Tag Archives: end of history

History Is Still Over (For Now)

28 Apr

The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual care taking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed. Such nostalgia, in fact, will continue to fuel competition and conflict even in the post historical world for some time to come. Even though I recognize its inevitability, I have the most ambivalent feelings for the civilization that has been created in Europe since 1945, with its north Atlantic and Asian offshoots. Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.

So ends The End of History, a 1989 essay by Francis Fukuyama that later evolved into the seminal work on what the end of the Cold War meant for the world. Due to his grandiose phrasing, Fukuyama has spent most of the past three decades being misunderstood by most people who try to comment on his theory.

This isn’t to say his article was right about everything—no one ever is—but it got a lot right in its explanation of how alternatives to liberal (meaning capitalist, relatively free) democracy have basically been exhausted. The original article accounts for basically every counterpoint people have tried to raise since. Countries that don’t fit that liberal democratic title are still very much in history, fighting and struggling in ugly ways. Fukuyama accurately diagnoses the explosive potential but limited appeal of radical Islam, and also China’s rise as a powerful authoritarian state ultimately more interested in commercial power than some violent takeover. While he shows some hope for a different path, he also recognizes that a fascist-nationalist cause in the then-Soviet Union “has not played itself out entirely there.” (And, despite Putin’s recent maneuvering, present-day Russia is still a long way from taking serious steps down that road.) Fukuyama’s later works worry about the dangers of genetic engineering, suggesting a world in which Silicon Valley manipulates humanity enough that it upsets the balance. That still may be a valid concern.

No doubt others who don’t really know what Fukuyama was saying will say the rise of Donald Trump and various European anti-establishment movements will upset the liberal order, but the paragraph at the top of this post shows that Fukuyama was all over this, too. “Make America Great Again” just screams “powerful nostalgia,” and that sentiment is even more palpable in better-defined movements like Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France. His diagnosis of our ills rings true: bourgeois societies replaced philosophers with data-crunching policy wonks, back-to-nature pushes with spurts of carefully managed ecotourism, and the consumer standards created by old gatekeepers for shopping and even news-gathering with curation by an algorithm. Too much contemporary art is vapid self-expression or thinly disguised political sloganeering, instead of an aspiration to perfection or wonder; too much of “philosophy” is just a negation of previously constructed philosophy without aspiring to a genuine alternative. No wonder that, as someone drawn to philosophy as an ordering project for human life, I’ve found the somewhat fringy right—and occasionally the left, when it stops trying to fight last century’s wars—a far more fertile ground for serious philosophical debate than anything mainstream for some time now.

So are we all going to lapse back into history? Possible, I suppose, but I’m not convinced. We may or may not like the form it takes, but some fusion of democracy (however thinly ritualistic it may be) and capitalism still seems like the only realistic way of ordering an advanced society. Revolt may simmer, but for now, revolution is dead as an agent of dramatic social change. If the 20th century taught us anything, it was that the proletariat never really coalesces into a unified popular force; there are too many things dividing it. While Bernie Bros and Deplorables may have enough shared hatred of The System to collaborate on occasion, their worldviews are too diametrically opposed to ever form a lasting alliance. I expect most of the rebels who attain power (including Donald Trump) to be more or less co-opted by the mainstream, and if they don’t, the revolt by the bourgeois—the still large, still politically powerful middle and upper middle classes—will be swift.

Like Fukuyama, I’m rather ambivalent about all of this. I won’t pretend not to enjoy the creature comforts of life in a liberal democracy, and will readily admit that, more often than not, I’ve been a winner in its meritocratic system. It gives a lot of people an effective ladder to comfortable, happy lives, and that is the source of its ability to outlast other ideologies, and by and large a win for humanity. Its allure will endure for the foreseeable future. But it all goes back to the Answer to Everything: thinking that this way of life is all there is amounts to a dangerous misreading of human nature, and that push for more—for greatness, for glory, for God in whatever form that might take—will forever loom beneath, looking to stake out a distinctive identity or even a soul. Anyone who fails to take that seriously, as an awful lot of mainstream commentators have lately, will reap what they sew.

“The sterility of the bourgeois world will end in suicide or a new form of creative participation,” Octavio Paz writes in the closing lines of The Labyrinth of Solitude. Lately, I’ve been telling myself to try to make sure the tasks I do are acts of creation, such as they can be. We are all world-builders, not mere consumers, and every step we take to use the knowledge we accumulate toward productive ends will help ensure that something healthy emerges from those inescapable desires for greatness and achievement. Sterile conformity will eventually dissolve into something far uglier, and many critics of the system probably won’t realize what horror they’ve unleashed until it’s far too late. Without some healthy renewal, history may end in a much more definitive way.

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American Adolescence and the Illusion of Control

27 Jun

“‘God save us always,’ I said, ‘from the innocent and the good.’”

—Graham Greene, The Quiet American

Iraq is a mess. The advance of radical Sunni militants has the country going to pieces, and the blind lack of reason in the tangle web of alliances now has the United States and Iran effectively on the same page. The comparisons to Vietnam have never easier for those who enjoy the policy wonk obsession with historical analogies. Not surprisingly, the American public is rather jaded with all of this; no one has much energy for a new war or nation-building mission, and would prefer to sit back and watch all of this play out.

A lot of people in our political classes and punditocracy don’t like this. (Here’s David Brooks’s lament from Friday’s New York Times as a clear example.) It’s not really a partisan thing, either; both the neoconservatives and the liberal internationalists see it as a problem. The U.S. is reneging on its role as a world leader, and as a beacon of democracy and capitalism; this weakness will empower its rivals around the globe, from Russia to Iran to the Sunni radicals now on the rise. We could have had this, they say; if we hadn’t screwed up here or there in the past ten years, things would be better now. We could have been in control, and if we’d just flash our muscles and prove our “credibility,” we’d be able to turn the tide.

If only geopolitics were that easy. No: reality is far more troubling, far beyond anyone’s control. No one is calling the shots because no one can call the shots. Sure, there’s some collusion here and there, and the good old boys networks naturally emerge among people with common interests and aspirations to power.  But through it all, there is this blind faith that the buck really does stop at the top; that, by virtue of holding certain offices, people really can decides outcomes near and far. The vast majority of the time, they can’t. Some people can fake it well for a while, and appearance can be half the battle, but things are often more tenuous than they seem. Reality is so much more fragmented, so tied up in the agendas and whims of various middlemen and self-interested actors who see the world in an entirely different way. It’s a complex web of incentives, pushing people here and there, amounting to a “thing” only on a level of abstraction.

The realm of ideas does matter, and it’s hard to be rosy when looking at things on that level. People scream “do something” left and right, whether it’s in Libya or Syria or Iraq or Afghanistan. Despite the noble efforts of many soldiers and dedicated public servants, we never seem to make things better, no matter how hard we try. If we never get it right, what on earth fuels the delusion that this time will somehow be different? We hear cries that the U.S. needs to arm the “right” people, as if there were black and white distinctions in this realm; as if all our interests somehow aligned. They don’t. Recall how “our people” in Iraq wound up being corrupt wannabe aristocrats; “our man” in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, has gone down the same road. They operate by a different logic, a different set of incentives, and in turn make their way down a different path.

The trouble is that, no matter how viciously we may take apart the illusion of control, the alternatives also tend to operate in a realm of idealism no less divorced from reality. When a nation is as powerful as the United States, inaction is also an active policy. The U.S., one might recall, was minimally involved in direct intervention in the Middle East prior to 9/11. Instead, the U.S. propped up the status quo and let its global culture leech into every little village. This benign reach was, in a way, far more threatening than the complete arsenal of the American military. There was no easy target for anger, no obvious threat: just that steady loss of control, the destruction of a worldview with things as simple as pop music and suggestive clothing. The U.S. could pull every last soldier out of the Middle East, withdraw every dollar it pays into its despotic regimes, and it would still be implicated, somehow, in whatever happens next. Such is the power of Western culture and U.S. hegemony on the world stage.

This is, of course, the U.S.’s great conundrum: it is founded on the belief in ever-greater freedom, in an ongoing quest for the realization of the self. Old cultural artifices have no place here. Over two centuries after its founding, the U.S. has proved wildly successful in exporting that dream of liberty. It’s successful because it taps into a fundamental aspect of the human psyche, one that comes out most clearly in adolescence: the urge for a bold assertion of self, an individual independent of old constraints, capable of authoring one’s own fate. It’s a necessary spark, and the resultant blaze of passion fuels many of humanity’s greatest achievements. Can any of us imagine our lives without it?

Like any human urge, though, it has its dark side. It risks naïveté, consumed by the belief that this quest for freedom is the only thing. The old roots don’t die so easily, and often are an essential part of the rebellion itself. (When compared to Latin America, the U.S. owes much of its relative economic success and political stability to the Enlightenment-influenced, more bourgeois British colonists; our southern neighbors, born of the Counter-Reformation and hierarchical Spain, faced rather different troubles from independence onward.) It can’t be dropped into other places and made to take root with a few quick brushstrokes that empower the “right” people. It has to be organic, not only in the foundation of the movement but in its creation of new institutions. The two buzzwords that dominate all sensible international affairs theory nowadays are “incentives” and “institutions.” If they’re not in place, nothing can follow.

The death of great dreams is never easy, and the threat of declinist hysteria may be the most serious danger to U.S. politics in the coming years. Now more than ever, Octavio Paz’s words ring true. History did not end with the fall of the Berlin Wall, but instead died somewhere in the sands of Iraq or among the peaks of Afghanistan, ever that graveyard of empires. At long last the worldwide ideologies have exhausted themselves, and while several linger in attenuated forms, they might yet be defeated by the forces of reality. Perhaps now we can arrive at more realistic nations in the Middle East, instead of things drawn on the back of a napkin by Europeans in 1916. The coming sort will no doubt be bloody, but precious few nations can claim a peaceful birth, and for all its flaws, the international community is better equipped to enforce some standards of decorum and decency now than it ever has been in the past. Frustrating as they can be, the idealists still have a key role to play on that front.

“Now we’re finally the same age,” wrote Roger Angell immediately after 9/11. “None of us is young this week, and, with death and calamity just down the street, few of us vicarious any longer.” He was playing the world-wise old man, one who’d seen wars and death in his then eighty years, teaching us kids a thing or two about how to handle one of those terrible reminders that we have no control. On an individual level that may have been true, but for the U.S. as a whole, it never quite worked. From Watergate to Vietnam to 9/11, people claimed that hubris would be the ruin of the innocent belief in the American world project, but it never really did. People forgot, moved on, and continued with that noble mission to mold the world in the American image.

Maybe, just maybe, Angell’s words finally ring true. Maybe that adolescent stage is now over. It was a glorious stage, one of national greatness and awesome wealth and considerable influence. Only those who serve a higher God would want to trade away that power of living in the moment. That illusion of control might have come as close to reality as it ever has. But the U.S. isn’t young anymore. We have a history now, and after touring the world and running down its streets, brashly proclaiming we’re the kings of it all, perhaps it’s time to head home for a bit. Perhaps it’s time to settle down and find a job; maybe not a glamorous one, but one that keeps us afloat and lets us do some good in the neighborhood, when and where it makes sense. We’ll never be free to be left alone; such is the life of a global citizen. But we can make sure our own house is in order before trying to save those of people we don’t really know, and we can use our soft power to make sure our little contribution—that youthful spark—remains a worthy aspiration. Maybe, then, a sane international order might emerge. Or maybe I’m just as much of a dreamer as the idealists I scorn. I’ll take my chances.

A New World Disorder

3 Sep

Let’s take a step back from the Syrian intervention debate for a moment here, play some pop poly sci, and explore what the ongoing crisis means for world politics. Put simply, it could well be the end of the post-Cold War Pax Americana, and a sign of a much more complex world. Of course, some people have been talking about this for a long time. The most famous is probably Fareed Zakaria, who wrote a bestselling book about it five years ago. As early as the mid-1990s, Samuel Huntington was imagining creative new ways in which people might fight each other, absent any Cold War ideological battle lines to separate each other.

The people making these arguments usually framed them against the narrative of the hegemony of liberal democracy and capitalism, made famous by Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. It was a great title for grabbing people’s attention, though it also led a lot of people to misunderstand him. We’ll save that argument for some other time and say that, quite simply, things looked pretty good if you were a proponent of liberal democracy and capitalism at the end of the Cold War. The communists were done for, and authoritarians were falling across Europe, Latin America, and even in a few other places. The European Union was taking the next step, NAFTA was in the works, and the Gulf War had shown that no one could really mess with the United States military. In an increasingly interconnected world, there were no obvious alternatives. Sure, there were some angry Muslims out there who weren’t too fond of liberal modernity who might blow a few things up, and yes, democratization would have to come in bumps and lurches in many places. But it was hard to conceive of another ideology that might be applicable to the entire world. The biggest questions were over how to make all that integration happen—would it simply be economic, or political as well?—and how to deal with the people and countries that didn’t take off on the right path right away.

Fast forward to 2003 or so, and the narrative still pretty much applies. Yes, some angry Muslims blew some things up, but the U.S. pursued them into Afghanistan and knocked off their patrons and made its message pretty clear. The rest of the world pretty much had the U.S.’s back. The E.U. had itself some shiny new coins. Democracy was lurching ahead in Latin America and in Africa; only in the Middle East were things not really showing signs of moving in the “right” direction. So the U.S. went in and tried to do something about it.

Ten years later, we know that didn’t work so well. Iraq is no shining beacon of democracy in the Middle East, and if anything, the invasion simply added to the regional instability. Though it did little to truly undermine global capitalism, the financial crisis was very disruptive for the countries that had been bankrolling the march of liberal democracy. This was especially true in the troubled Eurozone, though the United States had its own set of issues, especially as the country in the lonely throne atop the world order. The failures of the Bush Era now evident, Barack Obama was elected to usher in a new foreign policy; two years after that, voters decided they didn’t much care about foreign policy when the economy was still not moving much, and in came the Tea Party—which, whatever else one might say about it, by in large has little interest in the nuances of geopolitics. The global vision seemed to be collapsing in on itself, as everyone was too busy dealing with their own crap to bother with saving other people.

A few months later, though, there was reason for hope again. Finally, the dominoes were beginning to fall in the Middle East: spontaneous, popular protests began to weaken the entrenched autocracies, the most notable being Egypt, a regional power. Killing Osama bin Laden was a nice cherry on top, too. Hey, maybe the dream wasn’t dead after all. When it became clear the popular revolt in Libya was going to need a bit of a nudge to knock off its ugly autocrat, the U.S. and its friends were happy to lend a hand. Once again, freedom was on the march.

Fast forward again, and the hopes of the liberal democrats have again gone unfulfilled. The Libya intervention effectively destabilized Mali. Egypt’s “revolution” now looks more like a series of coups coupled with huge protests, and no one has any idea what the endgame will be there. Perhaps even more significant now, though, is Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has shown he is willing to fight to the death in his own civil war. The worldwide debate over how to respond shows just how troubled the world order is:

-Existing international institutions have no real mechanism to react. There is no way to punish chemical weapons users from some sort of international, objective position up on high. This position does not exist.

-No rising power yet has the power or the interest to lead its own effort, with one—Russia—actively opposing any action. If the world intervenes, it will be the U.S. (maybe with France tagging along) or no one.

-A war-weary portion of the American public—including Rand Paul’s wing of the long-united, pro-intervention Republican Party—has no interest in geopolitical questions, and thinks the U.S. should mind its own business.

-The neoconservatives—John McCain, Lindsey Graham—on the other hand, are obsessed with geopolitics, and want the U.S. to take the lead, knock out Assad, and set the Middle East on a course to peace. Failure to do so, they believe, will embolden the likes of Russia and Iran, and let an evil dictator stay in power. The word they repeat ad nauseam is “credibility.” If the U.S. says it will act and then does not, the American reputation will be tarnished forever, they say. (Of course, they never bother to mention what happens after the U.S. asserts its credibility by lobbing a few bombs at Damascus, unless they want an all-out invasion and occupation.)

-As of this writing, is hard to know what Barack Obama thinks. Has he called for a vote on Syria—something he did not bother to do with Libya—for strictly political reasons? It makes total sense from that perspective, as it exposes the rifts in the Republicans, makes them complicit in the march to war if and when things do go wrong, and gives him an easy out if Congress somehow actually rejects his proposal.

However, I suspect Obama is genuinely conflicted on this, which may be why he’s passing the buck and actually (gasp) following the Constitution instead of attacking at will. On the one hand, he does believe most of what he said back when he gave his Nobel Prize address; good liberal that he is, he wants to believe the world can punish evildoers and those who violate international law, and he knows the U.S. is the only country that can really do that. But this is also a man who ran as someone who’d learned the lessons of Iraq: that it will be difficult not to escalate from a “surgical” first shot, that this will inevitably be seen as taking a side in the conflict, and that a rebel victory could very easily bring hardline Islamists to power, creating a far bigger regional headache than Assad ever was. Given the difficulty of the question, some dithering is understandable; the problem is that the dithering makes him look at best indecisive, and at worst a total cynic.

And so it becomes clear that the new world order is anything but the hegemony of liberal democracy. It hasn’t been a clash of civilizations, a la Huntington: there have been hints of that, and there may be future threats of that, but Huntington’s worry about “Islam’s bloody borders” was misplaced. It was the bloody interior of the Islamic world that would make it all apparent. We’re left with Alawites and Sunnis and Shias and secularists all shooting each other (with Christians as the collateral damage), all tangled up in bizarre webs of alliances. (Here is a helpful chart that makes everything clear.)

This thing shows how laughable it is to imagine an overarching narrative here. Some people might lament lost chances: if only the U.S. had stayed out of Iraq, or gotten it right, or—to take a more hard-line stance—nipped off all of these disruptive Middle Eastern revolts before they upended a stable, if autocratic, region. I don’t buy it. Autocracies never last, and the allure of “freedom” is always there, especially in such an interconnected world. The revolts would have happened, sooner or later. Likewise, the U.S.’s window of dominance is going to end sooner or later: if not because of military defeat, simple demographics make this clear enough. (I’m not saying the U.S. will fall from its spot as the foremost international superpower anytime soon; given my doubts over the stability of autocracies, I think China has far more serious issues than the U.S. does that it will have to deal with sometime down the line. I’m simply saying that U.S. power for international military influence is shrinking, and will probably continue to shrink.)

And so we’re left with our new world order, which, it turns out, is not some sort of march toward destiny (be it of liberal or a communist or a religious variety), but a mess of regimes rising and falling all over the place and dragging people into webs of intrigue worse than my high school love life. It isn’t pretty, but no one can accuse it of being boring, and as horrible as conditions may be in Syria, this is also (by historical standards) a pretty peaceful time. That might last; it might not. Further integration and democratic advance remain a real possibility, probably worth supporting when they do not require extreme exertion. (See Myanmar, for example.)

But that also might not happen, and any student of international politics must understand that, for sanity’s sake. We’re left with a diverse world full of interesting messes, and while this shouldn’t cause us to give up all hope of changing it, we do have to respect its complexity. If that makes us traitors to this America messianic mission of converting the world, then so be it. We are not slaves to the fate of humanity: we are free to carve out our own little communities of contentment and choose only the battles that we cannot avoid or that we know will not consume us. We can only control so much.

Edit: Ross Douthat has come out with a good, measured piece that wrestles with some of these themes.