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The End of the End of the End of the End of History

The Return of History and the End of Dreams

By Robert Kagan
Knopf, 2008

Robert Kagan’s new book is short and uneven. Our writer is both an informal advisor to John McCain and a neoconservative. All the hallmarks are there: asserting American greatness, assertive American presence overseas, asserting the viability of vague assertions. The last eight years haven’t been kind to neoconservatism, the most hubristic of foreign policy ideologies to hold sway in the last half-century. But this book is proof that even the slowest kids, when smacked repeatedly in the face with their own stupidity, can learn something. The Return of History and the End of Dreams is more of an extended essay than a book. It’s barely over a hundred pages long (though not priced accordingly), and its scope is limited. Kagan’s essay exists primarily to roll back the supposed complacency brought on the now two-decade old argument of Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man. It’s difficult to see the need for this. Terrorism and the ascendance of the world’s major autocracies have brought home reality with repeated hammer blows over the last ten years; the reader gets the feeling that Kagan needed something to set himself against in order to give cause for his essay and in order to structure its arguments.

In current affairs the essay-book is a dramatic statement. It’s the action-memo of the book world, a loud declaration that the author thinks he has something important to say. Kagan furthers our expectations for high drama by declaring himself, in his awkward and melodramatic title, against a famous theory. In form and content Kagan is swinging for the bleachers. Fukuyama was writing in the dizzying, hopeful years following the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and he believed the collapse of communism marked the beginning of an age of consensus as to the ideal form of government. He saw liberal democracy as the endpoint in the evolution of human politics, not because strife had left the world, but because “liberal democracy remains the only coherent political aspiration that spans different regions and cultures around the globe.” Fukuyama explains this primacy through a sort of economic/social determinism: liberal democracy was the natural result of the homogenizing effects of globalization’s reverse-centrifuge, and it was the only form of government that could satisfy humanity’s innate “struggle for recognition.”

It’s also important to remember what Fukuyama meant by “history,” because Kagan, constrained by space or slovenliness of thought, ignores it. Like Hegel and Marx, Fukuyama’s history is “understood as a single, coherent, evolutionary process… taking into account the experience of all peoples in all times.” This is the context in which we use oppositions like “primitive/advanced” or “traditional/modern.” To this he added “authoritarianism/liberal democracy.” Kagan makes a presumption Fukuyama disowns explicitly in his book: that “history” simply means events. And he makes the further presumption that these ideas have cast a binding spell on our powers of observation.

Kagan, true to the implications of his title, begins by boxing phantoms:

The world has become normal again. The years immediately following the end of the Cold War offered a tantalizing glimpse of a new kind of international order…. The modern democratic world wanted to believe that the end of the Cold War did not just end one strategic and ideological conflict but all strategic and ideological conflict…. But that was a mirage. The world has not been transformed…. Struggles for status and influence in the world have returned as central features of the international scene.

There are few in the “modern democratic world” today who retain this sort of optimism. Again, the last decade has hammered home the reality that humanity is not yet entering a golden age. In the wake of communism’s collapse many hoped that the age of ideological conflict was over (many were skeptical), but no one was so sanguine as to think that strategic conflict would be going along with it; and certainly no one in the business of government thought so. Take the Balkan intervention of the late 1990s, which was ostensibly humanitarian. You can perhaps detect rhetorical bits of Kagan’s “End of History” mentality in the way the bombing was presented to the public, in the “never again” and “not in this day and age” comments, in the invocation of the Holocaust. A closer look at events reveals that they turned around geopolitics as much as humanism. The democratic West and especially Europe had a strategic interest in intervention. Slobodan Milosevic had been disobeying orders. He’d been told to withdraw from Kosovo and accept peacekeeping troops. Chaos in Eastern Europe harmed the image of control NATO wished to project to the world, and the image of prosperity and peace Europe wished to spread of itself. Economic sanctions did not work, and so as Western leaders saw it, their influence would have to be maintained by force. And what can you say of your influence if you can’t even keep your own backyard in order? China, a strategic competitor, was against military action long before their embassy in Belgrade was bombed. Russia, despite a thawing of its relationship with the West, was a traditional ally of the Serbs and was in opposition as well. Geopolitical concerns, Russian and Chinese opposition, ethnic and religious strife; the Balkans contained in microcosm nearly all the dynamic forces that Robert Kagan attributes to the last ten years. The same dynamic forces that have led him, a decade late at least, to declare as wishful thinking the idea that we are on the cusp of the “End of History.” When he veers away from this conceit, however, and towards a broad analysis of some of the conflicting forces in the world, the reader will find some rewards. He spends very little time on the “war on terror.” Instead, he sees two main currents in world affairs, “the twin realities of the present era – great power competition and the contest between democracy and autocracy.” Let us leave the simplicity of this alone for the moment. On the first trend, great power competition, Kagan has something to say:

Lord Palmerston once observed that nations have no permanent friends, only permanent interests. But a nation’s perceptions of its interests are not fixed. They change as perceptions of power change. With new power come new ambitions, or the return of old ones, and this is true not just of Russia but of all nations. International relations theorists talk about “status quo” powers, but nations are never entirely satisfied. When one horizon has been crossed, a new horizon always beckons. What was once unimaginable becomes imaginable, and then desirable. Desire becomes ambition, and ambition becomes interest. More powerful nations are not necessarily more contented nations. They may actually be less contented.

The world being finite, resources being scarce, and ambitions being in a constant state of flux, those interests are bound to overlap. Regarding the second trend, the contest between autocracy and democracy, he again uses the optimism of the 1990s as a foil for his own realism. True, there was certainly optimism that China and especially Russia were turning toward liberal democracy. The hopes in Chinese moderation were always misplaced, but the Russia of Boris Yeltsin – then undergoing simultaneous democratization and economic liberalization – makes a night-and-day contrast with the Putin-Medvedev Russia of today. What is striking, if not surprising, is the economic success these countries have had. And that success leads us back to Kagan’s first trend: the changing ambition that fuels great power competition. In this vein, his dissection of Russian foreign policy is scalpel-sharp:

Russia’s ambitions in recent years have grown outward in concentric circles…Prime Minister and then President Putin was [first] preoccupied with reestablishing the coherence and stability of the Russian Federation…[then] directed Russian energies outward to the “near abroad” and Eastern Europe in an effort to reassert Russian influence in these traditional spheres of interest. This requires reversing the pro-western trends of the past decades…[which led to] a belt of independent and potentially pro-western states up and down the length of Russia’s western border…Russia once tolerated these developments…But today things are different…Having lost its former Warsaw Pact allies to the American-led alliance, Russian leaders now want to carve out a special zone of security within NATO, with a lesser status for countries along its strategic flanks. That is the primary motive behind Russia’s opposition to American missile defense programs in Poland and the Czech Republic.

Here is a plausible model applied sucessfully to illuminate events. Sections on the self-conception and growing ambition of China, India, and Japan are also good. True to form, however, Kagan’s observations lead to overly generalized conclusions. He’s again constrained by space and the oppositional character of his work. We are not, Kagan says, entering a period of international convergence, but instead a “period of divergence.” Reality is a bit more muddled. The “twin realities of the present era” as he sees them can instead be viewed, in light of the economic and political convergence of the 1990s, as countervailing trends. The economic integration of the world still proceeds apace, Europe is still attempting (albeit in a fumbling way) political unity, and billions in the most disparate nations of the world still aspire to the benefits of democracy.

Kagan’s conflict-obsessed model is underwritten by yet another set of vague and fatalistic assumptions. Great Power conflict will exist into infinity because “international competition [is] embedded in human nature” (here he’s paraphrasing Henry Kissinger with approval). The 1990s were “not a transformation but merely a pause in the endless competition of nations and peoples.” On American interventionism: “Americans consider themselves by nature an inward-looking and insular people…even as, decade after decade, they deploy troops in dozens of countries around the world and use their great economic, political, and cultural power to influence the behavior of millions, even billions of people in other lands every day.” This is sloppy work: the use of the indeterminate pronoun “they” ascribes undue emphasis on Americans’ knowledge of policy and their capacity for agency. It also – and not incidentally –unburdens governments of responsibility for the actions they take, and unburdens writers of thier responsibility to think. These sorts of generalizations are tossed off without much justification save the occasional brandishing of a famous theoretician’s name, as if that proves anything. The citizens of the world’s countries are rarely privy to the calculations of interest and appearance being debated behind the closed doors of their governments. As for an eternity of conflict, we should note that the calamities of the last century have vastly circumscribed the policies and violence acceptable to those citizens, at least in the democratic world. These things escape Kagan’s notice. Perhaps he didn’t have the space.

Inconsistency mars his brief examination of terrorism and the Middle East as well. He deflates the urgency neoconservatives wish us to bring to this problem in the section’s heading: “The Hopeless Dream of Radical Islam.” Kagan also undermines his whole book in the space of a few paragraphs:

The struggle of radical Islamists against the powerful and often impersonal forces of modernization, capitalism and globalization that they associate with the Judeo-Christian West is…the most dramatic refutation of the convergence paradigm, since it is precisely convergence, including the liberal world’s conception of “universal values,” that the radical Islamists reject.

So far this is in keeping with his “age of divergence” thesis and with neoconservatism in general. Then this:

It’s a lonely and ultimately desperate fight, however, for in the struggle between traditionalism and modernity, tradition cannot win…. All the world’s rich and powerful nations have more or less embraced the economic, technological and even social aspects of modernization and globalization. All have embraced, albeit with varying degrees of complaint and resistance, the free flow of goods, finances, and services, and the intermingling of cultures and lifestyles that characterize the modern world.

What is this doomed struggle with modernity but a sign of…convergence? His evidence laid out, Kagan makes his case for action. He warns us – with a healthy dollop of grave intonation – in the beginning of his essay:

In recent years, as the autocracies of Russia and China have risen and the radical Islamists have waged their struggle, the democracies have been divided and distracted by issues both profound and petty. They have questioned their purpose and their morality, argued over power and ethics, and pointed to one another’s failings. Disunity has weakened and demoralized the democracies at a moment when they can least afford it. History has returned, and the democracies must come together to shape it, or others will shape it for them.

His solution is a concert of democracies for the purposes of self-defense and the promotion of their form of government. It’s a novel idea. Kagan never marshals the wherewithal to repudiate his phantom complacency. And we’re not really facing the “End of Dreams” either, as our author melodramatically titles it. Flashy neologisms like “End of Dreams” and “End of History” can’t do justice to the complexity of human relations: people to thier governments, government to government, alliance to alliance and so on. The models that our authors invent are not sufficient in themselves. They are only useful in so far as they can shed light on reality and perhaps recommend a course of action. Here we are partly failed on the first count and failed completely on the second. Few would disagree with the notion that democracies should band together in order to defend themselves and, in one way or another, propagate their system of government. The point of contention, and the point where neoconservatives drift into the clouds, is the method. Kagan seems to have moved – slightly at least – away from that. This is indeed an improvement over the hubris of his ideological fellow-travellers, but it’s not especially compelling. The analysis he gives us is often good, but the conclusions drawn from it are so tautologically mundane that Robert Kagan appears to the reader like a fat runner who’s just now managed to walk his way to a marathon’s finishing line. ___ Greg Waldmann is a native New Yorker living in Boston with a degree in International Affairs.