If you went to college or graduate school to study international relations after 1990, there is an excellent chance that you had to read Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History?” or Samuel Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations?” more than once. Indeed, you could argue that these two essays demarcated the boundaries of post-Cold War debates about world order. Would the U.S.-created liberal international order prove to be enticing to the rest of the world, paving the way for peace, prosperity and liberty? Or would the West’s blindness to other civilizational concerns lead to unintended conflicts?
Most international-relations scholars hate these two essays with the passion of a thousand white-hot suns, because
everyone talks about them way more than their own scholarly work they can, in the wrong hands, be reduced to the caricatured versions of their titles. But for much of the past 20 years, the world was messy enough for fans of either argument to make the case that their guy’s argument was the one with legs. Even if their arguments have critics, their durability means that a generation of policymakers thinks about the world through these prisms. The very ubiquity of these arguments has given them greater influence.
It would seem easy, in the wake of Brexit and Donald Trump’s election, to argue that Huntington has scored a decisive intellectual knockout of Fukuyama. There is a lot of talk about how, with Trump’s election, the liberal international order is falling apart. Meanwhile, during the campaign, officials in other countries literally warned of a clash of civilizations if Trump was elected. My Washington Post colleague Jackson Diehl wrote Monday about the Trump team’s view of the Middle East as a “civilizational conflict.”
Peter Beinart pushes this point even harder in the Atlantic magazine:
Trump and his advisors describe America as fighting a civilizational struggle against the enemies of the West. Seen through that very different lens, Muslims look more nefarious and Vladimir Putin looks more benign….
[Trump is] moving [Republican foreign policy] away from an ideological confrontation with authoritarian Russia and toward a civilizational conflict with Islam. Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor, General Michael Flynn, has tweeted that “fear of Muslims is rational” and that Islam is “like cancer.” When asked in August about Putin, he explained that America “beat Hitler because of our relationship with the Russians” and we should renew that partnership in the new world war against “radical Islamism.” Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon, likes to talk about the “long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam … a war of immense proportions” that continues to this day. And in that struggle, he’s argued, “we the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he’s [Putin] talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism.” Unlike the globalists of the European Union, Bannon argues, Putin believes in “sovereignty,” which makes him a valuable ally in America’s civilizational fight.
So that, it would seem, is that. Except that as someone who has recently reread Fukuyama’s “The End of History and the Last Man” and Huntington’s “The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order,” it’s worth remembering that both of these arguments contained some subtleties beyond their catchy titles.
After rereading Fukuyama at the end of 2016, what is striking is the degree to which he viewed the ideological victory of liberal free-market democracy as pretty contingent. In that book, Fukuyama suggests that “market-based authoritarians” might have an economic advantage over democracies, because “they are able to enforce a relatively high degree of social discipline on their populations” while still encouraging innovation.
As for the virtues of democracy, Fukuyama’s core argument was that democracy was superior because it appealed to the nonrational parts of individuals, the parts that crave recognition by others. Clearly, populist nationalism can also do that to a select group of citizens as well. Fukuyama also pointed out that liberal democracy would not flower in every society:
Liberal democracy may be more functional for a society that has already achieved a high degree of social equality and consensus concerning certain basic values. But for societies that are highly polarized along lines of social class, nationality, or religion, democracy can be a formula for stalemate and stagnation.
If Fukuyama’s thesis contained a flaw, it was his explicit assumption that the civil society in advanced industrialized economies would not erode — and he has been revisiting that flawed assumption ever since.
As for Huntington, it’s worth remembering the conclusion to his 1996 book. In it, he hoped that there would be some degree of comity between civilizations if the West abandoned its quest to export its values to the rest of the world. There has certainly been an element of that to Trump’s foreign-policy rhetoric, but to be honest, his team seems way more focused on clashes and not nearly enough on civilization. Even on the Middle East, Trump’s apparent comfort with unpopular authoritarian rulers will create problems down the road. As Diehl notes:
Egypt’s Abdel Fatah al-Sissi … has been lionized by Trump and his aides for supposedly battling jihadists while seeking the “reform” of Islam. In three years of the harshest rule his country has known in at least half a century, Sissi has wrecked the economy and all but destroyed a once-vibrant secular civil society. Yet the increasingly unpopular dictator is quickly emerging as the foremost Trump ally in the region, already invited for the White House visit that Obama denied him.
Huntington’s thesis has its detractors. I’m pretty sure, though, that Huntington would have been queasy with unremitting hostility toward a civilization while coddling authoritarian rulers within that civilization. That, combined with rising economic and geopolitical conflicts with an even more powerful civilization, seems like a recipe for strategic disaster. The Trump team can’t even get on the same page when it comes to how to handle Russia. Read Josh Rogin’s story and try to fit it into the larger narrative of U.S.-Russia comity.
As much as some commentators might want to get rid of Fukuyama and Huntington, current events keep bringing them back to the fore. And maybe, just maybe, a caricatured version of Huntington is not the best guide for American grand strategy in 2017.