Fukuyama's Second Thoughts

Reviewed by Jonah Goldberg

America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power and the Neo-Conservative Legacy
by Francis Fukuyama
Yale University Press, 2006, 226 pages.


When Samuel P. Huntington, author of the famous “clash of civilizations” thesis, was accused of being too simplistic, he pled guilty as charged. But, he countered, any serious attempt to explain complex phenomena—never mind the grand sweep of world history—would have to be simplistic. “When people think seriously,” he said, “they think abstractly; they conjure up simplified pictures of reality called concepts, theories, models, paradigms. Without such intellectual constructs, there is, William James said, only ‘a bloomin’ buzzin’ confusion.’”

Since the end of the cold war, no one has made a greater name for himself—save for Huntington himself—in sorting out the confusion than Francis Fukuyama. In his famous National Interest essay, “The End of History?” (and in the subsequent book The End of History and the Last Man), Fukuyama offered the first Big Explanation of Everything after the Berlin Wall fell. Breathing new life into Hegel—and by extension Marx—Fukuyama argued that history is purposive, and that over time the world must move in the direction of modernity and democracy, because modernity and democracy are the systems best equipped to satisfy the diverse longings of mankind. Fukuyama has deflected some subsequent criticism by arguing that he was not prescribing a blueprint for hastening the end of history, but rather saying that his thesis was misunderstood by conservative “Leninists” seeking to accelerate history by imposing democratic norms on less advanced societies. The End of History was about modernization and materialism, he insisted, not democracy and idealism. “What is initially universal,” he now writes, “is not the desire for liberal democracy but rather the desire to live in a modern society, with its technology, high standards of living, health care, and access to the wider world.”

This is somewhat understandable, considering how unkind the post-9/11 world has been to his original thesis. The rise of Islamism was hardly sudden, but America’s realization of the scope of its challenge was. In The End of History, the Islamist threat was at most an opponent to liberalism, not a competitor, since Islamism, according to Fukuyama, could not offer an ideological challenge to liberal democracy (an odd dismissal, by the way, if idealism doesn’t matter).

The September 11, 2001, attacks seemed to refute his thesis, however, and validate Huntington’s. The latter argued that history was far from its end, but that global conflicts would continue so long as the world was divided into greater “civilizations” such as the West and Islam. After 9/11, this darker vision seemed to sort out the new reality better than did Fukuyama’s faith that all the great arguments had been settled. According to Huntington, culture matters more than prosperity, and culture by definition involves the bad and the good sides of human nature. “It is human to hate,” wrote Huntington. “For self-definition and motivation, people need enemies.”

In his new book, America at the Crossroads, Fukuyama now undertakes not an analysis of the world so much as an effort of self-redefinition—and indeed, he does so by finding his own new enemies. This requires some difficult juggling, since he does not actually seem to disagree with them all that much.

Fukuyama argues that neo-conservatism, the school of thought with which he has been most closely associated, needs to be saved from “the neocons,” by which he means the younger generation of foreign policy hawks and democratic idealists—people like William Kristol, Robert Kagan, and Paul Wolfowitz—who generally go by that label, as well as others who get called “neocons” whether they like it or not. According to Fukuyama, these neocons internalized the wrong lessons from the cold war and are now applying them to today’s world, in effect becoming right-wing Leninists dedicated to speeding up the wheel of history the way they did in hastening the demise of the Soviet Union. While the original neo-conservatives were defined by their skepticism of utopian projects, he argues, the new generation concluded from the West’s victory in the cold war that sweeping social engineering can in fact work. To support his point, he quotes Hoover Institution fellow Ken Jowitt: “The Bush administration has concluded that Fukuyama’s historical timetable is too laissez-faire and not nearly attentive enough to the levers of historical change. History, the Bush administration has concluded, needs deliberate organization, leadership, and direction. In this irony of ironies, the Bush administration’s identification of regime change as critical to its anti-terrorist policy and integral to its desire for a democratic capitalist world has led to an active ‘Leninist’ foreign policy in place of Fukuyama’s passive ‘Marxist’ social teleology.” To which Fukuyama adds: “I did not like the original version of Leninism and was skeptical when the Bush administration turned Leninist.”

In order to make this case, Fukuyama rehearses the origins of the neo-conservatives, including their relationship with the political philosopher Leo Strauss. And on this score, Fukuyama should be congratulated for offering one of the most thoughtful treatments of the subject in recent years. Indeed, the twin serums of “Straussianism” and “neo-conservatism” have generated more concentrated middle-brow stupidity than virtually any other subject in recent memory. And, when served in the poisoned chalice of anti-Bush polemic, these already heady brews form a grog so toxic that even recreational use usually ends in a kind of drooling paranoid dementia. Fukuyama correctly notes that most everything written in recent years about neo-conservatism “is factually wrong, animated by ill will, and a deliberate distortion of the record of both the Bush administration and its supporters.”

The story of the original neo-conservatives started with a handful of young, mostly Jewish, Trotskyist intellectuals who gathered in a U-shaped stall called Alcove 1 at New York’s City University in the 1930s: Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Seymour Lipset, and a handful of others formed in opposition to the much larger conclave of Moscow-loyal Stalinists in Alcove 2 (whose membership included Julius Rosenberg). The rift between Stalinists and Trotskyists intensified until it was finally punctuated by an ice pick in Trotsky’s skull in 1940. Over time, as one could only expect given the spectacular moral and economic failure of communism, the ranks of disillusioned intellectuals swelled. In the 1970s, the combined hangover from the 1960s, the Vietnam war, and the increasing tendency toward accommodation and appeasement of the Soviets shook loose even more former liberals and leftists, chief among them Norman Podhoretz but also many non-Jewish intellectuals such as William Bennett, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Richard John Neuhaus, James Q. Wilson, Glenn Loury, and Michael Novak.

Contrary to those who believe that neo-conservatism is first and foremost a foreign policy doctrine best summarized as Zionist warmongering, most of these intellectuals were more likely to stand opposed to the domestic folly of campus radicalism and Great Society overreach as they were to communist aggression. Fukuyama rightly identifies this as a crucial point. “If there is a single overarching theme to the domestic social policy critiques carried out by those who wrote for The Public Interest,” he writes, “it is the limits of social engineering. Ambitious efforts to seek social justice, these writers argued, often left societies worse off than before because they either required massive state intervention that disrupted organic social relations… or else produced unanticipated consequences.” This, writes Fukuyama, is what linked the first wave of neo-conservatives to the later converts in the 1960s and 1970s: “Both American liberals and Soviet communists sought worthy ends but undermined themselves by failing to recognize the limits of political voluntarism.”

In other words, neo-conservatism was never fully an “-ism.” These were heterodox intellectuals making arguments that often contradicted those of other card-carrying neocons. Nonetheless, Fukuyama identifies four basic unifying ideas or principles fundamental to neo-conservatism: First, the aforementioned folly of sweeping social engineering; second, the belief that America is a force for good in the world, possibly uniquely so, and thus American moral instincts should not be constantly second-guessed; third, that international institutions cannot be reflexively trusted to protect American interests or substituted for American action; and fourth, that the internal nature of regimes has a bearing on their moral stature, which in turn should inform how America treats them. This last point was neo-conservatism’s rejection of Nixonian realism.

In Fukuyama’s telling, neo-conservatism arose as a cultural reaction, first against Stalinism and later against domestic radicalism. The answer to the question “Who are your enemies?” in the 1970s was probably a far better determinant of whether you were a neo-conservative than the answer to “What do you believe?” This continued to be the case when the second generation of neocons emerged—those who had never migrated from Left to Right but had instead grown up within the movement. They received important staff-level positions in the Reagan administration and served as some of the most effective shock troops for Reagan’s foreign and domestic policies.

These younger conservatives, however, fell prey to their own success. “During much of the cold war,” Fukuyama writes, “neo-conservatives became used to being a small, despised minority…. The foreign policy establishment—the people who ran the bureaucracies at the State Department, the intelligence community, and the Pentagon, as well as the legions of advisers, think-tank specialists, and academics—was largely dismissive of them. Neo-conservatives were also used to having the Europeans look down on them as moralistic naïfs, reckless cowboys, or worse.” But, he continues, “the sudden collapse of communism vindicated many of these ideas and made them appear mainstream and obvious after 1989. This naturally did a great deal to bolster the self-confidence of those who had held them, a self-confidence that strongly reinforced the us-versus-them solidarity that characterizes all groups of like-minded people.”


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