The Two Fukuyamas

The Two Fukuyamas

Long before 9/11 convincingly showed that as far as radical Islamists are concerned that is certainly not the case, a great deal of mockery had been directed at this claim. And indeed, taken simply as written, it was evidently absurd. On the assumption that the human race continues to exist in some form for thousands of years to come, we are bound sooner or later to encounter radical challenges that will require radical changes in our whole way of conducting human affairs. Fukuyama himself has sketched the possible future challenges of genetic engineering to human society in his book Our Post-Human Future (2002).

Although The End of History brought Fukuyama fame and fortune, he has since been embarrassed by its more radically teleological claims and worried by the political uses to which the Bush Administration has put them. Both of the Bush Administration's National Security Strategy documents (of 2002 and 2006) and many of Bush's speeches on foreign policy are permeated with statements about liberal democracy being the universal and inevitable goal for all mankind, very reminiscent of The End of History.

In defense against the charge that he himself helped initiate the Bush Administration's revolutionary attitude to spreading democracy, Fukuyama stresses in his latest book that The End of History described a democratic capitalist version of an anti-Leninist Marxian approach--stressing slow cultural, social and economic change, not sudden revolution. He maintains that he is a Gramscian, emphasizing the intellectual and cultural hegemony of capitalist democracy, not claiming that it would inevitably work well everywhere or solve all problems. By contrast, he describes the Bush Administration as having become "Leninist" in its belief that history can be subjected to violent pushes.

Fukuyama's strongest claim to have pursued for many years a trajectory quite different from the neoconservatives is provided by his best book, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity, published in 1996. This work is distinguished not just by its scholarship and sophistication, but by the breadth of its sympathy and understanding for a range of very different cultural, social and economic traditions.

A more different approach to the world than that of the neoconservatives can hardly be imagined--so much so, indeed, that re-reading this book made me wonder why Fukuyama ever numbered himself in their ranks. His acceptance of the importance of culture, the difficulty of quickly and radically changing cultural patterns, and the radically varying paths to economic progress would naturally set him at odds not just with the neoconservatives but with the entire approach of the Bush Administration to democratization. In view of this, what is surprising is not so much that he eventually broke with the neoconservatives, but that he remained in their company for so long.

As a thinker on history, culture and society, Fukuyama is distinguished not only by acuteness and profundity, but often also--as Paul Berman wrote in a review for the New York Times--by playfulness. He just loves tossing contradictory ideas and schools of thought up in the air and trying to juggle with them. If the result is quite often a terrible mess, the process is exhilarating to watch and a real stimulus to the imagination.

Venturing Only So Far

AMERICA AT the Crossroads is also a very interesting and stimulating read, though as what is basically an extended policy essay, it lacks both the depth and the élan of the End of History and Trust. It is full of highly intelligent arguments and perceptions, as for example when Fukuyama warns against universalizing the East European post-communist experience--combining democratization, economic reform and pro-American feeling--to the world as a whole.

This book is certainly a very valuable contribution to the U.S. debate and provides important pointers to what ought to be radically new U.S. policies. Unfortunately, however, it does not actually say what those policies should be--and as such, it falls short of its promise to "articulate an altogether distinct foreign policy position" and suggest "a different way for America to relate to the world."

Some of the bases for a really new approach are present in this book. Thus in what is perhaps the single most radical passage of America at the Crossroads, Fukuyama lets fly at the bipartisan tendency towards American exceptionalism, a belief that is at the heart of both the neoconservative and liberal-hawk approaches to foreign policy:

"Benevolent hegemony rests on a belief in American exceptionalism that most non-Americans simply find not credible. The idea that the United States behaves disinterestedly on the world stage is not widely believed because it is for the most part not true and, indeed, could not be true if American leaders fulfill their responsibilities to the American people."

It is important to recall that the most famous statement of American exceptionalism in recent times was made not by a neoconservative but by a Democrat, then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright (America as the "indispensable nation"). And since 9/11, leading members of the so-called "liberal hawk" wing of the Democratic Party have been moving closer and closer to the neoconservatives on key foreign policy issues, and they are indeed by now sometimes practically indistinguishable from them. In recent weeks I have heard or read speeches by Democratic leaders Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden and Evan Bayh, all of which were permeated by exceptionalist nationalism.

Belief in American exceptionalism therefore permeates American political culture and life in general. Neoconservatives and the Bush Administration have only given it a particularly radical twist. And this belief has very positive sides. It is intimately entwined with valuable and indeed essential elements of the American tradition: American civic nationalism and the American Creed. These are the essential binding forces of the American polity, and foundations of American national greatness and America's example to the world.

However, as we have seen in recent years, this great tradition also embodies some extremely dangerous tendencies to messianism, arrogance and aggression; and were America--God forbid--to suffer another attack on the scale of 9/11, those deeper tendencies in American political culture could well burst forth in actions even more dangerous than the invasion of Iraq. And it won't matter much if groups that support these actions call themselves neoconservatives or something else.

It is therefore extremely important that American intellectuals conduct a truly searching debate on the nature of American nationalism, and the character and implications of fundamental American national myths. This is something that should have taken place as a result of Vietnam--but sensible tendencies in this direction were first compromised by the acidic anti-Americanism of the Left, and then drowned in the infinitely more successful nationalist syrup of the Reagan era.

Given both his intellectual distinction and his distinct tendency to radicalism, Fukuyama could play a central role in a post-Iraq rethinking of the American nationalist tradition. This is a role that would also suit his ambition, for he has always wanted--entirely honorably--to be not only a deep and serious thinker, but also a major influence on actual policy.

As things stand in Washington, however, these two roles are unfortunately often incompatible. It was not always so, as George Kennan and Henry Kissinger both demonstrated in their different ways. Today, however, there are very great tensions between them, which Fukuyama to date seems quite far from overcoming. As a student of Tocqueville, Fukuyama would doubtless recognize the following passage from Democracy in America: "The majority raises very formidable barriers to the liberty of opinion: Within these barriers an author may write whatever he pleases, but he will repent it if he ever step beyond them."

Truly deep and radical thought in the foreign-policy-oriented sections of U.S. academia and think tanks is deadened both by the hegemony of American civic-nationalist ideology and by the interlacing of these institutions with the organs of government. As a result, too many formally independent American experts in fact tailor their every statement so that it can never be held against them by a possible political patron or at a Senate confirmation hearing. As a retired U.S. ambassador put it to me recently, "in terms of free debate and moral courage, there is nothing worse than a permanent campaign for unelected office."

If Fukuyama wants to emerge as the great public figure that his intellect and learning qualify him to be, he needs to gamble: to risk short-term unpopularity and abuse in the belief that events will eventually vindicate his stance. And indeed, this is the duty of all of us in the foreign policy ecology, given the combination of the Bush Administration's failures and the bankruptcy of the Democratic opposition when it comes to seriously rethinking U.S. strategy.

For example, Fukuyama's Trust contains some remarkably acute observations on the importance of culture and, in certain circumstances, radical state intervention in promoting various forms of capitalist economic development--like that of South Korea in the 1960s. Although this book says little about post-Soviet Russia, its interpretation of the economic successes of the East Asian tigers, and the role of elite identities and ethics in making these successes possible, provide the basis for a sympathy towards the kind of state Vladimir Putin is trying to create in Russia (though, paradoxically, Fukuyama's emphasis on the central importance of historically derived cultures of trust and cooperation also help explain why Putin is likely to fail).

Essay Types: Book Review