Blogs > Cliopatria > Larry DeWitt: Review of Francis Fukuyama's America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006)

May 31, 2006 3:08 pm


Larry DeWitt: Review of Francis Fukuyama's America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2006)



In his new book, America at the Crossroads, the always thoughtful Francis Fukuyama has been forced into some fundamental rethinking of his own role in helping to make the case for the Bush Administration's policy in Iraq. The rethinking had to be fundamental because, as Fukuyama well understands, his support of the war was predicated on some very basic notions of his about the nature of democracy and of the neoconservative political tradition of which he views himself as an inheritor. To put it plainly: something went very wrong in Iraq, and in this book Fukuyama is struggling to figure out what it was, and to rationalize these failures in a way that does not cause him to abandon any of his own basic ideological commitments.

To his credit, Fukuyama does grapple honestly with the challenges the war presents to his politics, and he does so in his usual clear-minded way. It is always a pleasure to read his prose, and to watch his supple mind at work. His new book is no exception. Whether or not one agrees with the neoconservative political theory that informs Fukuyama's work, his work is of the highest caliber, his voice a voice of reason and moderation, and his books pleasures to read. He is, in my judgment, an indispensable public intellectual, whose work simply must be engaged by anyone who aspires to be a serious and informed student of American public policy.

The book has made a political splash in the debate over the war because in order to save his ideological commitments Fukuyama has had to abandon some of his erstwhile friends in the neoconservative movement. As he reveals in the Preface (and in subsequent public interviews) he is no longer on speaking terms with some of his former neocon friends. The reason for this very public estrangement is because the basic thesis argued in the book is that the neoconservative movement (of which he provides one of the best, brief intellectual histories) has been betrayed by certain officials of the Bush administration and their advisers. So it is not his political theory that has been shown to be at fault, but rather, the purity with which some of his former colleagues pursued that theory. In other words, he essentially accuses the Bush Administration of failure to follow the principles of neoconservatism, and this is the reason, in his view, that things have gone so badly in Iraq.

Fukuyama's particular road-to-Damascus moment on Iraq came in February 2004, he reveals in his Preface, at the annual American Enterprise Institute dinner, when he heard one of the stalwarts of the Bush Doctrine, columnist Charles Krauthammer, deliver the Irving Kristol lecture. Krauthammer expressed his continuing support for the war and suggested, to Fukuyama's ear, an undiminished enthusiasm for the Bush Doctrine of preventive war and all that goes with it, along with a blindly unrealistic assessment of how the war was going. [1] By this time, Fukuyama had long since soured on the war, and was in grave doubt about many of the other aspects of the Bush Doctrine, doubts that he insists he harbored before the war began. His first published dissent begin being drafted the day following the Krauthammer speech, and it appeared in The National Interest that summer. [2] So Fukuyama can fairly claim some prescience on the matter, and should not be viewed as a merely being a timely opportunist now that the war is going so badly, as some have depicted him.

The neocon cadre in support of the war dates at least to a January 1998 open letter to President Clinton, which was co-signed by Fukuyama and 17 other conservative and neoconservative policy advocates, under the umbrella of the Project for a New American Century.[3] The group of signers included people soon to be intimately associated with the Iraq war, such as Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton. In that letter the cadre was openly advocating regime change in Iraq, and somewhat slyly finessing the question of methods, although "a willingness to undertake military action" was advised. They went on to relentlessly hector the Clinton administration for the rest of the Clinton presidency for what they viewed as its fecklessness on the issue.

As history unfolded, many in this group came into actual political power with the election of George W. Bush, and they were suddenly in the heady position of transforming their intellectual analysis into actual public policy. They dreamed big and bold dreams of easily bringing regime change to Iraq. Then, as history is wont to do, the subsequent history turned out to be not quite like the neocons expected. Things started going very badly in Iraq, almost from the moment of President Bush declaring "Mission Accomplished" from the deck of an aircraft carrier at anchor in the placid waters off San Diego, California. Explaining how and why this could be the case given the presumed validity of the basic neocon worldview is the task Fukuyama is attempting in his new book.

Advocating Realistic Wilsonianism-

Liberal critics of the Iraq war have suggested that the war is an example of a kind of adventuring conservative interventionism, and surprisingly, Fukuyama agrees. He says of the Bush foreign policy that it involves "concepts like regime change, benevolent hegemony, uni-polarity, preemption, and American exceptionalism." [4]

Fukuyama takes on each of these ideas in turn and explains in his patient and almost gentle way why each of them is such a very bad idea. Among other points, he concedes the skeptical critique of democracy-building in Iraq, which holds that this rationale for the war was the third in a line of reasons, which was adopted only after the other two (WMDs and a connection between Iraq and al-Qaeda) had been shown to be false.

He reserves some of his most worried dissent for the idea of preventive war, which is a pillar of the Bush Doctrine. By blurring the distinction between the traditional doctrine of a preemptive strike and a preventive war, he believes the Bush administration has undermined a foundation of international diplomacy, and the consequences cannot be other than dire. As he cleverly summarizes the matter: "It is perhaps not surprising that the great German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck labeled preventive war 'committing suicide for fear of death.’”[5]

Fukuyama concedes that the Bush Doctrine has become so hopelessly identified with neoconservatism, that he is forced to abandon this as a label to describe his own alternative viewpoint. He deploys a category-scheme with five broad options: Neoconservatives (and here he concedes the field to Bush and company); Realists (this is the traditional Cold War era foreign policy of figures like Henry Kissinger); Liberal Internationalists (who hope for a world remade by international laws and institutions so that the use of power becomes unnecessary); Jacksonian Nationalists (this is an America-first approach which disdains internationalism and in its more extreme forms becomes isolationist); and his view, which he calls Realistic Wilsonianism. Fukuyama's general explanation of the foreign policy behind the Iraq war is that a coalition of Neoconservatives and Jacksonian Nationalists each supported the war, for differing reasons, and they froze out the Realists within the Republican Party (men like James Baker and Brent Scowcroft).

As to his own view, Fukuyama describes Realistic Wilsonianism as being based on the use of various form of "soft power," as opposed to the hard military power that characterizes the Bush Doctrine and the Neoconservative approach to foreign policy generally. He also waves off as naive the traditional liberal faith in international institutions like the U.N., and especially the liberal suspicion of states as essential structures for international order. Hence, the "realistic" part of his label.

In his vision, Fukuyama sees a role for a "multi-institutional world" in which national sovereignties are respected but in which various moveable international institutions are formed to serve as "mechanisms of accountability" between the "vertical stovepipes we label states." He has in mind here such international institutions as the U.N., NATO, the World Bank, the IMF, and a whole new multiplicity of both permanent and temporary institutions which are to be formed and dissolved as needed to address particular aspects of world order and progress. The watchword for this new vision is "multiple multilateralisms." In his calm and measured way, Fukuyama makes a fairly persuasive case for his updated version of Wilsonianism. One wonders if perhaps this might be quite a bit easier said than done. But we can concede that one has to start somewhere, and this is not a bad place from which to begin.

One could reasonably express some surprise at the sight of this lion of neoconservatism expressing such "soft" internationalist views, views that sound almost, well, dare I say it, liberal. Fukuyama suggests these have been his views all along. Fair enough. It is also fair to observe that not a whiff of any of this can be found in the 1997 Statement of Principles of the Project for the New American Century, nor in the 1998 letter to President Clinton. His first published thoughts along these lines (at least as applies to the war in Iraq) appear to have come only in the summer of 2004. So it is also fair to observe that if these have been his views all along, most of us did not know it.

Purifying the Neo-Conservative Faith

In addition to his sense of moderation on the idea of forced-march democratic regime change around the world, the first part of Fukuyama's new book is given over to a fascinating account of the intellectual history of the neoconservative movement itself. This account is insightful, unsentimental, and surprisingly persuasive.

The purpose of this introductory chapter, which seems at first blush somewhat out of place in a book on foreign policy in general and Iraq in particular, is nothing short of a purge of the unfaithful. Fukuyama is seeking to explain the intellectual doctrines of neoconservatism rightly understood so as to make the case that the Bush Doctrine is in fact not neoconservative at all, but is instead a betrayal of those intellectual principles. He makes this case, I have to say, about as well as it could be made.

So, if it is a puzzle as to how someone with the liberal instincts and values of the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan can also be found laboring on behalf of Nixon administration social welfare policy, or supporting Bush administration efforts to partially privatize the Social Security system, Fukuyama can make it all make a kind of sense.

If one wonders how and why neoconservatism is distinct from other varieties, or from simple-minded libertarianism, Fukuyama's chapter on The Neoconservative Legacy is your best possible guide. Especially for those liberals who believe that neoconservatism is just a Trojan-horse for some more traditional right-wing agenda, you positively are obligated to read Fukuyama's chapter on this subject. Drawn in the persuasive shadings of Fukuyama's subtle pen, neoconservatism can be seen as something meriting respect, even if one chooses in the end to withhold one's assent.

The End of History Revisited-

But there is something else involved here, something deeper, and something more intimately associated with Fukuyama's more famous work, The End of History, and the theory of the historical process that Fukuyama urged in that work.[6]

Fukuyama's vision of the end of history begins with a simple insight of chronology. The belief in the idea of progress, he tells us, was nearly universal in the 19 th century as science and technology and modern nation-states offered the promise of utopias near to hand. Then came the twentieth century, with its two devastating world wars and its many threats of annihilation from some of that same technology and some of those same nation-states. Contemplation of the history of the twentieth century thus turned many of us into pessimists about the progress of the course of history. But then, Fukuyama happily notes, the unexpected end of the Cold War and the apparent triumph of liberal capitalist democracy renewed all our hopes and should convince us that History is truly nearing its end, and that end is mostly wonderful. Marx was wrong to believe that History would bring about the inevitable triumph of communism; instead, Fukuyama assured us, it will bring about the almost inevitable triumph of liberal capitalist democracy everywhere in the world. When that blissful stage of history arrives, the process of history as a mechanism seeking the ideal form of social organization will have arrived at its end.

His analysis is subtle, complex and plausibly complete, at least it is complete as far back as it goes in time to garner its evidence. One of the most amazing aspects of Fukuyama's theory of history is that his discussion of the evidence for it is almost all confined to the period after the end of World War II. It is a very recent sample of history indeed that he scoops out of time's stream to use in fortifying his theory. In fact, most of the analysis focuses on the lessons learned beginning with the fall of a series of military dictatorships starting in the mid-1970s and ending with the fall of communism. That happy period no doubt yields a fairly cheery theory of history.

One worries that such a tiny sliver of historical time is not really a sound basis on which to formulate a Universal History. Would the pattern he sees in recent history look different if it went back far enough to encompass the 100-years War; or the 30-years War; or even the relatively recent madness of the Spanish Inquisition? Even if we just look back to World War II itself—rather than starting the clock of theorization only after that rather large bump in the road is ruled out—things do not look all that rosy for a linear progressing Universal History like Fukuyama offers us. There were certainly stretches of time during the early days of WWII when it was unclear that liberal capitalist democracy was in fact going to survive. Within the living memory of persons still with us today, the very survival of liberal capitalist democracy was a close-run thing. How soon we forget those “lessons of history” that might prove inconvenient for our theories.

The core of Fukuyama’s argument for the looming end of history is built on a set of assumptions. He assumes that the desire for economic modernization is a universal human aspiration, and he argues that this aspiration can only be fulfilled by capitalism, hence capitalism is the end state to which modernization is driving all human culture. He assumes that the scientific method and the philosophy of the Enlightenment are again expressions of something universal in human nature. These ideas, coupled with an equally universal aspiration for "recognition," means liberal democracy is the natural end state of the political part of the historical process as well. Hence the happy conclusion: History is designed in such a way that it will barring complete catastrophe result in liberal capitalist democracy everywhere and for all time.

And we can if we can suspend belief just long enough, and click the heels of our ruby slippers together in just the right way, almost believe it. It might well be true, if only there were not such pesky disturbing factors as race; ethnicity; tribalism; religion; ideology and nationality; along with such hardy perennials as pride, envy, gluttony, lust, anger, greed and sloth. In other words, if human beings were in fact rational missiles pointed always at the better future, then indeed history would almost inevitably turn out pretty much the way Fukuyama imagines it. But there are all those more problematic lesser angels of our nature, and they are drivers of history too. Which is one reason history is always so unpredictable. Over against Fukuyama's heady dreams we should pose one simple aphorism: history often disappoints, but it always surprises.

So, what we have in Fukuyama is an author who sponsored a neo-Hegelian theory of the historical process such that the transition from dictatorship to liberal capitalist democracy in Iraq (and everywhere else) is to be expected. Thus arises an almost irresistible policy temptation: the notion that since history itself is bringing about regime change in Iraq, it seems only logical that as a matter of public policy democratic governments ought to lend a helping hand to this historical process. It can almost seem an obligation, an obligation to History itself. What greater temptation could a statesman have than the grand idea that he or she is serving as partner to History?

I suggest that a very familiar form of hubris was present among Bush administration policymakers and their advisers in early 2003: the idea that statesman throughout history have had that History itself is on their side, and that their success is therefore nearly inevitable. This has proven to be one of the most durable forms of historical folly of which human beings are capable. Fukuyama's theory of history was part of the intellectual foundation of the Bush Administration's hubris in just this way. It seems fair, then, to lay some significant portion of the blame for America's Iraq policy at his doorstep. His own early support for intervention in Iraq was premised in a key way on the theory of the historical process that he articulated in The End of History.

At one of the rare public readings of his book, I was able to put to Fukuyama this very proposition. His reply went like this:

Fukuyama (paraphrasing): You could fairly describe my theory of history as a Marxist theory of history, in that it tries to describe what I think is a universal process in the unfolding of history although I do not claim this process is inevitable. So somewhat as Marx thought that communism was the natural condition in which the process of history would inevitably result, I think, on the contrary, that liberal capitalist democracy is the natural condition to which history is tending for all the reasons I describe in my book, The End of History. So the Bush Doctrine can be seen, then, as the Leninist variation on my Marxist theory. So somewhat as Lenin tried to force communism on the world through a violent variation of Marxist theory, rather than allowing communism to arise through an organic evolutionary process, in a similar way you could say the Bush Doctrine is an attempt to force liberal capitalist democracy on the world, instead of letting it arise through an organic evolutionary process.

This is an interpretation that he repeats in the new book (54-55) and that was first apparently suggested in a 2003 essay by Ken Jowitt.[7] It is undeniably clever, and does express, in a way, the position he is now taking in his efforts to differentiate himself from the Bush administration version of neocon foreign policy.

So the Bush Doctrine is really Leninism and Fukuyama's model of history is merely Marxism. Which is, I suppose, a defense of sorts. It is true no doubt that a Leninist theory of history is worse than a Marxist one. But perhaps a Marxist theory of history is a temptation to the Leninism in all of us, and perhaps this suggests a fundamental problem with these grandiose theories of history.

But we might not want to let Fukuyama off the hook quite so easily. Successful regime change in Iraq would have been more strong evidence for his theory of history. So the failure of the American effort in Iraq (or at least its turning out so badly to date) might suggest a falsifying instance for his theory. Now that Fukuyama has backed away from the war, this ought to occasion some second thoughts about his theory of history, one would think. But he seems to have avoided making any such concession. Indeed, in the new paperback re-issue of The End of History he has authored a new Afterword in which he reasserts that he was right all along and that nothing that has happened since 1989 changes anything about his philosophy of history. He does, however, try to respond to some "misreadings" of his book, including the idea that he was describing an inevitability rather than merely a high probability. He describes his viewpoint as "weakly deterministic," to distinguish it from a hard-core Marxist model of history.[8] True, he did not, strictly speaking, say that his version of the end of history was inevitable. What he basically said was that baring some civilization-destroying catastrophe, history would unfold as he said it would. This might be seen as pretty much the same thing, but I suppose we could not get an indictment in a court of law on the point.

The problem with a linear view of the past trending toward a predictable progressing future is that even if it is based on the most impeccably insightful analysis of the past it assumes human beings are highly rational, and that they will invariably choose to do the "right thing" when faced with their uncertain future. That is to say, the unstated premise of all historical model builders is that people will in the future behave in accordance with the historical model because it is eminently reasonable to do so. A model of the historical process like that offered by Fukuyama assumes that human beings, en masse, acting in time and circumstance under conditions of uncertainty, will act in accordance with "the lessons of history" as the historian has been graced to perceive them. While there is certainly some evidence in history that human beings sometimes act in reasonable ways, the problem is that there is at least an equal amount of evidence on the other side of the question.

One of the true “lessons of history” (and of life generally) is that people often behave in ways that are not logical, not reasonable, not in their long-term self-interest. The course of human history does not follow a consistently linear progressing pattern, in part, because human beings are not just rational animals, they are also still naked apes, to use Desmond Morris’s famous expression. The problem is that people are people, not Aristotelian reasoning engines.

Moreover, the people whom Herodotus and Thucydides wrote about are the same ones who cover the planet today. Human nature does not change in historical time, it changes only on evolutionary time-scales. Which means that all the madness and self-destructiveness, all the genocide and patricide and homicide, all the self-defeating treachery of which human beings have historically shown themselves to be capable, are all still within the behavioral repertoire of the human beings of the present day. Culture is important, no doubt; and human beings can learn to be sure; and science and democratic political systems are vital lessons for how to construct better worlds. But we cannot with any confidence predict the future based on the patterns of the recent past because human nature itself is nowhere remotely as labile as the course of cultures. Those lesser angels of human nature–the same ones written about by the authors of the Old Testament–are still burrowed deeply within the ancient brain structures of human beings. We have not–in all our cultural, scientific, technical and economic sophistication–become a different species.

To put it plainly: anything of which any human beings have shown themselves to be capable in the course of history, is something of which the human beings of today are fully capable as well. Every human character from Hitler to Gandhi is still lurking within the minds of human beings, covered only with a pitifully thin veneer of knowledge and culture. A fuller sample of the human story (not one confined to the patterns evident since the mid-1970s) usually captures this more diverse reality, and renders us less confident that the patterns of history are indeed linear and progressing. None of which is cause for despair particularly. It is just a warning against a too-smug confidence in our expectations about the future.

What Fukuyama has really succeeded in demonstrating is not that liberal capitalist democracy is the highest or final form of human culture which History can produce, but rather, that such a social arrangement is the highest form that Fukuyama can imagine. Thankfully for the job prospects of future historians, the limits of Fukuyama’s imagination are unlikely to define the bounds of the historical process.

Fukuyama's first book was a sensation when it emerged in 1989, first as an article in The National Interest, and then, three years later, as a book. Timing is everything, the old saying goes, and timing is certainly relevant here. Fukuyama's article appeared as the bricks were being taken out of the Berlin Wall, and the book came out in the hot flush of the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, at a time when American conservatives were newly intoxicated with the sweet mead of victory in the Cold War. In those heady months and early years it was easy to believe that liberal democracy was sweeping the world. Then of course came the terrorist attacks upon America, and the war on terrorism, the rise of Middle Eastern fundamentalism, both religious and secular, the rise to influence of religious fundamentalism in America, etc.—all reminders of those lesser angels of our nature, and showing Fukuyama's serene visions of the future to be the stuff dreams are made of.

Human beings have a marvelous ability to forget when times are good how near quite unpleasant futures were just a few seasons ago. Probably the only certainly recurring pattern in historiography is that by which historians confidently assert the future will take a certain course based on their reading of the past and then the future surprises them and their model of the historical process comes a cropper. Despite this repeated pattern of predictive failure, historians keep predicting the future anyway. Which is, if you think about it, more evidence on the irrational side of the equation.

In America at the Crossroads, Francis Fukuyama turns against his old comrades-in-ideology and admits he was wrong to suggest a military overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his Baathist regime. Things did not turn out quite like he expected in Iraq, so he has now changed his position on that war and the complex of policy analysis that led to it. In his next book he ought to reexamine his first book, and acknowledge that things have not turned out so well either for the theory of history announced there. In the new book he separates himself from some of his erstwhile friends. In his next book it may be high time Fukuyama produced a similar separation from his own earlier self.

[1] Krauthammer, for his part, published a vigorous denunciation of Fukuyama’s description of his lecture, and an oblique attack on Fukuyama and his new-found views on the Bush foreign policy. Cf. “Fukuyama’s Fantasy,” The Washington Post, Tuesday, March 28, 2006: A23.

[2] Francis Fukuyama, “The Neo-Conservative Moment,” The National Interest, No. 76, Summer 2004: 57-68.

[3] The Project is a neo-con “think-tank” founded in 1997 and Fukuyama was one of the 25 signers of its founding Statement of Principles, along with several other prominent conservative figures, including: Elliott Abrams; William J. Bennett; Jeb Bush; Dick Cheney; Steve Forbes; I. Lewis Libby; Dan Quayle; Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.

[4] 3.

[5] 86.

[6] Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, (New York: The Free Press, 1992).

[7] Kenneth Jowitt, “Rage, Hubris, and Regime Change: The Urge to Speed History Along,” Policy Review 118 (April-May 2003): 33-42.

[8] The End of History, Second Paperback Edition, With a New Afterword, (New York: Free Press, 2006): 354.


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