Jerry and Stably have a fortnightly conversation about a book they have recently read, and you can listen in. They call it Worker & Parasite.

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September 15, 2020

The Jungle Grows Back by Robert Kagan

On the podcast this week, The Jungle Grows Back by Robert Kagan. Here is Jerry's ideological Turing Test book summary:

Peaceful liberal world order is not the natural state of affairs; it exists because, like a garden, it has been artificially created by the United States. If the United States stops tending this garden then the jungle of great power competition and chaos will reemerge. The order is not perfect, but the alternative is worse.

Only the United States, given the power it has by virtue of its geography, is capable of imposing order. Spheres of influence should be a discredited notion, except for the U.S. as order-keeper.

Like the prewar world, disorder means a world dominated by powers hostile to American interests and principles. Indeed, American security would be threatened directly by such a state. Left alone, Hitler would have invaded the U.S. It is not unthinkable that prewar-like disorder with Hitlers and Stalins can return, and indeed the conditions for the emergence of such characters seem to be reappearing.

After the war, the U.S. sought to pursue its own security and interests, but to foster an “environment of freedom” (Acheson) that ended great power competition and disorder. The decision to shoulder this responsibility was made before the Cold War when we still believed the Soviets would be part of the order.

Maintaining the order means “operating in a gray area in which wars [are] fought not for security, but for less easily measured ends: stability, prosperity, progress, liberalism.” People do not share a universal desire for freedom; very often they prefer order and security. Sometimes you have to convert adversaries to liberalism, presumably at gunpoint. The struggle has no end.

The U.S. guaranteeing the security of the members of the order (and indeed by allowing no other alternative), liberated Germany, Japan, China, etc. to focus on economic growth. “To criticize this as free-riding is to miss the profound and historically transformative choice they were making.”

The order depended on the U.S. not abusing its dominant position, but instead competing on a level playing field, although sometimes it didn’t. It certainly never respected the rules when it came to security and Cold War strategy. Nevertheless, the Cold War ended peacefully because the Soviets could see the U.S. wasn’t going to be revanchist. Britain, Japan, and Germany were allowed to give up empire without penalty—to the contrary.

Americans before and after the Cold War have consistently rejected the idea that they have a responsibility to foster an order. This democratic opinion gets in the way of properly tending the garden. Bush I didn’t go to Baghdad, Clinton didn’t invade North Korea or take out al Qaeda, and Obama didn’t invade Syria out of deference to public opinion—all mistakes. The exceptions to this was immediately after WWII and after 9/11.

Americans accepted the post-war plan first because they did not think it would be as costly as it turned out, and after the onset of the Cold War because they believed the Soviets to be an existential threat. In retrospect, communism probably didn’t pose such a big threat to American “way of life.” After 9/11, “fear in the United States was much higher, and actions that had been unthinkable before became thinkable.” The Bush administration took the opportunity to invade Iraq even though there was no connection to 9/11. It turned out that Iraq was not the threat we thought.

Without the Soviets or the fear of terrorism, Americans are back to their habit of denying the need to intervene broadly to maintain the order. After Russia invaded Ukraine, the U.S. only imposed sanctions and didn’t even sell Ukraine defensive weapons. Hillary Clinton was so cowed by public opinion she turned on her own Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Russia today is not acting out because it’s concerned about its security, but out of national pride. NATO expansion shouldn’t have bothered it because it knew it didn’t threaten its security, only limited its ambitions. In any event, it was really good for the expansion nations, so it’s worth “[w]hatever the effect on the Russians may have been.” Putin is also worried that the U.S. wants to drive him from power. “Behind every democratic revolution on former Soviet territory, in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan, he saw the hand of the West, and particularly the United States,” but he really shouldn’t be so paranoid since “the role of outsiders was not the decisive factor in the toppling of the authoritarian regimes in those countries.” Kagan is married to Victoria Nuland.

China today is not acting out because it’s concerned about its security, but out of national pride. The Chinese are merely unhappy that the U.S. wants to limit its ambitions, namely unifying with Taiwan and controlling the South China Sea.

European, and particularly German, nationalism is on the rise, due largely to increased immigration from the Middle East and Africa that the people perceive as a threat to their (liberal?) culture. The U.S. bears a lot of the responsibility for this because it didn’t invade Syria. “A year ago, one AfD leader, complaining about the inundation of ‘culturally alien peoples,’ attributed it to the ‘pigs’ in the German leadership who were ‘nothing other than puppets of the victor powers of the Second World War.’ It doesn’t really matter what spurs such thoughts. The rise of such nationalist sentiments has geopolitical implications.”

The threat in Europe today is worse that communism because Marxism at least had liberal roots and thus shared many of the same goals. Today there is a counter-enlightenment from the right “that plays more effectively on liberalism’s failings and insecurities.”