Event Recap | The Jungle Grows Back: America and our Imperiled World

Robert Kagan, author and foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, visited SMU to discuss the status of American foreign policy at a program we held in partnership with the World Affairs Council of Dallas-Fort Worth Oct. 18.

Kagan presented his latest book, “The Jungle Grows Back: America and our Imperiled World.” In the book Kagan uses the metaphor of gardening to describe the United States’ role in maintaining the liberal international order created after World War II. Kagan argues that the international order is a garden created out of a jungle. A garden does not occur naturally; it’s man-made and it requires constant grooming.

Using this metaphor, the world’s natural state is chaos and conflict — a jungle– as we saw in every time period predating the end of the second World War. The world in 1939 was natural. The international order we know today was created out of pessimism when it was fresh on everyone’s minds what cruelties humans were capable of under the guise of ambition.  The United States led the fight to define a new order, but more than 70 years later, people have started to believe it was a natural evolution, according to Kagan.

“Can we really believe that 80 years ago Hitler was storming Europe, Stalin was starving millions in a man-made famine, the United States was using nuclear weapons… but now we’re fine?” Kagan said. “It’s a dangerous fallacy.”

Kagan argued that the post World War II period has been the most remarkable in human history–even considering the wars and genocides–for three reasons.

  1. The world has seen incredible prosperity with the largest middle class in recorded history.
  2. Democracy has spread to become one of the most popular forms of government.
  3. There hasn’t been a great power cataclysmic war.

But Kagan warns all the U.S. has worked hard to create is at risk. Nationalism is on the rise in Europe, the United States has made Europe and other key allies question they’re security guarantee, the free economic system is under assault (with the U.S. dealing the punches) and the new democracies in Eastern Europe are weakening.

The U.S. has played an abnormal role at the helm of the international order, and it undoubtedly has taken on significant burdens unmatched by any other country in history. But Kagan argues that it’s the U.S.’s duty.  The U.S. is privileged to a unique geographic position no other nation is privy to—it’s friends with all of its neighbors and shares two of its borders with oceans. The United States has to maintain the order, Kagan argues, because no one else can.

Download Dr. Robert Kagan’s one-page policy brief from our Visiting Scholars Series.