Robert Kagan delivers the opening speech at the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum in Brussels on March 8. (Jonathan Capehart/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

“The jungle is starting to grow back.”

Robert Kagan opened the German Marshall Fund’s Brussels Forum last month with a helluva speech. The Post contributing columnist and Brookings foreign policy fellow warned that the U.S.-led liberal democratic order responsible for the peace and prosperity of the West since the end of World War II is not only in danger — it’s also a historical aberration.

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“My argument is that the liberal world order is an incredible achievement. It, in fact, is sort of an aberration from history,” Kagan told me during an interview for the latest episode of “Cape Up” recorded in Brussels on March 9. “We need to understand that this liberal world order is an artificial construction. It isn’t just an evolution of mankind, humankind, and it won’t stay. And that the forces of nature, human nature, and the forces of history going back centuries, inclines to overrun this order, unless it’s actively protected.”

That jungle regrowth, Kagan said, can be seen already. “You could see it in the upheaval against liberal democracy in Europe, all the populist nationalist movements,” he said. The election of President Trump is part of this upheaval. But because of the United States’ role in the world, it has tremendous consequences.

“The remarkable thing that the United States did after World War II, which no country in history had ever done before, was in a way to define our national interest so broadly that they became international responsibilities,” Kagan explained. “Normal nations don’t have international responsibilities. They look out for their own.”

“The United States basically made itself an onshore power in Europe and in Asia, in a way to create zones of peace there,” Kagan continued, “putting an end to German and Japanese ambition, steering Germany and Japan toward economic ambition, economic success, which then made it possible for the neighboring countries in those regions to worry less about being attacked.” As a result, Kagan argues, “The United States basically provided the underpinning which allowed this great economic growth that we’ve seen over the past five decades to take place.”


President Trump addresses the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in September 2017. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

But after the end of the Cold War, Kagan says, “A lot of Americans increasingly [began] asking, ‘Why are we doing this?’” The question got louder as the United States began ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early part of the last decade and as the economy collapsed in 2008. “Trump came in and really ran on the premise, insofar as he talked about foreign policy, that this liberal world order was bad for us, that we were getting screwed in the liberal order,” Kagan told me. “There’s no way in the world that an American public that was concerned about America’s role in the world could have voted for Donald Trump.”

When Kagan and I talked, the big news was Trump’s announcement that he would meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Listen to the podcast to hear Kagan discuss the perils of that forthcoming meeting. He also talks about why he disavowed the GOP. “There’s a lot of people in the Republican Party I don’t want to be associated with,” he said.

“Cape Up” is Jonathan’s weekly podcast talking to key figures behind the news and our culture. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher and anywhere else you listen to podcasts.