Sunday, August 24, 2008

The End of History vs. Nationalistic Autocracies

Several days ago I received the August 25th edition of The Weekly Standard and read an article by Robert Kagan entitled “History’s Back, Ambitious autocracies, hesitant democracies.”

Yesterday I read the article by Francis Fukuyama entitled “They Can Only Go So Far, The world’s bullies are throwing their weight around. But history isn’t on their side.”

I was at first puzzled over Fukuyama’s article. The Russian actions against Georgia seemed so clearly an example of a Huntington “Clash” that I thought he would want to defend his thesis against Huntington’s, but Fukuyama’s article made no sense when I tried to read it that way.

It made more sense if it is seen as a response to Robert Kagan’s article. Unfortunately Fukuyama is not responding to this article alone. He alludes to “various writers” suggesting “we are now witnessing a return to the Cold War, the return of History or, at a minimum, a return to a 19th-century world of clashing great powers. Fukuyama mentions no names, but I shall take his reference to “the return of History” to include Kagan.

Kagan does make several statements that can be read as criticisms of Fukuyama’s thesis. Here are some quotes from Kagan’s article I take to be such criticisms:

“The optimists in the early post-Cold War years were not wrong to believe that a liberalizing Russia and China would be better international partners. They were just wrong to believe that this evolution was inevitable.”

“The future is not determined. It is up for grabs.

“The great fallacy of our era has been the belief that a liberal and democratic international order would come about by the triumph of ideas alone or by the natural unfolding of human progress. Many believe the Cold War ended the way it did simply because the better worldview triumphed, as it had to, and that the international order that exists today is but the next stage in humanity’s forward mach from strife and aggression toward a peaceful and prosperous coexistence.”

“Of course there is strength in the liberal democratic idea and in the free market. But progress toward these ideals has never been inevitable.”

Fukuyama seems to address Kagan’s main points, but he doesn’t seem to do it adequately; so he is probably responding to several differing views at once. He may have someone else (someone who agrees with Kagan’s arguments but isn’t as clear a thinker) when he writes. “. . . while bullies can still throw their weight around, democracy and capitalism still have no real competitors. The facile historical analogies to earlier eras have two problems: They presuppose a cartoonish view of international politics during these previous periods, and they imply that ‘authoritarian government’ constitutes a clearly defined type of regime – one that’s aggressive abroad, abusive at home and inevitably dangerous to world order. In fact, today’s authoritarian governments have little in common, save their lack of democratic institutions. Few have the combination of brawn, cohesion and ideas required to truly dominate the global system , and none dream of overthrowing the globalized economy.

Rather than get any further off on the tangent of speculation about whether Fukuyama is responding directly to Kagan, I want to consider what I believe is an error in Fukuyama’s understanding of the Kagan-type argument. Fukuyama is presupposing his Hegel/Kojeve End of History thesis; so any argument counter to this must suppose an equivalent form of Government/Society. Marx turned Hegel on his head and argued that Communism would be the end of history. Hegel had argued that it would be Capitalism. Later Kojeve and Fukuyama argued that Hegel was right and that the modern form of Capitalism, Liberal democracy, is indeed the end of history. So when Fukuyama reads people like Kagan and looks at what they are proposing as the return of history, he is looking for a world “system” and doesn’t see it in Nationalistic Autocracies.

However, Fukuyama’s thesis has not been proved. There doesn’t need to be a historical mechanism at work in history. There may be nothing but independent entities seeking their own security and profit Maybe it is better to see the West as a loosely associated empire rather than the end of history. In which case the Nationalistic Autocracies could be seen as outliers – the barbarians who may or may not be at our gates. What is at work to force them to become part of the Western Liberal Democratic end of history?

In 2006 Fukuyama wrote America at the Crossroads, Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy in which he criticizes the activism of the Neocons and resigns from the Neocon movement. Fukuyama isn’t an activist. He doesn’t object to fighting wars of defense, and perhaps some other sorts of wars, but he doesn’t want to fight any wars to further Liberal-Democracy. Liberal-Democracy is an inevitability, not something that needs to be furthered militarily. And yet what is to force the Nationalistic Autocracies to become Liberal Democracies. What inevitability? Fukuyama doesn’t want to take military action to further Liberal Democracy; so what is to cause Nationalistic Autocratic outliers to join a Liberal-Democratic end of history? In Fukuyama’s book, he hypothesized a reaction against “the last man” creating an egocentric genius throwing his weight around and disrupting the end of history, but why can’t we assume Nationalistic Autocracies to be doing that right now? And why can’t they keep on doing it indefinitely? What sort of historical mechanism can be at work, for example, to force religious Islamists to abandon their ascetic religion and turn to an atheistic Liberal-Democracy bent upon self-indulgence?

I think Fukuyama makes a mistake in discounting Nationalistic Autocracies because they don’t hold uniform belief systems. They don’t need to. They are uniform in rejecting Liberal Democracy. Beyond that they want to retain their individual autocracies, and their people largely support them in this.

Fukuyama’s final paragraph seems to disagree with his insistence that “democracy and capitalism still have no real competitors.’ He writes in his last paragraph, “. . . democracies don’t automatically all have the same interests (just look at the clashing U.S. and European views on Iraq), and neither do autocracies. Nor does the fact that a country is authoritarian determine the way it will behave internationally. We need a much more nuanced conceptual framework for understanding the non-democratic world if we are not to become prisoners of an imagined past. And we shouldn’t get excessively discouraged about the strength of our own ideas, even in a ‘post-American’ world.”

I don’t see Kagan being a prisoner of an “imagined past.” He entitles his article “History’s return,” but I don’t take that to mean a return to the past, rather a disagreement with Fukuyama’s thesis that history has ended. When Fukuyama wrote his “The End of History?” article in 1989 and his book The End of History and the Last Man in 1992, he didn’t see an alternative to Liberal Democracy largely because no other form of government could compete with Liberal Democracy economically. But That concept has been disproved. Several nations have made concessions to economic freedom so that they can compete economically while at the same time retaining a non-Liberal, non-Democratic political system. Singapore is one example. It is an illiberal autocracy but the sixth “wealthiest nation in the world in terms of GDP per capita.”

Lawrence Helm

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