The past century has been marked by repeated proclamations of the triumph of democracy. However, they have proved premature. Today, illiberal actors have once more gained footholds on both sides of the Atlantic and across the globe. Institutions in nations regarded as pillars of democracy find themselves under siege, or worse. Two new books by Brookings scholars elucidate the past, present and future of the ongoing struggle between democracy and its opponents.
In “The Jungle Grows Back: America and Our Imperiled World,” Robert Kagan argues for America’s role as an enforcer of peace and order throughout the world—and what is likely to happen if we withdraw and focus our attention inward. Like a jungle that keeps growing back after being cut down, the world has always been full of dangerous actors who, left unchecked, possess the desire and ability to make things worse. Kagan makes clear the essential role America has played for decades in keeping the world’s worst instability in check. He explains that the historical norm has always been toward chaos—that the jungle will grow back, if we let it, and we must not let it.
In “The Last Palace: Europe’s Turbulent Century in Five Lives and One Legendary House,” Eisen chronicles a century of the battle for democracy in Europe. He does so through the lives of the previous residents of the historic home where he lived as U.S. ambassador in Prague: its Jewish builder, its Wehrmacht occupier, the American envoy who fought the Cold War and the movie-star ambassador who ended it. He weaves together those lives with a fifth, his Czech-Jewish mother, a survivor of the Holocaust and Communism who was his best advisor as he fought today’s illiberals as ambassador.
On Sept. 17, Governance Studies at Brookings hosted Kagan and Eisen in a conversation, moderated by NPR’s Steve Inskeep, about their books and about the cycles of democracy and illiberalism—including the current rise of illiberalism in the United States and Europe—what that means, and how to fight it. Afterward, Brookings’ Bill Galston provided additional remarks. On a second panel, the direct descendants of Eisen’s four predecessors in the ambassador’s residence gathered for the first time ever to speak about the human costs of these cycles.