Review of The Jungle Grows Back

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Whether it takes the form of Barack Obama’s hands-off approach or Donald Trump’s transactional philosophy, the underlying fact remains: Fostering democracy around the world has fallen out of fashion in America. And understandably so. After the communist-fighting of Kennedy and Reagan and the Iraq adventures of George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush, Americans have wearied of their role as the world’s policeman. But though stepping back may seem justified, the United States’s push toward isolationism is problematic, Robert Kagan argues in this essay-turned-short-book. Indeed, it puts the entire liberal world order at risk. According to Kagan, democracy is like a garden that requires constant tending in order to keep the weeds and vines of authoritarianism at bay. Without a robust, even bossy, America leading the charge, a geopolitical backslide is inevitable. His stance is unfashionable, and he might not win over the hard-line isolationists; nonetheless, Kagan offers an eloquent defense of past American interventionist policies and an impassioned plea for their continuance.

Intriguingly, Kagan scarcely mentions Trump, and it’s unclear how Kagan analyzes Trump’s foreign policy maneuvers. Kagan seemingly would disapprove of Trump’s gentle approach toward Vladimir Putin and the president’s harsh words toward European leaders, whom Kagan considers crucial allies. But Kagan presumably would approve of Trump’s calls for a strong military that can stand up to unpredictable foes in the Middle East and Asia. However, Kagan doesn’t make these points clearly, so it’s open to interpretation.

About the Author

Robert Kagan is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a columnist for the Washington Post. He served in the US State Department from 1984 to 1988.


The Jungle Grows Back offers the following lessons about American interventionism:

1. Vietnam and Iraq taught valuable lessons – but that doesn’t mean American troops should stay home forever.

True, American miscalculations in Vietnam and Iraq produced tragic results: In both ill-fated interventions, the United States paid a steep price in lives and money. However, Americans have learned the lessons of Vietnam and Iraq too well, Kagan argues. Proponents of a more isolated United States argue that the major threats have retreated: There are no more Hitlers and Stalins, no more threats on the scale of Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan or the Soviet Union. But this argument overlooks the inconvenient truth that Americans are unlikely to recognize the nation’s next major foe until that enemy has committed massive atrocities. That’s how it happened with Hitler and Stalin: Few in the outside world saw the scope of their crimes until years later, when it was too late to contain the threat. Thus, Kagan posits, pulling back from foreign conflicts is the wrong response.

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