"The Jungle Grows Back"

In Berlin, Robert Kagan, the Stephen & Barbara Friedman Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and Ambassador Thomas Bagger discussed America, Europe, and the erosion of the liberal international order.

Julian Heissler | January 2019
Manuel Frauendorf

Moderator Sudha David-Wilp, Robert Kagan, and Thomas Bagger (from left to right) in the Berlin Representative Office of the Foundation.

Two years after Donald Trump took office as President of the United States, the liberal world order is in a state of upheaval. With the United States increasingly turning their back on the international institutions, rules, and norms of the established system and announcing the withdrawal from strategically important key regions such as the Middle East, deep uncertainty is taking hold of the superpower’s Western allies. At the same time, the resurgence of Russia and China is creating an even more complex geopolitical situation, which leaves Germany in an ever-changing international environment.

The Jungle Grows Back: This is the title of the recently published book by Robert Kagan, the Stephen & Barbara Friedman Senior Fellow at The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., and it is also how he describes the current developments in the international system. As part of the Brookings – Robert Bosch Foundation Transatlantic Initiative (BBTI), he presented his key points at the Robert Bosch Stiftung's Berlin representative office in a panel discussion with Ambassador Thomas Bagger, Director of Foreign Policy in the Office of the German Federal President and a senior diplomat in the Foreign Service. Sudha David-Wilp, Senior Transatlantic Fellow and Deputy Director of the Berlin Office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, moderated the discussion.

If the world order collapses, the U.S. will be the last to feel it.

For Mr. Kagan, the progressing withdrawal of the U.S. from the global stage came as no surprise, due to the country’s strong isolationist tradition, as evidenced time and again in the past. “Americans have always believed that what’s happening in the world is none of their business,” he stated, adding that this stance was quite understandable, given that the geography alone often protected the country from feeling the direct effects of international crises. “There are 3,000 miles and an ocean between the U.S. and Europe,” Mr. Kagan emphasized. “If the world order collapses, the U.S. will be the last to feel it.”

This is one of the reasons why, back in the day, even President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had such a hard time convincing the American population to enter the Second World War, even when their closest allies had been overrun by Germany and brought to the brink of defeat. Only after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which had hit the US directly, did larger parts of the population show a willingness to go to war.

Push back the jungle in the international system

The primary reason why the post-war order had worked for such a long time, according to Mr. Kagan, was the threat posed by the Soviet Union. Even though the war in Vietnam forced the U.S. to make considerably greater sacrifices than the war in Iraq, there had been no serious efforts to withdraw from the world stage after the end of the conflict in Southeast Asia. Over the course of the 21st century, however, this commitment had diminished more and more.

“The liberal world order is based on a dark and pessimistic vision of the planet and human nature,” Mr. Kagan explained. It was established after the Second World War to contain the worst impulses of humanity and to push back the jungle in the international system. Now that the threat appears to have decreased, the willingness to maintain the multilateral, rule-based order is fading.

"We were way too optimistic"

“The withdrawal of the U.S. was actually visible already before Trump, during the Obama years. How could it have been overlooked for so long? And is Germany prepared to take on an international leadership role?” asked Ms. David-Wilp who facilitated the discussion.

“We were way too optimistic,” answered Ambassador Thomas Bagger, diplomatic and foreign policy advisor to German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. After the Second World War, Germany had made itself comfortable in the liberal world order. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the country’s reunification had further strengthened the sense of security, and nobody had longed for the ‘end of history’, predicted by Francis Fukuyama, as much as the Germans. After all, a peaceful and rich Europe and a prosperous Germany had developed under the protection of the Americans.

But today, people had to realize that their belief in an increasingly stable world had been wrong. “The current US president is fundamentally challenging Germany's foreign policy vision that's based on ‘never again’ and ‘never alone,’” Mr. Bagger said.

And suddenly the world looks completely different

The diplomat does not see Germany as being able to fill the emerging leadership vacuum, as a German hegemony in the traditional sense would not be accepted by large parts of Europe. Plus, the Federal Republic of Germany would not aspire to that role in its traditional form either. “The Germans no longer understand the way the world has turned. We felt we had done everything right, and suddenly the world looks completely different and dangerous.”

So, is the world about to return to the anarchic state of nature Thomas Hobbes described as the natural condition of mankind? Will the jungle overgrow the institutions developed and nurtured over decades and once again turn the planet into a place where only the strongest rule? Robert Kagan and Thomas Bagger are not quite that pessimistic. "The liberal world order has not disappeared, but many of its characteristics are under attack. If the West were to appear coherent and united, Russia's expansive power politics, for instance, would be easier to contain,” Mr. Kagan argued. He also voiced concerns because of the massive number of current developments that seemed to be going in the wrong direction. But the struggle is far from lost: “We just have to pull ourselves together,” he said. “Ultimately, the future is open and not predetermined,” Mr. Bagger concluded.