By Arthur O’Sullivan
What is the “Jungle” in Geopolitics?
In the wake of Putin’s recent invasion of Ukraine, a popular meme circulated among Gen Z’ers that says, “I really wish I weren’t living through a major historical event right now!” While it shows that this generation can’t handle anything of greater consequence than a bowl of porridge (no doubt a trait inherited from millenials and baby boomers before them), it does lead to a fair question: Why has “world history” felt less eventful since we were born up until now?
Part of this is obvious cognitive bias. Unlike the past, we actually live in the present, with all of the mundane realities tethered thereto. In addition to the unforgettable events of world history, we ourselves remember the very forgettable events of personal history—we remember both the invasion of Ukraine and that time our roommate got mad at us for telling them they left the stovetop burner on. Which event will our great-grandchildren be taught? The beginning of the Great Depression preceded our entry into World War II by over a decade, but high school history classes teach these events within days of each other at most. Because of this, our mental timeline of world history is compressed whereas that of our own history remains stretched. This is a contributing factor in the perception of “our time” being the most boring. Still, there is more than the narcissism of personal psychology at play in this perception.
Though we may experience “events” at a similar rate to those of the recent past, the relative bloodshed of those events do not even compare. Political philosopher Francis Fukuyama argued that this is because of a dialectical process where “history” is coming to an end, as an increasingly-liberal world enters into a stable peace. Though most would dispute this thesis and argue that “history” and its bloodiness continues, there are many examples of the phenomenon he describes: the COVID-19 pandemic may have killed millions, but the proportion and number of those killed is still dwarfed by the slaughter caused by the Spanish Flu. The CCP genocide of Uyghurs in the Xinjiang region of China, the greatest human rights atrocity of our time so far, does not yet match the 11 million murdered in the Holocaust. The Russian Invasion of Ukraine, which will go down as one of the bloodiest conflicts of the early 21st century, has yet to match the number of deaths caused by the mass-starvation of Ukrainians during the Holodomor. But note my use of the words “still” and “yet to” in each example—it remains possible for these thresholds to be reached and, God-forbid, crossed, but these possibilities are likewise avoidable and morally imperative to prevent. To understand how to prevent these atrocities, one must review the history of the 20th century, the Fukuyaman “End of History,” and its inglorious return. To this end, there are few books as succinct and insightful regarding the irenic miracle of our recent history than The Jungle Grows Back: America and our Imperiled World by Robert Kagan.
The principal concern of this book is American foreign policy and its global impact. Unlike many leftists, libertarians, and populists (of both left and right wing persuasion), Kagan rejects the “(Blame) America First” model of geopolitics, and upholds interventionist foreign policy as the efficient cause of the “Pax Americana,” an ascendant liberal world order led by the United States in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. He contrasts this world order with those of previous, more violent eras. Take, for instance, the “Westphalian” world following the eponymous Treaty of 1648, where hardly a second would pass without at least some European Great Powers being at war. A more recent example would be the “bipolar” world of the Cold War, where two superpowers struggled in a global ideological battle between democracy and communism—an environment in which mass-support for American interventionism soared, both domestically and abroad. This support, according to Kagan, was just as much a historical oddity as the Pax Americana it established.
To that end, he draws a comparison between “our time” (that is, the world after the War in Iraq) and the United States after World War I. In both eras, domestic support for internationalism and interventionism precipitously declined following each war. Beliefs that America had made a mistake in entering these wars took root: Congress refused to allow the country to join the League of Nations against Wilson’s desires; Obama held a so-called “apology tour” across many nations after his election in 2008, and Trump continuously extolled an “America First” international doctrine in 2015. In fact, Kagan notes that of the four major political figures in 2016, Clinton, Trump, Sanders, and Obama, only Clinton publicly supported American intervention. To many, the idea that “what goes on across an ocean is none of our business, and we have enough to worry about back home,” is a compelling notion. Even President Biden, whom many leftists and MAGA-populists decried as a “neoliberal warmonger,” infamously forced a disorganized withdrawal from Afghanistan. Kagan argues that although the argument may be emotionally resonant, it is ultimately short-sighted and leads to the unnecessary death of innocent people.
Throughout the book, Kagan compares the liberal world order to a “garden” and the historically-typical violent geopolitical arena as a “jungle.” The former is a fragile but peaceful place which must be maintained, lest it deteriorate into the latter. Hence the title, “The Jungle Grows Back.”
The Jungle Across History
To support his thesis, Kagan examines the effects of the doctrine of American withdrawal throughout recent American history, and contrasts it with that of American intervention:
The consequence of the former, following World War I, was World War II. Despite Axis aggression in Europe and the Pacific, America refused to enter the war, opting instead for lend-lease programs and sanctions until the country itself was attacked. Most would argue that with a quicker intervention, fewer lives would have been lost and the atrocities of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan would have been cut short. American isolation in that era simply “kicked the can down the road,” causing the country to face greater problems long-term. This led to a general support for American intervention against communism that would remain until Vietnam.
With Vietnam, however, a new cycle emerged: engaging in the conflict has bipartisan support at the beginning, attrition fatigue sets in as the conflict continues, protest movements gain support, a new president orders withdrawal from the conflict, the war is considered “lost” and anti-intervention sentiment reaches an apogee. This cycle appears in Afghanistan, and many would argue in Iraq (though General Petraeus’s “troop surge” disrupted the cycle). Following the exit from Vietnam, many on the left (domestically and internationally) publicly questioned America’s moral authority in the Cold War, causing its policy to shift from “containment” to “détente,” an “easing of tensions” that would continue until the Reagan administration.
Contrary to expectations, however, this attempt at rapprochement was taken as a sign of weakness, rather than one of diplomacy. This emboldened the communist bloc, as they believed victory was at hand, as they expanded into Africa and Latin America with alarming speed. It wasn’t until Reagan’s election, a repudiation of the “weak” foreign policy of the Carter administration, that the Soviets under Gorbachev realized that liberal democracy would triumph. Under détente, the Soviets could have negotiated their way out of their impending collapse, but not under the tremendous pressure exerted by Ronald “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Reagan. Any attempt at direct territorial expansion, a common tactic for dying empires, would be blocked by NATO in the west, and SEATO in the east, not to mention that Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative might neutralize their nuclear capabilities. Without any choice, Gorbachev was forced to undertake democratic reforms, thus collapsing the USSR.
The Serpent in the Garden
At this juncture, Kagan argues that the United States made a critical error in its post-Cold War foreign policy, one that today resounds with the force of hundreds of thousands of Russian boots:
Unlike its magnanimous arrangements with Germany and Japan after World War II, America never established a “Marshall Plan” with the liberalizing Russian state—it was expected that market reforms alone would be enough to make these countries prosper, and so many Americans believed that it was time to look inward, rather than undertake any more major international operations. And so instead of taking an active role in spreading the liberal world order to these nascent democracies, future administrations would let Fukuyaman history take its course there, and undertake unpopular minor interventions in the Balkans and Middle East.
Although liberal reforms drastically increased Russian prosperity, the majority of it was concentrated in the hands of urban oligarchs, while much of the rest of the country remained in relative poverty. This led to large-scale disillusionment with “liberalism” and the emergence of communist nostalgia among the older generations and reactionary radicalism among the younger. And so the young democracy elected Vladimir Putin, and over the years of his increasingly-illegitimate reign, regressed into an autocracy.
The “Return of History”
This brings us to the exigency of this article. Putin has mounted a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, citing idiotic claims of “Russophobic” genocide in Donetsk and Luhansk, Russian-Ukrainian historical unity, and “aggressive” NATO expansion. Few were blind to this possibility: Putin had always made aggressive moves against former Soviet states, the most bold of which being his 2014 invasion of Crimea. This exact aggression further drove countries such as Ukraine to try to join NATO in the first place.
Early on, the U.S. had the opportunity to curtail Russian expansion before it got out of hand. After the Cold War, however, the “(Blame) America First” orthodoxy had taken root on both the left and right. Many, when asked, would maintain that American intervention in the outside world causes more problems than it resolves, and thus many presidents dragged their feet on Putin: Obama’s “consequences” for the invasion of Crimea were a set of ineffectual sanctions; Trump maintained a publically-friendly relationship with Putin; even George W. Bush, the most interventionist of the past four presidents, called Putin “very straightforward and trustworthy.”
These errors have compounded into the greatest crisis continental Europe has faced since World War II. Years of rapprochement between Russia and NATO allies has led the latter to depend on the former for oil, despite plentiful opportunities for “decoupling” in the energy sector. Even with sanctions, we continue to import their oil, helping to fund their war effort. We can not directly declare war, as Putin has promised “consequences never seen,” to those who would, alluding to Russia’s apocalyptic nuclear capacity (and I believe we have learned the hard way that we should take Putin at his word). Robert Kagan himself, in an op-ed for the Washington Post, argues that should Russia annex Ukraine, it would be the beginning of an era of greater expansion against Europe, especially the Baltics (with Kaliningrad being the “flashpoint”). This is not to mention the danger this situation poses to Taiwan, as Xi observes Putin’s unchecked temerity in invading a neighbor country.
The situation is not hopeless, however. Putin’s invasion has been marked by manifold logistical issues, and the reaction to his invasion has been stronger than expected. The sanctions, without even touching oil, have still been devastating to the Russian economy, and many Putin-supporting oligarchs are growing nervous.
A garden is beautiful but frail, and ignoring it will inevitably cause its decline. Though the jungle may have grown back in our country’s absence, it is both possible and imperative to return and restore the peace. Aiding Ukrainian resistance is critical to defeating Putin, so write to your congressman or senator, urging them to support Ukraine beyond just words! Our own Claudia Tenney sits on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, so to students, locals, and faculty reading this, regardless of your opinion of her, show support for her maintaining a strong stance against Russia and for Ukraine!
Thumbnail Credit: Mariusz Kubik, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons