JOANNE MYERS: Good evening, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I want to thank you all for coming out tonight.
Our speaker this evening is Robert Kagan, and he will be discussing his most recent book entitled The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World. In it he demonstrates once again that he is one of America's foremost foreign policy analysts, who consistently provides remarkable insights, especially when explaining the past and connecting our foreign policy future.
We are so pleased to welcome him back to this podium, and please know how grateful we are that you honored your commitment to make the treacherous journey from Washington to New York this evening. I think that deserves a medal.
It is no secret that for some years now America has been withdrawing from its leadership role around the globe. While this shift in American attitudes began before Mr. Trump took office, since moving into the White House this president has moved rather quickly to effectively dismantle a host of international pacts. From abandoning the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with Asia to withdrawing from the worldwide climate change accord to pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement, President Trump is rewriting the compact between the United States and our allies, especially those in Europe.
As Trump works to erode the rules-based international order, these actions present a tectonic shift in America's relations with its allies and is likely to leave the United States confronting a more dangerous and less prosperous future. In The Jungle Grows Back our speaker tells us that the liberal world order that the United States helped to build and sustain following the end of World War II, with its democratic principles, respect for national borders, independent judiciary, and relatively free movement of goods and ideas, was not natural. It was a postwar world in disarray that needed to be built and carefully maintained so that the world could be peaceful and more prosperous.
Yet now, as the United States abandons its role as global leader, retreating from functioning as the enforcer of the liberal order, the world is inching closer to a dark jungle of competing interests, clashing nationalism, tribalism, and self-interest, which reverts back to the pre-World War II era. The questions are: What will happen if we continue to pull back and withdraw even further? What impact does an America First philosophy portend for the future of our country and for the world?
For the answers, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to a person who has an acute understanding of the past, is an astute observer of the present, and a prognosticator of the future, our guest this evening, the intrepid traveler Bob Kagan.
ROBERT KAGAN: Thank you so much, Joanne. Usually it's treacherous going from New York to Washington for other reasons, but I did manage to leave a snowstorm that was ending in Washington and come to a snowstorm that was in full fury here in New York.
I had to be here because I have to honor my commitment. You do not have to be here, and so I'm very grateful to you for braving the weather and coming out to talk about foreign policy, which I have to say makes you special in America these days. I was looking at the exit polls from the recent midterm elections, and I kept going up and down the questions looking for a question on foreign policy, and it's clear that foreign policy is pretty much the last thing on the average American's mind.
That's often true in midterm elections, but you'd think out of 25 exit poll questions one would be on foreign policy. I think the only question was, "How do you like Donald Trump's foreign policy?" because, of course, it has to be about Donald Trump all the time.
Which indicates to me something that I think was pretty apparent anyway, which is that although there are many of us, and probably many people in this room, who are troubled by this America First approach to the world that President Trump has enunciated, going to the United Nations and saying something that no American president even before World War II has ever said, which is basically, "We are going to look out for ourselves, and we suggest you guys look out for yourselves as well," at the very least Americans are not very troubled about this. A majority even may be very much in agreement with this general approach.
I think that is a problem that preceded Donald Trump. I think the fact that Donald Trump got elected is in some respect a reflection of the fact that people felt this way before he took office, and I think unfortunately it's going to be a problem that exists even after Donald Trump is gone, whether it's 2020 or 2024, because I think Americans have actually been in this mood for quite some time.
I think we all know that the reaction to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had a lot to do with it. I think the financial crisis of 2008 and the consequences of that crisis playing out into the Great Recession had a lot to do with it.
But I can trace this mood even further back in time. I think it really began after 1989 and the end of the Cold War, at which point I think a lot of Americans thought, So now we don't have to do this stuff anymore.
I think ever since the end of the Cold War if you look at every intervention that has been undertaken, even the ones that we look back on as being successful, like the first Gulf War led by George H.W. Bush, you may recall that public opinion was very divided on that. The Senate vote was 52-48, and really every use of force, and not just use of force but trade agreements and other key elements of America's role in the world, I think Americans have been increasingly questioning.
I don't think we should be shocked at their questioning it and that they are asking why because let's not forget that America has been playing since the end of World War II a highly unusual role in the world. I would say it's a role in the world that no other nation in history has ever played.
No other nation in history has ever taken this degree of responsibility for global security, for the peace and stability of regions that are thousands of miles away from the homeland, and so it has been an abnormal role. So when people say, "Can't we return to normal?" it seems to be a reasonable question.
I also think that when those of us who use the not-very-lovely phrase, the "liberal world order"—I wish I had a better phrase; I have toyed with other phrases to describe what was created, but I haven't really come up with a better one. But I think that Americans have a number of misconceptions about this international system that the United States created after World War II, which in a way helped undermine their support for it.
The first one I've already indicated, which is the belief that this order was created in response to the Soviet Union and the onset of the Cold War. I find even highly educated people like Graham Allison at Harvard saying that the liberal world order was created in response to the Cold War.
As it happens, that is historically inaccurate. The basic outlines and even some of the key elements of this liberal world order were created before anyone thought there was going to be a problem with the Soviet Union.
The basic vision and some of the basic elements of this order were established during World War II. Certainly the Bretton Woods Conference is 1944; the decision to start having bases around the world from which the United States could operate in both Europe and Asia, those strings of bases were being planned as early as 1943 by American strategic planners.
The basic idea that the United States after World War II was going to have to play an entirely different role in the world than it had played prior to World War II was firmly fixed at a time when Uncle Joe Stalin was still our ally, when people like Franklin Roosevelt and Dean Acheson and others thought that the postwar world would be one of cooperation between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the Cold War actually came as a kind of surprise, and people woke up in early 1946 or roughly thereabouts.
That's one misconception, and it's related to another misconception I think, which is that I think a lot of people when they hear the phrase "liberal world order" or they hear people talk about this think that this order is based on some very idealistic notion of remaking the world in America's image. You hear that all the time, that it's a kind of Wilsonian project, a utopian idea of making a brand-new world based on a very optimistic assessment of what can be accomplished in the world.
As a matter of fact, the founders of this liberal world order, it was really based on a deep pessimism about both the international system and about human nature, a pessimism that was hard-earned for that generation that lived through World War I, the Twenties, the Thirties, and then World War II, and that really is the generation of Franklin Roosevelt and Dean Acheson and Harry Truman and others, many people, most of whom were born in the latter part of the 19th century and went through that entire history of disaster in which the worst acts of inhumanity that anyone could ever imagine took place.
So they had a very, I would say, dark view of humanity. I think they worked on the assumption that the natural tendency of the international system was toward chaos and conflict because that is what they had witnessed, and I think they had no illusions about human nature necessarily being a benevolent force in the world. I think they were hopeful that human beings' "better angels" could be appealed to, but they built a system that was really designed to contain those other angels, the not-better angels, the darker forces.
In this respect I think they were very much like the founders of the American republic, who also did not base the American system on an optimistic reading of human nature but really on the assumption that human beings could be counted on to behave selfishly and to pursue their ambitions regardless of others, so they created this famous system of checks and balances and other institutional structures in the hope of channeling these other forces of human nature in a positive direction. I think that's essentially what the founders of the liberal world order set up.
I think that they probably in their wildest dreams did not imagine how successful this order that they set up would be. I really do think they were trying to stave off the worst disasters. All statesmen focus on preventing what just happened from ever happening again. There very infrequently are people looking that far ahead into the future.
So the order they created was designed to prevent the things that they had already seen. Just to think about what the basic elements of what this order—and Joanne laid out what they are—but as they looked back on the period leading up to World War II they saw that on the one hand protectionist sentiment and efforts by the various power blocs to create autarchic economic spheres in which they would be dominant and would not actually engage in trade with one another—this was Hitler's ambition for Germany, that he would create a European market which would not depend on anyone else; it was certainly the Japanese goal with the Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which was to be dominant in its own economic bloc; and then of course America played along for its own purposes with protectionist policies in the 1920s and then accelerating into the 1930s.
So the founders of the order looked back on that and said,"That was a disaster." Not only did it actually lead to bad economic consequences, which created poverty, which created radicalism and discontent, but it also drove a deeper wedge between nations and took existing geopolitical competition and exacerbated it by turning it as well into an economic competition, and that's why they wanted to establish as much of a free-trading, open global economy as possible, not again out of some idealistic belief that this would make all people behave better but because they had seen what the consequences of not having that kind of system were.
So I feel like—this is just an example: When you say to people today, "Here's the problem with protectionism," I don't think they're thinking about that problem.
I think all they're thinking about is, Well, haven't we been too nice to all other powers? The reason why we have this order has been forgotten.
Then, of course, they also believed, I think with some reason, that tyrannies were more likely to be aggressive than democracies. I don't think they were under any illusion that they were going to create a democratic world, but they did want to create what Dean Acheson called "an environment of freedom" so that the United States democracy at least could continue to flourish.
They were very worried—and this is something Franklin Roosevelt talked about in the late 1930s as Hitler and Germany were consolidating their position in Europe and moving forward and as the Japanese were consolidating their position in Asia—that if the United States lived in a world that was dominated everywhere else by militaristic dictatorships, ultimately this would force the United States itself to change its character in order to defend itself and protect itself. The government would have to become much more involved—and I don't mean involved the way Republicans and conservatives complain about it today. But they were thinking about having to have a truly directed economy that would allow the production of military equipment to keep up with the Nazis and the Japanese Empire, and that ultimately American democracy would have a very hard time surviving.
So what they decided was necessary to create this environment of freedom in which the American experiment could continue was to at least have in the key strategic areas, basically on the shores of the other side of the oceans at least, to have democratic governments, and that's why they believed it was so important to transform Germany from a dictatorship to a democracy and to anchor democratic systems in Europe—and again, this precedes even the threat of communism and the Soviet Union, although that certainly added to their apprehension and their belief that this was necessary—and also to convert Japan to a democracy.
Then finally, they decided that it was simply not sufficient for the United States to sit, as Acheson put it, "as if in a parlor with a shotgun over your lap waiting for the bad guys to come," but that it would be necessary to extend the reach of American power to prevent the momentum, to prevent these other forces or militaristic governments from rising up to the point where they could then look to the United States. They wanted to be "preventive" and "preemptive" in the establishment and permanent presence of American military power overseas. I don't think they quite imagined how long that would have to be, but they certainly did believe it would have to be for a long time.
Those are the nuts and bolts of this order, so again when you think about the liberal world order let's not think in idealistic terms. Let's talk about nuts-and-bolts efforts to prevent a return to the disastrous situation that had existed prior to World War II.
The amazing thing is, as I say, they were so successful. In a way the liberal world order was so successful to the point of perhaps leading to its own undoing.
Because I think what has happened—and this gets to the third misconception that I think plagues us today about the liberal world order—is that people began to believe that this extraordinary situation that we've been living in since World War II is simply the new normal, that this is the way things are, that they can count on a certain level of global peace, a certain amount of democratic government around the world, a certain level of global prosperity.
And like human beings often do in our own lives, we tend to take for granted all the things that are good and are working and focus on the things that are not working and the things that we're not happy about. You know how sometimes we have to remind ourselves to count our blessings, and I think it has been a while since the American public counted their blessings.
So we have been focusing on all the ways in which we're not content with the international system. We focus on the cost of maintaining it, not on the benefits that we get from its existence; we assume, as I said, that it's basically permanent, and only focus on the things about it that we don't like.
So I think it is worth just again briefly remarking on what an extraordinary period this has been because I read a lot of articles in the academic literature and elsewhere, and you certainly get this from Donald Trump and his supporters as well from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party all the things that have been terrible about this liberal world order.
Let me at least take a minute to describe what has been remarkable about it. And it's obvious. The first is prosperity.
Throughout all of human history as far back as we have any recorded history the average human being has lived a life of abject poverty. There has been nothing like prosperity for 99.99 percent of human beings throughout history. The only global economic growth that ever occurred began in the late 18th century with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Economists measure global gross domestic product (GDP) annual growth in the neighborhood of 1.8 percent a year.
But since the end of the Second World War the entire world has enjoyed something like 4 percent global annual GDP growth, which has been absolutely miraculous compared to history, and the consequence has been that 4 billion people have lifted themselves out of poverty during this period, and we have the largest middle class ever known to the human race.
The bounty of this prosperity has been spread remarkably around the world to include hitherto undeveloped and poor regions like China and India and elsewhere. So this has been an absolutely miraculous period in that respect.
It has obviously been a miraculous period from the point of view of the spread of democracy. Democracy was the rarest form of government for time immemorial, so rare as to be almost an accident whenever it appeared, and since World War II we've seen the growth of democracy to the point where over 100 nations in the world today are democracies and roughly half of the world's people live under democratic governments; absolutely unprecedented.
Finally, there has been the absence of great-power war. There have been wars. The United States, of course, has been involved in wars, but the kind of cataclysmic great-power conflict like World War I and World War II and the Napoleonic Wars and the Thirty Years' War in the 17th century we have not had. That is also an anomaly because if you look at the entire sweep of human history, there is barely a year that you can find over the last 5,000 when the great powers or great nation-states or great city-states or great empires have not been at war with one another, and we've been living in a period absent that and therefore absent the cataclysmic consequences of those wars, not just for the nations fighting them but for everybody else as we saw in World War I and World War II.
If you think about all three of those things, any single one of them would make this a unique period in history. The fact that we've had all three of them make it a miraculous period in history.
Yet somehow we manage to take it for granted, and we also think that it is normal, that it's some product of human evolution, that people have just gotten better. That's why things are better; because people have gotten better.
We had the argument of Frank Fukuyama in 1989, his famous "End of History" essay, in which the argument was in a kind of Hegelian dialectic that competing ideas of how humans could govern themselves had fought its way out, and liberal democracy had triumphed, and that was the end of it. He didn't claim there would be no more trouble, but he did say liberal democracy had triumphed because it was the one form of government that best met the basic needs of human nature and the basic desires of human beings for recognition of their selves, of their rights, of their dignity, etc.
Even today, if you read the works of Steven Pinker, who has documented I think better than anybody what a remarkable period this has been in terms of how humans behave toward each other to the point where it's not just that wars are less frequent, but even violence of individuals against each other has been less frequent, and what is his explanation for this? His explanation is that the ideals and principles of the Enlightenment have finally really taken hold.
These principles have been around for over 300 years. You would not have said in 1939 that they had taken hold, but then suddenly they've taken hold. I must say that the historian in me says that's highly unlikely.
The point is that we have been living not on a new plateau of human existence; we've been living in something that I think is more frightening, if you think about it. You might say—and I do argue—that what we've been living in is an aberration, it's unusual, it's unnatural, that what we've been living in was something that was created, and it is the reflection of a certain configuration of power in the international system. It's the creation that one might expect if, as it happens, the most powerful nation in the world happens to be a nation founded on Enlightenment principles, happens to believe in all these things that have spread, and happens to have been itself an engine of capitalism.
Every order in history has reflected the preferences and predilections of the power or powers that dominated that order. The Egyptian order reflected Egyptian preferences; the Roman order reflected Roman preferences; the European order of the early 19th century reflected the aristocratic and monarchic preferences of the European powers, and so it's not surprising that this order has reflected the fundamentally Enlightenment approach that Americans prefer.
My argument is that this is something that has been created and something therefore that can be uncreated, and not only can be uncreated but almost certainly will be uncreated—sorry to keep repeating that bad word—unless the effort is made to prevent that from happening.
Let me just end on this point because I want to leave a lot of time for us to have a discussion about this. The analogy that is at the heart of this book is about a jungle and a garden. I'm not much of a gardener myself, but I understand the principle of a garden, and I'm sure many of you are gardeners, even in New York.
We all understand first of all that a garden is an unnatural creation. It's not something that produces itself; it's something that human beings create, and they create it by cutting back the weeds and the vines and pulling up tree stumps and rocks and creating a place where you can have a garden.
We also know that you don't just plant a garden, congratulate yourself, walk away, and expect to come back a week later and see the garden still there. We all know that if you aren't constantly tending the garden, then natural forces—weeds and vines and all the other things—want to come back and reclaim the land. By the way, they're not even evil. They're just there. That's just nature having its way.
In order to have a garden and sustain a garden, you've got to be constantly gardening. For me at least, that is a good analogy for this liberal world order, which itself is an unnatural creation which natural forces are always working to undermine.
As I mentioned, one of those natural forces is just the natural state of international relations, which tends toward chaos and conflict. It doesn't tend toward peace and order. Peace and order are created; they're not the natural outcome of natural forces in the international system.
Maybe even more troubling, but certainly I think we can see around the world how true it is, there are forces of human nature that also work inevitably against this liberal world order. So while it is true as Frank [Fukuyama] and Hegel said, that, yes, human beings do seek recognition—and I think there are very strong impulses in human nature that lend to the desire for individual rights and freedoms and the kind of liberal democratic system that can support and recognize them.
But that's not the only thing that human beings have impulses toward and the only thing that human beings need. Human beings also search for security, and it's the kind of security that can be found in family and tribe. Human beings have spiritual needs which liberalism doesn't solve. They have an identity that is not just satisfied by being granted rights as we've seen around the world. There is a constant struggle in human nature.
By the way, there are times when people want a strong leader both to protect them, to protect not only their physical security, but their cultural security, again their sense of group identity. And by the way, sometimes human beings even don't want to make decisions. They want someone to make decisions for them. I think we have to admit that that is also an impulse.
I think we always wanted to believe that all peoples everywhere if given the opportunity would of course choose liberalism and democracy; it's only these dictators who are preventing them from acquiring those things. I think we have to be a little bit more realistic and understand that they don't always choose that, that there will certainly be periods of time at least in which human beings will choose again family, tribe, the strong man, the defense of their culture, over democracy, and I think we're seeing that in places like Hungary and Poland and Russia, too, where people I think are choosing a strong leader like Viktor Orbán to protect the things that they think are being threatened by liberalism as well as by refugees from the Middle East.
There's nothing unnatural about the fact that even in the heart of what some people call the "Western culture" or "Western civilization" that we're seeing these urges for tribalism and nationalism. By the way, we're seeing them in our own country as well.
At the end of the day, my final point is I don't believe in fatalism in either direction. I don't believe it was right for us to believe that democracy and liberalism and capitalism were the endpoint of human existence to which we were naturally moving and therefore we could just sit back and enjoy the flowering and the triumph of liberal democracy, which was the view back in 1989 and the 1990s.
I also don't believe the view prevalent today that democracy is doomed. There is a constant struggle. There is a fight in all of us, really within our nature, between different forces and different needs.
I think that the question that we really face right now is whether in the same way that the founders of this international order decided that this order had to be created, it had to be imposed in many respects, it had to be backed by power, we now have to decide whether we're going to take the necessary steps to preserve it or whether we're going to watch as the jungle grows back and we move back to the normal circumstances that existed before we created this system.
That's the question that we're facing today, and I look forward to your questions. Thank you very much.
JOANNE MYERS: You may not be a gardener, but I think you planted seeds so we can have a very fertile discussion.
ROBERT KAGAN: That would be great.
JOANNE MYERS: I'd just ask those who have a question if they can go to either side to the microphones and just introduce yourself and try to keep your question somewhat brief. Thank you.
QUESTION: My name is Larry Bridwell. I would like you to comment on the future of the World Trade Organization (WTO) because the Special Trade Representative Lighthizer and President Trump, they've essentially paralyzed the dispute-settlement process. So when you're talking about this garden, a major part of the gardening has been done by the World Trade Organization, and because of U.S. actions it's on the verge of falling apart.
ROBERT KAGAN: It's a very good question. There really is reason to be concerned because again, although Trump and the Trump Administration have taken this to almost its extreme version and want to view trade in a zero-sum way with every single nation in the world including our allies, which essentially breaks the fundamental bargain at the heart of this liberal world order, and I just want to say a word about that.
Countries at the end of World War II, not only Germany and Japan but Britain and France, gave up essentially being the world powers that they had always been geopolitically and militarily and basically ceded to the United States geopolitical hegemony within the liberal world order.
In return, the United States did its best, not disregarding inevitable selfishness and mistakes here and there, but the basic deal was, "We are not going to use our power to prevent you from getting rich." In a way the United States pursued what I like to call the "Hyman Roth" approach to foreign policy, for those of you who remember Godfather II —I'm getting a lot of quizzical looks here. Hyman Roth "always made money for his partners." That's how come he survived as long as he did.
One of the great successes of American foreign policy has depended on our partners doing well, sometimes doing better than we were doing. The German auto industry was doing better than the American auto industry. Some of you may remember how panicked we were that the Japanese were overtaking us. But that was actually part of the glue that held this order together. That's a long way of answering your question.
The WTO was again sort of a rules-based system where we would allow ourselves to be constrained just like everyone else was constrained by these rules, and that created this relatively open playing field which we are now not willing to play on.
My concern is that I don't know that there is even a scintilla of domestic opposition to Trump's trade policies. The one place where you wouldn't expect it, the Democratic Party, is not more committed to free trade than the Republican Party is, and so the advent of a Democratic House I think is not going to serve as a check on Trump's trade policies.
I think the American public, it's been so long since they have heard an argument for free trade and the rules of the trading system. The other side has dominated the discussion, and so we are a long way from turning around public opinion on this, that is my concern.
QUESTION: Anthony Faillace. There has certainly been this idea that if we integrated China in the global system that they would behave more like us; their values would be more like ours. That is clearly being called into question recently with the rise of Xi Jinping, a range of different issues.
How are we to handle China? To what extent are they integrated in this global order? To what extent should our trade be integrated with them when we have obvious differences in values—discussions about them implanting chips in things that might be part of the defense industry, spying on American citizens. There's a whole range of issues. What ought to be the way that we handle them?
ROBERT KAGAN: It's a very good question, and it's obviously not a very easy question to answer, but I'll do my best.
First of all, we are not going to stop trading with China. So the notion that we are going to somehow find a way of separating our economy from their economy, I just think that's not in the offing. Our businesses are not going to allow that to happen, and our economies are too tightly intertwined, I think, to really provide any separation.
That leaves us with what I think is—and I say this as someone who has been more concerned about China than everybody else for much longer, and I never believed that the Chinese were going to be made over into our image if only we traded with them. I never believed that. I actually opposed letting China into the WTO because I was worried about the corrupting influence they would have, which I think is true. I yield to very few people on my hawkishness when it comes to China.
But I think that what we really ought to be offering to China is in a sense the same deal that we've offered to all the great powers in the system, and that deal is: "We are not going to stand in the way of your being economically successful. Yes, we want you to behave on intellectual property rights; no, we don't want you robbing from our industries, including our defense industries," and those are all issues that we have to deal with.
But our general approach, it seems to me, is that we do not stand in the way of China's economic success. What we will stand in the way of is their use of their military to achieve their goals.
I think instead of doing what we are doing right now, which is squeezing them economically while our ability to deter them militarily declines—if you do that, I think we ought to know where that ends. If we're squeezing them economically, but we're not deterring them militarily, what's the choice they're going to make?
I would rather do the opposite. I would rather allow them to succeed economically and deter them militarily in the hopes that that will send them in a more positive direction.
I talked about how we can't separate ourselves from the Chinese. The Chinese really can't separate themselves from us. They are absolutely dependent on our market. They are entangled with us financially, and so they also have some disincentive to disrupting the system.
If we are clearly determined to hold our position, to defend our allies, and to deter their geopolitical expansion, I don't know whether that gives us a one-in-three chance of avoiding conflict or a one-in-two chance of avoiding conflict, but I do think it's our best hope.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Faillace][off-mic]: In the other instances where we've faced off, you said we offered them the basic bargain. We didn't offer that basic bargain to the Soviet Union. We didn't offer—
ROBERT KAGAN: No, we did, actually. Not at the beginning.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Faillace][off-mic]: [Inaudible] defense industry with their, we didn't—
ROBERT KAGAN: No, no, no. When we offered it—
QUESTIONER [Mr. Faillace][off-mic]: [Inaudible]. We didn't do that with Nazi Germany. I mean, sure, we might not have been fighting with them, but we certainly didn't integrate our supply chain in a way that there could be a really deleterious effect to our own economy and our own defense system.
ROBERT KAGAN: That's a different issue, but we did offer them basically the bargain that they could succeed—obviously we don't have every detail exactly the same, but the basic bargain was: "You forgo geopolitical ambition and succeed economically."
That's the bargain we gave Germany. We didn't offer it to them; that's the bargain we insisted on with Germany and Japan; that's the bargain that France and Britain took; and that is the bargain that Russia toyed with after the end of the Cold War and ultimately rejected, and I think China has rejected it so far, too. In which case then all we can do is deter them militarily.
I would be willing to explore the ideas—and I know people like Robert Blackwill and Ashley Tellis have written an article on this. There is a strategy of basically being in a full-scale Cold War relationship with them where we are minimizing our economic exposure and we are basically squeezing them economically and militarily at the same time.
I just have to say I'm wary of doing that partly because I don't know that we can. Lenin wasn't totally wrong about us when he said we would sell the rope to hang ourselves with. It's very hard for us to forgo the Chinese market, and I don't know whether we can succeed in doing that.
So what I fear is that we'll bluster a lot and we'll halfheartedly squeeze them at the same time that we're not deterring them militarily, and that to me is a recipe for conflict.
Again, if somebody could tell me, "Don't worry about it; we'll squeeze them, we'll go all out, etc.," then I would say okay, I'm willing to give it a shot. But I'm skeptical.
JOANNE MYERS: I'm going to take both these questions one right after the other because I promised Bob that a car would be here to take him back to the train station to take him back to Washington.
ROBERT KAGAN: Because it'll take an hour and a half to get back to the train station.
JOANNE MYERS: Right. So if you could make your question brief.
QUESTION: Ernestine Bradley from The New School. On the one hand, I admire what you said, and above all I admire the conviction with which you spoke.
I find I am basically in total disagreement with what you say. What in my opinion you are doing is totally destroying the Enlightenment. You, of course, mentioned Fukuyama. That's an ancient, long-overcome issue, as I'm sure you know, and Fukuyama has rescinded and all of this.
What you are denying by saying the current situation is an aberration is the thought that I thought we were growing up with, enlightenment, progress, education, advancement on every level. The reason in my opinion why we no longer have the great wars that you had mentioned is simply because the big powers know that there is no longer a great war without self-destruction. It's not that we don't want the others to be destroyed, we don't want—
JOANNE MYERS: Excuse me, Ernestine, but could you just—
QUESTIONER [Ms. Bradley]: I know. I'm so sorry, but I am, as you can tell, I'm really upset with—
ROBERT KAGAN: I understand exactly what you're saying because, yes, I am directly arguing with that position.
QUESTION: Peter Russell. You talked a lot about the public mood and public opinion and the loss of vision about the liberal international order, so my question simply is: Where are and who are the gardeners? How is it that we lost this legacy of awareness and attention?
ROBERT KAGAN: I'm going to answer that question before I grapple with the Enlightenment. As someone who has spent the last 35 years studying American history I don't want us to have an overly rosy view of how wonderful we used to be because certainly in the first century of our history after we got past the brilliant diplomacy of the first decade, which was sort of our birth-and-survival diplomacy, we didn't take diplomacy very seriously as a nation. We didn't think it mattered very much. We had very few ambassadors overseas, and the ones we had were not particularly chosen for their skill as ambassadors.
That didn't really change in any fundamental way until after World War II, at which point we decided we had to take this stuff very seriously all of a sudden, and we did take it very seriously then for three or four—let's just say we took it seriously all the way through the end of the Cold War and then somewhat beyond because we had our minds concentrated by World War II and then the immediate onset of the communist threat, which demanded a seriousness.
As soon as that threat was gone and World War II seemed like a distant memory and how many people think about that anymore, we returned in a way to form, and returning to form is that—and this is something that is really basic to Americans, and even today it's sort of amazing to say this, but I think it's true. I still think we think we're protected by two oceans. I still think we think that everything is way out there and it's not really our problem, and the rest of the world can go to hell and we'll be fine.
So it's very easy for us to say: "And therefore, we can cut our foreign aid budget. We can go without having a diplomat in Saudi Arabia for two-and-a-half years," etc.
I don't know what it's going to take. My wife was a gardener. She worked in the State Department as a diplomat. She served in the Foreign Service for 35 years, and she didn't feel that if she stayed in the State Department under this administration she would be given any chance to do what she had been doing, and so she resigned on Inauguration Day. She didn't wait to be shuffled out. If you want to know what's happening to the gardeners, they're retiring.
I also can say, though, there is a younger generation that is getting back into it. I find young people right now, they know they're in a dangerous world, and I think more of them are actually starting to engage in a way. I don't want to say "The children are our future," but I do have some hope for the next generation, actually, now that our generation has messed everything up.
I can end on talking about the Enlightenment. The one thing I like about this is that we have a pure philosophical disagreement. It cuts through all the complexities of everything.
Right. I don't believe in the Enlightenment idea of human moral progress. I believe obviously that there is scientific progress, there has been an expansion of knowledge, but the expectation that this would lead to an improvement in human behavior, which is the core Enlightenment concept, I think has proved fallacious.
We do teach ourselves a Whig history where we focus only on the progress and don't focus on the regress.
But I will say this. People writing in 1939, if you read Hannah Arendt in 1950, if you look at political philosophers both before, during, and after the war, they said then—and this is less than 70 years ago—that it was absurd to talk about human progress.
Do you want to go back and forth on this? I think I'm going to get the last word just because of the snow.
QUESTIONER [Ms. Bradley][off-mic]: [Inaudible] argue, but the 100th anniversary a few days ago, just look at the pictures and you see Europe, West Europe, united in a way that is—[inaudible] progress.
ROBERT KAGAN: No, I don't agree. I don't agree. I think in fact we're now seeing the disintegration of that very Western Europe. We're now seeing Europe returning to its nationalist past. I absolutely believe that what Europe was able to accomplish could not have been accomplished had it not been for the United States. By the way, Europeans agree with that, too.
QUESTIONER [Ms. Bradley][off-mic]: But it's still progress.
ROBERT KAGAN: Okay.
JOANNE MYERS: I will take the liberty of ending this and ask you to join me in thanking Bob for his commitment, his discussion, and for just being here. Thank you so much.
His book is available. We have signed copies for you to purchase, and I just think I have to take him now and get him into the car. So please join us and continue the conversation.
ROBERT KAGAN: Thank you very much. Thank you all for coming. I really appreciate it.