at various times."

Kagan admits that Washington's willingness to engage in large doses of fair play in the economic sphere "did not extend to all areas, especially not to strategic affairs. In these, "order was not always based on the rules, for when the United States felt it necessary, rightly or wrongly, it violated the rules, including those it claimed to defend, either by carrying out military interventions without UN authorization, as it did on numerous occasions during the Cold War, or by engaging in covert activities that had no international backing."

It has been an order that, in order to function, "had to enjoy a certain Degree of voluntary acceptance by its members, to be not a competition of all against all, but a community of like-minded nations acting together to preserve a system from which all could benefit." "The order was kept in place because the other members looked upon American hegemony as relatively benign and superior to other alternatives." test of this is that Western European countries relied on Washington despite its overwhelming military superiority. "In the end, even if it did not always do so for idealistic reasons, the United States would end up creating a world unusually conducive to the spread of democracy."

Kagan disagrees that after the dissolution of the USSR the world entered a "new world order". In his opinion, what was called the "unipolar moment" did not really change the assumptions of the order established at the end of World War II. So it made no sense that, with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world was thought to be entering a new era of irrepressible peace and prosperity, and that this made the gardener's role of the United States unnecessary. The withdrawal from the world carried out by Trump and initiated by Obama (Kagan already in 2012 published The World America Made, in defense of American involvement in the world), would be allowing the return of the chaotic vegetation of the jungle.

The Jungle Grows Back is in the format of a small book, typical of a restrained essay that aims to convey some fundamental ideas without trying to overwhelm the reader. Despite pointing out the dangers of the liberal order, and noting that the United States maintains an attitude of retreat, the book offers an optimistic message: "This is a pessimistic view of human existence, but it is not a fatalistic one. Nothing is determined, neither the triumph of liberalism nor its defeat".

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