Robert Kagan on the Liberal World Order

Robert Kagan is a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings Institute. He is a contributing columnist at The Washington Post. His new book is The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World (Knopf, September 2018).  His previous book was the New York Times bestseller, The World America Made.

He is also the author of Return of History and the End of Dreams, Dangerous Nation: America’s Place in the World from its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the 20th Century, Of Paradise and Power, and A Twilight Struggle: American Power and Nicaragua, 1977-1990.

For his writings, Politico Magazine has named Kagan one of the “Politico 50,” the top “thinkers, doers and visionaries transforming American politics.” His most recent essays include “The Strongmen Strike Back,“ the first in a new Washington Post Opinion Essay feature,” and “The New German Question,” in the May/June 2019 issue of Foreign Affairs.

He served in the State Department from 1984 to 1988 as a member of the policy planning staff, as principal speechwriter for Secretary of State George P. Shultz, and as deputy for policy in the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs. He is a graduate of Yale University and Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and holds a doctorate in American history from American University.

He spoke to Ellie Wainstein CMC ‘19 on April 10, 2019. Biography and Photograph courtesy of Robert Kagan..


One of the major concerns that you address in your book “The Jungle Grows Back” is the breakdown of the liberal world order. Specifically, you raise the concern of world leaders, like Russian President Vladimir Putin, identifying weaknesses of the United States and challenging the system by confronting a NATO ally in the hopes that the United States will back down instead of confronting a nuclear power. In today’s political climate, do you think the United States would respond strongly to Russian aggression towards a NATO ally? If so, would the U.S. be willing to do so for any NATO member or just specific countries?

We don't really know the answer. If you asked Americans whether they would be willing to go to war with Russia over Estonia, I think most Americans would ask, “What's Estonia?”  This would be their response even though we have an Article 5 commitment to come to Estonia’s defense. Ukraine is not a NATO member, but the Russian seizure of Crimea was the first cross-border aggression since World War II and our response was that we do not want to get into a fight with Russia. As a result, a lot would depend on how the aggression occurred. My concern is that there are all kinds of ways to commit aggression these days that do not consist of rolling tanks across the border. Whether it is Estonia or another one of the Baltic states, they have large Russian-speaking populations who can declare mistreatment by the government in some way and call for help. There are cyber attacks and there are the little green men. Many different types of activity occur in grey areas. I hope that NATO would respond. However, it remains an open question

China, unlike Russia, has flourished in the postwar liberal world order. However, you noted in your book that China in recent years is no longer content with the status quo. It has become more aggressive and has greater aspirations on the world stage. What caused this shift? What threats does this shift present to the West and the liberal world order? Is there anything that can be done to reverse this new line of thinking or is the projection of Chinese power inevitable?

The main answer to most of those questions is that it is entirely normal for nations, as they get richer and gain more power and confidence, to have increased ambitions. This was true of the United States at the end of the19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century. Any rising power like Germany or Japan has shown these tendencies. Therefore, it is totally normal for China, as it grows stronger, to want to extend its influence and control its own fate. The world order, as it exists today, was not created by China or for China. China has benefited tremendously from it. The peaceful order has actually given China an opportunity to focus on its economy rather than on defending itself. Nevertheless, it is not China's order so it is very natural for a rising power to want to reshape an order to suit its own needs. I think, ultimately, that is a threat to the order. If China were only to focus on economics and wanted to reshape an order to benefit its economy more in which it had a greater share in institutions like the IMF or even in creating its own institutions, that would not necessarily challenge the order. I am more concerned by the prospect of China wanting to change the order by military means. That is my chief concern. If China can succeed in making change by military means, it would strike a significant blow to the order.

When discussing the current Chinese ambition, you question the ability for the sleeping giant of the United States to be awakened again. Are you concerned about a lack of U.S. ability or a lack of desire by Americans? If the concern is our ability, are we too late? If it is desire, what must change to restore the sentiment from the previous century about the U.S. role in the world?

In terms of material capability, the United States is still in a strong position. It is not only our own military and economic abilities which are significant. Also the alliance structures and the allies that the United States has in critical parts of the world including Asia are significant. The United States has Japan, Korea and Australia. In addition, India is not a formal ally of the United States, but India and the United States are strategically aligned. That makes things difficult for China. Eventually, the United States’ capacity could decline so much that we really have no answer but I do not know if we are there yet. My concern is definitely U.S. desire and will. The real change in America has not been capability. The real change is that Americans are increasingly asking why the United States has to play the role that it has played ever since World War II. Americans no longer want to bear that burden of cost and responsibility.

Do you see any ways to change these sentiments within the American population?

It is a very powerful trend. If you look at both political parties, the dominant sentiment is towards withdrawal and reduction of American global responsibility. I do not know what would necessarily change that. If you think about what it took in the 1930s to change the mindset of Americans, you can see how difficult it is. Even after the fall of France in 1940 and Hitler's conquest of all of Europe, Americans still did not think that they needed to do anything. As a result, I am pretty pessimistic about the mood changing in any fundamental way.

Japan is concerned that the United States no longer has the ability to protect the East Asia region, leaving the region vulnerable to growing threats from China and North Korea. However, you disagree that the United States cannot sustain its position in East Asia. Do you think the United States’ willingness to allocate more resources will change if conflict within the region becomes likely?

The problem is that usually the conflict occurs because enough resources have not been allocated. Once the conflict erupts, it is too late in a way. Our objectives have been and should be deterrence. If deterrence fails, then you have already lost. In any case, I see the tendency is more towards pulling out resources than pouring them in. At some point the Trump Administration may decide that it does not want to keep so many troops in Korea and Japan. The rumors that Trump is thinking about asking countries to pay for the American bases is a step in the direction of pulling resources out so the trend is not in the other direction.

Overall, you say that the biggest question is whether the United States is still committed to the liberal world order. While the shift in public opinion throughout the United States began in the Obama administration, it has become even more apparent following the election of Donald Trump. Do United States’ allies believe that the promise of the liberal order is permanently broken by Trump’s actions or could a new administration restore faith in the United States’ commitment? What would the implications of a Trump second term be on the liberal order?

The allies in general, in Asia, in Europe and, to some extent, in the Middle East, are so dependent on the United States maintaining its security commitments and stabilizing the international system that they would eagerly embrace a new president who came in saying that we care more about the allies than the Trump Administration. The allies would still be worried about whether the American public really supports that, but they would nevertheless embrace it. It is easy to reverse perceptions about the United States, but it will be curious to see if the next president will actually do that. Of course, if Trump is re-elected, you will see significant movement by the allies towards finding a different course. They are praying that 2016 was an aberration and that 2020 will bring things back to normal. Their reaction to a re-election of Trump will be to believe that a liberal order led by the U.S. is over.

You mentioned the allies looking for a different course. Do you have any idea on what the allies would look for?

At this point, anybody that came in and said that we are committed to Europe would be a change of course and the Europeans are not demanding much more than that. Right now, real questions are raised about whether the United States continues to be committed to European or Asian security. We have a president who has been unwilling to affirm our Article 5 commitments to NATO. As a result, anything that moved in the other direction would be welcomed by the allies.

What would be the impact on the United States if the liberal world order collapsed? You noted that the American public, incorrectly, views the current order as working against U.S. interests, preferring an “America First” policy. However, if the order collapses, won’t the United States have less ability to pursue its own interests on the global stage?

I think that is clear, but it is a hard thing to prove. Whatever else is true, as the world order collapses, the United States will be the last to feel it because of geography and of the relative self-sufficiency of the United States. The United States is not actually self-sufficient, but it is more self-sufficient than everybody else. Our security is more self-sustaining than everybody else's. The problem is that an ironclad case cannot be made as to what the effect will be on Americans until it has already happened. This was exactly the problem in the 1930s when people tried to explain to Americans why it was going to be bad if Imperial Japan dominated Asia and Hitler's Germany dominated Europe. It is a very intangible set of principles that leads you to understand that it is ultimately bad for America. Now, Americans are more dependent on international trade than they were before World War II. Americans do not realize the degree to which their paychecks and the prices they pay for goods benefit from a global free trading system. No one has really been making that case to them for a long time. The case could be made, but it's difficult.

You mentioned that the United States will be the last to feel the effects since it is more self-sufficient with self-sustaining security. In addition, you discussed how both the Democratic and Republican Parties are leaning towards this American first policy or pulling out resources.  With it being hard to prove what will happen to Americans if the order collapses, what kind of hope is there for shifting the perception or is it inevitable that the world order is going to change?

Nothing is inevitable. Leadership matters. I wish I saw a potential leader out there who I thought was going to make this case, but I do not. Events can shape opinion as they have in the past. I hope something bad does not happen. However, on the present trajectory, there is no obvious way away from this general trend. The trend is very powerful and it is powerful in a way because it is normal. The American people have shouldered an abnormal responsibility for global security. No other nation in history has taken on this kind of responsibility. It is absolutely natural for them not to want to do that. It requires an extraordinary enlightened perception of interest to continue to shoulder this responsibility.  Because of this, there is no good reason to expect that Americans are going to change their minds, absent extraordinary leadership and absent extraordinary events.

Are there any final thoughts you would like to leave us on?

My main message, aside from my pessimistic view on things, is that nothing is determined. We had this idea that democracy was going to win everywhere and that we did not have to really do anything. That it would just happen. Well, that was wrong. Now, there is this perception that democracy is doomed, and that is wrong. What everybody needs to understand is that it is always a struggle. It is a struggle domestically. It is a struggle internationally. More than usual, it actually matters what every individual does. We all have to be activists. We cannot wait for the president to solve our problems, or even wait for an election where we can hope for a new president. We cannot wait for our institutions to save us. There is sometimes this view that the American institutions work so well, but they do not work automatically. They require people. That is my basic message to everyone: we all need to be activists.


Ellie Wainstein CMC '19Student Journalist

Image courtesy of Naver University.

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