So many international developments vie for America’s attention. Dr. Robert Kagan’s book, The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World, considers what has been the American stabilizing role in the world. The themes in the book also pose unsettling questions about whether America will continue to lead while cultivating allies. With the threatened rise of implacable autocratic powers and calls to turn attention to the homeland, will American influence still weight the scales in international power struggles? World order is a constant and complex balancing challenge. Security is only assured when order prevails. What will be the future leadership potential for America based upon decisions being made now?
Dr. Robert Kagan, Stephen & Barbara Friedman Senior Fellow, The Brookings Institution
Prof. Paul Rahe, Professor of History and Charles O. Lee and Louise K. Lee Chair in the Western Heritage, Hillsdale College
Moderator: Prof. Jeremy A. Rabkin, Professor of Law, Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University
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Operator: Welcome to The Federalist Society's Practice Group Podcast. The following podcast, hosted by The Federalist Society's International & National Security Law Practice Group, was recorded on Tuesday, September 17, 2019, during a live teleforum conference call held exclusively for Federalist Society members.
Wesley Hodges: Welcome to The Federalist Society's teleforum conference call. This morning's topic is a book review on The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World. My name is Wesley Hodges, and I am the Associate Director of Practice Groups at The Federalist Society.
As always, please note that all expressions of opinion are those of the experts on today's call.
Today we are very fortunate to have with us a panel of experts, including one author of the book. But before we get to them, I'd like to introduce our moderator, Professor Jeremy A. Rabkin, who is Professor of Law at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University and member of our International & National Security Law Practice Group. So after our speakers have their remarks, we will have time for Q&A, so please keep in mind what questions you have for the author, for one of our panelists. We'd love to hear from you on this call. Thank you very much for sharing with us today. Professor Rabkin, the floor is yours.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: Thank you very much, Wes. I just want to say a few words about our participants today. They both have Wikipedia pages, so if you're really interested in details, you can look them up. But just to start, Robert Kagan, who has written this book, is now at Brookings. In the past, he's been at the Council on Foreign Relations and served in the State Department. I see from his Wikipedia page a lot of people call him a neoconservative, but he prefers the term "liberal interventionist." It started as a magazine article, and I say this in a complimentary way, it's very readable. It is free of academic jargon. If you want a statement of a certain perspective, it's very well done.
Paul Rahe is now a Professor at Hillsdale College. He has written a number of works about ancient history and actually, although he blogs a lot about contemporary affairs, he's written about most of the centuries in between. He is now in the middle of an at least four-volume work about the grand strategy of Sparta facing off against the Persians and then the Athenians. And he got his Ph.D. at Yale with, as it happens, Bob Kagan's father, Don Kagan, as his dissertation advisor.
So I guess these guys have known each other for a long time. I think they have somewhat different perspectives. Robert Kagan renounced the Republican Party in 2016 over objections to Donald Trump. I think it's fair to say Paul Rahe in his journalistic contributions has been cautious but still somewhat more sympathetic to President Trump, or at least willing to acknowledge that he's done some things right. So they'll have, I hope, some fruitful disagreements, but start from a common appreciation of how much we can learn from the Peloponnesian War.
So let's start with Robert Kagan. Do you want to give a quick summary of what you take to be the argument of your book?
Dr. Robert Kagan: Thanks, Jeremy. And let me just say it's great to be having a conversation with you both. And it is true that Paul and I go back a long time, and he wasn't exactly my professor at Yale, but he was pretty close to being a professor of mine at Yale. So the generations just keep sliding on down.
The basic premise of my book is that this period that we've been living in essentially since the Second World War is an extraordinary period in human history in three fundamental ways. One is that there has been unheard of prosperity of a global nature, many times what the human race has known before. There's also been an incredible explosion of democracy, which was the rarest form of government prior, really, to the 20th century, and even prior the Second World War, and now is strikingly widespread. And then finally, and of course, probably closely related to these two things, is the fact that we've been without a great power conflict since World War II. And it's a pretty long period not to have a great power conflict since most of history is almost constant conflict between empires, city-states, and nations.
So this extraordinary period, I think, led us to -- led many of us, as we are wont to do in our enlightenment tradition, to see this as the culmination of a long, progressive evolution of the human race toward this plateau. I think to some extent that idea was put best and most famously by Frank Fukuyama in his "End of History" essay. But it's now pretty clear, and I must say, it should have been clear before that this period is really more of an aberration than a culmination, and that this is an unnatural condition if you look at the whole sweep of history.
And it seems to me pretty clear that the cause of this unnatural and aberrant period is the role that the United States played beginning after the Second World War. And I mean this in a very concrete way. It isn't just the promulgation of certain ideas. It was very specifically the role the United States played in transforming Germany from an aggressive dictatorship to a liberal economic powerhouse that basically eschewed geopolitical ambition and did the same with Japan, which really set the world on an entirely different historical trajectory in terms of pacifying and leading to a prosperous Europe, largely true also in Asia, which is sort of the foundations of what we call the Liberal World Order.
And I do want to emphasize that these are very concrete events. They are not just the victory of an idea. I mean, the fact that the world is liberal is related to the fact that a liberal power carried out this global hegemony. But it wasn't the victory of the idea alone, and therefore, it will pass as that hegemony passes.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: So I want to just start with Paul Rahe. Do you have any reservations about that account of the things that you think need to be formulated a little differently?
Prof. Paul Rahe: Yes, a bit. But let me start by indicating what I agree with. Bob's book is called The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World. The first two-thirds of the book is focused on how the jungle was hacked away at, and I think it's terrific. It's a sensible, fair-minded account—sometimes a little bit abbreviated, but given the shortness of the book, that's what you'd expect—of the achievements of American foreign policy since 1940 and of the disaster of the 1920s and the 1930s.
Here are some of its virtues. Bob has a respect for contingency. There is no nonsense in this book about inevitable progress. Progress, if it happens, is an achievement. It's fragile, and it can disappear very quickly. In consequence, the book is an appreciation of statesmanship, of what it can do. And I'd even go further than Bob does. I would say the United States' handling of affairs during the Cold War, despite some mistakes, is the greatest achievement of statesmanship in human history. This is a period that need studying, and Bob will eventually write a volume on that period. And I very much look forward to seeing it.
The third thing that's good about the book: There's an acknowledgement of deep-seated cultural propensities and of the obstacles to transformations. So for example, in dealing with post-Cold War Russia, Bob talks about the imperialist instincts that are built into Russian culture. He doesn't go into it in great depth, talking about Pan-Slavism, about orthodoxy and so forth, but what he does suggest is it is a natural thing that there be a revival of the old ambitions of Russia, and that this wasn't caused by NATO expansion. It's not defensive. There's really a kind of aggressive instinct built into the culture, and it has not dissolved and disappeared, and we should not be surprised that we're having trouble with the Russians. He does the same thing with the Chinese, and I think he's absolutely right on both cases. In fact, if I were to fault American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War, I would say that it has been too friendly to the Russians and the Chinese, and too optimistic.
The other thing is I think Bob is correct that world order depends, in our current circumstances, on American power and American will. And in the book, there is a down-to-earth acknowledgement that some initiatives will fail, and we simply have to expect that.
I am less happy with the last third of the book. I think it's a bit too Eurocentric, and that may come out of being focused in his writing on the foreign policy of the United States and of other countries in the 1920s and the 1930s. There's too much worry about Russia. Russia seems to me to be a declining power. It's declining demographically. Vis-à-vis other powers, it's declining economically. Its economy is about that of Spain's. It is troublesome. It has nuclear weapons. It has a certain advantage in certain localities, but it seems to me that firmness, patience, and time will do the trick. Russia is not, in the long run, going to be a great problem if we are a bit firmer than we were under, for example, Barak Obama when the Russians went into the Crimea and Ukraine.
I think in the book there is too much hand wringing about populism, especially in Europe. It seems to me that populism is a product of the excessive internationalism of the European Union. The attempt to deepen the European Union, to gradually turn it into a kind of a federal government, seems to me to be a disaster. The introduction of the euro seems to me to have been a mistake, and I think they need to pull back from it. It's produced debtor states in the Mediterranean, and the Germans seem to be incapable of recognizing that they're going to have to forgive those debts. The consequence is that it has caused political upheavals in some of those countries; the ugliest was in Greece.
The second thing is a mistake that was made, and it's a big one, is Angela Merkel's decisions with regard to the refugee crisis. Naturally, if you're flooded with people from a different culture, a different religion with different practices, there's going to be a reaction. Another mistake, I think, is the free movement of peoples within Europe. But all of this is tied up with one crucial fact that is a defect for the whole European project. By the way, I favor the common market very much, but -- and that is the democratic deficit. And I don't think anything can be done about the democratic deficit.
In the modern times, the natural crucible for political liberty has been the nation state. And I think Charles de Gaulle was right when he spoke of a Europe of nations. I think that the European Union needs to be much more modest than it has been, and that the populism is a reaction to that. And thus far, the European elites have not responded -- have not given an inch on these things.
The next thing I would say critical of Bob is I think he's a little bit too favorable to interventionism, to adventures. I opposed our going into Afghanistan. I don't mean we shouldn't have gone in the traditional British way and butcher and bolt, but to try to stay there and build a nation is a waste of resources. And the resources are scarce. It undermines our willingness to go into other places when we really need to. I have similar views about Libya and Syria.
And it seems to me that though Bob is extremely good in the earlier parts of the book about the impact of culture over time on places like Russia and China and that our expectations need to be low, he doesn't apply the same kind of analysis to liberalization. There's not much in the book about the Islamic world and about Islam itself as an obstacle to liberalization. And having been married to a Muslim and having lived in the Islamic world, I'm very struck by that. I can only say that the Kemalists that I knew in Turkey when I lived in Turkey would not have agreed with Bob about just how easy it is to introduce liberal democratic norms into that part of the world.
The book just seems to me to be radically short on China, and I think China is very, very important. It's not like Russia. It's not a declining power. There's been massive, massive economic growth, and they have demonstrated tremendous aggressiveness. Other states may be easily handled, but not so much China. And one of the reasons I think we need to avoid quagmires like Afghanistan is we need to save our capital, both our moral capital and our treasure, for the more serious threats. And China seems to me to be the most serious.
I do not mean that there aren't weaknesses to China. They have a demographic crisis. They may fall into the middle income trap. The regime itself is a kind of post-Communist regime with no argument for itself except nationalism. And I believe the Belt and Road business is an overreach. China today reminds me a little bit of the Kaiserreich after Bismarck. By their expansionism, they are uniting their neighbors against them. That's an advantage.
My final criticism is this: Bob sometimes talks about authoritarianism. I don't think it exists. There's liberalism, there's Marxism, there's Catholicism, there's Protestantism, there's libertarianism. And yes, there are authoritarian governments. That's our word. But I don't know of any government that calls itself authoritarian, and I don't think there's an intellectual movement. On occasion, Bob has suggested, for example, in The Washington Post on the 14th of March 2019, this year, that we need to mount something like a crusade against authoritarianism. I think the effect of that would be to drive the petty dictatorships into the hands of China, which we really don't want to do.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: Bob, do you want to react to any of that?
Dr. Robert Kagan: Yeah. First of all, let me just say thanks to Paul for doing such a thorough job. I appreciate his kind remarks, and I also, in a good deal of what he was criticizing -- I'm sorry there was a criticism because I agreed with a lot of what you were saying in that part too.
Prof. Paul Rahe: Uh-huh, okay.
Dr. Robert Kagan: I'm not sure that -- sometimes I think your characterization of what I'm saying is not quite really what I'm saying. But I do think this last point that you made is, in a way, a very interesting point. And I'm not arguing that there is an authoritarian ideology, but I am saying something that I guess I thought would be sort of, in a way, right up your alley, which is there is a historic critique of liberalism. It was certainly there before there was even a government associated with liberalism. There was a Counter-Enlightenment critique. There is a traditional conservative critique of liberalism.
And what I'm suggesting is that critique of liberalism is alive and well and flourishing, and increasingly geopolitically powerful. Putin, I think, is quite explicit in saying it is liberalism that he opposes in favor of traditionalism, in favor of -- I don't think he's actually a believer in the Orthodox Church, but he nevertheless is a supporter of the Orthodox Church, the believer in traditional values. I think when you listen to what Victor Orbán says in Hungary, he is explicitly a liberal, that's the word he uses. And you can read in Chinese newspapers and intellectual arguments a critique of liberalism as a failed approach.
Now, it's not like they have communism as the alternative, but I think they have something that in a way is older and more enduring. It's the anti- -- it's sort of the non-liberal approach that dominated the world for most of history, and which the young American Republic had to confront, particularly in the countries of the Holy Alliance, the absolutist monarchies that existed at the time. Now, so again, I personally feel like we overstated the ideological threat posed by communism, and my concern is that we understate the challenge posed by the critique of liberalism. And that's really what I'm trying to say.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: I want to just continue this because I think Paul wants to say more about it too, but let me just push you a little bit deeper into this topic. I really wasn't clear what the book was trying to say about this. Is your view of this, Bob, that if the United States had done something different under previous administrations, under Obama, say, or before that under George W. Bush, that we wouldn't be seeing this kind of whatever you want to call it, traditionalist populism in central Europe? Is there anything that we could do now which would affect the trajectory of politics in places like that? That's one question. And the related question is why do we have to care? I mean, are we worried that this is going to spread to Canada? That wasn't a joke. Or Mexico? I don't know.
Dr. Robert Kagan: I would be less worried about where it spreads. I'm not particularly worried about Canada, but I'm pretty clear in the book, actually, that this liberal critique is a natural -- that what you're talking about, whether you call it populism -- I don't even like, really, the term populism because there's all kinds of different populisms, but traditionalism, conservativism, is inevitable. There was always going to be -- in fact, everywhere liberalism has ever cropped up, it creates it's own antibodies because, as Paul has eloquently -- and others have written not as eloquently as Paul, liberalism has flaws. There're many ways in which liberalism does not respond to basic human needs and desires. This idea that liberalism is the culmination of human aspirations, I think, is wrong. I think this is --
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: -- So maybe it follows that there isn't much we can do about that.
Dr. Robert Kagan: Right. There were two halves to my answer, so I'll get to the second half of it. Right. So some of it was inevitable, but some of it, I think, was also a product of some of our failures, and particularly, I would say, and most directly and obviously in the case of Syria. Whatever one thinks about whether Angela Merkel should have taken in 100,000 or more, how many hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, the fact of the Syrian refugee crisis was a failure of the United States and its allies to get under control what was happening in Syria, which produced the refugee crisis. The refugees that poured out of Libya were a product of a failure after the removal of Gaddafi to bring in the kind of international peacekeeping force that we did bring into the Balkans which helped to put a lid on that.
I mean, again, none of these problems are going to be solved. And I certainly don't believe—and I don't know why Paul said that I do—that it's no difficult matter imposing liberalism in Muslim society. I think it's difficult to impose liberalism anywhere, but it's certainly true in the case of Muslim societies. But that's a different question from whether you can mitigate the consequences of crises and conflicts. And I think that, therefore, we bear some responsibility. Particularly in this case, it was Obama's doing. We bear some responsibility for the refugee flows that shook Europe to its core and took some inevitable reaction against liberalism and made it a much more virulent reaction, as I think Paul was suggesting when he was talking about this.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: But even if that's right, which I think it's a very plausible story, what's so bad about what's happening now? I mean, so the people in Brussels are unhappy with the people in Budapest and Warsaw. Why is that a threat to the liberal order? Why isn't that just called politics?
Dr. Robert Kagan: Well, some of it is politics. And by the way, I agree with much of Paul's critique of the European Union, and I certainly think it clearly went too far. I don't know exactly what the perfect balance ought to have been, but we ought to remember what the reason why there was a European Union, why there had been a European community, and why there had been a steel and coal organization. It was to avoid slipping back to the Europe that had let to two catastrophic world wars in the first half of the century. It wasn't primarily ideological, although there certainly was a strong strain of Enlightenment thinking in it, but it was to avoid that.
And so what is at stake in Europe is Europe falling back to a kind of renationalization where what is an inherently unstable situation, if the United States is not involved, can lead, I think, ultimately back to the kinds of crises that we've had before in Europe. So that's my concern. My concern is the renationalization breakdown. It doesn't mean that I believe that the E.U. is the perfect solution or that it hasn't, in fact, also created this reaction to some extent, as you suggest. But that is what is at stake, it seems to me.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: I was struck that in the book, you talk a lot about the liberal order, and as in the conversation we've been having now, you seem to associate the liberal order with a certain kind of almost cosmopolitan consensus about proper standards of government. But then you don't actually say anything about the international human rights movement or U.N. institutions to protect human rights, and finally, the International Criminal Court. Do you think those things are just peripheral, unimportant? Do you think they might be counterproductive? What's your view of those things?
Dr. Robert Kagan: As I say, the critical element of any sort of progress that there's been made—and I suppose we can argue about what progress means in this case in terms of respecting the rights of individuals, which is essentially what liberalism is about—is due primarily to the geopolitical configuration that followed World War II. I think most of the -- certainly the U.N. in a general sense and most of the institutions around the U.N. strike me as being, yes, peripheral. They're scaffolding around the building, and you need the building; you don't need the scaffolding.
And I'm aware -- I've read your stuff, Jeremy, and I know what your concerns are about these international organizations, and I don't even disagree with your critique of them. But I do think that they are a relatively minor factor in what I conceive to be the Liberal World Order, which again, I want to repeat that I'm not talking about ideas and even institutions. I am talking about a configuration of power and, most importantly, the way all the other great powers of the world except Russia and China gave up geopolitical ambition. And that is a consequence of the acceptance of American hegemony. Now there's lots of things that have build up around that, but to me, that's the core of the Liberal World Order.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: Do you want to say a few words about the WTO? I mean, are you concerned?
Dr. Robert Kagan: Not particularly.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: Are you concerned that it may now be on the brink of no longer being able to offer arbitration of disputes because the Trump administration has said, "We don't want there to be a quorum on the appellate body. We just will refuse to accept any nominees to that position."
Dr. Robert Kagan: I don't have any particular stake in the WTO one way or another. I do believe that the founders of the post-war order, the Dean Achesons and company were right to believe that free trade was a -- that the general kind of free trade -- obviously, there's no perfect free trade system, but a generally free trading international system was more conducive to peace than the flip into economic autarky which characterized the period that they lived through from 1900 through World War II. And so I have a bigger concern than the WTO is the way that I think the Trump administration is driving the world toward a more protectionist approach in terms of international system which is having all kinds of consequences that are of geopolitical importance. That's a much bigger concern for me.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: I'm really just asking you whether you think international institutions are important. So you already said, "No, not for human rights, but maybe for trade," leaning into it as a superpower and saying, "Come on, guys, you all need to play with us."
Dr. Robert Kagan: Yeah. I mean, it's not, "You all need to play with us." You can have bilateral agreements and multilateral trade agreements. The question is are we heading toward a generally free trading regime or are we heading toward a more protectionist regime? And that is ultimately the decision of great powers. And that, to me, is the most fundamental question that we're facing in the world today, not the adjudication of the WTO per se.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: Well, I wouldn't say it was the central question. We're having a debate in the United States, and part of it is about is the world system working for us, or is the liberal order working for us? And quite a lot of people who voted for President Trump think the answer is no and think that we would be constrained if we were more committed to international institutions. So whether you think they really are or are not consequential in themselves, they might be politically important. And maybe the argument that you're making is a hard one to carry in the context of our domestic politics.
Dr. Robert Kagan: Yeah. Well, there's no question that it's not the winning argument right now. I think that Americans are quite wrong to think that the Liberal World Order has done them dirt in any fundamental way. You can think of particular cases where we may have sacrificed money and interest in some way, but the overall order of which a free trade regime is part has served American interests incredibly well if you can remember what the consequence -- what it was like before we had this order.
And so there's much too much emphasis -- and again, I feel like this is right down Paul's alley because in a way, American attitudes toward the international system right now is similar to their attitude towards their government, which is they want to know what they've gotten out of it lately without really quite realizing what the overall benefit of a structure that is not simply taking care of their pocketbook at every single moment. And I think that's a pretty short-sighted view, but I suppose it's very normal for democracies to feel that way. I mean, Americans undertook an extraordinary, unusual, and probably historically unique responsibility for global order after World War II. It doesn't surprise me that many decades later, they are tiring of that, and also don't remember why they did it in the first place.
And I think that's where we have been for some time. It wasn't invented by Donald Trump. I think the American people have been heading in this direction for a while. I think Barak Obama's election was a product of this mood as well. And so I'm not at all surprised that that's what Americans think. It's also what they thought in the 1920s and '30s, that they'd gotten involved in this global effort in World War I, and what was good about it? And so they pulled away from the rest of the world and started saying, "What's in it for us?" And then we had the catastrophe we had, and then we've learned that lesson, and now we've forgotten it again. That's the way it all seems to me.
Prof. Paul Rahe: I just have two points to make, Bob. You're absolutely right about Putin and Orbán and Xi, and something like Counter-Enlightenment thought. But I don't think it has all that much purchase beyond sort of Hungarian defensiveness about cultural autonomy. Remember, it's a country of 3 million people, easily threatened, especially with regard to mass immigration. They've worked to avoid it, yes. And deep-seated cultural trends within Russia, and then, of course, in China. But I think Counter-Enlightenment thinking is -- not very many people read it and not very many people echo it, at least in its full-blooded form. I mean, Edmund Burke is another matter, but he's part of the Enlightenment.
On the trade question, look, to hold the Liberal World Order together, the United States had to be exceedingly generous -- the Marshall Plan, but other arrangements as well. And every once in a while, we've found it necessary to reassert ourselves. Think about the Plaza Accord with Japan. I think that's what's going on now vis-à-vis China and some other places, that we don't feel that generosity is needed at the moment. And one of the things that caused the reaction that you're talking about is the effect of introducing China into the WTO. I live in rural America, and in the small town, there were 13 small factories in this town 20 years ago. Now, there are zero. And that's had a tremendous effect on people's lives.
This was an interesting county that I'm in. It voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and Donald Trump in the Republican primary, and then the Bernie people voted for Trump. So it's worth thinking about the dissatisfaction in what, for lack of a better word, I'll call the working class about wages and about job security. It's caused by something we did that in certain ways is comparable to the foolishness that the Europeans have engaged in.
Dr. Robert Kagan: Let me just push back a little on that because, obviously, that is one of the most significant arguments for what has happened politically here. First of all -- and I opposed China's entry into the WTO and granting it most favored nation status back in the '90s and lost that battle because the American business world wanted to trade in China, and they controlled the political system at the time. I thought it was strategically a mistake, and now we can see what the consequences of that are.
However, that being said, look, there are certain -- you would accept that there are certain industries at any given time in American history that are not going to survive changes in the global economy. I mean, we saw that happening to the family farm disappeared. There was all kinds of movement around the country. There are always winners and losers in the capitalist system. You're not suggesting that every one of those factories would be in shape if only China hadn't joined the WTO?
Prof. Paul Rahe: No, I'm not suggesting that. But there has been a very big impact. And China's trade policies, its theft of technology, has had a considerable impact on the American economy, especially on the manufacturing part of the American economy.
Dr. Robert Kagan: The other maybe deeper question is how much of this response that we're seeing is due to economic factors and how much is due to cultural factors? And I think that there's a good case to be made that some of this is also a widespread feeling. And I wouldn't say it was about the working class. I think it's a more complicated complexion than that, that the country is moving in directions on social issues, on other kinds of cultural issues that are different from what they're accustomed to, and there's a certain reaction against that too. I mean, don't you think that's part of it as well?
Prof. Paul Rahe: I think there's an element of that: abortion. I care about that.
Dr. Robert Kagan: Abortion, all kinds of rights. I mean, if you had to -- but do you think it's still -- you would say it's 80 percent about economics?
Prof. Paul Rahe: I think it's more -- let's put it this way. I think that the margin had a lot to do with the sense that the government of the United States is not interested in working people. The Democratic Party used to defend people who were in the private sector unions. They abandoned them. And of course, I haven't mentioned massive immigration to the United States, but if you look at wages since 1973, and I'm not talking about total compensation because that has gone up, but they've been relatively flat. It's not very surprising that after a while, people get upset.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: All right. Wes Hodges, do we have some callers waiting?
Wesley Hodges: First caller, you are up.
Christine McDaniel: My name is Christine McDaniel. I'm a national trade economist at the Mercatus --
Dr. Robert Kagan: -- You are someone we were waiting for. Thank you.
Prof. Paul Rahe: That's right.
Christine McDaniel: Oh. I have a question. Given your comments this morning and whether or not the -- as you guys have noted, the anxieties that many across America feel are totally due to trade or -- regardless of the reason they've come about, they are definitely there. How long do you think that this anxiety across America is going to -- will take to play out? And what are some possible preferred policy responses in terms of international economic policy that could address those anxieties while not necessarily harming the U.S. economy?
Dr. Robert Kagan: I would raise the question as to how we feel about the current trade policy of the administration vis-à-vis China, which are undoubtedly causing some actually additional pain in some of the industries that have been directly affected, including farmers, for instance, and whether at the end of the day at the end of this sort of game of chicken that Trump and Xi Jinping are playing, who is going to blink first. And then—this is a way of trying to answer the question—what will be the common wisdom lesson learned from this particular episode? That it was good to have gotten tough with China, which I think a very plausible case can be made, or that at the end of the day, it really didn't wind up doing us that much good.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: Yeah. I just want to pursue that with you for a minute. I realize none of us are economists, and none of us are really focusing on trade flows particularly, but it seems to me -- your book, to me it seemed to go back and forth between American hegemony has made all these good things possible, so America needs to maintain its strength and its primacy. And then sometimes you would have a different storyline which was we built these international institutions or at least international understandings, and we didn't act like a traditional great power, just bullying people.
And on the trade question, I totally agree with you that we are going to look back on what happened in this confrontation with China and say, "Uh, don't do that again," or, "Oh, yeah, that's what you need to do." But I wonder if you have some sort of predisposition about this from thinking about what has brought us to this place. You know very much more about it, I suppose, than the rest of us. I am not aware that we did a lot of bullying of Europe in the 1960s or '70s. Maybe the China thing is a new initiative, I mean, at least the openness of it and the rancor of it. And maybe it's not in keeping with the idea of a liberal order in the world.
Dr. Robert Kagan: What you're referring to in the book is that we did, I think, enter into a kind of bargain with our allies. And I just wanted to make that clear that it wasn't a bargain that we made with everybody in the world, but it was a bargain that we made with our allies where basically they and we agreed that they would forego traditional geopolitical ambition, but that they would be able to pursue, in a way, geo-economic competition on a fairly fair ground, that we would not use our extraordinary combination of economic and military power to make sure that we won every deal. And there were many times throughout the Cold War where our allies were doing better than we were in particular industries or sometimes overall. And that was certainly true of the German economic miracle, and then the Japanese miracle.
Now, there were also times when we responded. We had a kind of a very strong confrontation with the Japanese which we got very nervous about in the 1980s, but then they conveniently fell into a 20 plus year recession, and that threat kind of diminished. And I don't think anybody who's done business with us over the years would say that we've been just pushovers. I'm sure many would say we have played hardball at different times, but the general approach has been not to use our power in that way.
Now, China represents a different phenomenon that didn't exist at the time because our number one geopolitical adversary was the Soviet Union, and they weren't even playing in the international economy. So we're in an unusual situation of having not an ally but an adversary with whom we are both intimately connected and also competing. And I don't think we've found yet what the right answer is. I think it's interesting to conduct the experiment that we're now conducting to see what -- I actually wasn't trying to pre-judge what the outcome is. I'm not sure what the outcome's going to be.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: Yeah, I agree with all of that.
Prof. Paul Rahe: Could I intervene on China? Look, China is a mercantilist power, and so they treat trade questions as political questions in a very direct way. And I do not believe that the Trump administration's trade policy vis-à-vis China, the confrontation that is now taking place, is primarily driven, though the rhetoric would suggest otherwise, by economic concerns. I think it is an attempt to bring home to the Chinese government that the so-called China dream can't be realized, and that we have very considerable leverage over them economically. And one sign that I might be right about this is Chinese newspapers, which of course are controlled by the government, often speak of this trade confrontation as an existential crisis for the Chinese regime. I think it might be.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: Yes, but doesn't that say that there isn't really a liberal order that encompasses the world? There was an American sphere of influence that was effective when there were threatening powers outside. And we just don't know whether this can be -- you could say the previous 75 years have been really good, not so much because of what the United States did but because what Mao did, which was destroying China and taking it out of international competition, and in another way what Brezhnev did, which was enfeebling the Soviet Union. And our friends are our friends, and that's really good, but it says nothing about how the world is. Does that sound right to you, Bob?
Dr. Robert Kagan: Yeah, I mean, I never thought -- I've never suggested the Liberal World Order encompassed the whole world. It definitely encompassed the structure of democratic alliances that was created after World War II, which expanded and was so successful economically. I would say it's not correct -- yes, Mao self-destructed, brought China down. But in the case of the Soviet Union, they just literally couldn't compete, I think, with this particular order. And so we saw what the consequence of that was.
And I do agree that we're facing a different situation now. I actually believe, however, that China -- I agree that China poses a unique kind of a threat. On the other hand, I think we may overstate how great a threat that is. I think China faces enormous strategic obstacles to rising even to become a number two geopolitical power in the world if the United States and its allies hold together because it's surrounded by very large and powerful great powers, all of whom regard it fearfully and all of whom look to the United States, all except Russia, look to the United States for some kind of backing and support. That's a very stable structure unless we screw it up. And I think the Chinese are acutely aware of the dangers that they face. And you're absolutely right. They know that they're more dependent on our economy than we are on their economy.
The question will be more of a political one in the United States whether Trump or any President will wind up blinking as he heads into an election season and doesn't want to have the marginal economic costs that may lose him the election in this confrontation. But overall, we should be able to win a trade agreement with China, and we also should be able to contain them militarily. My concern is we're going to undermine that by, in a sense, not wanting to feed and sustain the Liberal World Order, which is, I think, a key foundation for how you deal with a country like China.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: Probably you think it was not a good idea to have renounced the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement which our Asian allies like and Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump decided they didn't like.
Dr. Robert Kagan: Well, Hillary Clinton had to because that was the nature of the American political mood at the time, but yes. And I mean, if we were solely in the business of trying to contain and compete effectively with China, that's kind of what the Trans-Pacific Partnership did. Now, there are people who felt that certain elements of the TPP were disadvantageous to American industries or American workers, and that's what got sold. But as a strategic matter, everyone who was a hawk on China believed that the TPP was of benefit in the grand strategic picture.
Prof. Paul Rahe: I agree with that.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: Would you like to say, Bob, whether you think Trump era is just a sort of passing spasm or that it indicates some really deeper change in American outlook, that we'll be a different country in 10 years than we have been over the past however many decades?
Dr. Robert Kagan: I have to say, and I don't know whether you're talking specifically about foreign policy or about the whole foreign and domestic issues, but let me just do the foreign police piece of it since that's what I feel most comfortable with. I don't think that the quote, unquote "Trump era" began with Trump. I think it, at the very least, began with Obama and that it is part of -- I would say it's reasonable to say, looking at American history, it is part of Americans returning to normal. I think we need to understand that American foreign policy after World War II was abnormal for any country and particularly abnormal for the United States.
Now, that's not because I think Americans are isolationist. We're not isolationist. Our ideology, our economic interests, our commercial proclivities draw us out into the world. But the willingness to take on global responsibilities is an anomaly, and I'm not surprised that Americans have turned away from it. And if you look at the whole course of American history, certainly from the late 19th century on, what you see is a kind of sine wave, periods of high involvement in the world, in some cases intervention, followed by periods of disillusionment and retrenchment. And as the sine wave goes on -- that sine wave existed during the Cold War. There was World War II and then a dip down, and then the Korean War, and then a dip down, and then -- so I think we're in the middle of such a sine wave now. We're on one of those downward trajectories.
And for me, the only question is when does it oscillate back up? Is it 20 years, as it was in the interwar period? Is it 30 years? Is it 5 years? And we don't know the answer to that yet. My fear is that we are in a long trend toward wanting to not have those kinds of responsibilities, and it's going to take a tremendous shock to the system to turn that around. And I don't want that shock to the system, so that's what makes me worried and pessimistic right now.
But I don't think this was invented by Donald Trump, and I don't think it will end when Donald Trump is no longer President. If you look at the Democratic Party today and the leading candidates, that is a party that is just about as much about the United States not playing this role in the world as Trump is.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: Would you agree that there's no visible successor in the world that would want a liberal order in the world? I mean, the E.U. is just not in a position to do very much, right?
Dr. Robert Kagan: Well, it isn't a question of whether there is a willing successor. I mean, I talk to a lot of Germans these days, who, by the way, don't talk about the E.U. stepping up; they talk about Germany stepping up. But the problem, of course, is -- and this is where you get into sort of unique qualities of the United States which have nothing to do with our character or our virtue but is simply a matter of geography. It's a very unusual situation that you have this superpower that is basically on an island surrounded by much, much weaker powers.
Every other plausible global leader, the minute they get strong enough even to come close to that, they're going to frighten their neighbors to death. That is Germany's problem. Germany can't rise without frightening the rest of Europe. China isn't rising without frightening the rest of Asia. So it's almost like you cannot repeat the American experience under anybody else. You're much more likely to fall back to the multipolar competitive world of the past.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: I do see the logic of everything you're saying. It does seem to be a real failure of the E.U. project which was supposed to make it possible for Germany to assert itself in the guise of being the heart of Europe, a different thing from just --
Dr. Robert Kagan: -- I mean, that was a late European ambition. I remember very well when in the late '90s and then right before the Iraq War, Europe was saying, "We're the -- the people running Europe are going to run the 21st century, and the European Union's going to be a vehicle." I always thought that was inconceivable. You're not going to have an entity like the European Union really having a geopolitical presence in the world. I think it's impossible.
But I don't want to say -- again, I really feel like we need to remember the fundamental project of European unity was to avoid falling back into Europe's past. The rest of it has been, I think, almost sometimes silly ambitions for a new kind of world order where power doesn't matter anymore, and it's all about morals and economics, etc., etc., which we can clearly see does not exist.
Prof. Paul Rahe: Look, I agree with Bob on that. Bill Clinton called the United States the indispensable nation, and I'm afraid we're stuck with that. I don't know what will come after Trump. If, to judge by the current Democratic candidates, it could be considerably worse in foreign policy. I don't know what will happen on the Republican side, but it does seem to me that -- Bob touched on something that gives me great hope with regard to this, and that is we're entangled in the world, economically and in other ways, and we can't really escape the position that we're in. We can make mistakes by not doing something that we should do at a given moment, but I think in the long run, we will get drawn back in. And the long run that I'm talking about, Bob, is not 20 years. It's relatively short.
Dr. Robert Kagan: Well, listen, I hope you're right. I want you to be right. It's just very hard to see it at the moment. But then, of course, you can never see things really that very far ahead. Again, my bigger concern is not that we will eventually get back into the game, so to speak, but we can reach a point where things have changed so dramatically that it's very hard for us to get things back in shape without a tremendous expenditure and potentially dangerous conflict. That is what happened to the British, basically. They misplayed their hand in that situation, and by the time they got back into the game, they were basically going to lose. And the only thing that saved them was the deus ex machina of the great power across the ocean. Unfortunately for us, there is no other United States to come in and save us when we have made that kind of mistake, so we need to not make that mistake.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: Well, I think that's a fair summary of the book, right?
Dr. Robert Kagan: Yeah, that's basically -- I mean, I've been saying this for a long time in various different books, but that is definitely one of the points of this book. The only thing I wanted to add to this book, again, is just to remind people that liberalism, even maybe capitalism, and certainly peace are not -- we really have a very deeply ingrained Whig history of the world, and this idea that there are stages, and you go from the printing press to where we are today, and we've got this whole story. I think that Paul is someone who knows that that's not the case and has written --
Prof. Paul Rahe: -- It is not. It is not the case.
Dr. Robert Kagan: And I don't think we -- we look back on the past as if it is just not relevant to anything that's going to be happening, and I'm just more and more convinced that the past is a good way of trying to understand where things can be headed and that we're too sanguine about having escaped all those horrors which, by the way, were only 70, 80 years ago.
Prof. Jeremy Rabkin: Yes. All right. Well, the past may not be passed, but our hour is passed. So I want to thank both of the panelists and The Federalist Society for sponsoring this.
Wesley Hodges: Thank you so much, Professor. On behalf of The Federalist Society, I would like to thank you all for the benefit of your valuable time and expertise. We welcome all listener feedback by email at email@example.com. Thank you all for joining for the call. We are now adjourned.
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