The American-led liberal world order was never a natural phenomenon. It was not the culmination of evolutionary processes across the millennia or the inevitable fulfillment of universal human desires. The past seven-plus decades of relatively free trade, growing respect for individual rights, and relatively peaceful cooperation among nations—the core elements of the liberal order—have been a great historical aberration. Until 1945 the story of humankind going back thousands of years was a long tale of war, tyranny, and poverty. moments of peace were fleeting, democracy so rare as to seem almost accidental, and prosperity the luxury of the powerful few. Our own era has not lacked its horrors, its genocides, its oppressions, its barbarisms. Yet by historical standards, including the standards of the recent past, it has been a relative paradise. Between 1500 and 1945 scarcely a year passed when the strongest powers in the world, the great powers of Europe, were not at war, but since 1945 there have been no wars among the great powers. The great Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union ended peacefully, a historical rarity. Meanwhile, deaths from all recent smaller wars have declined dramatically, as indeed have violent deaths of all kinds. Since the end of the Second World War the world has also enjoyed a period of prosperity unlike any other, with more than seven decades of global GDP growth averaging almost 3.5 percent per year, despite the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Since 1945, some four billion people around the world have climbed out of poverty. The number of democratic governments has grown from no more than a dozen in 1939 to more than a hundred today. The power of the state has been curbed in favor of the individual in large parts of the world, and an ever-expanding panoply of individual rights has come to be respected. What Abraham Lincoln called the "better angels" of human nature have been encouraged, and some of human beings' worst impulses have been suppressed more effectively than before. But all this has been an anomaly in the history of human existence. The liberal world order is fragile and impermanent. Like a garden, it is ever under siege from the natural forces of history, the jungle whose vines and weeds constantly threaten to overwhelm it.
The American-led liberal world order has never been a natural phenomenon. The story of humankind going back thousands of years is a long tale of war, tyranny, and poverty. Moments of peace have been fleeting, democracy so rare as to seem almost accidental, and prosperity the luxury of the powerful few. Our own era has not lacked its horrors, its genocides, its oppressions, its barbarisms. Yet by historical standards, including the standards of the recent past, it has been a relative paradise. Between 1500 and 1945 scarcely a year passed when the strongest powers in the world, the great powers of Europe, were not at war, but since 1945 there have been no wars among the great powers. The great Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union ended peacefully, a historical rarity. Meanwhile, deaths from all recent smaller wars have declined dramatically, as indeed have violent deaths of all kinds. Since the end of the Second World War the world has also enjoyed a period of prosperity unlike any other, with more than seven decades of global GDP growth averaging almost 3.5 percent per year, despite the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Since 1945, some four billion people around the world have climbed out of poverty. The number of democratic governments have grown from no more than a dozen in 1939 to more than a hundred today. The power of the state has been curbed in favor of the individual in large parts of the world, and an ever-expanding panoply of individual rights has come to be respected. What Lincoln called the "better angels" of human nature have been encouraged, and some of human beings’ worst impulses have been suppressed more effectively than before. All this has been a great aberration, an anomaly in the recorded history of human existence.
Unfortunately, we tend to take our world for granted. We have lived so long inside the bubble of the liberal world order that we can imagine no other kind of world. We think it is natural and normal, even inevitable. We see all its flaws and wish it could be better, but it doesn't occur to us that the more likely alternative to it would be much, much worse. Unlike other cultures, which view history as a continuous cycle of growth and decay, or as stasis, we view history as having a direction and a purpose. We believe in "modernization," in stages of economic and political development, in the link between prosperity and democracy. As children of the Enlightenment, we believe the expansion of knowledge and material progress goes hand in hand with improvements in human behavior and moral progress. From Montesquieu and Kant we learned that commerce tames the souls of men and nations, reducing conflict and increasing harmony and cooperation. From Marx and others we learned to treat stages of economic developmentas the drivers of political development—feudalism produces government by monarchs and aristocrats, capitalismproduces government by parliaments and democracies, all as part of some iron logic of economic determinism. From Hegel we learned that history is but "the progress of the consciousnessof freedom" and that, as Francis Fukuyama put it in his famous description of the "End of History," there is "a common evolutionary pattern for all societies . . . something like a Universal History of mankind in the direction of liberal democracy." Hence we have come to believe that, while there may be occasional bumps and detours on the road, progress is inevitable.
This story of human progress is a myth, however. If the last century has taught us anything, it is that scientific and technological progress and the expansion of knowledge, while capable of improving our lives materially, have brought no lasting improvement in human behavior. Nor is history rightly viewed as a progressive upward march toward enlightenment. That perception rests on a carefully curated set of facts. We jump from Periclean Athens to the birth of Christianity, from the Renaissance to the Reformation, from the Magna Carta to the American Revolution. Omitted from this tale of golden ages and great leaps forward are the dark ages and great leaps backward. When it comes to human behavior, history is a jagged line with no discernible slope. Where on the scale of progress would we put the Thirty Years’ War, which killed off almost half the populations of the German principalities, or the Napoleonic Wars, which killed more than three million Europeans, destroyed the lives of many millions more, and helped produce the revolutionary nationalism that would wreak so much havoc in the first decades of the twentieth century? How do World War I, World War II, the famines, and the genocides of the last century fit into our story of human progress? Were the horrors perpetrated against Ukrainians and Chinese in the 1930s and against Jews in the 1940s part of our story of progress? Were they just aberrations, or were they harbingers of the future? Only by ignoring much horrendous bloodshed and brutality, and quite recently in historical terms, can we believe that there has been anything like a steady improvement in the way humans treat each other.
Nor has there been steady progress toward liberalism. Liberal government flickered into existence at the end of the eighteenth century, first in Great Britain and America and then, inspired by the French Revolution, in parts of Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. But as liberalism grew, so did the modern police state, which was born in Austria, Prussia, and Russia at the end of the eighteenth century and was gradually perfected in the nineteenth and twentieth. (And the French Revolution did not produce liberalism in France before going through stages of totalitarianism followed by strongman rule.) Stirrings of liberalism in nineteenth-century Germany, Italy, and Poland were repeatedly crushed by absolutist powers using force, repression, and censorship. A brief flowering of democratic government after World War I was quickly extinguished and supplanted by the rise of fascism and communism. If the Second World War had produced a different set of victors, as it might have, liberalism might not have survived the twentieth century outside of North America.
Few in the middle of the last century saw liberalism on the rise. A survey of the world in 1939 would not have suggestedto anyone that history was pointing toward a triumph of the liberal idea. "I am . . . a bear on democracy," Joseph Kennedy told Walter Lippmann in London that year. "It’s gone already." As Hannah Arendt put it, writing in 1950, to view Western Civilization as a steady march of progress was to ignore the "subterranean stream of Western history." History had not led to the triumph of liberalism; it had led to Hitler and Stalin. Throughout the Cold War, which seemed as if it would last forever, there was little reason to regard history as a steady progression toward a better world. The political theorist Judith Shklar, writing in the late 1950s, observed that in an age of two world wars, totalitarianism, and mass murder, "no reasonable person" could "believe in any 'law' of progress." After witnessing humanity at its worst, Arendt insisted, "we can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a heavy load which by itself time will bury in oblivion."
But apparently we can. Among the worst horrors of recorded history occurred in the lifetimes of our grandparents. Just seventy-five years ago Hitler was rampaging across Europe, Stalin was starving millions through forced collectivization, Japanese soldiers were raping and killing in Nanjing, millions were systematically being put to death in gas chambers in Eastern and Central Europe, and the United States was dropping nuclear bombs on Japanese cities. Yet after a few remarkable decades of relative peace, prosperity, and democracy, many became convinced that the human race had changed fundamentally, that after millennia of war, poverty, and tyranny, of individual and collective brutality, of tribalism and racism, human beings had over the course of a few decades suddenly become less violent, less warlike, more caring, more open. Some international relations theorists continue to believe that "the grand mechanism for overturning old international orders—great power war—has disappeared"; law professors argue that the very "nature of conflict" among nations "has changed fundamentally" (because of the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928 "outlawing war"); the cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, who documents the decline of violence in the world since 1945, argues that the reason this happened in such a "short span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Englightenment." Perhaps fewer people today believe that the "liberal idea," all but extinguished in the 1930s, won an irreversible victory after the collapse of Soviet communism, now that authoritarianism is enjoying a renaissance. But many continue to assume that, even so, our dark recent past is indeed in the past and cannot recur.
Here is an alternative hypothesis. We have witnessed amazingprogress over the past seven decades, and not just technologicalprogress but also human progress. Yet this progress was not the culmination of anything. It was not the product of evolution, of expanding knowledge, of technological advances, the spread of commerce, and least of all of any change in the basic nature of human beings. It has been the product of a unique set of circumstances contingent on a particular set of historical outcomes, including on the battlefield, that could have turned out differently. It has been, above all, the by-product of a new configuration of power in the international system, the rise to preeminence of a new player on the international scene with a unique and advantageous geography, a large and productive population, unprecedented economic and military power, and, as it happened, a national ideology based on the liberal principles of the Enlightenment. The present world order has favored liberalism, democracy, and capitalism not only because they are right and better—presumably they were right and better in the 1930s, too—but because the most powerful nation in the world since 1945 has been a liberal democratic capitalist nation. That, too, was not fated but was the consequence of unique circumstances and contingent historical events. After World War II, because of America's unrivaled power, those Enlightenment principles suddenly enjoyed a force behind them that they had never before possessed. What we liberals call progress has been made possible by the protection afforded liberalism within the geographical and geopolitical space created by American power. This was not the inevitable unfolding of some Universal History. On the contrary, the creation of the liberal order has been an act of defiance against both history and human nature.
People today ask what threatens the present order, but that is the wrong question. The order is an artificial creation subject to the forces of geopolitical inertia. Deeply etched patterns of history, interrupted these past seven decades, remain and exert their pull. The question is not what will bring down the liberal order but what can possibly hold it up? If the liberal order is like a garden, artificial and forever threatened by the forces of nature, preserving it requires a persistent, unending struggle against the vines and weeds that are constantly working to undermine it from within and overwhelm it from without.
Today there are signs all around us that the jungle is growing back. Where once many hoped that all the nations and peoples of the world would converge on a common path of liberal democratic capitalist development, we now see authoritarianism surviving if not thriving. Today a Russian dictator and European would-be dictators boast of their illiberalism, and a Chinese leader, wielding the absolute power of a Mao, portrays his nation as a model for the world. Where once we believed that economic success must eventually require political liberalization, we now see autocracies successfully practicing a state capitalism compatible with repressive government. Where once many believed geo-economics had replaced geopolitics, today we see the world returning to a geopolitics much like that of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Territorial aggression, once thought to be an anachronism, has returned to Europe and threatens to return to Asia. Where once people believed that the nation-state was a thing of the past in an increasingly cosmopolitan and interconnected age, we now see nationalism and tribalism reemerging, more than able to hold their own in the brave new world of the Internet. Meanwhile, a profound and extended crisis of confidence besets the democratic world, even in the birthplace of modern democracy. Liberal international institutions like the European Union, once considered the vanguard of a postmodern future, are now under assault from without and within. In America, racial and tribal forces that have always been part of the "subterranean stream" of American history have reemerged to reshape politics and society. Where thirty years ago the dreams of Enlightenment thinkers going back three centuries seemed to be on the cusp of fulfillment, today a Counter-Enlightenment of surprising potency stirs in Moscow, Budapest, Beijing, Tehran, and Cairo, in parts of Western Europe, and even in the nation that saved liberalism seventy-five years ago.
In the face of this unanticipated shift in direction, our excessive optimism has turned to excessive pessimism. Less than three decades ago we were told that the triumph of liberalism was inevitable; today we read that liberalism’s failure is inevitable. On fatalistic determinism has replaced another.
As the liberal order confronts multiplying crises from both within and without, Americans and their political leaders have not responded as they might have in the past. There is no call to action to reverse the trends. Some still hold to the old optimistic assumptions, as if nothing has happened to make us doubt their validity. Even some of our best-informed experts still believe China must eventually open its political system, notwithstanding China's determined move in the opposite direction; that Russia cannot continue on its current political and geopolitical trajectory without collapsing economically, despite two decades of evidence to the contrary; or that in Europe liberal ideals are so deeply implanted that they can never be uprooted. Many still regard peace as the norm and war the aberration, something that occurs only by accident or miscalculation. They still see the world through the distorting lens of the liberal order’s bubble. For some, belief in the End of History dies hard.More pervasive these days, however, is a profound skepticism about the liberal order’s durability and even its desirability. An increasing number on both the left and the right have come to regard the struggle to uphold the order as either hopeless or mistaken. Self-described "realists" insist that Americans must learn to accept the world as it is, not as we would wish it to be. Decrying the "failures and follies" of the past quarter century—the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the interventions of the 1990s, the expansion of NATO, which they regard as a mistake, and the broader effort to support democracy in allegedly inhospitable places—they call fora new policy of "restraint." American policies in support of a liberal world order have not only overtaxed and exhausted Americans, they argue, but have done no good for them or for others. In 2011, Barack Obama, in announcing a draw-down of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, argued that it was "time to focus on nation building at home." Five years later Donald Trump echoed the sentiment, telling voters that the liberal order was a bad deal and it was time to put "America First."
Polls show that Americans mostly agree. In 2016, 57 percent of Americans polled believed the U.S. should "mind its own business" and let the rest of the world manage its own problems, up from just 30 percent a decade a half earlier. When Americans elected Trump, 41 percent believed the United States was "doing too much" in the world, and only 27 percent believed it was not doing enough. This mood did not begin with Trump, or even with Obama. The 2016 election was the fourth presidential contest since the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore in in which the candidate promising to pursue a narrower definition of American interests and to reduce American involvement overseas defeated candidates in the primaries and in the general election who stood for a more expansive foreign policy. The public desire for a reduction of overseas involvement has been growing for three decades. It preceded the Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan, and it persisted despite the events of September’ 11, 2001, the worst attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, the continuing threat of radical Islamic terrorism, and the growing threats that Americans perceive from North Korea, Iran, China, and Russia. Today Americans question why their nation has to be so deeply involved in the rest of the world, why they have to spend lives and money on such apparently hopeless places as the Middle East, why rich allies like Germany, Japan, and South Korea cannot take care of themselves, and why the United States must risk war for matters that seem at a remove from America's immediate economic and security interests.
These are reasonable questions, and it is wrong to refer to those who ask them as "isolationists." Few are suggesting that the United States pull up the drawbridge and cut off all ties with the outside world. What most critics and skeptics of American foreign policy today want is for the United States to act more like a "normal" country. No nation in history has ever been more deeply involved in the affairs of the world nor accepted more responsibility for the state of humankind than the United States since the Second World War. Very few nations in history have ever felt any responsibility for anything but themselves. The vast majority of nations do not think twice about looking after their own narrow interests "first." Americans have been abnormal in this respect—abnormal in their willingness to shoulder great moral and material burdens in order to preserve this abnormal liberal order. To question whether they must continue to do so, to ask whether the benefits still outweigh the costs, is not "isolationist." It is natural.
So how to answer the many Americans who are skeptical of the benefits of such extensive global involvement? One can try to point out that the costs and risks of not continuing to play this role will be much higher, but that is a hard thing to prove before events take their course. Americans see the costs of upholding this order; the costs of not upholding it are unknown. We can see the risks of taking action; the risks of inaction are harder to predict. Perhaps the best we can do is look to our past for guidance.
Copyright © 2018 by Robert Kagan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.